SHOOTING THE BLACK POWDER REVOLVER
c John L. Fuhring
Managing black powder fouling by proper loading technique.
This is the 3rd of 8 articles
Link to article 1
IntroductionThe single most important factor in consistent precision throughout a shooting session is the management of black powder fouling. Because of their chemical compositions, black powder and the black powder substitutes (including Triple Seven) leave a hard residue (called fouling) in the bore after each shot and unless steps are taken, layers of this fouling build up with each shot until the stuff literally burys your pistol's rifling. The traditional practice of plastering grease over the tops of loaded chambers is supposed to help slow this buildup, but every shooter knows that this practice actually has very little effect on fouling buildup.
Why fouling must be controlled
Why is it important to be concerned about fouling burying your rifling? Buried rifling can not spin your bullets as they travel down the barrel and without spin to stabilize their flight, your bullets will be all over the target or miss it altogether. This is a very bad deal and takes all the fun out of shooting, so we need to either clean after each shot (who wants to do that?!?) or (better yet) find a way to manage fouling so it does not build up and affect our pistol's accuracy.
The good news is that
there is a simple way to transform hard fouling into a soft, greasy
substance that does not
build up in the bore and cover the rifling. This method
works and is much less messy than the traditional method of plastering
grease on the outside of loaded chambers. In this article I
simple and convenient loading techniques and by using any one of them,
you can easily achieve what I call "good
fouling management." If you practice good fouling management,
can make it so that your
is limited only by your ability to hold it on target, not by the
fouling that builds up as you shoot. You will also notice
other advantages besides improved precision
if you use my loading suggestions, but I'll mention them later.
I have recently added a
new essay on
shooting techniques that I recommend you try at home and at the range.
This page, fouling management, is all about
improving your REVOLVER'S
native precision, which is a vital first step, but the new essay
contains suggestions about improving YOUR
precision and accuracy which is a much more advanced topic.
There is a link at the end of this
article to those shooting techniques, but it might be a good idea to
wait until you have read this and all
the other articles first. I mean, let's take it a step at a
time and learn or review the basics first.
This is a long article
with a lot of
points that I think are important for people to think about.
long as this article is, I hope you will find it easy to read and
entertaining. You may find that I repeat myself a lot, but
is intensional because I firmly believe that repetition (and practice)
is a key to learning. Scroll down and read the headings if
wish to know what this article contains.
A question of historical accuracyPeople have asked me if my techniques are historically accurate and the answer is NO (and neither is slopping on Crisco over the loaded cylinder). I have never read in any cavalry manual where the soldier was advised to load or care for his revolver in the ways I suggest. When these weapons were used in war, the revolver was loaded with combustible paper cartridges with NO grease either on top or on the bottom of the slug. Of course, the revolver would jam with fouling and shoot poorly after several rounds, but the revolver was not the main fighting weapon and it was unusual for a cavalryman to shoot the revolver more than a six times in an engagement. The soldier was issued only 25 rounds of pistol cartridges to his 100 rounds of carbine ammunition, so the main fighting weapon was the carbine. For sustained skirmishes, the carbine was the weapon of choice, while for close-in mounted combat, where friends and their horses might be hit, the saber was the weapon of choice. About the only time the revolver was useful was in fending off a charge while the soldier was still in a mounted line, had not yet taken up a skirmish line and could fire out from his unit's position without danger of hitting his friends or their horses. Sometimes a volley of pistol fire was directed at an enemies' line while the company was still in line for a charge and before sabers were drawn ("draw pistols --- fire pistols --- holster pistols --- draw sabers --- CHARGE!!" oh yeah, I heard that a lot).
Why these loading techniques are not historical
Forgive this diversion, but I want to tell a little story to illustrate this point. I know the value of the saber from experience because once we decided to do a reenactment with pistols only. Wouldn't you know it, some of our own guys hit each other with wads of Cream of Wheat (which stung badly through the wool uniforms even at a distance) and the horses just went nuts when stung by the blanks not intended to hit them. The "enemy" got off better because we didn't aim directly at them or their horses. I remember this one instance when I fired to one side of a "Johnny Reb." One of my "comrade in arms", who's horse had been stung and was out of control, came out of nowhere right across my barrel just as the revolver discharged. From all the loud cussing at me as his horse was galloping away from the melee fight, I guess it must have hurt. Later, in camp, he was still grumpy about it, so I had to carefully and gently explain that it was his horse's fault he got shot and that I had done everything right under the rules of engagement we were following not to aim at persons or horses and by no means was I being reckless. Sure, I felt bad and sure, it stung and scared him, but nobody or their horse was killed or bleeding and so we remained friends and besides, he wasn't the only one who got stung.
