Monday, March 10, 2008

Thompson/Center rifles, green mountain barrels, swiss blackpowder, and conical bullets

a couple of weeks ago, i took this gun out to shoot at the local range. it is a t/c bigboar/renegade for which i have a .45 caliber green mountain LRH barrel (also have the .58 cal big boar barrel, just havent had a chance to shoot it yet).

i shot the bullet on the right out of it. it is a bullshop cast lead bullet, imported all the way from alaska. bullet is .451 caliber and weighs almost exactly one ounce. it is made to be similar to the conical bullets which were popular in muzzleloaders in the mid to late 19th century (such as the whitworth). similar, but i do not believe exact.

this is a slip-fit bullet, it is smaller than bore size and thus is easily loaded. then, when it is fired, it expands into the rifling of the barrel and, theoretically, gives great accuracy.

i also wanted to try out some swiss powder, of which i now have a couple of lbs. the swiss powder is purportedly hotter (produces higher velocities) and fouls less. i wanted to see if the rumors were true.

this is the rifle at the range


























i did all shooting at 50 yds, cause it hurts my eyeballs to shoot at 100 yds w/out a large target. i started out w/ 70 g. of swiss powder and stayed at that weight because, as it turns out, my rifle was already magically sighted in for exactly that load. i was flabbergasted. this was my first group, w/out trying too hard.

you have to ignore that top bullet hole ... it doesnt count. seriously it doesnt, it was from a previous range trip ( i am to cheap to throw away targets).

anyway, i thought that was phenomenal results, especially considering that i didnt have to touch the sights. the recoil was absolutely brutal. i dont think it would be too bad if you had a good modern recoil pad, but w/ the steel buttplate of this rifle it was really quite painful. the bruise on my shoulder lasted for over a week, and turned all sorts of weird colors. the rifle even bruised the side of my face. sure works well though, doesn't it?

as for the swiss powder ... it wasn't of mythical powers, but it was really, really good. it produces noticeably more power than goex powder (although goex is still a very good powder), and ... well, its just different. it smells different, and the fouling is different. and its a lot hotter. here is the next group i shot, which was same rifle, same bullet, same range, but i switched to 3F goex powder:

it's a little more spread out group. im not sure exactly why ... maybe my shooting was deteriorating because the recoil was making me begin to weep like a child. maybe 80 g. of goex would produce better accuracy. i dont know. but the swiss does seem to have produced better results at first glance (although the goex is clearly good). also note that the swiss powder was producing a little more velocity, causing the POI to be about 1-2" higher.

anyway, at the end of the day the cheapo ramrod that came w/ the barrel came apart during cleaning, leaving a jag & cleaning patch stuck in the barrel. i had to drive out to mule jail at 9 o'clock at night, pour some 4f powder into the bolster of the rifle, and blast out the jag and cleaning patch (this technique worked perfectly, surprisingly enough). it was an interesting experience, especially considering that mule jail was flooded.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

making a muzzleloader go bang

a recent trip to the range highlighted some essential truths re: muzzleloader reliability. there is a prevalent misconception that traditional muzzleloaders are unreliable, prone to hang-fires and misfires. after doing quite a bit of blackpowder shooting, i can safely say that the misconception isn't a misconception at all unless proper loading procedures are followed. here are the rules:

1. make sure the rifle is clean and dry. dry up/remove any residual oil. if you get a chance, pop a few caps to dry out the ignition channel
2. use real blackpowder
3. use RWS # 11 caps

if you do these things, you will get 100% ignition. if you switch to pyrodex or t7, you will get some hangfires. if you use other #11 caps, you will get some hangfires. most importantly, if there is any residual oil or moisture in the ignition channel or barrel, you will get some hangfires. but if you follow these 3 steps, you will not get hangfires.

at the range the other day, i switched to CCI #11 caps halfway through my range session. hangfires and outright misfires resulted. switched back to RWS caps, back to 100% ignition, for a string of close to 40 shots.

