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BLACK POWDER, PYRODEX AND THE NEW LOW RESIDUE POWDERS

Youíve probably already noted Whiteís decided preference for Pyrodex, specifically Pyrodex P. This preference might seem odd as Black Powder is the traditional muzzleloading propellant and Pyrodex the latecomer. Black Powder, after all, has been in continuous use since at least the thirteenth century.

Black Powder

Black Powder is a finely ground mix of charcoal, potassium nitrate, (anciently called saltpeter), and sulfur. The exact proportions of the ingredients and the method of manufacture are highly guarded industrial secrets. Burning rates, explosive force, velocity of gases and like properties are closely related to those proportions and the way in which they are incorporated.

Until our century, manufacturers had a hard time acquiring high quality components. Mined sulfur, for example, is rarely pure. The manufacturer who could locate and mine a source of nearly pure sulfur was fortunate, indeed. Today, virtually pure sulfur comes from the scrubbers in industrial smokestacks.

Charcoal was another problem. Charcoal can be made from anything woody. Naturally, the quality of the charcoal has a lot to do with the quality of the wood, with some manufacturers claiming greater quality because they reduce only certain grades and kinds of wood to charcoal for use in their Black Powder.

Saltpeter, as potassium nitrate was called in antiquity, has always been the most difficult to obtain. Large supplies of unadulterated potassium nitrate came few and far between. The nation that could boast a natural deposit was blessed from on high and the supply was regarded as a national treasure and was always closely guarded.

The supply during the American Revolution was so tenuous that the fledgling American colonies, lacking sufficient known natural deposits, called upon all loyal patriots to save their urine and submit it for extraction of the precious nitrate.

Potassium nitrate supplies oxygen for the combustion of the carbon supplied by charcoal. Itís thought that sulfur acts mostly as a catalyst for the conflagration, with the carbon and nitrate being the active ingre-dients. This occurs so rapidly that con-siderable propulsive power can be generated by gas expansion in a semi-closed container, like a gun barrel.

Still, much of the conflagration is incomplete, leaving a considerable amount of ingredients only partially burned. Also, generous amounts of the solid salts of sulfur and potassium are formed. It is these solid salts, in microscopic form, that produce the noxious smoke with the sulfur smell and the corrosive water loving residue that clogs lands and grooves that so well characterizes Black Powder shooting.

This process was not improved upon until modern ball mills came along in the last century. Particle size with ball mills can be even smaller and more uniform than with the huge grindstones of yesteryear. Green River Black Powder, made in Roosevelt, Utah for a short time in the 1970's was manufactured using a ball mill. It was briefly famous for its power, higher velocities and soft residues in smaller amounts. Green River used aluminum balls in their mill. Oddly enough, the addition of particles of aluminum from the mill may have further catalyzed the conflagration of the powder, explained perhaps some of the increased efficiency and lack of residue.

Pyrodex

The answer to some of the problems associated with the manufacture of Black Powder might have been supplied by Dan Powlak, who developed Pyrodex, sadly giving his life in the process. Making gunpowder has always been dangerous. Dan did his work in the 1970's, getting Pyrodex on market at just about the time that his plant went up in smoke.

 

Pyrodex is basically Black Powder. The three basic ingredients are the same. It appears that additional oxidizers, scrubbers and flame retardants have been added to the basic mix. Hodgdon isnít saying, but the results are obvious enough. Pyrodex burns with less smoke and fouling, ignites at a higher temperature, produces similar pressures and velocities with about 80% of the weight of Black Powder and measures in similar bulk amounts.

Best of all, federal DOT classification of Pyrodex is the same as smokeless powder, Class C, rather than the Class A designation of the more explosive Black Powder. This means that itís easier to ship and easier to find in your local sporting goods store.

Another reason that White likes Pyrodex so well is that it burns much cleaner than Black. If you use Black Powder and the tight fitting, slip-fit bullets that White espouses, cleaning between shots becomes mandatory to maintain accuracy. At best, while hunting, you will get only 2-3 shots before you will be forced to clean your barrel. If you donít, you wonít be able to ram a bullet down. The same is true with any competitorís sabot or force-fit bullet..