The revolver was a very
useful and highly effective combat weapon, but because its was not
expected to shoot that many rounds at any one time, fouling was not
much of an
issue. During those rare times when the revolver was used
extensively in skirmishes and firefights, the soldier simply removed
the cylinder and then poured
water out of his canteen over and into the barrel then shook it dry.
He didn't care
if the revolver
rusted, he could take care of that later. I think that's why
period pieces that were used in combat, look so bad, with
rust and deep pits everywhere including inside the bore.
it, during mid 19th Century, weapons were government
issued tools that had to work in combat, but were not something that
owned and certainly were not carried for fun. A soldier's
revolver functioned properly or it was exchanged for one that did and
it was not regarded as a prized posssession as it is today.
Firearms wore out in service in a year or two, not like our well tended
revolvers that will stay new looking and new shooting after 50 and more
are very different and people expect to shoot 25, 50 or even 100 rounds
during a single session. People are also very concerned that
their revolvers keep looking new, with no rust or pits anywhere,
especially in the bore. The shooting techniques of the
past are totally inadequate to the needs of today's shooters.
Modern shooters today know that shooting more than 12 rounds
one session without stopping and cleaning and re-oiling their revolvers
would be impossible using the techniques of the past, BUT if you use my
Management techniques (outlined below), you will be able to shoot
nonstop during your entire shooting session and your revolver will
maintain its native precision without stopping to clean (or pour water
down the barrel from your canteen).
OK, let's now get into
the meat of this article.
The key factor in "Fouling Management"We can achieve good fouling management by the use of the right substances applied in the proper manner. In the following paragraphs I will present three ways to load the B.P. revolver to minimize fouling and maximize precision. All three methods reject the traditional practice of (what I call) ‘Glomming on Crisco’. By this, I mean thickly coating the outside of the loaded cylinder with Crisco (or ‘Spit Ball’, Bore Butter, etc.) as is recommended by just too many black powder shooters, videos and "how-to" books.
What I am about to suggest is very controversial because every "expert" will tell you that you MUST coat the outside of the loaded chambers with grease to prevent chain firing and to "lube the bore". Believe me, Glomming Crisco absolutely will NOT prevent chain firing (see first article on chain firing). As for lubing the bore, after the first shot, all the grease is blown out of the remaining chambers and subsequent shots get little or no "lubrication." Next time you load the conventional way, just look at your cylinder after your first shot --- is there any grease remaining? No, it was all blown away and the subsequent shots will do nothing but build up hard fouling in the barrel. Don't bother with greasing the outside of a loaded cylinder.
To keep fouling soft, your revolver’s bore needs a residual of grease after the bullet passes. What the bore really needs is grease behind the bullet. Grease on top or on the sides of the bullet is pushed out as the bullet leaves the muzzle, doesn't mix with the fouling already in the barrel and does nothing to soften the fouling left behind as the bullet passes through the barrel. I have experimented over and over with this and my results can not be argued with.Before I continue, let me submit a proposal for your consideration. I think that we use the term "Bullet Lube" way too loosely. Crisco, lard, Bore Butter, Spit Ball, Etc. should Not be thought of as "Lubricants", but rather as "Fouling Modifiers" or "Fouling Limiters". They do what they do not by reducing friction, but by transforming hard fouling into soft grease. How about calling them "Fouling Sanctifiers" for turning bad fouling into something good? From now on, I'm going to try to avoid using the term "lube" altogether and call it what it is, grease.
Shooting greaseWhat I call 'shooting grease' can be as simple as an eatable fat all by itself. Products that are proved to work include tallow, Bore Butter, Crisco, Spit Ball and lard, but I recommend that those products be used by themselves only in cool to cold weather. All experts agree that you shouldn't coat your bullets, your revolver’s bore or the cylinder chambers with petroleum based oil or grease or alox. Eatable fats dissolve and soften fouling whereas petroleum derived oils are reported to thicken into a kind of tar. Lately I've read where it's OK to use water pump grease, but water pump grease contains lithium and lithium is toxic. Thanks, but I'll leave water pump grease to others to try as I'm sticking to the traditional non toxic stuff.
