Black Powder & Its Substitutes
updated Nov 2015
Black Powder is a finely ground mix of charcoal, potassium nitrate, (anciently called saltpeter), and sulfur. The exact proportions of the ingredients and the method of manufacture are currently highly guarded industrial secrets. Burning rates, explosive force, velocity of gases and like properties are closely related to those proportions and the way in which they are incorporated.
Black powder has improved drastically over the centuries. In the thirteenth century, black powder was a rough hand-grind of about 50% saltpeter, with 25% each of charcoal and sulfur. The gunner of the day had to thoroughly mix each batch just before he loaded. Weather affected the performance of the powder tremendously as it was intensely hygroscopic. It just loved water. So did the residues from the shot. Keeping the barrel clean was a big problem. Hand grinding, usually done with mortar and pestle, was very inefficient, with vast differences in particle size and consequently in shooting quality. Obtaining high quality ingredients was also a problem.
Until our century, black powder manufacturers had a hard time acquiring high quality components. Mined sulfur, for example, is rarely pure. The manufacturer who could locate and mine a source of nearly pure sulfur was fortunate, indeed. Today, virtually pure sulfur comes from the scrubbers in industrial smokestacks.
Charcoal was another problem. Charcoal can be made from anything woody. Naturally, the quality of the charcoal has a lot to do with the quality of the wood, with some manufacturers claiming greater quality because they reduce only certain grades and kinds of wood to charcoal for use in their Black Powder.
Saltpeter, as potassium nitrate was called in antiquity, has always been the most difficult to obtain. Large supplies of unadulterated potassium nitrate came few and far between. The nation that could boast a natural deposit was blessed from on high and the supply was regarded as a national treasure and was always closely guarded.
The supply during the American Revolution was so tenuous that the fledgling American colonies, lacking sufficient known natural deposits, called upon all loyal patriots to save their urine and submit it for extraction of the precious nitrate.
Potassium nitrate supplies oxygen for the combustion of the carbon supplied by charcoal. It’s thought that sulfur acts mostly as a catalyst for the conflagration, with the carbon and nitrate being the active ingredients. This occurs so rapidly that con-siderable propulsive power can be generated by gas expansion in a semi-closed container, like a gun barrel.
Still, much of the conflagration is incomplete, leaving a considerable amount of ingredients only partially burned. Also, generous amounts of the solid salts of sulfur and potassium are formed. It is these solid salts, in microscopic form, that produce the noxious smoke with the sulfur smell and the corrosive water loving residue that clogs lands and grooves that so well characterizes Black Powder shooting. The earliest improvements in black powder manufacture was the application of grain grinding machinery, which reduced particle size tremendously and the invention of ‘corning’.
The grinding process was not improved upon until modern ball mills came along in the last century. Particle size with ball mills can be even smaller and more uniform than with the huge grindstones of yesteryear. Green River Black Powder, made in Roosevelt, Utah for a short time in the 1970’s was manufactured using a ball mill. It was briefly famous for its power, higher velocities and softer residues in smaller amounts. Green River used aluminum balls in their mill. Oddly enough, the addition of particles of aluminum from the mill may have further catalyzed the conflagration of the powder, explained perhaps some of the increased efficiency and lack of residue.
The ‘corning’ of black powder, which reduces its affinity for water, was developed in the 16th century. This process compacts the black powder into grains, lubricates and partially weatherproofs each grain with a coating of graphite. This feature allowed manufacturers to market gunpowder in several grain sizes, which allowed the shooter to control burning rate, pressure and velocity, and to more easily customize loads.
Proportions and quality of the ingredients changed as shooters continuously demanded better grades of powder and improved grinding machinery became available. This resulted in far less corrosion and residue, cleaner shooting and smaller, yet more powerful charges, developing higher and more uniform pressures and velocities. The improvement in accuracy was astounding. By the 1850’s, 24″ groups from sporting rifles at 800 yards were unremarkable where in the 16-1700’s a man struck by a smooth bore musket ball at 100 yards was considered unlucky indeed.
The peak of black powder development was reached in the 1860’s , just before the invention of smokeless powder eclipsed the worldwide use of black powder.
