The Black Powder Page
Interest in black powder among shooters remains strong today. Modern in-line versions of black powder muzzle loaders are
capable of precision and accuracy. Building what is essentially a cartridge in the bore of a modern, stainless steel barrel has
evolved to a new artistic level; and new projectile technology has the modern muzzle loader in contention with center-fire cartridge
rifles in accuracy and ballistic effectiveness.
But the instant that caps and 209 primers are no longer available, like every other modern firearm, they become door props.
It is no secret to practitioners of the Black Powder art that, under the very worst case scenario, a flintlock powered by black
powder is unequalled as the ultimate survival firearm. Once the weapon has been obtained, there is literally nothing associated with
it that the shooter cannot produce himself. Chert, flint,and other sparking substitutes are easily obtained. The mechanism is easily
repaired and reproduced in a hobby shop. Black powder is easily homemade from basic, easy to obtain materials. A shooter can
produce his own bullets and ball with a proper mold from readily available lead and there are no worries about primer shortages,
unavailable bullets and projectiles--everything needed to keep the weapons sytem intact and shooting is limited only by the
shooter's skill and knowledge.
Add to this the fact that any modern cartridge can be loaded with homemade black powder and it becomes one of the most useful
There is an old mountain saying that rings true here: The more you know, the less you have to take with you. Knowledge of black
powder, how to make it, its many uses both in firearms technology and many other areas is a priceless skill.
See 'Skills" below.
THE BLACK POWDER RIFLE
The Black Powder Rifle is a fascinating and versatile instrument and is still much used by hunters. Accessories, parts and
perishables necessary for their use are still produced in copious quantities and available via retail and mail order. Consult the
“Where to Find What You Need” section of this site.
The Black Powder Rifle is every bit as versatile as a shotgun with perhaps the exception of being single shot. Virtually anything
can be fired down a black powder barrel. Similar results may be obtained from smooth-bore muskets, but the rifle is superior at
long range with a single projectile.
Today, Black Powder Rifles are found in three basic configurations: flintlock, cap and ball and in-line primer ignition models. The
flintlock is the apple of the purist’s eye as well as being arguably the best suited firearm for the extreme survivalist. Virtually all
items necessary to operate it--flint, lead and the constituent elements of powder--exist in the wild. Its single major drawback is its
ignition system--particularly, the necessity of having to prime the cup before firing and the less-than-totally-reliable sparking of
flint against metal. This is a drawback (the purist will tell you) that is easily overcome with practice and attention to detail. As for
the other two, both have very dependable ignition systems based on items that must be stockpiled and protected and which are not
easily or dependably reproducible in the wild--namely, caps and primers. One possible solution to this dilemma is to purchase a
rifle system with a conversion option from flintlock to cap.
The typical black powder rifle has a rifled barrel producing 1 twist per 48 inches, which spins bullet or ball at approximately
15,000 rpm. This is optimal for .50 cal. bores (as opposed to say a 55 grain .223 projectile traveling 3,000 ft. per second, with a 1
in 10 twist spinning the bullet at 35,000 rpm). The optimum projectile weight for any bore is the weight of a round lead ball of
bore diameter. In the case of the .50 cal. round ball that would be about 175 to 183 grains. In practical use however, the range of
projectile weight is from that of the round ball at 175 grains to that of a buffalo bullet or Minnie ball that weighs in at 312 to 350
grains. 400 grains should be considered maximum within the confines of optimal performance. Anything heavier, although it may
be safely fired, begins to take a toll on velocity and stability.
One of the wonderful versatilities of both musket and rifle is in their ability to fire multiple projectiles such as chilled and cast shot.
