It was March 2005 and the Confederated Sixgunners of America were meeting in a holler in the Ozark National Forest north of Clarksville, Arkansas. A group of us had split off to visit Don Eichenberger at his shop to pick up some black powder and avoid the hazardous material tariff as well as sundry quibbles from timid UPS managers. Exploring the shop, we came up with two vintage boxes of Remington-UMC black powder factory loads for the .44 Special. One was in very good shape and we dispatched it to John Taffin. Our find was so unusual that even Taffin had not encountered them in real life.
The other full box was ugly enough to abate any collector's remorse and would lend itself handily to an exercise in ballistic archeology. It languished in the shop for another year and I went back and got at the 2006 gathering. Our best guess was that the ammo dated from 1920 or before and some correspondence with Remington- UMC collectors provides a fair amount of confidence in a production date between 1913 and 1916. While a couple of loud an vociferous Internet experts loudly dispute the fact, everybody who has read even one of the major reloading manuals is aware that the .44 Special came out as a black powder cartridge. It arrived in 1907 along with the Smith and Wesson New Century Hand Ejector revolver otherwise known as the Triple Lock. It was a lengthened version of the .44 Russian containing, according to Elmer Keith, 26 grains of black powder-three grains over the Russian loading. Nominal velocity was 770 Feet Per Second. It was a target-level load and when the smokeless powder loads came out in the same velocity range, Keith considered it an insult to a cartridge of such potential
To the Laboratory
I began a routine post-mortem by pulling the bullets so; the bullets would be a good place to begin. They consist of a lead core swaged into a cupro-nickel jacket open ended and concave at the base. They measure .428-inch by my caliper. This measurement is consistent across five bullets. Weights range from 244.6 to 246 grains. There are two narrow lubrication grooves still containing a light -colored, waxy substance much like modern
I weighed the powder charges from twenty cases finding that they ranged from 24.2-27.0 grains and averaged out at 25.5 grains. The weights were fairly evenly distributed across this range. This charge filled the case close enough to the neck to
afford 1/8th inch or more of compression under the bullet. The powder resembles modern Goex 3fg in the shape and size of the grains and the presence of a substantial number of grains of smaller size. It departs from the Goex in that it contains fine black dust that is light enough to hang in the air and leave a smudge on light paper. This residue is probably graphite but could just as well be charcoal. I put several of the still-primed cases in my Mountain Gun and determined that the primers were totally
enert. An explanation for this is not available, as the storage history is unknown. Don found them outside his shop a couple of years ago-abandoned like a left-handed stepchild- and never learned the source. It is not uncommon for older primers to produce misfires, hang fires and apparent perfect ignition in the same box of ammunition. I reloaded the ammunition using the original powder and bullet from each case and replacing the primers with new Remington Large Pistols primers. I ran them through the full sequence of RCBS dies including the carbide sizing die, the neck expander and bullet seating die and roll crimping in a separate operation. I then dismantled twelve more rounds replacing the original powder with newly opened Goex 3fg. I used the average measured dose of 25.5 grains with my charges varying no more than one tenth of a grain in contrast to the 2.8- grain extreme variation of the original loads.
My test vehicle is a Smith and Wesson Mountain Gun directly descended from the old N-Frame Hand Ejector Triple Lock. It has a 4-inch barrel. The chronograph is a Competition Electronics ProChrono set about ten feet down range. Elevation is four hundred feet above sea level and the temperature was seventy degrees. I clocked the loads sitting on the ground, back rested and the revolver braced over my knees. My casual aiming point was an eight-inch steel gong 41 yards distant. I noted that it clanged almost every time with the loads using the vintage powder charge and somewhat less often with the Goex loads. Previous data collected under similar conditions shows that I have gotten 659 fps from that revolver and the traditional 246-grain smokeless .44 Special factory loads from Winchester Western. The vintage loads produced an average 709 fps ten round average with a 73 fps spread. The same bullets and cases with Goex 3f substituted got 762 fps with a 56 fps spread. As is often the case with black powder loads, the more precise powder charge of the Goex loads does not produce any great increase in measured consistency. Both of the black powder loads are faster than the modern smokeless powder loads. By this time, I believed that I had learned something about the relative performance of fresh new black powder versus 90- year- old black powder. I dispelled this notion by doing the same basic comparison with a Uberti Paterson loaded with .380-inch round ball and effectively reversed the relationships I had gotten with the cartridge loads.
Uberti Colt Paterson Replica
- 22 Grains Goex FFFg --.380" Ball-- 879 --37
- 22 Grains Ninety Year Old FFFg --.380" Ball --943-- 75
Firing the .44 black powder loads over the chronograph, I was cleaning the barrel after every five shot string. There was considerable fouling but it came out with about three swipes of a spit-moistened patch. I shot two groups with the loads using the original powder. On the first, I cleaned the barrel between each shot. This produced a three-inch five round bench group from twenty-five yards. This revolver usually does significantly better than that so, I fired the next five without shifting the gun from the rest or cleaning the fouling out of the barrel. This paid off with a two and one tenth-inch group- a typical performance for this revolver with a variety of smokeless loads.
After thirty rounds of black powder loads, with no cleaning other than removing barrel fouling, the Mountain Gun looked pretty nasty but the fouling did not impair function. The action cycled and the cylinder spun on its arbor just as freely as it would have with smokeless powder loads. Although an interesting exercise, there is enough contradictory data to prevent drawing hard conclusions about the difference in velocities between the ninety-plus year old powder and the new
Goex. My personal prejudices say that black powder is a very stable commodity more subject to variations in chemistry and production methods than deterioration over time. The data also tends to support the notion that the .44 Special lost a little steam with the transition from black to smokeless. The Goex loads are getting the high 700 fps velocities claimed for the cartridge and the old powder would have closed in on this standard if fired from a 6.5" barrel.