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Today we’re looking at a question posed by a TTAG reader, likely inspired by the dwindling supplies of modern powder. Reader Jesse W. asked:

“Is it possible to use black powder in reloads for a modern semi-auto pistol/revolver/bolt action rifle/semi-auto carbine/pump shotgun?”

This is an interesting question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

The short and easy answer is yes, you can do this. The longer answer is that you probably shouldn’t. This is a classic case of can vs. should and I think that, in general, there isn’t really a solid reason to do this unless the cartridges in question are originally made to use black powder.

If you’re sitting there saying “Josh, you dumbass, black powder was so 17th century,” realize that there is a large handful of cartridges in very common use today that started as black powder-based.

First of all, let’s look at the difference in cartridges that existed back in the black powder days and what happened to cartridge and gun design as a result.

The main way that black powder was measured was in volumetric charges. When you load a muzzleloader, you’re usually loading grains by volume, not by weight like modern powder. This has to do with how that powder works. There are a lot of specifics that I won’t get into here, but I’m going to say that in the most basic sense that black powder explodes where smokeless powder burns.

Rounds like the .45-70 and the 450 Bushmaster (in the loops) can be loaded with both black powder and smokeless, but the 450 would be limited in power because of case capacity.

That may seem like the same thing, but if you light a pile of smokeless powder on fire it will burn, not go up in a big boom. Black powder has a lower general pressure that it can attain and the structure of the powder itself is very different from smokeless.

Modern smokeless powder essentially creates a burn in a confined space, and that burn varies depending on the type of powder used. Burn rate can be carefully tuned and tailored to a given cartridge or barrel length.

For instance, a .338 Lapua round uses slow-burn powders like H1000, where .45 ACP uses fast burners like TiteGroup. If you were to put TiteGroup in a .338 Lapua case, you would almost certainly blow the gun in half and probably injure yourself.

TiteGroup is a low charge, high pressure powder that creates a sudden, momentary, massive gas expansion that is great for pistols and even subsonic rifle rounds. If you were to put H1000 in a .45 ACP case, it wouldn’t generate enough pressure to cycle the gun, despite being magnum rifle powder. It is meant to increase the pressure in a steady curve, pushing a large bullet out of a longer barrel, not a heavy bullet suddenly.

Black powder works simply by exploding a compressed column of powder, usually in a straight-walled or gently tapered case, propelling a bullet at moderate velocity. Different grades of black powder, such as for rifle or pistol, have a larger or smaller physical grain structure that can create a better burn in shorter or longer barrels, but the energy is always somewhat limited by the fact that the only way to increase power is to increase powder charge. A larger powder charge requires a larger gun or a longer case to pack more in.

For instance, .45-70 is maxed out at roughly 70 grains of black powder The designation.45-70-405 refers to the bullet diameter, powder charge, and bullet weight, and this type of nomenclature could easily describe the rounds of the day, such as 45-110, 45-120, 50-90, and so on.

Bigger bullets and larger cases as well as longer cases on equal size bullets would generate more power. Today you can simply find a powder suitable to bullet weight and desired speed, sometimes completely ignorant to how much powder is actually contained  inside.

A .45 ACP can function with as few as three grains of some powders and as much as nine grains of others. This is because the pressure generated isn’t a direct correlation to the size of the powder column. Most modern cases are full of dead space.

45 Colt cases have enough space to use both black powder and smokeless.

So back to the guns and reloads. Modern guns are designed around modern powders and as a result, they typically require high pressures and clean propellants to make the guns work. The complexity of modern firearms and their tight tolerances means that most semi-auto rifles won’t even cycle with lead bullets because the lead lacks the surface hardness of a jacket that helps uniform pressures. Many lead bullets today are fitted with gas checks on their base to help prevent deformation of the bullet with smokeless powder and to help uniform pressures at firing.

In all likelihood you could indeed load revolvers, lever actions, and shotguns with black powder cartridges. Of these, it’s really only revolvers that this works well with and even then they can get very dirty and seize up.

What modern shooters don’t realize is just how greasy and oily black powder shooting is. You’ll see experienced 1860 Army revolver shooters with guns so loaded with grease that you have to wash your hands after holding it. A dry black powder gun will immediately seize up after only a cylinder in some cases.

Rounds like .45 Colt are great with black powder and lead bullets. .45 ACP, not so much. .45 ACP was designed around smokeless powder to essentially equal .45 Colt ballistically. My standard reload is only 5.5gr of TiteGroup at 850fps.

Of interesting note, .45 ACP is the most efficient modern cartridge in use today for bullet weight to-powder charge-to pressure. Getting enough black powder crammed into the short .45 ACP case isn’t really possible if you want your gun to cycle or launch a bullet at anything greater than paintball speed.