The following charts indicate this versatility:
.50 cal. Minnie or Maxi-ball (312 grain) = 7/.30 cal. balls @ .44 grains each
348 grain = 8/.30 cal. balls
320 grain = 7/.32 cal. balls @ .46 grains each
367 grain = 8/.32 cal. balls
413 grain = 9/.32 cal. balls
Lead Shot = 3/4 ounce = 328 grains
7/8 ounce = 382 grains
1 ounce = 437 grains
1 1/8 ounce = 482 grains
When loading multiple projectiles you can expect to experience a lengthening of the load column. The load column is the length of
the powder plus the projectile in the barrel bore. This lengthening will be evidenced in how much of the ramrod protrudes from the
muzzle once the projectile is seated, wadded and packed against the powder column. 60 grains of black powder or Pyrodex plus a
patched round ball in a .50 cal. bore may leave about 1 to 1 1/4 inches of ramrod at the muzzle while 60 grains of powder and 8 .
32 cal balls may leave 3 1/2 to 4 inches exposed. While experimenting to find the load you like, keep the bore clean by rodding
often with lubed patches followed by dry patches. Establish a routine of seating the load snuggly then observing how much
ramrod you have each time until you have it down pat.
Remember: each time you fire a black powder gun the burning powder establishes a chamber length or fire fouling pattern in the
bore by leaving a residue the length of the powder column. It is important to clean the bore each time you change loads, either
powder charge or projectile. This is important in eliminating loose seating and a sloppy load column, which in turn lengthens the
fouled chamber length and causes difficulty in packing successive loads tightly, resulting in a self-perpetuating problem. If you
start getting a delay between ignition and the load leaving the muzzle (sounds like the rifle fired twice), rod the barrel bore until the
fouling column is eliminated.
For retailers of modern in-line muzzle loaders and other products, consult The Black Powder Rifle Page
Making Black Powder
Black powder has a long and illustrious history. It has been credited with establishing and maintaining empires and it was the
powder of those cartridges and guns that conquered America and won the American West. To the hobbyist or survivalist, black
powder has the advantage of being simple to make. Unlike smokeless powder, one need not be a chemical genius in possession of
expensive equipment to produce black powder. It is a primitive product requiring only primitive means to produce.
Black powder has a range of uses and modern applications. It can be used in improvised munitions requiring a quick-burning
volatility. It can be fired in most modern firearms. It can be used in shotgun, pistol and rifle reloading.
Black powder is simple and fun to make. It is also dangerous and requires some finesse on the part of the maker. Black powder is
corrosive and explosive. Its main detriment is its propensity to produce oodles of smoke and corrode barrels, particularly small
caliber barrels. Its use demands constant cleaning and rodding of the gun barrel during and after use and its smoke signature is a
dead giveaway if you’re trying to hide. But it can be made safely (by following a few simple rules) and, once you get used to using
it, it can be as effective as any other powder.
Here’s a popular and effective recipe:
-75% saltpeter (potassium nitrate)
Make sure the ingredients are finely ground separately before mixing. Never mix these ingredients when dry! Unless you want to
turn the garage into a rocket or a homemade grenade. The slightest spark or static electricity can set it off. When mixing, moisten
the saltpeter to the consistency of bread or biscuit dough with isopropyl alcohol or stale urine and stir in the other ingredients.
Once moistened and combined, stir vigorously until thoroughly mixed.
Make a biscuit-size ball with your hand and rub it through a piece of screen or a coarse sieve and drop onto a flat surface prepared
for drying. For best ignition results experiment to achieve a granular end product that is not too coarse or too fine. A very fine
powder is dangerous--still susceptible to static electricity or open flame. Keep in a cool, dry place in a hermetically sealed container.
Make in quantities of less than ten pounds for convenience and safety. The ingredients will keep longer separately and are much
safer to store. Make only what you will immediately use. If powder gets wet, repeat the process above. Moisten to a doughy
consistency. Ball in your hand and rub through a screen or sieve and dry.
Saltpeter: Saltpeter is potassium nitrate. It may be manufactured at home or bought at the local pharmacy. It may be manufactured
from two common products found almost anywhere: 1) calcium nitrate (or niter) and 2) potassium hydroxide (or lye).