the latest thompson/center muzzleloading video refers to the "dinky" #11 caps and notes that #209 shotshell primer ignition is the way to go in modern muzzleloading. i know from experience that #209 shotshell primer ignition in an inline muzzleloader is extremely effective, and gives great results even with pyrodex and 777. however, if you follow my simple 3 step program above, the "dinky" #11 cap is equally effective.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

propellants

When I first started shooting muzzleloaders, there were two available propellants: blackpowder and Pyrodex. Some new blackpowder substitute called "Black Canyon" was introduced in 1994, and didn't work well at all. So for a long time, blackpowder and pyrodex were it.

Blackpowder

Blackpowder is a compound of approximately 75% potassium nitrate (known back in the day as "saltpeter"), 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. This is essentially the percentage combination that has been used for several centuries ... if you materially vary from these percentages, the stuff just doesn't work well. At least for muzzle loading firearms.

Blackpowder has a very low ignition point. I have done some searches and I think that there is quite a bit of misinformation on its exact ignition point on the interwebs. I have read 300 degrees Fahrenheit as an ignition point, but elsewhere it is listed as 300 degrees Celsius. I think that 300 degrees Celsius is the correct number. In any case, it does not take open flame to ignite blackpowder, sparks will do. The stuff burns very quickly when unconfined (I know because I have tried it). It explodes when confined. About half of it remains solid after ignition, the other half becomes gas. It doesn't smell like much until ignited, then is smells like rotten eggs. If you have ever read older books which describe a battlefield as smelling like Hades itself, you will understand after smelling blackpowder smoke.

Blackpowder granules taste chemical-ish.

High-quality blackpowder produces remarkably consistent results. Provided you keep the bore clean, it will produce very low shot-to-shot velocity deviation, which results in exceptional accuracy. The shelf-life of blackpowder is more or less indefinite, the compound does not break down.

Blackpowder burns from the surface inward, so the way to control the burn rate is to create larger or smaller granules. Smaller granules burn faster, larger granules burn slower. Sporting powder generally comes in three granulations: FFg (larger), FFFg, and FFFFg (smaller). Shorthand is 2f, 3f, 4f, etc. There are other granulations, such as Fg, 1 1/2 Fg , and "null b" powder, but 2f, 3f, and 4f are the most commonly used.

The most widely available blackpowder for sporting uses is Goex. Goex powder is all I have on hand right now, and it works very well. It is manufactured in nearby Louisiana.

Goex also recently began manufacturing "Goex Express" powder, presumably to compete with Swiss blackpowder. The Express powder differs in the respect that it is filtered more thoroughly than the regular powder, thus theoretically producing better consistency and less fouling. I dont know, I have never tried it.

You can read Goex's recommendations on their webpage for which granulation to use with which gun. Usually folks will use 3f for .45 bores and smaller, and 2f for larger-than-.45 bores. 4f is strictly priming powder for a flintlock, it should not be used as a main charge.

I have experimented using both 2f and 3f Goex as a main charge in my .50, .54, and .58 caliber rifles. The 2f seems to give consistently better results in hunting-weight charges. However, I use 3f Goex as a target-weight charge in my .58's.

There are two other main brands of blackpowder, both of which are imported: Swiss and Schuetzen. Schuetzen seems to be the same thing as Wano powder. In any case, Schuetzen/Wano is imported from Germany, while the swiss powder is imported from ... wait for it ... Switzerland. All of this powder is made from Alder charcoal, which produces more energy than the Maple charcoal used by Goex.

There is quite a bit of internet debate over which blackpowder is the best. Everyone seems to agree that Swiss powder produces more power and less fouling than Goex. There is not as much information on the Wano powder, it is perhaps hotter than Goex, but produces more fouling than Swiss powder. In any case, I have no first-hand experience with either Swiss or Wano powder, so I will not comment on either. I suspect that blackpowder fouling will be bad no matter which powder you use. And given the consistency and reliability of Goex, that is what I have stuck with so far.