Unfortunately, cleaning can be deleterious to consistent accuracy if done only once in a while. It helps accuracy if done with every shot. This is fine when shooting target but itís not only a nuisance on the hunt, it slows you down so much that a fast second shot becomes impossible. The first shot from a newly cleaned barrel will always show somewhat lower pressure, often demonstrates lower velocities , a broader pressure curve and perhaps a small change in position of group and bullet strike. This means larger groups for mixed cleaned and non-cleaned shots. Obviously, itís best to either clean every time or not clean at all.

During a hunt, itís best not to clean at all until the end of the day. That way, you get fast, consistent and accurate shooting. This is one of the reasons White advocates Pyrodex. Even when using Whiteís long bullets, the hunter doesnít have to clean between shots and slow himself down during the course of a hunt. His shooting will be consistent simply because all shots will come from a consistently fouled bore that still allows easy loading.

Dan Powlack holding a can of Pyrodex

Whiteís ballistic studies definitely shows that a consistent bore condition enhances accuracy. Itís been found that a custom sized PowerPunch bullet, sized 1/1000th larger than land to land diameter, is very accurate but somewhat difficult to load in an uncleaned barrel when using Pyrodex, and was almost impossible to load when using Black Powder. However, the same oversize bullet loads easily without short starter and shoots super well if the barrel is consistently cleaned between shots. This is what White advocates on the target range.

 

 



..Although Hodgden doesnít recommend it, Pyrodex P is Whiteís preferred propellant. White finds that it ignites more easily, burns more completely and produces more uniform pressures and velocities than other granulations with Whiteís barrels and bullets. This recommendation does not extend to any rifle other than Whiteís.

 



White has found that accuracy is equally uniform, although not quite as good, if Pyrodex P is used with a factory sized PowerPunch bullet without cleaning the barrel between shots. This is possible because Pyrodex residues are few and soft enough that between-shot cleaning is not required. The difference in group size between consistently cleaned and uncleaned shots with Pyrodex P is about an inch at 100 yards, not enough to count on an elk at 200 yards. This is why White advocates slip-fit bullets and Pyrodex P for hunting big game.

White has also found that Pyrodex P is superior in performance to either Select or RS, at least in calibers up to 54. Both Select and RS produce heavier residues than does P, and pressure curves with the heavy White bullets are more uniform and consistent with P. Pressures are slightly higher with P than with elect or RS, in the nature of 2000 PSI with top loads, but are well within acceptable limits for the strong White-designed rifles.

Pyrodex P also ignites more easily than does Select or RS. All varieties of Pyrodex demonstrate significantly higher ignition temperatures than does common Black Powder. Black normally ignites at about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Pyrodex, on the other hand, ignites at about twice that. More practically, White has experienced a number of hangfires and slowfires with RS, fewer with Select and virtually none with P.

So, if for some reason you are forced

to use Select or RS, then substitute 10 grains of FFg Black Powder for an equivalent amount of Pyrodex, load the mix into your speed loader. Carrying it around all day in pocket or pouch wonít bother it at all and the addition of the quick igniting Black Powder effectively prevents hangfires and yet will not significantly dirty the bore.

I used this combination in Africa some years ago, carrying 170 grains of RS Pyrodex with 10 grains of FFG Black Powder in a White QuickCharger for use in my 54 caliber double rifle loaded with a 750 grain SuperSlug. It was an awesome combination and fired its big bullet at 1400 FPS without a hitch on some big and dangerous critters. You can watch this rifle in action on Roger Raglinís African videotape, ĎBlack Africa-White Smokeí available from BKS Productions.

You might also try switching to a nipple-breechplug firing a musket cap.

White Design-Integrated cleaning supplies. QuickClean takes out lead or plastic residues with a single stroke

 

Pyrodex P is the currently recommended powder in the majority of

White designed loads, whether used with SuperSlug, BuckBuster, PowerPunch, or saboted PowerStar in a White SuperSabot. It is not recommended for flintlock rifles, either as priming or as main charge. Ignition temperature is the reason. It just doesnít work. It does work well with other brands of percussion rifle or shotguns, as long as the distance that the flash from the cap has to travel is minimal. If there is a dogleg in

sidelock rifle, then you can expect hangfires unless you use a more powerful cap, like the common musket cap..

 

The minimal flash distance in Whiteís nipple-breechplug is one reason you can readily use the easily available #11 percussion cap on your White designed rifle. They arenít truly necessary, but nipple-breechplugs designed to use the musket cap are also available from White if you just have to have one. They enhance flash temperature and volume of flame, but only a little as the flash-hole is the same diameter in both nipples.

