By David Baker
Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Popping a few black powder cartridges through a vintage English shotgun is an unforgettable experience.
There’s something tremendously satisfying about walking into the field with an antique black powder hammer gun and bagging a bird or two.
Letting loose with an old gun and feeling the slow, gentle and unmistakable push of recoil from black powder is an altogether different experience to that of firing nitro cartridges.
For a start there’s a real sense of history to the occasion.
And then there’s the wonderful smell of powder and clouds of smoke billowing away on the breeze. Magical!
I won’t tell you how long I’ve been loading centrefire black powder shotgun cartridges but the first I made were for a hammer Purdey that cost me £5, so you can see that it was a fair while ago.
I shot the Purdey for years and ‘black’ became something of a trademark.
It had the advantage that those in charge told me it was reassuring when they heard a shot somewhere on the estate, to know it was me and not someone who had no right to be there.
That Purdey was my pride and joy and exposed me to the pleasure of shooting a top quality gun, which is why I tell people who own a vintage black powder gun to use it with appropriate cartridges and enjoy the experience.
There is no mystery or difficulty producing cartridges once you have the powder and a police licence to store it at home.
To get it you have to jump through a few official hoops, but I can honestly say that, with the police forces I have dealt with, I have never had any problems.
Considering what it does, gunpowder is remarkably easy to use.
Of course you have to be sensible – it’s very flammable, so no smoking or ignition sources, please. It is also a laxative, due to the sulphur content and was once used as a medicine – so don’t lick your fingers!
Beyond keeping it dry and using the appropriate grain size – ‘medium’ does most things for a breech-loader of medium calibre – there’s not much else to say.
The first cartridges I loaded were intended to mirror the ammunition that was fed to the Purdey when new – that’s to say roll-topped paper cases. We didn’t have plastics then!
Luckily I was much into patterning my guns and soon discovered that about one in five shots produced ‘cartwheeled’ patterns.
That’s to say that at 40 yards there was an 18in – 24in hole in the middle of the pattern with all the shot arranged as a ‘rim’ about six inches wide around it.
Roll-turnover cartridges can sometimes throw cartwheeled patterns. To avoid these David now reloads plastic cases with crimped ends.
I changed to waterproof plastic cases with a folded crimp and never saw another cartwheel, which provoked more than one discussion with those who love their roll-top paper cases, and the evocative smell of the Shellac varnish.
In round figures you can load black powder cartridges for half the price of those few commercial brands, which are still available.
More importantly, you can produce ammunition that is tailored perfectly to the gun you’re using. My main output today are 25gm 12-bore loads in a 65mm case and a 21 gm 16-bore load, again in a 65mm case which are done on a modern multi-station Texan reloading machine tool that produces neat crimps, re-sizing the cases, de-caps, re-caps and measures the charges.
Given all that has been written about shooting with black powder remarkably little has been said about the lubrication of the obdurating wad.
When I started I used Kleena wads for the simple reason that these were the only items available in the gun shop and I knew no better.
These vegetable fibre wads were coated in what I believe was hard paraffin wax and while OK for smokeless powder, something else is needed to deal with the much greater residue produced by black.
I learned this lesson shooting a muzzle loader with commercial wads, which had been soaked in vegetable oil.
When I came to clean it the lack of fouling was a revelation. Now, of course, a muzzle-loader wad makes two trips through the barrel, one slow – powered by the shooter - and the next, a lot quicker with the powder gasses behind it.
The problem is that, while a wad almost oozing oil is OK in a muzzle loader, centrefire cartridges have to be stored, get warm and are carried in a jumble.
You can still buy commercially loaded black powder cartridges, but it’s cheaper to load your own.
Someone suggested that oily wadded cartridges should be stored crimped end down in the fridge, but I can’t see that playing well.
My suspicion is that any oily lubricant will soften powder residue in the bores sufficiently to allow the wad to remove most of the fouling left by the previous shot.
Current favourite is a mixture of mutton tallow and some sort of oil – either cooking or neat’s foot – to get a better consistency.
This is melted and the home-cut felt wads rolled in it. To help keep this goo away from the powder, a wad cut from a waxed carton goes underneath the main wad. Which neatly brings up the whole question of cutting wads.
A wad punch is a very useful tool. With it you can cut a greater variety of wads than can be bought and in small quantities as needed.
These I cut on the end grain of a log that's about three feet long.
Reloading with black powder is a piece of cake on David's multistation Texan machine.
If a lot are being cut at once, pull up a chair and sit like a cobbler with the log held between your knees and work in comfort.
FELT OR PLASTIC?
On the subject of wads, there is much discussion for and against the use of plastic. Personally, I believe an over-powder wad cup gives a better seal which is why I use the cut off bottoms of fired wads harvested from the clay shooting ground.
I wash and dry them to ensure they are free of grit and they seem to work well. No plastic fouling is left in the bore as some sages predict and I suspect the reason for this are those fatted felt wads which leave the bores well-oiled.
Another debating point is the amount of pressure that should be applied to the wad during the loading process.
My belief, based on the views of 19th century writers, is that you only need to use sufficient pressure to seat the over-powder wad firmly.
I see no virtue in trying to crush the powder grains, even if you could.
The heavier ramming action given to a muzzle loader is simply done to ensure that the powder charge gets to the bottom of the nipple.
When all the shots for the day have been fired, the barrels have to be thoroughly cleaned to stop the corrosive black powder residues pitting the bore of the barrels.
You can use boiling water and detergent (all that is needed), but if well greased wads have been used a screwed up ball of newspaper or kitchen towel will remove most of the residue in a couple of passes.
The hot water then does the final clear up. If, however, the wads are not properly lubricated, then the hot water will remove the caked-on hard fouling.
All of this loading and cleaning combines to give the user greater involvement with his gun – just like a muzzle loader, but different. Give it a try!
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