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 by Paco

First we have to understand, I really donít like black powder because of all the reasons in the title of this article. But darn it....it is fun to shoot. Back in the late 1960s the Richmond Police Shooting Team was one of the hottest in the country. Five of the eight shooterís including me, were positive we were going to the Olympics someday...we did make the Nationals two years in a row. Came in second the first time and fourth the second time....but life and work and families...etc....But the point of the story is we had a team mate that was different.

Stewart was tall, dark and...well he had two out of three. He was gawky, and unsure of himself, but he could shoot handguns. And we all really liked him, but cops have a funny way of showing their fondness. They tease each other sometimes rather hard...but itís a point of misplaced manliness I guess. And hell we were young.

Stewart had a favorite 45 ACP 1911a1 for the centerfire matches. The gun was totally rebuilt by Gil Hibert (sp) the custom gun guru of the 1960s....Gil was a master especially with 45s. Stewart would shoot his fine 45 in practice and matches and then would immediately clean it, even before he left the range. He never put it in his shooting box...in case the box was ever stolen. Never mind that he had about five other expensive and special handguns in the box, and the whole thing was insured...he just couldnít take it if something happened to his Ďbabyí....

Naturally all this affection directed the attention of those of his friends..on to this special gun and his over zealous fondness. Now I wonít mention who was behind all this, the statute of limitations will never run out in Stewartís mind.....

But one day during a Richmond City match...somehow a 45 ACP round loaded with fine grade black powder got into one of Stewartís match clips....and during the first fast fire phase about three shots in, during a fusillade of everyoneís autos going off with light Bullseye match loads...suddenly there was this deep thunderous roar...and a long plume of orange fire and thick gray smoke pouring out of Stewartís gun. Stewart already pumped up about the match with his concentration really focused, immediately thought his gun blew up! He threw it 20 feet from him into the grass and began to run away counting his fingers.....

When he finally got a hold of himself, stopped and looked back...half the team was missing from the firing line...when he returned he found us rolling over in the grass laughing to death.......

Black powder will rarely hurt a gun...certainly it didnít hurt Stewartís 45, though I do remember him taking a real long time completely striping the gun and cleaning every part inside and out.

I have fired black powder in a number of guns over the long years since that time...Pyrodex which is supposed to be a black powder substitute has a little more energy and is advertised as being cleaner. I have never found it to be cleaner...but it does seem to shoot with less fouling. As for a substitute for black...well I think it still is black with some kind of additives or some such.....but I have used it and like it better then black.....and all the Pyrodex listed loadings are by volume not weight....I use an adjustable black powder measure, to get the proper charge weights....take care with old guns with these loads.

Also be careful of using the old recommended trick of using cardboard for wads...they can ring some guns. I use 1/16th polyethylene wads in the rifles...Pyrodex comes in pistol grade shown as P, and in rifle grade shown as R, with the load amounts. And where I use black powder I use the designation BP.

45 long COLT

Probably the greatest of all handgun/black powder rounds is the 45 long Colt. Iím not sure what the original loading of some fine grade of commercial black powder was...but I suspect 40 grains under the original 255 grain bullet. Keith used around 35 grains under a very heavy 300 grain bullet...he also had an old Colt SA come apart on him with this 300 grain load. He talks about the loading gate blowing off and lacerating his thumb...also the chambers and a top strap came off his old black powder Colt with this load.

Soon he changed over to the 44 specials...around 1927...and smokeless powder. But he used the old SA 45s from about the age of 18 to 28. He had a 38-40 at the age of seventeen that he thought failed him with a big Elk he shot several times at point blank range with black powder loads. Though he is very candid that commercial bullets and bad placement didnít help. His heavy 40 caliber reloads with cast bullets and heavy charges of black put the animal down, so he went to the 45 Colt. It is one of the exciting stories Keith tells that I am re-typing so John Taffin can put it up on sixguns.com.

All that to say I could only get 37 grains of black powder into modern R-P cases...under a 255 grain exact copy bullet of the original. This out of a 7.5 inch barreled Colt clone they gave 912 fps and around 10000 psi. The same amount of P-Pyrodex (by volume remember) gave 961 fps with 13600 psi...and the R grade gave only 921 fps at 12000+ psi. All very mild loads. I have a few old balloon headed cases in my collection. So I loaded up five with BP and they did take 40 grains with a little room left over...giving an average of 880 fps and 10,000+ psi.

I had to try it....I took a 300 Gould bullet and loaded it over 35 grains of BP...with a bit of a squeeze...BP or Pyro doesnít compress well. Crush the grains and you actually have a finer grade of powder...with faster burning characteristics.....I got 813 fps average...but the pressure was above 15,000 psi. I guess Elmerís old gun was just tired. Out of a 20 inch Winchester levergun, the 37 grains of P-Pyro under the 255 grain bullet gave 1233 fps...which I thought was pretty good for a BP round...but I know little of handgun BP rounds in rifles..... With BP pushing a 255 grain bullet at just under 1000 fps from handguns...in the old western days of the 1870s thru the turn of the century..it was a powerful handgun load. Elmer himself said in the late 1920s that the commercial 45 long Colt loadings were the best in power of any of the handgun caliber commercial loadings, at that time.

