January 12, 2022
By Seth Isaacson
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With increased interest in muzzleloading, various primitive and muzzleloading hunting seasons around the country, historical reenactments of various eras, and the current talk of ammunition shortages and real black powder shortages, now seems like a good time to discuss genuine black powder and black powder substitutes available on the market.
Below you will find basic information about some common types of muzzleloading propellant. Though often advertised as “black powder substitutes,” many of these products are not actually suitable in all muzzleloading firearms. Research can help determine an appropriate powder charge, and you should read up on any black powder product before loading it into your firearm.
The author covers handling, loading, and shooting of percussion muzzleloaders in a previous blog. (Click the image to view).
Now is a good time to note that you should NEVER load modern smokeless powders in firearms designed for use with black powder. This can result in pressures these firearms were not designed for, and the results can be absolutely catastrophic. You also should not load and fire any firearm without knowing it is in sound condition to shoot.
Genuine black powder is the original firearms propellant and remains the preferred propellant for traditional sidelock muzzleloading firearms and many antique guns, especially flintlock firearms. This is the powder these firearms were designed to work with and provides the best ignition for flintlocks, which really adds to the experience.
Black powder is all I ever intend to shoot in my traditional muzzleloading firearms whether they be contemporary or antique guns. I emphasized that I intend to always stick to real black powder, because if real black powder becomes too hard to get for a period of time, I may have to reserve what real black powder I have on hand for my flintlocks and antiques and explore using a substitute for contemporary percussion firearms, at least until I can replenish my black powder supplies.
There’s a lot of discussion about powder availability online right now, particularly among shooters of traditional sidelock muzzleloaders. Late in the summer of 2021, Hodgdon Powder Company announced they are closing down the GOEX plant and trying to sell the brand, the only traditional black powder manufacturer in the country. On January 7th of 2022, GOEX has been listed as sold.
Without ordering online, GOEX and Graff & Sons (rebranded GOEX) black powder was generally the only real black powder people could get their hands on at select brick and mortar retailers around the country. Even GOEX been increasingly difficult to find over the years, especially during the ammunition shortages of the COVID era.
In addition to GOEX, traditional black powder shooters could usually order imported Swiss and Schuetzen black powder and sometimes find it in stores. This has been hard to get during the pandemic, but there are reports of shipments coming in soon to fill the needs of shooters in the U.S. With the future of GOEX uncertain, many fear we will be dependent on more expensive imported black powder which, though high quality, was already more expensive before. On top of that, there are concerns that actions from the folks in Washington, D.C., could potentially cut off the importation of black powder from abroad as has happened with Russian firearms and ammunition.
With our friendly relations with the Swiss, that seems less likely, but being dependent on foreign sources for a product that has been made in America and used by American sportsmen since the colonial era is not something many traditionalists are happy about. Some are exploring making their own. That said, know the law before you consider making your own black powder.
Part of the reason for the relative lack of real black powder in local stores is that black powder is classified as an explosive and has special storage and shipping requirements that do not pertain to other gunpowder. This means that retailers cannot simply stock their shelves with black powder like they do with other propellants. Instead, they have to set up, pay for, and maintain special black powder storage areas.
As a shooter, you may be limited to how much black powder you can own and how you store it, so know the laws in your area. This combined with the relatively low profits to be made off of black powder and the availability of substitute powders that can be stocked on the shelves has made real black powder harder to find in stores, but until recently you could at least reliably buy it online and have it shipped to you after paying for the relatively low hazmat fees for shipping and transport.
Black powder is composed of sulfur, potassium nitrate, and charcoal, and comes in various granulation grades. This can be a bit confusing for those new to using real black powder, but it’s fairly straightforward once you understand the grading system. The main powder granulations used in firearms are Fg (1Fg), FFg (2Fg), FFFg (3Fg), and FFFFg (4Fg). There are also coarser grades such as cannon powder. The finer the grade, the easier and faster the powder ignites and burns.
Fg is best suited to larger caliber rifles, muskets, and shotguns. FFg is commonly used in firearms .50 caliber and larger, while FFFg is generally preferred for firearms that are .50 caliber and under. FFFFg is also known as priming powder. This fine powder is often used to prime flintlocks and sometimes used to fill the flash channel in percussion firearms.
Aside from its classification as an explosive and seeking out more efficient powders for modern muzzleloaders, one of the reasons substitutes for black powder have been explored is because real black powder is corrosive and hygroscopic which can lead to damaging oxidation and pitting if it is not cleaned up promptly and thoroughly, so make sure to take care and clean your black powder firearms well after use.
Pyrodex is manufactured by Hodgdon Powder Company and is the most popular “black powder substitute” product on the market. It can generally be used in the same volumes as regular black powder, but you may need to tweak the load a bit to figure out what performs best in your firearms. It cannot be compared weight for weight to regular black powder as Pyrodex is less dense and thus lighter. Like real black powder, you need to make sure to clean up Pyrodex promptly and thoroughly to prevent damaging your firearm. Pyrodex is less sensitive than real black powder, and it is not classified as an explosive and is treated the same way as smokeless powders for retail and storage
Pyrodex is available in RS (Rifle and Shotgun) granulation that is designed to be used in place of FFg black powder, P (Pistol) granulation to replace FFFg black powder, and in pelletized form which comes in various charge sizes. The pellets should work with regular percussion caps, but many shooters have recommended using the granular form for sidelocks and only using the pellets in inline muzzleloaders.
Triple 7 is another Hodgdon product designed as a replacement for black powder. It is offered in FFg, FFFg, and pellet form. Unlike real black powder and Pyrodex, this powder does not contain sulfur and is advertised as being able to be cleaned up with just water after shooting and is listed as non-corrosive. Some shooters have complained of distinct rings being left behind by this powder. It burns more efficiently than regular black powder and produces more heat and pressure. The loose powder will generally work in traditional percussion firearms, but you may need to use hotter magnum caps. The pellet form is even harder to ignite and is geared more towards firearms designed to use 409 shotgun primers like many modern inline muzzleloaders.
The remaining “substitute” powders are primarily suitable for modern inline muzzleloading rifles rather than traditional sidelocks, and I have not personally worked with these powders. However, since they are often listed alongside the other powders above, I thought it best to give a quick mention of each of them.
Yet another Hodgdon product, as the name implies this powder is designed specifically for muzzleloaders using 209 primers rather than traditional forms of ignition and is also used for loading “black powder” cartridges. It is advertised as non-corrosive, specifically for the inline muzzleloaders, and is able to be cleaned up with just your regular gun oil of choice.
Another pellet product by Hodgdon that’s designed for modern inline muzzleloaders using 209 primers. It is advertised as a fast burning and clean powder.
Finally a product not made by Hodgdon. Alliant’s Blue MZ is another pellet based propellant designed for inline muzzleloaders using 209 primers and claims to produce higher velocities while not exceeding safe pressures. It is said to be clean burning and easily cleaned with water.
If you are new to muzzleloading and want to learn more, check out some of our past blogs, and subscribe to our email for weekly content on muzzleloading, classic guns, and more!
Rock Island Auction Company is kicking off 2022 with an exciting auction lineup that offers historic rifles for all collecting aspirations. Between February's Sporting & Collector Auction and May's Premier Firearms Auction, there's something for every muzzleloading fan, and we're just getting started.
Depending on what you are shooting, you can also check out the following websites and online forums to get more information. I have found over the years that the muzzleloading community is by and large very friendly and happy to give newcomers tips to get them shooting safely on the range and out in the field.
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