New Replacement Powders
There has been a considerable effort to bring out a low residue, less smokey, less-corrosive substitute for Black Powder. This effort has been ongoing since our Civil War. This is also something that a lot of hunters want, simply because many of them are not enamored of the stink and fuss of cleaning up a Black Powder rifle after a hunt.
The earliest attempts at manufacturing replacement powders occurred in the early 19th century, before our Civil War. All failed, simply because excellent grades of inexpensive Black Powder were commonly available at the time. The bulk powders of the 1890’s were also a failure. They were really nitrated cellulose base powders, not the same as modern smokeless powders at all, and were quite risky to use. They all disappeared before World War I
You’ve probably already noted White’s decided preference for Pyrodex, specifically Pyrodex P. This preference might seem odd as Black Powder is the traditional muzzleloading propellant and Pyrodex the latecomer. Black Powder, after all, has been in continuous use since at least the thirteenth century.
The answer to some of the problems associated with the manufacture of Black Powder were supplied by Dan Powlak, who developed Pyrodex, sadly giving his life in the process. Making gunpowder has always been dangerous. Dan did his work in the 1970’s, getting Pyrodex on market at just about the time that his plant went up in smoke. Hodgden bought the patent.
Pyrodex is basically Black Powder. The three basic ingredients are the same. It appears that additional oxidizers, scrubbers and flame retardants have been added to the basic mix. Hodgdon isn’t saying, but the results are obvious enough. Pyrodex burns with less smoke and fouling, ignites at a higher temperature, produces similar pressures and velocities with about 80% of the weight of Black Powder and measures in similar bulk amounts.
Best of all, federal DOT classification of Pyrodex is the same as smokeless powder, Class C, rather than the Class A designation of the more explosive Black Powder. This means that it’s easier to ship and easier to find in your local sporting goods store.
Another reason that White likes Pyrodex so well is that it burns much cleaner than Black. If you use Black Powder and the tight fitting, slip-fit bullets that White espouses, cleaning between shots becomes mandatory to maintain accuracy. At best, while hunting, you will get only 1-2 shots before you will be forced to clean your barrel. If you don’t, you won’t be able to ram a bullet down. The same is true with any competitor’s sabot or force-fit bullet..
Unfortunately, cleaning can be deleterious to consistent accuracy if done only once in a while. It helps accuracy if done with every shot. This is fine when shooting target but it’s not only a nuisance on the hunt, it slows you down so much that a fast second shot becomes impossible. The first shot from a newly cleaned barrel will always show somewhat lower pressure, often demonstrates lower velocities , a broader pressure curve and perhaps a small change in position of group and bullet strike. This means larger groups for mixed cleaned and non-cleaned shots. Obviously, it’s best to either clean every time or not clean at all.
During a hunt, it’s best not to clean at all until the end of the day. That way, you get fast, consistent and accurate shooting. This is one of the reasons White advocates Pyrodex. Even when using White’s long bullets, the hunter doesn’t have to clean between shots and slow himself down during the course of a hunt. His shooting will be consistent simply because all shots will come from a consistently fouled bore that still allows easy loading.
White’s ballistic studies definitely shows that a consistent bore condition enhances accuracy. It’s been found that a custom sized PowerPunch bullet, sized 1/1000th larger than land to land diameter, is very accurate but somewhat difficult to load in an uncleaned barrel when using Pyrodex, and was almost impossible to load when using Black Powder. However, the same oversize bullet loads easily without short starter and shoots super well if the barrel is consistently cleaned between shots. This is what White advocates on the target range.
..Although Hodgden doesn’t recommend it, Pyrodex P is White’s preferred propellant. White finds that it ignites more easily, burns more completely and produces more uniform pressures and velocities than other granulations with White’s barrels and bullets. This recommendation does not extend to any rifle other than White’s.
White has found that accuracy is equally uniform, although not quite as good, if Pyrodex P is used with a factory sized PowerPunch bullet without cleaning the barrel between shots. This is possible because Pyrodex residues are few and soft enough that between-shot cleaning is not required. The difference in group size between consistently cleaned and uncleaned shots with Pyrodex P is about an inch at 100 yards, not enough to count on an elk at 200 yards. This is why White advocates slip-fit bullets and Pyrodex P for hunting big game.