Rounds like the Buffalo Bore hardcast 45 ACP are equal in power to black powder 45 Colt, but it could not generate that energy with black powder.

To wrap this up, don’t try black powder in an AR or even an AK. Corrosive modern ammo means there is a higher amount of what is essentially a salt byproduct that can attract moisture faster, but most ComBloc ammo only needs a wipe-down to remove it and most guns made to fire it have chromed barrels and durable external finishes. Black powder, on the other hand, would corrode your AR or 1911 so badly that it would literally rot away if not immediately maintained. It’s a bad idea.

If you have rounds like .45 Colt, .44 Magnum, .44 SPL, and the like with generous case volumes, you can load black powder at will, but you will have to clean your gun — even a stainless one — immediately at the range and flush it out with water followed by a complete disassembly and cleaning.

 

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51 COMMENTS

  1. While not by any means ideal ballistics, a 230 grain bullet traveling at paintball speeds (300fps) could still do some damage.

  2. I think the question was in a SHTF situation. I would think a wheel gun or pepperbox, or one shot handgun, if you wanted to use black powder. I really don’t think that you could safely fire more than 2 magazines in most semiautos, without a good cleaning

  3. Even for the large capacity, straight wall cases, definitely possible, but not recommended. The 45-70, 45 Colt, and 44-40 started out as BP cartridges, so you won’t have a total fail, but the mess would be awful.

    • 45-70 keeps coming up and of course originally being a BP cartridge it is perfectly amenable to use of the holy black. For those who claim the mess will be unbearable and will seize everything up, I challenge whether you have actually fired a black powder gun with any frequency.

      A modern lever action – Marlin, Remlin, Rugler, Henry, Winny etc. will do just fine with black. The barrel and chamber will get a bit cruddy but the cleanup is quite easy and in some respects easier than fast smokeless loads with the wrong lead alloy. Low velocity keeps leading controllable, along with proper lube or even a paper patch if you are a real eccentric. The bore can be cleaned with warm water followed by your typical hoppes or like and finally a very light coat of oil / clp. The action stays clean unless you are cycling through quickly.

      In the favorite hypothetical (fantasy) of SHTF, black powder in a lever action might be ideal. You can load by volume so no scale to contend with. Worst case, you can’t fit enough black in the case to do any harm. A wad punch, a lee classic loader and some primers and lead will go very far. The low pressure means case life is very very long, provided you clean out your cases to keep corrosion to a minimum.

      My opinion is the great value of the venerable 70′ is being able to shoot bullets from 150-600gr, use black or smokeless, paper or copper jackets. The vast flexibility means you can never quite get bored. And you will make plenty of friends at the range so long as you are down wind because everyone want’s to see what crazy stuff you are shooting.

  4. If someone was going to load black powder into 45-70, does anyone have a recommendation for the rifle? I see stainless lever guns but I think it would be hard to clean and maintain them using black powder. The other rifles I see are sharps replicas which I know little about.

    • Blackpowder is actually very easy to clean. Just use boiling water followed by a light oil rag like your great-great grampa did!

      • Yep, a boiling water rinse is how they did it in frontier days, according to Laura Ingalls in the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books.

        And the more volume of boiling water the better, since that will heat the metal and it will dry all the faster.

    • It really doesn’t matter and as far as cleaning up after using black powder soak it in a tub of hot soapy water. It doesn’t appear that many if any of you are percussion shooters. Hey, get some and truly experience a lesson in history. Its a lot of fun. I hunt with a Thompson Hawkens Frontier .50 cal and also shoot an Uberti 1860 Army. Take it to a second level and dress the period when I hunt and shoot.
      Once you learn about gun butter, seizing becomes a thing of the past. I used standard (Lucas) lube in my Ubefti the first time I shot it and probably got 15 rounds down range before it seized. A little research and You tuber Blackie Thomas got me straightened out.

  5. Excellent article. Informative without being too technical.

    Just to get down into the weeds, the difference between black powder and modern smokeless powders is that modern propellants are technically propellants while Black powder is technically an explosive. The difference is how chamber pressure affects deflagration or burn rate.

    When either Black powder or smokeless propellants are fired, the grains begin to undergo the chemical transformation from a solid to a gas from the outside surface inward. (A complication is powders formed in odd shapes with interior channels. You will not see these outside of large caliber artillery.). The rate at which this transformation propagates through the grain is called the LINEAR DEFLAGRATION RATE. This rate varies with temperature but more importantly, chamber pressure. The equation is:
    Rate = constant x (pressure)^k

    For smokeless propellents, k is less than one.

    For Black powder and other explosives, k is greater than one.

    The result is that propellent tends to regulate burn rate and clamber pressure while Black powder does not.

    The bottom line is that black powder is less forgiving than modern propellents of the load exceeds specifications.

