As much as I enjoy shooting modern firearm, I thoroughly enjoy shooting firearms of the past or at least replicas of past firearms – which I can afford.
I had shot a flintlock muzzle loader many years ago, and also a percussion revolver around the same time frame. Since that time, I had always yearned to own one of these things and learn about shooting black powder firearms and all of the idiosyncrasies involved in doing so.
Since I own a couple of Uberti “cartridge conversion” revolvers both in Colt and Remington replicas, there was a draw for me to experience the “pre-cartridge conversion” versions of these revolvers. However, in my usual fashion, I had to take things one step at a time; walk before I ran, so to speak.
I started doing a lot of research on single-shot pistols of years past and determined that a percussion pistol would be a good place to start, as there was way much to be learned before venturing into flintlock and other Cap & Ball firearms – especially revolvers. Around 1820 would be a good starting point.
“The percussion cap, introduced circa 1820, is a type of single-use ignition device used on muzzleloading firearms that enabled them to fire reliably in any weather conditions (my note: as long as powder and firearm were dry). This crucial invention gave rise to the caplock or percussion lock system.
Before this development, firearms used flintlock ignition systems that produced flint-on-steel sparks to ignite a pan of priming powder and thereby fire the gun’s main powder charge (the flintlock mechanism replaced older ignition systems such as the matchlock and Wheelock). Flintlocks were prone to misfire in wet weather, and many flintlock firearms were later converted to the more reliable percussion system.” – Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percussion_cap
As with most things, one thing leads to another, which leads to another thing, which…
Deciding on a suitable “starter” pistol is no easy task. However, once that is decided, then comes choosing the necessary accoutrements. There is also the question of what powder to use (Black Powder, Pyrodex, etc.). And, there is also learning the proper loading, unloading, cleaning and lubrication techniques. This isn’t like picking up a modern firearm, go the range, and fire it all day long. Shooting black powder pistols and revolvers is far more in-depth than that.
I have seen people come to the range with cases of stuff from firearms to ammunition. Imagine that a soldier during the Revolutionary or War Between the States (and all conflicts before) carried a “Possibles Bag” and other bags and/or pouches to support themselves and the firearms that they were using. We all know the components of a cartridge, but I don’t think that we appreciate the soldier that had to carry the necessary components separately in order to load a firearm, and especially doing so in combat conditions. It was said that a good “Musketeer” could load and fire 4 times in a minute. Compare that to today where an “average’ shootist can fire 5 cartridges in less than 5 seconds. Shoot fire! If the M4 had been available to the South during the Civil War we all would be saying, “Ya’ll,” “Ma’am.” and eating black-eyed peas and Collard Greens, along with the Possum-Belly stew. However, in reality, it is not that much different from today where the soldier carried magazines of cartridges of a more powerful cartridge and eating MREs (that are, incidentally, better than Collard Greens – but not by much). But, as usual, I digress.
But even before you consider black powder firearms, there are two questions that you need to ask yourself. How dirty do you like to get and how meticulous are you in cleaning a firearm? Shooting black powder firearms is dirty business. Today, you go to the range, load cartridges into a magazine, insert magazine into pistol, fire pistol. No fuss, no muss. Your hands come away pretty clean even if you have shot a lot. Not so with shooting black powder firearms. You will be loading powder into a powder measure from a flask, which has been loaded with powder from your storage container. In some cases, powder flasks come with pre-measured tips from which you can load a pre-measured amount of powder. Regardless, the flask has to be loaded. Then, you are going to empty the contents of the pre-measured volume of powder into a barrel (muzzle loader) or chambers (black powder revolver). Never will you load powder from any container in which you store vast amounts of powder.
If you elect to fire flint-lock firearms, you will also be “priming the pan” with powder of which the trigger is pulled and the flint (that is secured in the hammer) makes a spark when it is struck against the Frizzen, which uncovers the pan, ignites that powder, which in turn ignites the powder that you poured into the barrel of the firearm that, hopefully, is enough to send the projectile clear of the muzzle and into a target some distance away from you.
If you elect to fire a C&B (cap and ball) firearm, the Frizzen and pan have been eliminated. The hammer simply strikes a percussion cap that ignites the powder in the barrel (or chamber).
Cleaning a black powder firearm is not a quick thing to do, and you have to be slow and methodical in your cleaning. You will become close friends with “Moose Milk” and Ballistol.
If you can live with all of this, continue on.
Regardless of where you want to start, and start with, there is some research to be done in locating what you will need to do so. Accessories are not provided with the firearm, in most if not all cases. You will need the following:
- Powder flask.
- Powder measure (adjustable to the correct powder level – in grains) for the firearm. (I have three that are pre-set for the correct powder volume for the caliber of firearm I will be shooting.)
- Nipple wrenches.
- Lubricated patches of the proper thickness.
- Black Power or Pyrodex black powder substitute.
- Swaged lead balls of the proper diameter.
- Percussion caps (usually #10 or #11 depending on the firearm).
- Ball starter.
- Ramrod (most that come with BP firearms look nice, but are useless).
- Accessories (jags, bullet pullers, anti-seize (for nipples)).
- Possibles bag (or other method for carrying all of the above).
You can also add cleaning supplies to the above list.
It is quite possible that you will spend more on the accoutrements than you spend for your first black powder firearm.