Some time ago I made up a custom blend of what I guess is about 85% Crisco and 15% beeswax (by volume) for use during warmer days (above 60F or 16C) and the stuff works way better than anything I've ever used. An added bonus is that I was able to use more grease without contaminating the powder below. If it is warm out, you are cautioned and urged to make up a "stiff" shooting grease appropriate to the outside temperature. To make this grease, carefully melt Crisco or your favorite shooting grease and then blend in beeswax. After blended, pour the hot liquid mixture in a metal or a heat resistant shallow glass jar and let it cool over night. Depending your local weather, you may want to use even more beeswax to increase the melting point. You can easily remelt and re-blend the mixture until you get it just right, but be careful and use just enough heat to barely melt the beeswax -- a grease fire on top of a stove is not a good thing. Heating in a hot water bath works great and is very safe.
Back in my youth I had about five different waxes for my cross country skis for every kind of skiing condition. It might not be a bad idea to have two, or three jars of shooting grease made up for different outside temperatures, but my one jar seems to cover all my local weather conditions. By the way, this isn't a precision blend and it is up to you to find the blend that works best for your unique situation.
In my opinion, there is no need to make up complicated or exotic mixtures with exact formulas. I think that if you just keep it simple, you will be very pleased with the results. For me, there is a joy in simplicity, so I'd like to suggest that you K.I.S.S. (keep it simply sonny). By the way, a couple of my readers sent me exotic formulas that include mineral oil and paraffin together with olive oil and all sorts of things that are all blended in exactly measured proportions. If it works and you like making up and using the stuff, who am I to argue with success? My only question is, why go to such trouble when a simple mixture of fat and beeswax works so well?
On the other hand, it is only by experimenting that progress can be made and so I urge you to try other ways of doing things until you discover just what works best for you. Let's face it, we all have in us a bit of the "Mad Scientist" and many of us take joy in making up our own "special blend" that somehow we "just know" will give us an edge over other shooters. It is my opinion that if everybody is using some kind of a shooting grease that prevents fouling from building up in their barrel, then top scores aren't due to some "special formula" nearly so much as they are to the skill of the shooter.
How well does a shooting grease mixture like this work? After I first blended up this fat + wax shooting grease, I was just amazed at how clean my bore stayed and I was even more amazed that the grease got into the bottom of the chambers so that there was no hard fouling build up down there either. When the charges go off, the stuff must atomize and get everywhere. My already easy cleanup was even easier and took fewer dry patches as there was hardly any residue in either the barrel or in any of the chambers. I highly recommend experimenting with mixtures like this. It's cheap, easy to make up and it works fantastic in revolvers.
Steps I use to load my black powder revolver
First, to cap or not to cap
It is a long tradition that the cones be capped only as a final step. It has always been assumed that this is the most safe way to load a black powder revolver because the caps are exposed and may be set off if the pistol is dropped while loading other chambers. There is also a fear that rammer pressure somehow might get transferred to the caps and set them off as the bullet is put in. I admit that I have never considered if it was wise or not to cap first, but now I'm wondering.The importance of loading powder cleanly
If the revolver is loaded on a bench will little room to fall and it is held properly, the chances of dropping it while loading is no more than dropping while withdrawing it from a holster or picking it up -- in my opinion. With regard to the second point, there is no way for the pressure from the rammer to exert pressure on the caps. As everybody knows, caps don't go off by themselves, but take a sharp blow from the head of the hammer falling from full cock position to set them off.
I'm not saying that you should cap first and ignore the old tradition, but if you have to use unusual force to get your caps to seat, you might think about capping first and then proceeding with the loading sequence. You might consider this, if your cap went off while putting it on a loaded chamber, that could be serious, but if it went off on an empty chamber, no problem. Another thing to consider, would you feel safe and good about using your rammer over a capped load?
Next time I'm at the range I plan to load by putting on the caps first. If you don't hear back, assume I had a terrible accident, otherwise I'll let you know what I think.
A reminder from chapter two
Regardless of which of the following methods you use, first wipe off the top of your chamfered cylinder with a cloth then carefully load each chamber with FFFG powder using the "clean powder management" suggestions I wrote about in chapter 2. Begin by filling each and every chamber with the proper volume of powder. Brush away any grains of powder that might be loose on the top of the cylinder or on the sides of the chambers after all chambers are CLEANLY loaded with powder.I have already included the following in the second article of my black powder revolver series, but this is so important, I am repeating it here too.