Obtain calcium nitrate by leaching it out of soil with high nitrate content. This would include cave dirt rich in degraded bat guano,
soil from a garden or flower bed, dirt from ruins of an old plantation house or home-place, soil from a chicken yard, etc. Almost
any soil will contain amounts of calcium nitrate, but some contains so little it’s not worth the effort. One test used by old timers in
Tennessee and Kentucky is to make a hand print in the soil and come back the next day. In soil rich in niter, the hand print would
be almost gone. A good, clear print with crisp, sharp edges indicates almost no niter.
Make a v-shaped vat or 'ash hopper' from wood. Place in a filter of cloth made from old clothing or straw and shovel in the high
niter soil. Pour water through until it starts running out of the spout (saturate the ash) and catch in a bucket. Continue until the
bucket is full. Dip out and continue pouring back through until the contents have settled and water goes through in a slow trickle.
When the solution will float an egg or an Irish potato, this usually indicates complete leaching. Some soils or ash may need to be
stirred while pouring to get best results.
The solution leached out of niter soil is known as mother liquor. Dry and store, or mix immediately with lye to form potassium
nitrate or saltpeter.
Make potassium hydroxide the way the old folks did: take ashes from a fire and titrate the lye in a filtered sieve or a v-vat (above)
or ash hopper. Take an old pot and make a homemade sieve by drilling holes in it. Line the pot with a cloth filter several layers
thick. Place finely ground charcoal on the filter. Then fill with wood ash. Place the sieve over a bucket and pour hot water
through. When thoroughly drained, pour the liquid through again until the ash has settled so solid the water takes a long time to
trickle through. Dry by reducing the mixture on the stove. Boil gently until reduced 2/3’s to 1/2, then pour into a shallow baking
pan. The remainder of the water will evaporate in several days, leaving the potassium hydroxide powder. Scrape out and place in a
hermetically sealed container until needed or pour the reduced liquid directly into the mother liquor.
When sufficient amounts of potassium hydroxide and calcium nitrate have been obtained, re-hydrate and warm. Pour the
potassium hydroxide solution into the mother liquor (calcium nitrate solution) and watch the curds (calcium hydroxide) form and
begin to drop to the bottom. Continue pouring until the curds (a white or off-white color) stop forming. This indicates saturation.
Allow time to fully settle. The solution on top is laden with potassium nitrate. Dip out and reduce by about half on the stove. Pour
into a shallow cookie pan and allow to dry. Scoop out the dried crystals and store or use to make black powder.
Charcoal: Old timers in Tennessee and Kentucky swear by the potency of willow coal. That, combined with the use of stale urine
to mix the brew, they say, seems to give black powder an extra “kick.” Pick out the black bits of charcoal from the wood ash
before leaching. Grind it to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle. Sift and regrind. Repeat the process until you have a fine black
charcoal powder. Some hold that tiny bits of partially burnt willow wood add potency.
Virtually any wood will do. Some are better than others. Oak, willow, ash, and pecan--all make good charcoal. Hickory ash is said
to make superior lye and its charcoal is equally potent.
Charcoal can also be purchased at hardware stores and pharmacies but making it yourself is part of the fun and puts you one step
closer to self-sufficiency. It is also less expensive.
Sulfur: flowers of sulfur may be bought at the pharmacy, hardware store or mercantile. It can also be found in natural deposits in
some mountain areas or obtained from oil well drilling sites where sulfur and brine are pumped into sump pits and bled off to get at
the oil and gas. Sulfur is used in many industrial processes and is common at industrial sites old and new. A little bit goes a long
way. It will comprise only 10% of the volume of your Black Powder mixture. About a pound will get you ten pounds of BP. A
natural deposit is a gold mine because the other ingredients are usually found nearby or may be readily manufactured.
Pure sulfur is a bright yellow to gold color. Examine any pile of fine white powder at an old industrial site by scooping off the top
layer with your hands. If it’s gold underneath, get a bucket or bag full. Test the purity by boiling water and mixing a hand full into
solution. Allow to cool to room temperature. Any industrial metals will precipitate out first as sulfur stays in solution. If you’ve got
metals, purify the entire batch the same way. Allow the solution to dry (let the water evaporate) and scrape up the purified sulfur.