I also have tried some Elephant Brand blackpowder:

When this stuff first came out, it was offered as producing less fouling than currently available blackpowder (referring to Goex, I am sure). Which turned out to be false, as the stuff makes noticeably more fouling than Goex. I got decent results with it, but I was not sad to see it go. It was made in Brazil, and I don't think you can purchase it anymore.

There is also some stuff called KIK powder, which might be the same thing as Wano/Schuetzen, I am not sure.

Blackpowder is very hard to come by these days. It does not seem to be available at all in the state of Mississippi, although Paul's Discount Mart in Cleveland has some 2f Goex. Federal regulations for storage and sale of blackpowder have long since passed the point of absurdity. Many retailers simply don't want to put up with the regulations, and in MS we don't even have a muzzleloading season anymore, so retailers think "what's the point?" This is unfortunately the way it is in many states. Blackpowder has somehow garnered an unwarranted stigma ... which makes it that much more interesting ...

the best way to get real blackpowder these days is to order a bulk shipment of it. Several online retailers sell 5, 10, 25 lb. lots of blackpowder, which can be shipped directly to your door. There is a hazmat fee, which causes high shipping prices. But if you buy enough, the hazmat fee is spread out, and the per lb. price really isn't bad at all.

My feelings on the federal regs regarding blackpowder are the subject of another post, but suffice to say ... they irritate me.

One thing to bear in mind is that most folks believe that current-day blackpowder, Goex in particular, is significantly weaker than mass-produced blackpowder of the 18th and 19th centuries. this article notes 1250 fps as the velocity of a minie ball fired from a Civil War musket imported from England. If you were to use an equivalent charge of Goex 2F to propel the minie ball, velocity would likely be <1000 fps. The difference in powder strength is attributed to the charcoal used in the manufacture of the powder. Even today, no one disputes that Swiss powder, which is constructed of a different charcoal from Goex, produces higher velocities (and more recoil) on a weight-to-weight basis than Goex. So ... it would seem that there is some basis for the argument that blackpowder was originally stronger than what we have today. but I digress ....

Hodgdon substitute powders

Pyrodex

In the 1970's, with many states having added a muzzleloading hunting season for deer, Hodgdon began work on a sort of improved black powder. The powder was named "Pyrodex," and became a success. Its claimed advantages over blackpowder were (1) less fouling, (2) improved shot-to-shot consistency, and (3) more shots per pound. Pyrodex is essentially blackpowder with some additional ingredients thrown in. It smells kind of like blackpowder when burned, but more chemical-ish.

Pyrodex was also classified by the dep't of transportation as a smokeless powder, so it is easier to transport and store than blackpowder. If you ever go out to purchase blackpowder or pyrodex, you will find that blackpowder is not displayed on shelves. It must be kept in an explosion-proof box in the back of the store (those federal regs again ...). Pyrodex, on the other hand, can be displayed out front.

Pyrodex is interchangeable with blackpowder on a volume-to-volume basis. It is not, however, interchangeable on a weight-to-weight basis, a lighter weight charge of pyrodex will produce higher velocities than a heavier weight charge of blackpowder. This is how Pyrodex is able

There are two primary granulations of Pyrodex: RS and P. These roughly correspond to 2f and 3f blackpowder, respectively:

My personal opinion of Pyrodex is mixed. Like anything else, it has advantages and disadvantages. The first and foremost advantage is that, when using certain types of projectiles, you will not have to swab the barrel between shots with Pyrodex. I do most of my shooting w/ patched round balls. With this projectile, you will have to clean between shots when using blackpowder for best consistency. There are ways around this, such as using a very wet patch lube, but generally you should plan on doing some between-shot swabbing for best results.