White has also found that Pyrodex P is superior in performance to either Select or RS, at least in calibers up to 54. Both Select and RS produce heavier residues than does P, and pressure curves with the heavy White bullets are more uniform and consistent with P. Pressures are slightly higher with P than with elect or RS, in the nature of 2000 PSI with top loads, but are well within acceptable limits for the strong White-designed rifles.
Pyrodex P also ignites more easily than does Select or RS. All varieties of Pyrodex demonstrate significantly higher ignition temperatures than does common Black Powder. Black normally ignites at about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Pyrodex, on the other hand, ignites at about twice that. More practically, White has experienced a number of hangfires and slowfires with RS, fewer with Select and virtually none with P.
So, if for some reason you are forced to use Select or RS, then substitute 10 grains of FFg Black Powder for an equivalent amount of Pyrodex, load the mix into your speed loader. Carrying it around all day in pocket or pouch won’t bother it at all and the addition of the quick igniting Black Powder effectively prevents hangfires and yet will not significantly dirty the bore.
I used this combination in Africa some years ago, carrying 170 grains of RS Pyrodex with 10 grains of FFG Black Powder in a White QuickCharger for use in my 54 caliber double rifle loaded with a 750 grain SuperSlug. It was an awesome combination and fired its big bullet at 1400 FPS without a hitch on some big and dangerous critters. You can watch this rifle in action on Roger Raglin’s African videotape, ‘Black Africa-White Smoke’ available from BKS Productions. You might also want to substitute a musket cap for the common and weaker #11, or switch to a 209 primer. Both moves require a change to the proper nipple-breechplug combination.
The minimal flash distance in White’s nipple-breechplug is one reason you can readily use the easily available #11 percussion cap on your White designed rifle. They aren’t truly necessary, but nipple-breechplugs designed to use the musket cap or the 209 primer are also available from whiterifles.com if you just have to have one. They enhance flash temperature and volume of flame, but only a little as the flash-hole is the same diameter in both nipples.
Pyrodex P is the currently recommended powder in the majority of White designed loads, whether used with SuperSlug, BuckBuster, PowerPunch, or saboted PowerStar in a White SuperSabot. It is not recommended for flintlock rifles, either as priming or as main charge. Ignition temperature is the reason. It just doesn’t work. It does work well with other brands of percussion rifle or shotguns, as long as the distance that the flash from the cap has to travel is minimal. If there is a dogleg in sidelock rifle, then you can expect hangfires unless you use a more powerful cap, like the common musket cap.
Always use Black Powder in the priming pan and for main charge in a flintlock. Use FFFFg priming powder in the pan for fastest flash and use FFFg or FFg for the main charge for best results. My prototype Manton style half stock flintlock rifle in 54 caliber, with 1-66 twist, loaded with a .530 caliber 220 grain round ball and .025 canvas patch, digests 80 gr FFFg Black powder superbly and fires as quickly as any percussion rifle.. This makes a terrific target load for the Rendezvous circuit as well as for round ball, flintlock hunting..
For hunting animals up to elk size, the Manton style rifle with 160 grains FFg Black Powder is accurate with the same ball and patch and is a potent load at short range, up to 100 yards. Ignition with FFFFg in the pan of the Egg lock on the rifle is virtually instantaneous. It’s quick enough that an experienced shooter can unfailingly call his shots.
Ascorbic Acid Based Powders
The earliest attempts at replacement in our day resulted in the ‘Golden Powder’ of the 1970’s. It was made with ascorbic acid, which is Vitamin C, as the fuel. It was intensely hygroscopic, both before and after firing, sucking up water like a sponge. Exposure to moist air changed its shooting qualities enormously and shelf life was abysmal. It went exactly nowhere.
Development has continued in the last few decades with Ascorbic Acid based powders although under different auspices and with better success. One product was Black Canyon powder, which was available for a couple of years. This powder was large grained, blackish, produced somewhat lower velocities compared to Black Powder but with less smoke when shot across my son David’s chronograph
Unfortunately, the grains were so big that there was quite some difficulty getting them to pour from a regular powder measure. It also required thumping with the ramrod, supposedly to break up the large granules, or to compact it, or both. The shooter was supposed to whack it with the ramrod before loading a bullet. Can you imagine the thumping that powder charge would get while Old Ephraim popped his teeth at you from the brush. As you might guess, the powder did not sell well and has disappeared
A similar Ascorbic Acid based powder later appeared , with granules that resemble common Black Powder grades, titled Cleanshot. This powder looked a lot like Black Powder, although the grains were somewhat brownish in color, apparently ignited at temperatures somewhat higher than Black although not as high as Pyrodex, smoked a whole lot less than Black and left very little residue in the barrel. It remained somewhat hygroscopic but a lot less than the old Golden Powder. It was also available in pellets. Velocities appeared to be lower when compared to an equal volume of Black Powder. It was also a lot more expensive. It is no longer available.