    If the shtf and you need to make your own black powder, don’t grind it to fine. Experiment with corser grains that will burn slower and produce lower peak chamber pressure. Also understand that because modern propellent burns more gradually to produce a flatter, longer pressure curve, your projectile weight or velocity will be lower.

  6. Lots of cowboy action shooters use black powder on a regular basis. Obviously not with semiautomatic firearms but just about any revolver you gonna use will handle black powder just fine, the problem is primers not powder. I have reloaded .32 H&R, .38 spl, .357 mag, 44 spl, 44 mag, and 12 gauge all with BP substitute and I can tell you there’s a reason smokeless is called that!

  7. Good information. I would add the following bit.

    If you do tinker with black powder loads, or even any of the modern replacements such as Pyrodex, make sure your loaded cases do not have open air space above the powder charge. If the powder charge you are using isn’t large enough to fill the case up to the base of the seated bullet, then you need to add some filler, such as corn meal, to fill up that air space. Think of loading a muzzleloader. Measured powder charge, tamp it down a mite, then your projectile, and tamp it down tight to the power charge. Save your gun, hands, face, and the guy next to you, a lot of trouble.

    • “matchbooks can be used as powder as well, albeit with even more corrosive effects on the weapon firing it.”

      The ‘boiling water rinse’ trick of frontier days will deal with that. The hot metal dries almost instantly, and can then be oiled for rust prevention.

      If the SHTF, you’re gonna need to boil water for sterilization purposes, anyways…

  8. I tried two experiments with not cleaning black powder guns. A replica 1861 Springfield rifle, .58 caliber, got 2-3 shots before I simply could not ram the next undersize ball down the barrel. A replica Remington 1858 New Model Army, .44 caliber, froze the cylinder after 2 cycles (12 shots); I had to half clean it just to get tje cylinder to turn.

    Black powder is a lot of fun, but filthy beyond imagination.

  9. I’ve shot blackpowder substitute loaded cartridges in .45-70 and .44 Magnum before. Plenty of pop, but the smoke was even more fun!

    I still say you’re a fool if you don’t have a percussion revolver and appropriate accoutrements by now.

    • I say you’re a fool if you don’t have a high powered air rifle and necessary accoutrements by now 😉

        • No no no… Going the wrong way. Gotta get a 24 pounder cannon. Great team building exercise for the kids being on a gun team.
          Make civilian artillery great again.

      • A black powder firearm is far more reliable than that fancy factory ‘high powered air rifle and necessary accoutrements’ you have…

        • But a simple break barrel air rifle in .177 will handle a lot of pest control and small game without the loud gunshot and smoke to give you away.

          A well rounded ‘outdoorsman’ should have modern, black powder and pellet firing weapons. He should also have at the very least a bow and some arrows. A crossbow works, too.

          And a working knowledge of trapping and snaring.

          I don’t see SHTF as a zombie uprising. I see it as a long term disaster such as the Great Depression. Which both of my parents experienced.

        • Indeed JWM, if you can afford it, get two of everything. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nai.

  10. So…….loading cartridges designed for black powder (or their immediate descendants) with black powder is ok…….still ok.

    A 158 grain 38 special with max black powder is pretty equal (maybe slightly superior) to a modern, standard pressure 38 special.

    I imagine the same would go for 44 Ruasian or Special and 45 long colt.

    Dirty – but effective.

    • The .45 Colt case will easily accommodate 40 grains of BP, but accuracy suffers. 35 grains is about as high as you want to go for accuracy’s sake.

  11. Fast powders work well with bullets that have low obturation like cast lead and powder coated, even brass. But low obturation can be a benefit with old powders. PC bullets have a lower drag coefficient when running the barrel so a fast burning old powder can work well. Old Lyman manuals used to list cast bullets with old fast burning powders. There modern manuals not so much. They refer to newer powders. Using Alliant (Hercules) old Red Dot which is still stocked for Shot Shells. It can work in bottle neck cartridges with light loads and heavy PC bullets. A poor man’s silencer. It can work with these type bullets in 300 Blackout and 350 legend straight up. So black powder might work if you can live with maintenance requirements.

  12. Just curious, how does Pyrodex (or other BP substitutes) compare to “real” black powder in terms of fouling, corrosiveness, etc?

  13. Yes. it will not blow up your guns, because smokeless powder is higher pressure. Both 38 special and 45 Colt were originally black powder cartridges. Back then, smokeless powder did not yet exist, so black powder was just called “gunpowder”.

    That being said, you really need a barrel length of 4 inches or more, and a caliber that begins with 4, if you want a black powder cartridge to be a good manstopper.

    For pistol and rifle, load a full case of black powder or substitute, then compress the bullet down onto it. You should have ABSOLUTELY NO AIR SPACE in a black powder cartridge.