Pyrodex, on the other hand, does not require any swabbing between shots, no matter which patch lube you use. Just keep blasting away to your heart's content. It also does not produce the same quantity of external fouling as blackpowder does. Pyrodex definitely fouls much worse than smokeless powder, but it doesn't build up like blackpowder fouling does. Shooting blackpowder seems to build up a new layer of fouling on your gun with each shot, requiring regular maintenance during your shooting session. With pyrodex, the build up is much slower. Also, Pyrodex has a higher ignition point than blackpowder. As mentioned before, this means that it is easier to get (can be purchased from a store shelf), and it also lets you worry a little less about having a cook off (having a blackpowder charge go off as the powder is being poured into the barrel due to a leftover spark from the previous shot).

But Pyrodex's blessings are also its curses. The higher ignition point of pyrodex makes ignition much more spotty. The last time I was shooting it in one of my T/C percussion guns, I had hangfires about 50% of the time (pop-boom instead of BOOM). Also had a couple of outright misfires. The same gun fired flawlessly (100% ignition) for about 20 shots with Goex blackpowder several weeks later. Also, although it doesn't build up as much fouling, the fouling seems to be MORE corrosive than blackpowder. It has to be cleaned up right away after shooting, I have had a rifle demonstrate discoloration and speckled corrosion after being left uncleaned only one night after shooting w/ pyrodex.

Pyrodex cannot be used by itself in flintlocks because of its higher ignition point. Hodgdon instructs that Pyrodex can be successfully used in a flintlock if you use a primer charge of blackpowder in the main charge and in the pan. I have never tried this, it sounds like too much trouble.

Triple Seven

Triple Seven ("T7") came along in about 2002. It is a replica powder which has outdone itself. It still uses the same components as blackpowder, but omits sulfur and throws in a few more "trade secret" ingredients. It produces about 15% more powder than Goex blackpowder on a volume-for-volume basis. On a weight-for-weight basis, it produces considerably more power (and pressure) than Goex.

T7 was almost certainly designed for modern "in-line" muzzleloaders. It has the same high ignition point as Pyrodex, but produces more energy. it comes in two granulations: FFg and FFFg. The FFFg is very fine, if you sneeze it will disappear. The burning principles seem to be the same here as blackpowder ... FFFg burns faster because the granules are smaller. Therefore, more surface area is exposed to igntion, which produces more BANG. I have noticed that if you fill a volumetric measure with FFg T7, and then use the same setting and fill it with FFFg T7, the amount of FFFg T7 which fits in the same volume is noticeably heavier. So, on a volume-for-volume basis, you get more energy/velocity/pressure/recoil w/ FFFg T7 than with FFg T7.

T7 produces noticeably sharper recoil than blackpowder, even with equivalent velocity loads. This is an interesting phenomenon to me, blackpowder just has a more gradual pressure curve.

T7 makes a big cloud of smoke which is noticeably lighter and clears out faster than blackpowder smoke. It doesn't smell like blackpowder at all, and it doesn't have sulfuric acid to stain your hands/clothing/everything like blackpowder does.

T7 is much, much easier to clean up than blackpowder. The fouling comes off with tap water. A little detergent can help, but there isn't nearly as much fouling, either. It still produces significantly more mess than modern smokeless powder. It's not perfect, though ... the fouling is very hard, and when it has accumulated in any amount, it can really jam up the operation of your gun. Many people have complained about a T7 "crud ring" that forms right at the ignition point of the powder in the barrel, which makes seating subsequent shots increasingly difficult or impossible. Also, if you let the fouling sit for more than a few days without cleaning, it turns into rock-hard slag which is VERY difficult to remove (speaking from experience).

From a performance standpoint, the stuff is outstanding. I have turned in some excellent groups w/ T7 ... certainly the equal to groups I have achieved w/ real blackpowder. And you always get higher velocity w/ t7 (perhaps closer to the power of old-time blackpowder?). Like Pyrodex, T7 will not work in flintlocks w/out a primer charge of blackpowder.

