Confessions of a Reluctant Black Powder Shooter

I didn’t want to get into black powder shooting. I successfully avoided it for years. Mind you, I’d always appreciated the history of black powder. For over 700 years, you needed black powder to make a firearm go bang. Black powder powered the American Revolution, giving bite to the colonial muskets and rifles that took down British Redcoats. It was the great killer of the Civil War battles; conflicts that fired my imagination since I had been old enough to read. Black powder smoke had hung over the scene at the Little Big Horn, and obscured the air at the O.K. Corral and the streets of Deadwood. Props to black powder. But . . .

Black powder is messy, corrosive and so old-fashioned. Who wants to clean a gun every single time you shot it? Who wants to meticulously scrub thick, black gunk out of barrels and off little metal nipples and out of pans and off of frames with hot soapy water every single time you pull a trigger?

I managed to avoid the grimy siren’s call of Holy Black—until a colleague corrupted me. A college history instructor and certified National Parks black powder firearms instructor named Tom for taking me the Dark Side.

Tom loved black powder guns. He reenacted Civil War soldiery as both a teacher and a hobbyist. He taught other National Parks Service personnel how to properly handle and fire 18th and 19th-century muskets and rifles, handguns and, yes, cannon. He had one of the coolest jobs in the world.

About six years ago, Tom he came to my backyard range to renew his Arkansas concealed carry license. He brought along a EuroArms copy of an 1853 Enfield rifled musket. Glory be!

In the movie Glory, the 54th Massachusetts have finished days of brutal training. Soldier John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) cracks open a large wooden crate. He looks down lovingly at the finely blued locks and long shiny wood stocks of a row of rifled muskets. “Point five seven seven Enfield rifled muskets,” he exclaims. “Finest in the world!”

I felt the same sort of excitement and anticipation as I held the near five-foot-long reproduction of the most popular rifled musket of the American Civil War. The Confederacy and the Union used over a million of them during America’s bloodiest conflict.

Rifled muskets are proper rifles with spiral grooves and lands inside the bore. They load like smoothbore muskets, firing conical, sub-caliber oblong .58 caliber Minie balls. The ammo slides down even the most powder-fouled barrels. When fired, the ammo’s hollow bases expand to engage the rifling.

Tom showed me how to pour in a standard charge of 70 grains of black powder before the Minie ball. How to properly pack ball on top of powder charge with the ramrod. How to put the small brass percussion cap onto the nipple Then he cocked the rifle, aimed it at a target I had set up on the range and pulled the trigger.

There was a loud, deep, hollow BOOOOM accompanied by a jet of fire and thick gray smoke. The odor of exploded firecrackers made me feel like I was 12-years-old again. To ice the proverbial ballistics-gel cake, a hole more than a half-inch wide instantly appeared in the target.

Even before he loaded it again and handed the rifled musket to me, I was hooked. I fired the weapon. I actually said it: “Damn. I’ve got to get me one of these!”

So I started shopping for a EuroArms 1853 Enfield. Another Italian replica label named Armi Sport also offered 1853 Enfields, although the cognoscenti considered the EuroArms models slightly superior. Before I could locate one for sale, Tom traded me a Queen Anne flintlock that he had used for on-campus demonstrations for some cash and a large lot of Romanian surplus 7.62X25 ammo.

I’d experienced the flintlock pistol a little after Tom had renewed his CCW permit at my place. He had brought it over so we could do a little living-history research on famous antebellum American duels, testing the efficacy of a flintlock pistol on 10-pace targets compared to an authentic Arkansas-made Bowie knife with a 10-inch blade that I owned.

Both pistol and Bowie knife proved to be quite efficient. The knife had the distinct advantage in having zero reload time. But the little flintlock was a jewel. It spat .50 caliber round lead balls, spoke in the authoritative bass voice of black powder, and issued a tongue of bright orange flame at least a foot beyond its muzzle.

And I loved it. I still do. I shoot it a several times a year, especially on every 4th of July when I load it with a double powder charge and wads of moistened newsprint and set it off as my own special version of historically-correct fireworks.

And so the Queen Anne was followed by an 1858 Remington Army by Uberti. Then a EuroArms 1853 Enfield rifled musket.

I recently added an Uberti copy of an 1847 Walker to my collection. The biggest most powerful black powder revolver of them all takes a charge of 60 grains of black powder. Thanks to the stout recoil, it drops its loading lever on most shots.

My gun room shelves now contain three types of black powder, round lead balls in four calibers, percussion caps and nipple wrenches, a powder flask and English flints. No matter how many AR carbines or 1911’s I shoot, no matter how many scoped precision rifles or Smith and Wesson revolvers I add to the gun safe, I still find myself coming back for more of the gray smoke, more of the flames and sparks, more of the smell of sulfur and spent firecrackers.

My name is Roy Hill, and I fire black powder.

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