Arco Black Mag’3 Black Powder substitute was also an ascorbic acid based powder. It is sandy yellow and fine grained about like FFFg Black. Doc used it on a dozen big game hunts in 1995 and found it to be quite good, the best of its kind. Sadly. It is no longer available
ARCO powder also appeared and then disappeared. This product was also based on Ascorbic Acid. It was quite yellowish, almost sandy in appearance, ignited easily at near Black Powder levels, smoked only a little, left very little residue and was said to be less corrosive than Black even though the residue is every bit as hygroscopic. It was known to contain chlorates, however, so it could be no less corrosive than Pyrodex. It was small grained, almost like FFg Black Powder, and poured easily from a measure. It produced consistent velocities from shot to shot although not from batch to batch.
I was impressed enough with it that I used it exclusively for one hunting season in the mid 90’s. As far as i know, I was the first to hunt and harvest big game with it. It shot well, held up under hunting conditions and didn’t so becloud the target animal with smoke that I couldn’t see the critter. I never saw any rust or corrosion at any time during the hunting year in my stainless White Super 91 and never cleaned the rifle once. I was sorry to see it disappear. It was a fine product.
Sugar Based Powders
Another candidate for the Black Powder Substitute Derby showed up a couple of years later. This powder was originated by FDL, who survived a lawsuit with Black Canyon in ‘96, then sold the product to Goex a year or so later. Goex brought it out under the name ClearShot. How two companies could end up with names as similar as ClearShot and CleanShot is beyond me. Confusion reigned.
I got to know the principles who developed ClearShot fairly well, handled some of the prototype powder and even hunted with it a bit. The granules were black, round, appeared to be molded, ignited easier than Pyrodex, shot at near Black Powder velocities but at lower pressures with a broader pressure curve, produced just a little white smoke and left the barrel much cooler to the touch after a series of shots than does Black Powder. It left a tiny bit of whitish residue in the barrel after a shot. It worked quite well with the White Muzleloading System.
The powder was said to be less corrosive but the residue was certainly hygroscopic, as are the residues of all its competitors. The original formula did not contain any chlorates, and if Goex did not add any later on, then the residue would have been the least corrosive of all on the market. Despite that, you had to carefully clean up the barrel of your rifle after shooting in humid weather or the moisture loving residues could still cause problems. The residue was at least easy to clean up, being distinctly soluble in water. I have a little of it left in my safe, but as far I know it’s no longer manufactured.
777 is a more recent product introduced by Hodgden. It has become decidedly populer even though its cost is substantially higher than either Black Powder or Pyrodex. 777 is a blackish grained powder, available in 3fg and 2 fg grades, the grain size and color roughly approximating that of Black Powder. It ignites at temperatures slightly lower than Pyrodex and conflagrates with less barrel residue and smoke. On a volumetric basis, it is about 10% more potent than Pyrodex. The pressure curve is a bit more spikey than Pyrodex but with good volume under the curve so velocities are enhanced over those of the other BP substitutes. On the downside, fired residues left in the breech can become quite hard with time if the gun is left uncleaned, making the breechplug very difficult to remove. Loosening the breech-plug immediately after shooting, followed by prompt cleaning and the use of a molybdenum sulfide-containing anti-seize breech plug grease helps this problem.
777 is roughly the equivalent of Pyrodex with some small advantage in velocity and power and the disadvantage of needing prompt cleaning after shooting. Because of lesser residues, it works quite well with the White Shooting System and with other quality rifles and loads. Shot to shot velocities are somewhat variable, usually worse than Pyrodex and far worse than black powder, but accuracy is acceptable for hunting purposes. 777 3Fg is preferred for White rifles in calibers less than 54 with a #11 cap. 777 2Fg is preferred if using the 209 primer because of the excessive flash. This applies only to White brand rifles. Other makers have their own recommendations for their products. Pay attention to what they recommend.