So what is the downside? Honestly, to me, the downside is that T7 is a long way away from the real thing. It's neat to experiment with, but part of the fun of blackpowder is the rotten egg smell and heavy smoke. Also, it doesn't work in flintlocks, and ignition can be a little spotty in sidelock percussion rifles. Also also, it produces high pressures compared to blackpowder. This is fine for modern american-made rifles, like Knights and Thompson/Centers. But Italian and Spanish-constructed guns, with more questionable "steel" barrels, perhaps are not the best test labs for this powder.

The progression of blackpowder substitute powders is a curious thing from a scientific standpoint. None of these substitutes can match modern smokeless powder in energy or lack of fouling. savage arms recognized this some time ago, and created a muzzleloading rifle which uses ordinary smokeless powder. But there is no question that smokeless powder will blow a rifle made for blackpowder to smithereens (along with the person shooting the blackpowder rifle), so manufacturers continue to try to develop a powder which acts exactly like smokeless powder from a fouling standpoint, but with blackpowder-like pressure. And, at the same time, somehow obtain magically higher velocities than blackpowder. It's understandable ... most folks don't like the cleanup of blackpowder, but want to take advantage of blackpowder-only hunting seasons.

But at some point you just have to take the muzzleloader for what it is ...

Better late than never

I started this blog almost a year ago and never did anything with it because school and work were interfering w/ the important things (shooting, etc.).

A little over a year ago I purchased a flintlock rifle. I have been shooting blackpowder firearms since I was 13 or 14 years old, but it was always a percussion cap firearm (more about ignition types later). I found a flintlock rifle on sale and decided to purchase it. Pursuant to federal law, antique and replica antique firearms can be ordered through the mail and without a lot of paperwork, so I bought this gun directly from the manufacturer (although note that some States impose their own individual restrictions {thankfully not Mississippi}). It was listed as "factory refurbished," but after some discussion w/ the manufacturer, I found out that it was an ordinary new factory rifle, it just had some scratches on the stock (so-called "shop wear").

It is a Lyman Deerstalker:


The Deerstalker has been around for awhile. It is imported from Italy, so the quality is decent. It costs about the same as a Spanish imported flintlock, and the Spanish rifles really leave a lot to be desired from a quality standpoint.

The rifle is a .50 caliber, although I would have preferred a .54. It is a left-handed model, which I prefer since I shoot from the left side. Barrel length is 24", with a 1-48" twist. I feel like the barrel is really too short for target accuracy with this gun, but it's easy to handle and it still goes BANG.

The Deerstalker really isn't a replica of any particular firearm. It just looks sort of old-timey. The trigger and triggerguard are made of aluminum, which I dislike (initially thought they were plastic, but Lyman insists it is aluminum ... as if that is somehow better). Trigger pull is creepy and was initially very heavy until I applied some break-free oil to the sear. Now it is tolerable. The gun also has about a completely unnecessary 3/4" thick recoil pad that is peeling off. I might just help it along the way since the length of pull is a little too long anyway.

this is the flintlock mechanism:

The way it works is, you flip that little shield-looking thingy in front of the hammer forward. It opens up and there is a pan there. You put some powder in the pan, and then close the shield-looking thingy. Then you cock that hammer, which has a piece of flint in it, and pull the trigger. The hammer goes forward, hits the shield-lookingthingy, knocks it open, and showers sparks on the powder that you put in the pan. The powder in the pan goes off with a little poof, and the heat from that ignition goes through a little vent into the barrel and ignites the powder which you put in there. at which point the gun goes bang. The shield-looking thingy is called the "frizzen."

here's a view of the pan with the frizzen open. that little silver thingy is the vent, called a "ventliner."

The ventliner on this gun is actually a replacement. It screws into the barrel. The ventliner that comes with the gun has a hole right next to the pan. This replacement ventliner moves the hole back from the pan and closer to the main powder charge in the barrel, which speeds up ignition. Interestingly enough, you get faster ignition if you keep the priming powder in the pan AWAY from the vent, as opposed to right next to it. I dont know the mathematical reason for this, but when the priming powder is next to the main powder, it acts like a fuse. You dont want a fuse, you want the priming powder and the main charge to go off basically at the same time.