Docís prototype Manton style flintlock sporting guns. [Left] 12 gauge fowler with interchangable chokes. [Right] 54 caliber deeply grooved 1-66 twist rifle for round ball. Both are modeled in the tradition of the classic English half stock sporting guns of the early 1800's with Manton breeches, fast firing quality flintlocks, White-designed touch-holes and a set trigger on the rifle.

Flintlocks

Always use Black Powder in the priming pan and for main charge in a flintlock. Use FFFFg priming powder in the pan for fastest flash and use FFFg or FFg for the main charge for best results. My prototype Manton style half stock flintlock rifle in 54 caliber, with 1-66 twist, loaded with a .530 caliber 220 grain round ball and .025 canvas patch, digests 80 gr FFFg Black powder superbly and fires as quickly as any percussion rifle.. This makes a terrific target load for the Rendezvous circuit as well as for round ball, flintlock hunting..

 

For hunting animals up to elk size, 160 grains FFg Black Powder is accurate with the same ball and patch and is a potent load at short range, up to 100 yards. Ignition with FFFFg in the pan of the Egg lock on the rifle is virtually instantaneous. Itís quick enough that an experienced shooter can unfailingly call his shots.

New Replacement Powders

There has been a considerable effort to bring out a low residue, less smokey, less-corrosive substitute for Black Powder. This effort has been ongoing since our Civil War. This is also something that a lot of hunters want, simply because many of them are not enamored of the stink and fuss of cleaning up a Black Powder rifle after a hunt.

The earliest attempts at manufacturing replacement powders occurred in the early 19th century, before our Civil War. All failed, simply because excellent grades of inexpensive Black Powder were commonly available at the time. The bulk powders of the 1890's were also a failure. They were really nitrated cellulose base powders, not the same as modern smokeless powders at all, and were quite risky to use. They all disappeared before World War I

Ascorbic Acid Based Powders

The earliest attempts at replacement in our day resulted in the ĎGolden Powderí of the 1970's. It was made with ascorbic acid, which is Vitamin C, as the fuel. It was intensely hygroscopic, both before and after firing, sucking up water like a sponge. Exposure to moist air changed its shooting qualities enormously and shelf life was abysmal. It went exactly nowhere.

Development has continued in the last decade with Ascorbic Acid based powders although under different auspices and with better success. One product was Black Canyon powder, which was available for a couple of years. This powder was large grained, blackish, produced somewhat lower velocities compared to Black Powder but with less smoke when shot across my son Davidís chronograph

Both Black Canyon and CleanShot use Ascorbic Acid for fuel, although granulation is quite different. Only CleanShot is currently available.

Unfortunately, the grains were so big that there was quite some difficulty getting them to pour from a regular powder measure. It also required thumping with the ramrod, supposedly to break up the large granules, or to compact it, or both. The shooter was supposed to whack it with the ramrod before loading a bullet. Can you imagine the thumping that powder charge would get while Old Ephraim popped his teeth at you from the brush. As you might guess, the powder did not sell well and has since disappeared.

A similar Ascorbic Acid based powder has since appeared , with granules that resemble common Black Powder grades, titled Cleanshot. This powder looks a lot like Black Powder, although the grains are somewhat brownish in color, apparently ignites at temperatures somewhat higher than Black although not as high as Pyrodex, smokes a whole lot less than Black and leaves very little residue in the barrel. It remains somewhat hygroscopic but a lot less than the old Golden Powder. It is also available in pellets. Velocities appear to be lower when compared to an equal volume of Black Powder. Itís also a lot more expensive.

Arco Black Magí3 Black Powder substitute is also an ascorbic acid based powder. It is sandy yellow and fine grained about like FFFg Black. Doc used it on a dozen big game hunts in 1995 and found it to be quite good. Sadly. It is no longer available

ARCO powder has also appeared and then disappeared. This product was also based on Ascorbic Acid. It was quite yellowish, almost sandy in appearance, ignited easily at near Black Powder levels, smoked only a little, left very little residue and was said to be less corrosive than Black even though the residue is every bit as hygroscopic. It was known to contain chlorates, however, so it could be no less corrosive than Pyrodex. It was small grained, almost like FFg Black Powder, and poured easily from a measure. It produced consistent velocities from shot to shot although not from batch to batch.