Recently Michael Costa sent me a excellent little device he made from the top of a high power rifle cartridge with the bottom 3/4 sawed off. The neck of the cartridge sticks down into the chamber and it acts as a funnel for the powder, thereby absolutely preventing any grains from sticking to the upper sides of the chamber when pouring powder in. This is such an easy accessory to make and it works just marvelously, I highly recommend its use especially if you are loading from a powder measure or a flask with a large diameter spout. I really think that this is the most effective device for cleanly loading chambers since paper cartridges were invented and it is an important tool for you to use to prevent chainfiring.
The volume of powder to choose when loadingYou must never load the chambers with too much powder or use too much filler. Why? Because the tops of your bullets won't be flush with the cylinder. If a bullet is sticking up, the cylinder won't rotate and your pistol will seriously jam. Believe me, you do not want to use so much powder that the bullets are too close to the top of the cylinder or you may be in the embarrassing position of having to use a sharp knife to peel away at the tops of your bullets until your cylinder fits. Not a good thing to be doing at the range with everybody watching.
Problems with too much or too little
I don't know how much powder to suggest for the .36 caliber "Navy" pistols, but the .44 caliber "Army" pistols must not be loaded with more than 30 grains (by volume) of real or substitute powder when using round balls and no more than 25 grains when using conical bullets. If your pistol has a brass frame, you might consider a 25 grain load as maximum. When using thick wads, you may have to use even less powder. For the "Navy" .36 caliber, you will use much less powder (20 grains maximum I think). You may want to work up from smaller charges (around 20 grains for the Army caliber and 15 for the Navy caliber) to see how deeply the bullets seat and to see if maybe you like the reduced blast and recoil better.
By the way, everybody should know that it is impossible to load a chamber with so much black powder or Pyrodex that the pistol is in any danger of "exploding" or harming you in any way. This can't happen when you use black powder or a commercial substitute because small volumes of these powders just can't create dangerously high pressures and even Walker Colt chambers can't hold enough powder to be dangerous. Dangerous pressures sure can happen with fast burning, high pressure smokeless powders, but not with black powder.
What about putting in full loads into a brass frame Colt type revolver? As long as you can seat the bullets below the level of the cylinder, you are safe, but full loads are reported to eventually cause the arbor to pull out of the brass frame as strains build up. The pistol will never explode nor will you ever be exposed to any danger no matter how much powder you stuff in there, but eventually the pistol will be ruined and for what, a little more smoke?
Lately it has come to my attention that some shooters are filling their chambers up to the top with Triple Seven (777) and then compressing the load really hard. Please don't do this, it's dangerous. Unlike black powder or Pyrodex, Triple Seven will compress under excessive rammer force. If you compress Triple Seven this way, a chamber could develop dangerously high pressure. Oh yeah, you will get some really impressive muzzle velocities, but you are taking a bad risk and you will ruin a brass frame revolver real quick.
So, what about underloading a chamber, is that possible? Under certain conditions, YES, underloading can be a problem because a total or partial ignition failure can happen with small charges. When a the charge fails to ignite properly, a very weak shot occurs and many times the slug is propelled into the barrel, but does not exit out the muzzle. This is a very bad deal. The next shot taken with an obstructed barrel will cause the fast moving slug to smash into the stalled slug and we all know that two material objects can't occupy the same space at the same time so room for those two slugs has to come from somewhere and that "somewhere" is a bulge or a split in the barrel. The good news is that even a badly split barrel is unlikely to hurt the shooter, but it will destroy the revolver and certainly make you feel real dumb. It is my sincere opinion that if you like shooting "squib" (low power) shots, you should load with real black powder only.
The reason I say that small charges should only be done with real black powder, is because black powder ignites so easily so that even as little as 15 grains will fire and propel a .44 slug out the barrel. On the other hand, substitutes, especially Triple Seven, are much harder to ignite and the hot gases from the cap have a really hard time igniting just a short length of it. Again, it is my advice to use full or nearly full charges when using black powder substitutes and always, regardless of the powder you are using, don't shoot the next round, but check your barrel for obstructions if one of your shots feels weak or a chamber fails to discharge fully.