    For shotgun, 12 gauge 2-3/4″, use a 1oz dipper for the shot AND the powder. For cowboy action, I use a 4.3cc dipper of pyrodex, a 1/8″ nitro wad followed by a 1/2 fiber wad, then 1oz shot and an overshot card (cut from old cereal boxes with a 3/4″ paper punch). Then I just crimp it on my reloading press like a normal shotgun shell.

    For either option, clean the gun IMMEDIATELY when you get home from the range. Black powder will start to corrode a gun very quickly if you do not clean it right away. I clean black powder with a mixture of 10% ballistol and 90% water. You need the water to dissolve the salts produced by the powder, because the salts are what corrode the gun.

    If you are shooting a Glock or semi auto, you should also remove the back plate and the striker/spring assembly, and clean those as well before putting them back in the gun. Black powder is nasty stuff and it gets all over everything.

    That being said, I have shot handloaded black powder cartridges in cowboy action for many years, and I always disassemble and clean my guns as soon as I get home. Following this practice, I have not had any problems with corrosion in any of my guns.

    If you don’t want to worry about corrosion, a non-corrosive substitute is Blackhorn 209.

    • ALSO, only use cast lead bullets. Black powder is not very powerful compared to modern smokeless, so jacketed bullets can squib in the barrel.

      By the way, Hickok45 has an entertaining video where he fires black powder cartridges in a Glock 21 (“Hahaha. That’s how cowboys loaded their Glocks.”)

      One final note: It works in revolvers an blowback semiautos, but it WILL NOT cycle with gas recoil systems, like the AR-15 and AK-47. It basically turns these guns into bolt actions: bolt actions that have to be completely field stripped and cleaned immediately afterwards, due to corrosive black powder residue in their gas systems.

      Is it a great option? No. IS it an option? Yes.

  14. Good informatiin. I for one, would never use BP in autoloaders. In revolvers, shotguns, and lever action rifles, I have fired hundreds of rounds in Cowboy Action Shoots, with both BP, and BP substitutes, like Goex. In day long matches, where you are firing 50 rounds of pistol, 50 rounds of rifle, and 20-25 shotgun rounds, I clean my firearms at lunchtime. Cleaning is easy, using Simple Green, it gets most of the crud out. At the days end, clean thoroughly, and dont forget to clean out the magazine tube, and spring on your rifle, (buy a stainless spring, you’re welcome) as the corrosive nature of BP will destroy the stock spring. (Ask me how I know) But shooting the “holy black,” is a blast, pun intended!

    • I never thought of using Simple Green before. I will DEFINITELY give that a try next time.

      My wife cleans tables and countertops with Simple Green all the time, but she HATES the smell of Ballistol.

  15. It’s cool to see this here. I was just musing about this the other day. Specifically, what I was thinking was what ammo could someone make completely from scratch? It seemed to me the real challenges were the smokeless powder and the primer. Projectiles are straightforward and the equipment to melt and cast lead is not hard to obtain. Cases are more complicated, but if you can get a hydraulic press (maybe doesn’t even need to be hydraulic) and a lathe, a skilled machinist could make a case.

    The chemistry involved in smokeless powder and especially primer compound is where things get tough. The problems with the former got me thinking about black powder cartridges. People do make their own black powder, and the ingredients aren’t too exotic. As for primer compound, the best bet seems like the potassium perchlorate recipes. Potassium perchlorate can be obtained using electrolysis of potassium salt, which you can get as salt substitute or water softener.

    With all that, someone with some skills and fairly attainable equipment should be able to turn out a lead bullet, black powder, corrosive primer cartridge. Probably suitable for use in a 19th century technology gun.

  16. 18th century… firelock (you would probably call it a flintlock)… would be technically easier (sez someone who might have one).

  17. I have the impression that most people who have an opinion about this topic have never shot a BP rifle.
    Fouling does appear in BP more than in smokless powders but that is why BP shooters have plenty of options to counter that.
    Bullet loube is one of it but think about paper patched bullets… no bullet lube needed.
    Ever heard about wads? Fillers?

    I shoot my BP rifle all day without swabing it because I found a way to keep my fouling under control.
    Just go and watch an all day BP event. You will see very diffrent ways to counter fouling.
    Some whipe the bore each time they shoot others only one in a while.

    So shooting jacked bullets out of a BP rifle/pistol is not about lubrication or fouling.

    I have personaly not shot any jacked bullets out of my BP muzzleloaders or breach loading guns(BPCR).
    But I may give it a chance .
    Especially with modern hollow bottom bullets I would expect good expansion into the grooves.
    Lead bullets just have shown to work very well for BP, does not mean that there are no alternatives (bottom lead and tip copper plated ?)

    BP is firing usually at lower speeds, so the drag of the bullet does not have such an impact.

    Again there is maybe something wich could give a benefit. Look at inline BP rifles, they use sabots.

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