If you want to know more of the basics of flintlock operation, check out this article. I am really intrigued w/ the mechanism at the moment. It is very primitive, but when you do everything right it works surprisingly well. Also I recently purchased this book. It isn't here yet, but looks interesting.

Anyway, I have owned this rifle for over a year, but due to the aforementioned school and work getting in the way of more important things, I have only fired it a few times. The first time was last spring. I didn't have a benchrest setup, so I was just plinking away with it to see if it would go bang. My cousin snapped this interesting picture:

You can see the entire process at work here. Priming charge goes off, setting off the main charge, all at the same time. Well, sort of ... there is a delay with the flintlock. I have read of many people stating that they have tuned their flintlock to fire with the same instantaneous ignition as a percussion rifle. However, I have not been able to reproduce this result with my flintlock, nor have I ever witnessed such instantaneous ignition from a flintlock (but I am still trying ...). The delay is very slight if the gun is loaded properly ... when the sear trips, your mind immediately thinks "misfire!" at which point the gun goes off. It takes a little getting used to, but its a lot of fun. This is a video sequence of a very well-tuned flintlock pistol:



Anyway, uncle jim has stated that he didn't think that a flintlock could be fired accurately past 25 yds or so (caveat, it appears that he may have been referring to a smoothbore flintlock), so I set out to prove him wrong. I failed, but I still think there is potential for excellent accuracy from the rifle and the flintlock mechanism. Here is the target I shot at 50 yds:

sorry it is blurry, my camera is not ideal for taking close-up indoor pictures. Anyway, I would have been appalled at this group from any of my other rifles, but with the flintlock I was quite pleased. I was actually shooting more accurately the more I got used to the delay. Also, the shots in the black mostly came once I had settled on a powder charge.

The load I settled on was the one recommended by the Lyman handbook: 90 g. of 2f blackpowder with a .490 diameter roundball and a .015 cotton patch. The patch lubricant was T/C bore butter, which works well enough as a patch lube.

After shooting at the bench, I decided to try shooting without sandbags from the sitting position. I was wondering whether I would flinch if the gun wasn't secured in sandbags. Interestingly enough I did better. Here was the first shot I fired (still at 50 yds):

Next I put a little aluminum can out at 50 yds to see if I could hit it. The first shot hit right underneath the can (it jumped, which made me think I had hit it). The second shot drilled the can. I brought the perforated can to show Uncle Jim, and I think I left it at his house. Which means Aunt Melinda has thrown it away by now.

Anyway, like I said before, I am still getting used to the flintlock mechanism, but I think that it has great potential for accuracy. I'm not sure if this little gun will ever be anything more than a 50 yd rifle due to the short barrel and un-tuned lock. However, it is serving its purpose of giving me some practice with a flintlock at a very reasonable price.

How reliable is a flintlock? Well, I have only had a couple of misfires with this one. The flint that came with the gun was a so-called "saw cut" flint. Out of about 20 shots, it failed to spark and ignite the priming powder on 2 occasions. The flint I have on there now is a hand-knapped flint from England. Out of about 25 shots with it, it has sparked every time. I did have two back-to-back flashes in the pan with the English flint. This is when the priming powder goes off, but fails to ignite the main charge. The flashes in the pan occurred with the same main charge (i.e., I filled up the pan w/ priming powder and tried to shoot a total of 3 times before the gun went off). All I can figure is that there was some type of obstruction in the vent (although I had picked it) with this particular main charge. Other than these isolated incidents, ignition has been flawless.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Purpose

This blog will document the features, shooting results, history, and other aspects of muzzleloading firearms. I intend for the subject matter of the blog to be very broad. One feature of this blog which I hope will be very useful is a list of related webpages in the left-hand column. Please feel free to post comments.