This just added to my article:
There is a product I have just learned about and I think it is worth trying. I just found out that Pyrodex comes in pellets that have the same volume as 30 grains of black powder and are made especially for .44 caliber revolvers. These pellets would make loading very fast, but more importantly, your pistol would load very cleanly with no possibility of spilling powder on the top of the cylinder. Because these pellets come pre-measured, you can't overload a chamber so the bullet sticks out. These pellets are kind of expensive, but you might want to give them a try anyway. Be sure to load the dark, black powder side toward the nipples otherwise you might get a misfire. If you do decide to try these out, you will still need to follow the instructions below with some kind of wad or spacer and grease behind the slug. The only thing the pellets do for you is make loading powder cleaner and faster.
Should you use these pellets in a brass framed .44 revolver? They would be equivalent to a full charge of black powder and would likely over-stress the brass frame. Use of them in brass framed revolvers may not be a good idea, in my opinion.
Three 'grease behind the bullet' techniques to prevent fouling
If you wish, you can fully load each chamber one at a time, just don't cap any until all are loaded
I find it more convenient to do an operation on all chambers then go on to the next step.
The improvements you will notice shooting with grease behind the bulletsWhen you load by means of one of the methods I am about to describe, you will notice three important things.
First, you will be pleased at how much more accurately your pistol is shooting especially toward the end of your shooting session.
Second, it will take much longer for your cylinder to start feeling sluggish and you will be able to fire more shots before it binds up altogether. People have written to me that they shot over 100 rounds without their cylinders feeling sluggish and they believe they could have shot even more. I can't speak to that personally because I always have other firearms and loads I'm experimenting with, sighting in or practicing with while I'm at the range and I never shoot more than 30 rounds at one time.
Finally, cleaning your revolver’s barrel will take much less time and will require little or no solvents and NO soap and water. A lot more will be said about that later in the next article.
Here are the loading techniques you might want to try:
Grease Behind the Slug Method No. 1
After putting in the right amount of powder in each of the chambers, take commercially manufactured felt revolver wads and insert one in each chamber. Seat the wads on the powder with the rammer (see the note below). The manufacturer impregnates these wads with a "lubricant", but in my opinion, they do not contain nearly enough or the right kind of fouling modifier. Using wads is great for two reasons. First, it sweeps the chamber walls of any powder grains that might be there (helping to prevent chain firing) and it provides a moderate amount of space for excess 'behind the bullet' grease that might otherwise contaminate the powder.
Just lately it has come to my attention that the inexpensive brass framed .44 Pietta revolvers have undersized rammers that don't fit the chamber diameter and so they can not seat the wad squarely on top of the powder. If you have one of these pistols, I suggest you make yourself a wooden dowel of the right diameter so that you can use it to seat the wads properly.
Behind the Slug Method
Behind the Slug Method
Be aware that sometimes
a wad of
smoldering meal lands in front of the shooter and if there is anything
down there that can catch fire, it will. I came within
seconds of burning down my
local shooting range's building when a smoldering wad of meal caught
the old rugs in front of me on fire (true story!). They don't
call these things "FIRE arms" for
nothing. Be sure the space in front of you is not covered by
rug or dry grass that can catch fire.
A cross section of a revolver chamber showing the recommended loading
technique using a filler and when loading for light loads without a wad.
Grease may be forced into the top portion of the filler material, but there it can not affect the powder below it.
Because of ignition failures, I strongly recommend using only real black powder in light "squib" loads.
When you have all the chambers loaded, regardless of what method you used, here's what you do next:
Please keep in mind that if you use too much, there is a danger you will contaminate your powder with grease
(not a good thing) so be careful and use common sense when applying shooting grease.
Smear a small AND I MEAN A SMALL amount of beeswax blended with Crisco, Bore Butter, lard, tallow or a similar kind of grease on the tip your index finger and then wipe it across the top of a chamber so as to leave a small (and I mean SMALL) amount of grease clinging to the side of the chamber. Use shooting grease not blended with beeswax only in cool/cold weather and only if you are sure it won't get runny inside the chambers. Do this until all six chambers are "lubed" in this manner. Note: If you use too much grease, it will get past the spacer and contaminate the powder when the ball is rammed down and you might get a misfire or the resulting shot might be weak. I write more about this later, but for now, watch out how much grease you use and how runny it is.