44-40 WCF

Winchester brought about a family of cartridges in their new leveraction rifles in 1873...the 44-40 and the 38-40 (1874) shared the same case...and the small 32-20 was a new case all of itís own(1881). Colt chambered itís Single Actions for these rounds. Why Winchester took over 100 years to chamber their rifles for the 45 long Colt round has been a bone of contention and opinion for as long as it has been that way. Many of the opinions I have read make sense...the one I go with is that the 45 Colt was a proprietary and military round when it was first introduced and it was patented. By the time that patent was over the other Winchester chamberings were well established...also some real rifle rounds began to surface in leveractions. Marlin beat Winchester to the punch with the first 45-70 leveraction in 1881...it took the big W till 1886 and a new rifle to catch up with a 45-70 chambering of itís own. Though Winchester did have some others like the 45-75...which was a shortened version of the big rifle round so it would cycle in the short actions of the 1876 leverguns.

The 44-40 was the most powerful of the trio...but not by much. The 38-40 was a very close second. Since the 38-40 was really a forty caliber and itís loading was only 20 grains less in weight.

But I squeezed 35 grains P-Pyro into modern WW 44-40 cases and under a 200 grain bullet, jacketed and made by Winchester, I got 815 fps from a 7.5 inch single action and around 10500 psi...the R-Pyro load was close with the same charge and 800 fps and 9300 psi. I didnít have a 44-40 rifle at the time to test them in...the BP load of 35 grains went 770 fps and around 8800psi.

44 SPECIAL....

The 44 special was really never a BP cartridge....though black powder loads were available. Introduced around 1907 to take advantage of the new smokeless propellants...I thought it would be neat to see what it would do with black powder loads.

The 44 S&W American started it all around 1869-70...it was lengthened into the 44 Russian cartridge for a Russian order of over 250,000 handguns and given a inside lubricated bullet. In 1907 the case was lengthened again by about .2 inch and loaded with smokeless powders of the times...Bullseye and Unique...probably non canister powders also. I was able to get 30 grains of BP into the case which gave a 200 grain bullet 908 fps....and the 27gr/load under a 250 grain Keith bullet a surprising 820 fps at 9800 psi...the 200 grain load was at a pressure of 9900 psi. Interesting pressure readings on these loads...not what logic would dictate.

With 30 grains of P-Pyrodex under the 200 grain bullet we got 995 fps and 12000psi...while the 250 Keith with 27gr/load went 894 fps and 11000psi. The R-Pyro with the same loads gave the 200 grain 970 fps and 11900 psi and the 250 grain bullet went 830 fps and 10,000+ psi.

So though I donít have any experience with the 44 Russian cartridge...the above makes me think it wasnít bad for itís time and era......

38-40 WCF

The standard bullet for this cartridge has always been the 180 grain blunt nose lead..then came the 180 grain soft nose jacketed....I didnít have any jacketed 401 caliber bullets...but do have a mold in this caliber that drops a 184 grain cast bullet with 1 in 20 mix...dropped hot into water to heat treat them..

I could squeeze 33.5 grains of BP into the sized down 44-40 cases...the 184 cast went 933 fps from again a 7.5 inch barrel. The pressure ran a little over 9500 psi. The same amount of P-Pyro under this bullet gave 1030 fps and around 11000psi...R grade gave 990 fps and 10,600 psi. This by the way was the most accurate of the black powder loadings....though the P-Pyro 45 Colt load came close to it.

 32-20 WCF

As my readers know I like this round in modern guns and with modern cases and smokeless powders. I also enjoyed it with BP. The recoil was non existent, the accuracy was very good. I was able to get 18 grains of very fine grade BP under a 110 grain bullet...like the others I used Mag-Primers. And was getting around 10,000 psi and 825 fps. But I was getting only 1200+ fps out of the rifle, and accuracy went out the window........

 Since I was playing around and had a lot of gun cleaning to do...I went whole hog and tried a few rifle loads so you would at least have a simple point of reference.....Out of my new 24 inch Marlin 38-55 levergun with a 265 grain bullet I actually got 55 grains of RS/Select under it....it gave 1420 fps....and excellent accuracy, it was a fun load.....

With an old 1886 leveraction Winchester in 40/65 using a 400 grain bullet I got 60 grains of R/S under it and clocked out at1255 fps.......

Using my 45-70 Marlin...I got 66 grains of BP under a 475 grain bullet...giving 1377 fps and 64 grains under a 525 grain bullet gave 1177 fps. In my old 45-90 with 83 grains under the 475 grain bullet goes 1400 fps.....I like this load...I get more big old smoke rings with it then any other...it tickles my old timey sense.......

So if you can get over the cleaning chores then black powder and itís brother powder Pyrodex is a lot of fun....I think everyone should try it once a decade at least....that thought came after I finished cleaning the guns!






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