Black Powder, White Death…Well, Almost

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By Chris Dumm

Wednesday’s Colt Walker review by Roy Hill stirred some old and enjoyable memories. Some of the points that follow are from a distant time, in which I was younger, drunker, and (redundantly) stupider. They are not meant to illustrate safe or advisable gun handling techniques, so read with caution. You are allowed to marvel at the fact that I’m still alive . . .

I got hooked on black powder after seeing my first muzzle-loader, a .50 caliber rifle in a pawn shop for $50. I knew absolutely nothing about black powder at the time. I eventually ended up with several rifles and multiple cap-n-ball pistols.

I never joined any organization, never participated in any historical recreation event, never received any newsletter. Instead, I just got addicted on the fun of the boom and smoke. I would shoot until covered in soot with a rifle too hot to load. Absolutely great fun. What follows are random thoughts:

  • Ahh, black powder. Any true shooting involves being covered in grim, soot, sweat, stench, and blisters from handling the hot end of a gun. I’ve actually had people back away from me, uttering “Dear Lord”, upon my return to civilization. Awesome!
  • Black powder soot does not impart an enjoyable taste to charred meat. Wash hands before cooking or eating.
  • If you decide to re-create a scene from Jeremiah Johnson [see: the above video] by grabbing two .50 caliber Hawkens rifles, leaping from the back of a pickup truck in lieu of a horse, and then attempting to fire both rifles simultaneously (one in each hand), I can attest that it is … dangerous … difficult … foolhardy … inaccurate … and DAMN. WHAT. A. RUSH!  Jeremiah was Da MAN!!!
  • Loading a pistol with just caps, or caps and a bit of powder and grease, makes for a great Fourth of July noisemaker. Sparks and flames will light up the night sky. If anyone gets a bit nervous about you shooting off a gun at night, simply stagger over, wave it under their nose, and loudly proclaim it to be a Hollywood stage gun. Point out the nipples and exclaim that “there’s no way to load any bullets, see, it’s just a cap gun.” They’ll nod their head knowingly and say, “okay then,” allowing you to get back to your drunken revelry. After all, history is bunk, why should they know any better.
  • The Remington revolvers, with the top strap, give the appearance of greater strength and potential accuracy. They do provide for solid fixed sights rather than just a notch in the hammer. My experience is that they foul much quicker. After several cylinders of firing, it would take two hands to crank it over for each shot. After several more cylinders of firing, it would essentially become inoperable. Perhaps there’s some old timer trick to avoiding this that I just didn’t know about back then.
  • The Colt style revolvers, open on top, did not foul nearly as much. They would become more difficult to cock after a while, requiring one hand to assist turning the cylinder while the other thumbed back the hammer, but I never actually fouled one so much as to become inoperable. I did find the Colts more difficult to break down. The pin holding the barrel to the frame never loosened up enough for me to remove it by hand.
  • If you spend the day shooting your pistol, and then proceed directly to a night of hard drinking, followed by a day of sleeping it off, followed by several more days before remembering that you might need to clean your pistol, I can help. Take your pistol, look at it longingly, then toss it in the trash and buy a new one. Seriously, it’s toast.
  • The cap (primer) is just a bit of brass foil crimped over. Upon firing, the brass will peel back from the nipple like a banana peel. It will also split into little strips. When you cock the hammer for your next shot, the little strips will fall down into the action of the pistol, jamming it. Most people learn this the hard way. Assuming no one is shooting back at you, you’ll live long enough to know better. After firing, point the pistol straight up in the air and then cock it. Any bits of primer will fall clear of the action and onto the ground. You can then level the pistol off and take your second shot. Note that many gun ranges will get nervous about pointing loaded and cocked pistols skyward, but it’s historically correct, so there.
  • Roy points our the size and weight of the pistol. He sites some examples of men packing 10 lbs or more of hoglegs on their belt. What he neglects is that in addition to the pistols, one must pack several powder horns, a bag full of lead balls, a tin full of caps, wads, grease, nipple wrenches, knives, cleaning tools, rags, spare cylinders, chewing tobacca, and a flask of whiskey. Often times the accessories will weigh more than the pistols.
  • Chewing tobacco is preferable to cigarettes. For what should be obvious reasons.
  • Eyebrows will grow back. In time.

For those easily offended, I haven’t been drunk for more than a decade. And I don’t recommend ever mixing booze and shooting. And I would never let my kids do half the shit I did at their age. And I wish those little heathens would stay the hell off my lawn! But ain’t that the way it always is?

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  1. Never mix alcohol and black powder. "Never mix alcohol and gunpowder. Tastes like hell and don't shoot worth a d@mn, either."

  2. BOOOM!

    Speaking from experience, it's great fun on the 4th of July to repeatedly fire off a flintlock pistol, loaded only with powder and moist newspaper for wadding, while shouting things like "King George the Third buggers his ministers!"

    Of course, the bigger the powder charge, the bigger the fun.

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