Final loading stepsThe next step is to place a ball (or slug) over a chamfered chamber, ram it home and repeat until all chambers are loaded. Use only enough rammer force to gently seat the bullet and try to avoid jamming it down hard. It is important to seat the bullets, but excess force does no good at all. If you are finding that you are using a lot of brute force when you put the bullets in the chambers, there is probably something wrong and you should think about ways of reducing that force. Are you using too much powder and squeezing down to clear the top of the cylinder? That's dumb, don't do it. Are the openings to your chambers chamfered? It's easy to do. Are you using oversized slugs? Some people think oversized slugs are more accurate because more of the bullet contacts the rifling, but, in my opinion, the difference is trivial. It may be trivial, but the increase in rammer force can be significant.
Speaking of rammer
force, it has come to
my attention that one of the factors (besides overloading) that causes
Colt style brass framed revolvers to become loose over time is
accumulated strains put on the cylinder arbor that tend to pull the
arbor out of the brass frame. These strains are caused by
excessive rammer force pulling on the arbor. Excessive rammer
force is in turn caused by using oversized slugs, unchamfered
chamber mouths and squeezing too hard on slugs that are already rammed
in. If you
have a brass framed revolver, I suggest you be mindful of the rammer
force you are applying and do whatever you can to minimize it.
Remember, brass is only marginally strong enough as a frame
material under ordinary stress situations, but if over-stressed, it
will yield and over time the revolver will become ruined.
A special word on capping when this is the last step in the loading processIt has been my experience that capping is the most dangerous time in the whole reloading sequence. My best friend severely injured his hand and people standing nearby could have been hit when he used a wooden stick to jam on undersized caps and one of the chambers went off. Under no circumstance use undersized caps and under no circumstance hold the pistol by its front end while capping. Pietta suggests you use No. 10 caps, but my experience is that they are too tight and that even experienced people (people who should know better) will get frustrated and use extraordinary means to force them on. One of the absolutely worst things you can do is to use a stick or (may the gods forbid!!) a metal rod to jam on an undersized cap with a loaded chamber. That is a disaster waiting to happen and sooner or later a chamber will go off, so please, don't use extraordinary force to get caps on your revolver's nipples and, for the love of Pete, don't use any sticks or rods either - fingers and thumbs only. Use No. 10 caps only after you are absolutely sure your revolver's nipples are the right size to accept them.
In my opinion, it is best to use No. 11 caps and squeeze the skirt a little if they are a bit oversized. Don't worry about a lost or loose fitting cap causing a chain fire because experiment after experiment after experiment has convinced me that this is just another myth and old wives tale. Lost or loose fitting caps DO NOT cause chain fires and this is something you can experiment for yourself if you doubt it.
Michael Costa, who sent me that cartridge "funnel" mentioned above, had another outstanding idea. It is a simple and inexpensive tool to crimp down oversized caps. I have yet to use it, but it is a brilliant idea. All you have to do is go out and buy an inexpensive diagonal cutter and drill a hole where the two blades come together. You might have to take a small round file to get the diameter just right, but when you do, you will have a crimper that will produce caps that fit your revolver's nipples perfectly. It is so cheap and easy to make one of these things, I think they should be in everybody's "possibles" bag when they go to the range.
A possible conflict with club or range rules if you don't 'Plaster On The Crisco'
Elsewhere I have mentioned that I believe that putting grease on top of a loaded cylinder does no good, but can lead to an increased risk of chain fires. However, I realize that old habits and old rules die hard. I'd like to say, "DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT put "lube" (grease) on top of the loaded chambers after the ball has been seated", but this isn't always possible
The problem is, we all have to play by the rules and if your range or club is run by some kind of a dictator who absolutely insists that you put grease over your loaded cylinder, don't argue, do it just to keep peace. Putting grease up there won't help anything, but it doesn't hurt much either and it just isn't worth making a fuss over. If you run into a conflict like this, please don't use my articles as "proof" that the club or the range "must" change their policies. If these alternative methods are any good, people will eventually notice.
With the revolver capped & loaded & with grease behind the slugs, you are ready to shootAs you begin and progress through your shooting session, there are things you should be looking for in addition to how accurately you are shooting. As you shoot, you should discover for yourself how much shooting grease to use when loading. I'll have more to say about that shortly.
but your experimenting and learning has just started
Misfires can be serious and you should know what to do should one occur. I will certainly have more to say about this.