As you might guess from the title, Blackhorn 209 is meant to be ignited by a 209 shotgun primer. Common percussion caps will not reliably ignite it. It also requires some back pressure to burn reliably, which means that patched and saboted bullets work quite well with it while slip-fit bullets do not unless quite heavy. It is produced by Western Powders, in Miles City, MT. It comes in a one lb. plastic can, looks like smokeless in that it ‘s grains are a perforated cylinder, acts like smokeless as it ignites at high temperature, smokes very little and leaves very little residue in the barrel. It might as well be and probably is at least partially a smokeless nitrocellulose product. However, it loads on a volumetric basis, same as black powder, although the weight is different. Velocities with lighter saboted bullets are superior, up into the 2000 fps range, but the rifle must have a closed breech. Slam-fire guns, like so many of the early in-lines, are less reliable with it. It is an excellent propellant for the White Thunderbolt, with its locked bolt breech set-up, as long as saboted bullets or heavier slip-fit bullets are used. You can get a plethora of information and loading data on ‘blackhorn209.com’. I have found it to be a very useful powder and have come to prefer it in my White ThunderBolt rifles.
All of the Black Powder substitutes enjoy the advantage of shipping as Class C propellants rather than as Class A explosives under current federal law. This makes them more available to the shooter as storage and transportation requirements are much less onerous. However, most of them contain chlorates, which makes them far more corrosive than Black Powder and all residues are quite hygroscopic, even more so than Black Powder. This means that prompt and thorough cleaning after a shooting session is still required.
A decade ago, Marlin brought out a bolt action muzzleloader that they claim is suitable for smokeless powder. This is nothing new. Ned Roberts wrote about using smokeless in muzzleloaders in the 1930’s, in his book, the Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle , advocating its use in heavy target guns. Many knowledgeable experimenters have been doing it for years, usually using a little smokeless in large amounts of Black to enhance burning and clean up residues.
Even though Marlin’s new rifle appears to be strong enough for the loads advocated, the use of smokeless is still a risky thing in the hunting situation, for several reasons. Most important: there is currently no technology to guarantee that a second load will not be placed down the barrel on top of a first load in the excitement of a hunt.
Even then, the sabots and bullets to take advantage of the increased velocities available from smokeless have not been developed, nor has the priming system that will safely withstand the higher pressures, despite claims to the contrary.
Common percussion nipples, even with musket caps, are not the answer, unless you like rifles that self cock and blow your hat off. #209 shotgun primers are not made to withstand the higher pressures generated by modern full rifle sized loads,either. Finally, there are no bulk loading smokeless powders available at present. All currently available smokeless powders demand a calibrated measure for accuracy and safety.
In my opinion, at least for the present, the complete package of technology to render the practice safe and effective isn’t yet available. Blackhorn 209 comes close, but I’m going to wait until the whole package arrives, ie- primer, bullets, powder, and safe management system. When it does, maybe I’ll hunt with smokeless. I recommend you do the same.
It’s hard to say which of the various black powder substitutes will be the winner, if there is one, in the Black Powder Substitute Sweepstakes, but I know that easier care is a nice gift. Their real advantage is not economy, but in being able to load even more repeat shots without cleaning between shots then with Black Powder or even Pyrodex. What’s important is that all of them make the White Shooting system work even better than before.
Despite the easy care and performance improvement available in the new powders, they don’t represent the final product that will fill all needs and solve all problems in muzzleloading. Someday, someone is going to come up with a powder that is truly non-corrosive and non-hygroscopic, that will ignite in the pan of a flintlock, ignite easily with a common #11 cap and still be shippable in interstate commerce as a Class C propellant, leave no residue in the barrel, reproduce the velocities of Black Powder and be really cheap. So far, this product is just a pipe dream.
Good Hunting ‘Doc’ White
PS- I guess I should say something wise about pellets. They are available, they work with appropriate primers, they are handy, easy to use, suffer with greater variation in pressures and velocities and thus accuracy than does loose powder of the same kind, but are generally adequate for hunting large game. I personally never use them, but many do and they kill lots of critters. DOC