If you are starting out with BP revolvers, you can extract the Ball Starter, lubricated patches, and Ramrod from the list. However, you will need wads (lubricated or not) and/or a grease to seal the chambers of the cylinder.
Knowing that I would be shooting a variety of calibers (.36, .44, and .50), I opted to purchase three powder measures; one for each caliber adjusted to the correct volume.
If you decide on Pyrodex (an excellent choice), I would also recommend a black powder loading guide, such as the Lyman Black Powder Loading Manual, but also follow the recommendations from the manufacturer of the firearm that you purchased. Remember that you will be loading the powder and you want enough to clear the projectile from the barrel but no so much as to have the firearm explode while you are shooting it. Like any kind of powder, there is a lower and upper limit to use. It would be wise for you to fall in between these two. And, these quantities of powders vary among manufactures for the same firearm, and you want to take the guesswork out of the equation. For example, one manufacture states that the proper loading for a .44-caliber revolver is 12-15 grains of FFFg black powder, while another states 22-grains for the same caliber. For another example, one manufacturer states that 35-grains of FFFg is the maximum black powder to be used for a .44-caliber revolver while 28 grains of Pyrodex P is the maximum for the same revolver. It can be pretty confusing and pretty dangerous to be playing around with SWAGs (Stupid Wild-ass Guesses). For starters, I would highly recommend Pyrodex black powder substitute for several reasons; Black Powder is getting hard to find and is considered an “explosive;” whereas Pyrodex is easier to find and it is considered a ”propellant.” Hazardous Material (HazMat) fees apply when ordering either on line and that goes for percussion caps as well. Purchase locally whenever possible, but also consider that HazMat fees may be built into the price when purchased locally, but not as bad. Depending upon the vendor, Hazardous Material fees may vary from $20 per order to $30 per order – regardless of the quantity ordered. I recently purchased Pyrodex P through my local Bass Pro Shop for $26 per pound + tax. Had I ordered it online, I would have paid $19.99 per pound + HazMat fee ($20 per order to $30 per order, depending on the vendor) that would have cost me more than what I paid for it locally. I also bought percussion caps; however, they were the same price as when ordering on-line but without a “built-in” HazMat fee.
Another important fact is that the powder, regardless of that chosen, should be always measured by volume and not weight due to the densities of the two powders, which affects weight. One will find that 36-grains of FFFg powder do not weigh the same as 36-grains of Pyrodex powder. Powder measures for black powder firearms are scaled by volume. Therefore, and since Pyrodex is the equivalent of FFFg black powder, the same volume is used for both.
The last word that I have on powder is to seek out someone well-versed on these firearms for guidance, such as Dustin Winager (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JasXSmOF3Zo) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWoxveL8h6c.
It makes one wonder if the initial investment is worth shooting a black powder firearm. After all, you will be shooting something that was the precursor to modern firearms even though it may be a replica of those firearms. Or, if you are fortunate to actually own an actual antique firearm, then you will be shooting an actual piece of history. To me that, replica or not, makes it worthwhile.
Now, let me talk about projectile for black powder firearms. I am not going into projectiles for modern muzzle loaders, as they are a different animal from the “ball” ammunition used in most black powder pistols and revolvers, to include the Minnie Ball that was used in many muzzle-loaders during the Civil War. I am strictly keeping this discussion to pistol “ball” ammunition, since this is my starting point.
Projectile size, as with modern firearms, varies in size and weight between muzzle-loaders and revolvers.
A .50-caliber muzzle-loading firearm takes a .490-inch ball with a .015-inch thick patch. A .44-caliber revolver, on the other hand, does not take a patch and the correct fit is to have a thin slice of lead shaved from the projectile when loading. A .44-caliber revolver would use a ball with the thickness of .454” (11.45mm) and a .36-caliber revolver would use a .375” (9.55mm) ball.
So, back to the first thing, which is deciding what to use as a “starter” firearm; rifle, pistol, or revolver.
Single-shot percussion pistols can be found in kit or assembled form from various firearm vendors both online and locally. If you order online, it will be delivered directly to your abode, as no FFL is required. You can find flintlock and percussion models in rifles and pistols. These firearms range from basic to extravagant. As with many firearms, it depends on what you want and how much money you want to spend. While I yearned for a Kentucky Long Rifle, or a Hawken Rifle, I needed to come back to earth (you may not, and that’s fine) and start out on a smaller scale; a single-shot, side-lock, percussion pistol, for example.
I decided to start with a completed side-lock percussion pistol, although I may order a kit later to fully understand what went into building this pistol. The pistol that I selected for my introduction to black powder muzzle-loading pistols is the Traditions Kentucky Pistol.
As for percussion revolvers, a Pietta reproduction of the .36-caliber 1851 Navy Colt (Griswold) was chosen.
I do have a “wish list” of black powder pistols, revolvers, and long guns, but those are in a topic to be presented later.
For now, it is learning and also wondering what the heck I am thinking about with this excursion into back powder firearms. But, I have to say that the first time your wrap my hands around a flint lock or percussion pistol, a flint lock or percussion pistol, or a percussion revolver, it edges me on a little more. I just might be the same with you, if you let the bug bite.
I have put together a list of resources that I used, although there are other vendors available. This list (a laundry list, if you will) just may help you in getting stated with shooting black powder pistols and revolvers.