I was impressed enough with it that I used it exclusively for one hunting season in the mid 90's. I was the first to hunt and harvest big game with it. It shot well, held up under hunting conditions and didnít so becloud the target animal with smoke that I couldnít see the critter. I never saw any rust or corrosion at any time during the hunting year in my stainless White Super 91 and never cleaned the rifle once. I was sorry to see it disappear.

Sugar Based Powders

Another candidate for the Black Powder Substitute Derby showed up in the last couple of years. This powder was originated by FDL, who survived a lawsuit with Black Canyon in Ď96, then sold the product to Goex a year or so later. Goex recently brought it out under the name ClearShot. How two companies could end up with names as similar as ClearShot and CleanShot is beyond me. Confusion reigns.

I got to know the principles who developed ClearShot fairly well, handled some of the prototype powder and even hunted with it a bit. The granules are black, round, appear to be molded, ignites easier than Pyrodex, shoots at near Black Powder velocities but at lower pressures with a broader pressure curve, produces just a little white smoke and leaves the barrel much cooler to the touch after a series of shots than does Black Powder. It leaves a tiny bit of whitish residue in the barrel after a shot. It works quite well with the White Muzleloading System.

Goexí ClearShot Black Powder replacement. Itís fuel is a complex sugar, probably fructose. It shoots cleanly with only a little white smoke and minimal barrel residue. It works quite well in White rifles.

The powder is said to be less corrosive but the residue is certainly hygroscopic, as are the residues of all its competitors. The original formula did not contain any chlorates, and if Goex did not add any later on, then the residue should be the least corrosive of all on the market. Despite that, you will still have to carefully clean up the barrel of your rifle after shooting in humid weather or the moisture loving residues will still cause problems. The residue is at least easy to clean up, being distinctly soluble in water.

Also, this is not an Ascorbic Acid based powder but uses an inexpensive complex sugar for fuel. Hopefully, this will make it much less expensive than the others, at least eventually. Currently, it cost substantially more than Black Powder.

 



Itís hard to say which of the products will be the winner, if there is one, in the Black Powder Substitute Sweepstakes, but I know that easier care is a nice gift. Their real advantage is not economy, but in being able to load even more repeat shot without cleaning between shots then with Black Powder or even Pyrodex. Whatís important is that all of them make the White Shooting system work even better than before.

Despite the easy care and performance improvement available in the new powders, they donít represent the final product that will fill all needs and solve all problems in muzzleloading. Someday, someone is going to come up with a powder that is truly non-corrosive and non-hygroscopic, that will ignite in the pan of a flintlock, and still be shippable in interstate commerce as a Class C propellent or better, reproduce the velocities of Black Powder and be really cheap. So far, this product is just a pipe dream.

Smokeless Powder

 

Marlin recently brought out a bolt action muzzleloader that they claim is suitable for smokeless powder. This is nothing new. Ned Roberts wrote about using smokeless in muzzleloaders in the 1930's, in his book, the Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle, advocating its use in heavy target guns. Many knowledgeable experimenters have been doing it for years, usually using a little smokeless in large amounts of Black to enhance burning and clean up residues.

Even though Marlinís new rifle appears to be strong enough for the loads advocated, the use of smokeless is still a risky thing in the hunting situation, for several reasons. Most important: there is currently no technology to guarantee that a second load will not be placed down the barrel on top of a first load in the excitement of a hunt.

Even then, the sabots and bullets to take advantage of the increased velocities available from smokeless have not been developed, nor has the priming system that will safely withstand the higher pressures.

Common percussion nipples, even with musket caps, are not the answer, unless you like rifles that self cock and blow your hat off. #209 shotgun primers are not made to withstand the higher pressures generated by full rifle sized loads,either. Finally, there are no bulk loading smokeless powders available at present. All currently available smokeless powders demand a calibrated measure for accuracy and safety.

In my opinion, at least for the present, the complete package of technology to render the practice safe and effective isnít yet available. Iím going to wait until the whole package arrives, ie- primer, bullets, powder, and safe management system. When it does, maybe Iíll hunt with smokeless. I recommend you do the same.

Good Hunting ĎDocí White

 

Mountain caribou killed with Super-Safari rifle & 120 gr. Arco Black Mag under 435 gr PowerStar, 240 yard shot.