How To Work Up A Load For Your Black Powder Rifle Or Pistol
Trying to find the right load for your black powder gun is infinitely more interesting and involved than for a nitro cartridge. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no quick or easy way to do this, and no simple calculation you could make. There’s so many different variables that affect your load, barrel length, twist rate, ball & patch combination, range, not to mention the powder charge. Finding out the correct load for your black powder gun is a very satisfying process, here are some tips to help you get the best results with your shooting.
How to choose the right ball or bullet for your muzzle loading gun
Generally, guns rifled for balls have deeper rifling than for bullets. This is because a round ball has a much smaller bearing area than a bullet, the ball only actually touching the rifling at it’s circumference. The rifling in guns for balls also has a long twist, around three or four times longer than for a bullet.
Balls are invariably loaded with patches, and there’s many combinations you can try in order to find the right load. As the bore size is fixed, you can experiment with different combinations of ball size and patch thickness. A medium weight patch is a good place to start, something around .010’’. Much thinner, and there’s a risk of the patch ripping when loading, much thicker patches can prevent the rifling from engaging so well and therefore is inadvisable if a thinner patch and larger ball can be used. You can buy patches for your muzzle loading gun here.
Figuring out what kind of ball and patch you can use is simple, just deduct the size of ball or patch you have available from the bore size, which will give you the required diameter for the missing component. For example, if you have a rifle with a bore size of .450’’, and patches of .010’’, then 450-10 is 440, the correct ball size therefore being .440’’.
You can shop our full range of Lead Balls here.
How to choose the right bullet for your muzzle loading gun
Muzzle Loading Guns made for bullets have shallower rifling than those made for ball. This is because the bullet contacts the rifling down the majority of it’s length, therefore deeper rifling would make it not only harder to load, but also counter intuitive, as the deeper rifling would not be able to contact the bullet to the same extent as with shallower rifling. When choosing a bullet, it must be as close to the bore diameter as possible, particularly for a solid based bullet.
Patches are not used with bullets, but some shooters may like to experiment with wads after the powder. Not only does this keep the powder charge square in the bottom of the barrel, but may also provide some cushioning effect to the charge, causing the bullet to accelerate more slowly and engage the rifling better. Lead bullets made for black powder rifles also usually have lubrication grooves, and it’s a good idea to either pan lube your bullets in advance, or lubricate them at the range.
You can shop our full range of Cast Lead Bullets here.
How to work up a powder load for your black powder gun
Once you’ve got a bullet, ball and patch combination worked out, you now need to decide on what powder charge to use. Generally, the kind of powder you use is dictated by the calibre of your gun. A smaller calibre gun will use a finer powder, and a larger bore a coarser. A medium grade or FFFG powder will be acceptable for most rifles in practise. Take a look at all the black powder that we sell here.
Hopefully, your gun came with some manufacturer’s loading data. If that’s the case, then simply start at the lower end of the recommended powder range and work up until you find a charge that works effectively. If you bought your gun second hand, or you’re wanting to put an antique rifle or pistol on your licence, you’re unlikely to have been provided with any loading data. There’s plenty of data online from various manufacturers of black powder guns in various calibres, but be aware of using spurious data from forums and similar. Fortunately, with black powder, the risks of an under or overload are greatly reduced compared to nitro, but prudence and care are still needed.
Testing your new black powder load
Now it’s time for the fun bit. You’ll always want to shoot at a known distance and use a good rested technique to ensure you’re testing the gun, rather than your own abilities, and at a proper muzzle loading target.
It’s advisable to fire at least five shots at the target. It doesn’t matter if they go in the centre, what you’re looking for is a consistent group. A good, tight group at the edge of the target is better than a large cluster around the centre, as you can always adjust the sights once you’ve found the gun’s natural point of aim.
If you don’t get a perfect group first time, which you’ll be lucky to, then it’s important to only adjust one thing at a time. At the range, the easiest thing to adjust is undoubtedly your powder charge, that’s why it’s good to use an adjustable measure when first developing a load. Continue firing groups and altering your charge until you get a good, consistent result.
Some would advise cleaning between each shot. Unless you’re shooting a competition, there’s little point to this, and you end up spending more time cleaning than loading and shooting. It also doesn’t reflect realistic shooting practise, as it takes too long and it’s nice to actually enjoy your shooting.
Some final thoughts
Working up a load for a black powder gun can be a long and involved process. There’s certain things you can do to try speed up the process, like working out in advance the best kind of projectile to use, but powder testing does take time and patience is important, as it is with every aspect of muzzle loading. It can be easy to get frustrated, but ultimately, there is a correct load out there, it’ll just take some experimentation to find it.
At the end of the day, black powder shooting is fun, and is supposed to be, and it’s very satisfying to find the correct load and get the most from your black powder guns.
In the past, a gunmaker might provide a cheat sheet of the proper charge to use in a gun, with a vague charge and ball size. It was then left up to the shooter to experiment a bit with the gun and load to try find the optimal charge based on the equipment the shooter had. If a shooter wasn’t lucky enough to have some prior guidance, the traditional method for ball at least, was to place the ball in the centre of one’s palm, and pour powder on top of it until the ball was covered. That volume of powder would then be a good rough estimate of how much powder to use.