Uses: Black Powder has a number of uses. In addition to its use as a propellant, it can be used to start a fire, to treat open wounds,
cauterize bullet wounds, empty a sick stomach or blow a door off its hinges. It has been used at one time or another in virtually
every kind of military ordinance from hand grenades to tunneling explosives.
Many of the latter may be improvised from readily available materials. See “Improvised Munitions.”
Black Powder Substitute:
Potassium Nitrate – 45 grams
Sugar -- 5 grams
Charcoal -- 9 grams
Dealing with Fouling
Fouling, or the residue left from firing black powder or Pyrodex, is a continual problem. Firing without rodding the barrel
frequently can cause jamming, loading and accuracy problems. In muzzle loading the problem of fouling is minimized with pre-
lubed patches which swab the barrel bore each time the weapon is loaded. In the old days, when black powder was in its hey-day,
the powders for both cartridge guns and muzzle loaders alike burned moist and kept fouling soft, enabling the shooter to clean the
bore with one pass of a cleaning patch. But the art of manufacturing a moist burning powder has been lost.
Today’s modern black powders and their equivalents, such as GOEX, Elephant and Pyrodex, burn dry and leave a hard fouling in
the barrel, the barrel throat and chamber. There are several ways of dealing with this problem. Because the fouling problem will
not simply go away and cannot be prevented, there have been developed over the years several ways of dealing with it. The trick
is to keep the fouling soft so it can be wiped out with a single pass of a patch.
Here are some tips:
• Rod the barrel with a lubed patch about every five shots.
• Pre-lube patches for round balls with Bore Butter or a lube of your choice.
• Use a “grease cookie” or “grease patch” in black powder cartridges. The grease patch is a dollop of lubricant over a
beeswax or wax paper wad just above the powder charge, usually about 1/16” in thickness. Seat a lubricated bullet over it. The
lubricant from the grease cookie keeps the fouling soft for successive shots and helps enhance accuracy.
Lubricants range from the soft “butters” of muzzle loading to the hard “cake” lubes of fast-traveling hard cast bullets. Bore butters
made of natural materials (non-petroleum), like Thompson Center Natural Lube 1000, are best for muzzle loaders using patched
round balls, Minnie balls, and R.E.A.L. bullets. They do not react with black powder or Pyrodex and keep fouling soft for
accuracy and easy cleaning. Medium to hard lubricants like Liquid Alox from Lee Precision and Alox/beeswax mixes are better for
medium-fast cartridge bullets. For fast, hard-cast bullets the paraffin-based hard lubes are best.
There are many good commercial lubricants and a number of excellent homemade lubes you can make yourself.
Hollow Stick NRA Formula Alox
Natural Lube 1000 Bore Butter
Bear Lube Cold Hollow
Bear Lube Heat Hollow
PS Black Powder Lube Hollow
Red Angel Bullet Lube Hollow
Dixie Gun Works
Artificial Sperm oil
SPG Bullet Lube
NRA Formula Hollow
NRA Formula Solid
DGL Black Powder Lube
Do It Yourself
Recipe #1 – 45% beeswax and 55% Vaseline
Recipe #2 – 1 part beeswax and 2 parts sperm oil (or the synthetic equivalent)
Recipe #3 – 1 part beeswax and 3 parts tallow
Recipe #4 – 50% paraffin, 50% STP Oil Treatment
Recipe #5 – ¼ beeswax, 5/8 tallow, 1/8 graphite
Bullet Making: In the days of the flintlock, gunsmiths often provided a cherry or template of the bullet that was to be fired in the
weapons they sold. Typically, the kit included the rifle, a bullet mold and a cherry. The cherry was used to make new molds. You
would take it to the local blacksmith, who would take two pieces of annealed pig iron, put them in a vise with the cherry pressed
between them, and then turn the cherry with a brace and bit while tightening the vise (see Fox Fire, vol. 5, p. 261).