If you are shooting very light (squib) loads or blanks (as at a reenactment), there are things to keep in mind here too, but I'll have more to say about that shortly.
You don't need me to tell you that reloading a black powder revolver effectively is a skill that you don't learn watching a video. You must practice both at home and at the range. Guess what? Yes, I'll have more to say about this too.
In all cases, spend your time at the range to learn and teach yourself things so that shooting the black powder revolver becomes easy, convenient, safe and accurate. When you get to that point, the only thing the cartridge shooters will have on you is they go through their expensive ammo quicker than you do your cheaper ammo.
Finding the optimum amount of grease to use behind the bulletsNow, if you don't use quite enough grease on subsequent loadings, fouling will slowly build up, you will have to experiment a bit to find just the right amount of grease to use and more will be said shortly. By no means use the same amount of grease between the wad and the bullet as people use when they plaster grease over a loaded cylinder. It is probably best to start out with too little grease than with too much.
(while at the range)
One of the best ways to find out how much grease to use is to take your cleaning rod with you to the range. After loading with just a small amount of grease behind the slugs, take your first six shots, then put a dry patch on your jag and run it down the bore. If it glides smoothly down, you are probably using the proper amount of grease behind the slug. If it feels dry and rough, put some grease or eatable oil (jojoba, olive, Etc.) on a patch and let it dissolve the hard fouling. When the barrel is clear of fouling, reload but this time use slightly (very slightly) more grease. Shoot another six or more shots and then put a dry patch down the barrel again. Keep doing this until you determine how much grease to use.
By the way, you can use a lot more grease when shooting round balls than with flat based conical bullets for the same volume of powder. If you are shooting conical bullets, you may have to reduce the powder volume to give room for the grease. When you ram in the slugs, try not to use so much force that the grease is squeezed past the wad and into the powder.
Another test to see if you used enough greaseWhen you get home and you go to clean the barrel of your revolver, start by using a dry patch. Simply put a dry patch on your jag and run it down the bore. If it slides down easily and comes out covered with a coating of black, greasy, soft goo, Congratulations: you are using the proper amount of "fouling modifier" (grease). If the patch will not easily go down the bore and/or the bore feels rough as you ram the patch down, you probably have already noticed that your shooting wasn't’t very good and you need to use more "fouling modifier" (grease) next time. Oh yeah, be sure to bring your cleaning rod with you next time you go out shooting.
(if you didn't take your cleaning rod with you to the range)
Ignition failures due to too much grease or small charges of hard to light powder (like 777)
A very important safety consideration
Lately it has come to my attention that some people are having problems with ignition failures. I know I will be largely repeating myself with what I'm about to write, but this is so important that it bears repeating in more detail, so please bear with me.
When a cap goes off, but fails to ignite the main charge properly or at all, it can be due to heavy contamination with grease or grease that is too runny or it may be due to using too small a charge of a hard to light powder like Triple Seven.
When one of these things happens, sometimes the ball is left sticking half way out of its chamber (which is bad enough) and the cylinder won't rotate (the revolver is "jammed"). If the ball sticks out of the cylinder, you will have to push it back in with your cleaning rod (Remington style) or take the barrel off (if you have a Colt style). Remove the cylinder, unscrew the nipple and with a nail or thin rod of some kind, push the whole mess, powder, grease, wad and bullet, out the front of the chamber.
A cross section of a chamber after a cap fails to ignite the main charge.
Wad displaced, grease and powder mixed together and the slug part or all the way out of the chamber.
Many times the slug clears the cylinder, but gets stuck in the barrel. This can lead to very serious consequences because the cylinder will still rotate to the next chamber and the shooter might be tempted to take another shot. This is a real bad deal and you should NOT take that next shot. If a cap goes off without properly setting off the main charge, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT TRY TO FIRE THE NEXT CHAMBER UNTIL THE BARREL IS CHECKED FOR AN OBSTRUCTION. If an obstruction is there, a follow on shot will create a dangerous overpressure in the barrel and it will balloon or crack open as mentioned earlier. The obstruction may be removed simply by removing the cylinder and use the cleaning rod to push the obstruction out of the back of the barrel. Once the slug has been removed from the chamber or the barrel, wipe out all the mess in the chamber.
An actual Pietta .44 "Confederate 'Navy'" barrel that had an obstruction.
It's unlikely that anybody was hurt, but the pistol was destroyed.
If the problem is caused by using too much grease, reduce the amount of grease to just enough to keep fouling from building up and use an unblended grease only in cold weather. For warmer weather, you should use a stiffer grease that contains beeswax and scoop it out of a jar instead of squeezing it out of a tube. From a safety perspective, I can't emphasize enough how important it is that you do not contaminate your powder with grease when loading, but really, there is no reason this should be a problem if you use common sense and use only the minimum amount of shooting grease and a grease that is stiff enough for outside temperature conditions. In my opinion, it is better to use a grease that is a bit too stiff than one that is just a little too runny.
If the problem is due to really small loads of Triple Seven, you might try slightly larger loads and, of course, never so much runny grease that it gets down into the powder.
It is always advisable to bring your revolver tools with you when you go to the range, especially if you are experimenting with new loads and new techniques. Once you have settled into a system that you know is reliable, you may not need all that stuff, but when you need something, it's really good to have it in your "possibles bag" rather than at home.
A special word for squib and blank loadsFor squib (low power) loads, it is my opinion that you really don't need to use a wad, but a wad does have the advantage of "sweeping" the chamber walls clean of any powder grains that might cause a chainfire. If using a wad, put it in first, ram it down and then fill the chamber with corn meal or Cream of Wheat filler, but leave enough space for the slug. Honestly, I see no reason to use a wad if using a thick layer of filler, but that is your decision.
By the way, if you want to shoot "blanks" put in a normal charge of powder then fill the chambers up all the way with filler. Compress the filler with the rammer and you are ready to go. Your blank will be about as loud and the smoke and flame will be about the same as if you were shooting live bullets. You will even feel a recoil. I do not recommend using a wad when shooting blanks because it can come out and really sting somebody (or a horse) even at a great distance. Wads were not allowed at any of the reenactments I attended. Never use grease with blanks as it can cause the filler to stick together and act as a bullet. Without grease, expect that your pistol (or rifle) will develop thick fouling and jam after a dozen or so shots.
A suggestion for beginnersMany people might think this is silly, but it might be a good idea for beginners to lay out all the loading stuff before them as if they were at the range. With everything assembled, go through all the motions of loading (without actually loading) step by step several times before loading for real out at the range. While loading the black powder revolver isn't all that difficult, you do have to follow a precise sequence and it is best to get the routine down before you get into a stressful situation.
Back in the day when I "wasn't exactly a rocket scientist", we would practice launching rockets over and over again in what we called a "dress rehearsal" and a "simflight" (simulated flight) that entailed everything except loading the liquid oxygen and actually lighting off the engines. We'd do this as many times as necessary until we were sure that everything was working perfectly and everybody knew his job when the real launch came.
At the range there is usually a lot of shooting going on right next to you and people can feel way too rushed and excited while actually on the firing line. Take your time, practice and remember that practice is the key to learning. Don't be so proud that you think you are an expert just watching a video or skimming over some instructions. Even the world's greatest concert maestro spends hours and hours in practice to perform that musical passage that takes only a few minutes to play.
Finally, at the old Rocket Ranch we used check lists for even the most simple tasks. Our check lists called out all the materials we would need and the steps necessary to accomplish a task. A lot of rockets blew up and a lot of planes crashed and a lot of other disasters happened before people realized how important a simple check list is. I suggest you make up a checklist of all the equipment and supplies you will need and a simplified procedure you should write up yourself to help guide you in loading. By the way, I see that hospitals are finally starting to use them too.
Page SummeryIn summery, for best precision and to keep on shooting without having to take frequent cleaning breaks and without the cylinder binding up after just a few shots, grease behind the slug is the only thing that I have found that works. Not only does it work, but it works extremely well and it puts the black powder revolver in the same class with smokeless cartridge revolvers when it comes to all day shooting and precision shooting. I have presented three methods to accomplish this, but there is a potential problem with using grease behind the slug and so these methods should be performed with care and thought and you should use a shooting grease that is appropriate to the temperatures at the range. Of course, clean loading practice must always be observed or chainfiring will result.
The next page contains my thoughts on cleaning the black powder revolver and why you should never use soap and water to clean your revolver. If you are hesitating getting into black powder shooting because of the undeserved reputation regarding the "terrible mess" involved in cleaning black powder revolvers, please read on.
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