You can employ the same principle using soft iron, soapstone or a hard wood. You will need the following items:
1. a drill
2. a drill bit (5/16ths for 8mm); if you plan to use a patch, go 1/32 to 1/16 smaller in diameter. If you use wood, make the
diameter smaller to allow for wood charring until the wood hardens.
3. a piece of hard wood (oak) 1 ½ x 2 x 3 inches (soapstone, brass or an aluminum block if you have it)
4. a thin piece of flat metal (3” long x 5/8ths wide)
5. a wood screw for wood molds; a standard metal screw for all others
6. a clamp and/or a pair of metal tongs
7. a coping saw or hacksaw with a fine blade
Using a saw with a fine blade, divide the mold material into two equal parts. Sand all edges smooth with a fine grit sand paper
without removing surface material. Place the two halves in a vise and tap them into place, lining up all sides and corners, and
tighten. With the drill and 5/16ths drill bit, drill a hole whose final edge will be about ¾ inch from one end, centering the bit in the
slot between the pieces with a starter hole made with a center punch or nail. For small projectiles, drill to a depth of ¼ to ½ inch;
for larger projectiles, drill up to 1 inch. Start out with short projectile lengths; you can always drill them deeper if you need a
longer projectile. Remember: the optimum bullet weight for any caliber is the weight of a round ball of that caliber. The further you
are from that length (about 8mm), the more surface area there is causing friction in the barrel which in turn may cause primers to
back out and other pressure problems. The ideal length will usually reside between 8mm (5/16 inch) and 15mm (5/8 inch).
Using the 5/16 bit, drill a hole halfway through the piece of flat metal and about 1 ¾ inch from one end and centered. This will be
the hole for the sprue-cutter. Drill another hole near one end (1/2 to 5/8ths”) of a size proportional to the size of your wood
screw. Attach the sprue-cutter with the wood screw off set to one side of the mold in such a way that the hole centers the mold.
Attach handles or use a clamp to hold the mold halves together and pour in hot (800 degrees +), molten lead. It will take several
times to “cure” the mold. After curing, use a Q-tip and fine sand paper to smooth the inside of the mold.
The mold should be ready to go.
HOMEMADE BULLET MOLD Left to Right: 5/16 drill bit; sliding calipers (if you plan to improvise and don’t have a caliper, get
one); handles (made from a pair of grommet clamps used to insert grommets in canvas); the mold (from a single piece of oak
board); and the Sprue-cutter (made from a small tent peg). [12 gauge slug mold pictured]
Trouble Shooting Tips:
• Bullets too big for bore – try again with a smaller drill bit. Another technique, if you have the available tools, is to run the
slightly oversize projectile through a sizing die.
• Bullets too small for bore – first, apply the Minnie Ball principle: using a slightly larger diameter drill bit, drill the base of
each bullet until a pocket forms to the edge of the bullet; this creates a base that will expand to bore diameter under pressure
(actually making the bullet more accurate). Next, try patches of different thickness. You can also do what the old timers did and
paper patch the projectiles. If you have a choice--better too small than too big.
• Blown primers – expect them until cases are fire-formed; afterwards, shorten bullet length
For Molds, advice, etc. see:
http://www.accuratemolds.com/ (design a mold to your specs)
Muzzle Loading Books
Hoots, Lee J. “A .45 Front-Stuffer For Deer?” Guns&Ammo. February, 2005. Pp. 66-72.
Lyman Black Powder Handbook & Loading Manual. Sam Fadala, Ed. Middletown: Lyman Publications, 2001.
Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook. C. Kenneth Ramage, Ed. Middlefield: Lyman Products Corporation, 2002 (Third Edition)
Matthews, Paul. Loading the Black Powder Rifle Cartridge. Prescott: Wolfe Publishing Company, 1993.