SHOOTING THE BLACK POWDER REVOLVER
c John L. Fuhring
Managing black powder residue fouling by proper loading technique.
This is the 3rd of 6 articles
Link to article 1
IntroductionThe single most important factor in consistent accuracy is the management of black powder fouling. Because of their chemical compositions, black powder and the black powder substitutes 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 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 actually works and is much less messy than the traditional method of plastering grease on the outside of loaded chambers. In this article I present three 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, you can make it so that your revolver’s accuracy 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 some other advantages besides improved accuracy if you use my loading suggestions, but I'll mention them later.
Fouling ManagementWe 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 accuracy. 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 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.
here are my three ways to "properly"
load the revolver for
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
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
loose on the top of the cylinder or on the sides of the chambers after
all chambers are CLEANLY
loaded with powder.
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.
Before I go on, let me say something about the volume of powder you should use when loading.You must never load the chambers with too much powder or use too much filler or 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. 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 or if your pistol has a brass frame. When using thick wads, use even less. For the "Navy" 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. 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.
By the way, everybody should know that it is impossible to load a chamber with so much powder 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 substitutes because small volumes of black powder just can't create dangerous pressures and even Walker Colt chambers don't hold that much powder. It can sure happen with fast burning smokeless powders, but not with black powder. As mentioned above, the only problem with putting in too much black powder is that you won't have room for the slug and it will stick out and jam the pistol. Yes, you can overload a brass framed revolver and eventually cause it to loosen up, but the pistol will never explode nor will you ever be exposed to any danger no matter how much powder you stuff in there.
So, what about underloading a chamber, is that possible? Under certain conditions, YES, underloading can be a problem because a misfire or a very weak shot can happen with small charges. When a misfire or a very weak shot occurs, 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 trapped air between the two slugs to rise to an extremely high pressure and can cause the steel of the barrel to bulge and many times, to actually split. 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.
Here are the loading techniques I'd like to suggest:
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.
Grease Behind the Slug Method
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.
Grease Behind the Slug Method
Grease Behind the Slug Method
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 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, Spit Ball, 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 sides 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.
squeezed down into and contaminating the powder. This will result in a weak shot and should be avoided.
Final steps before capping and an essay on shooting greaseThe 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.
Speaking of rammer force, it has come to my attention that one of the factors (besides overloading) that causes brass framed revolvers to become loose over time is stress from excessive rammer force due to using oversized slugs, unchamfered chamber mouths and squeezing too hard on a loaded slug. 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.
For safety and good performance, use a blend of grease and beeswax on days above 60F (16C) degrees.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 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.
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.
How well does this mixture work? After the first shooting session, 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.
Misfires due to too much grease or too small charges of hard to light powder (like 777)
A very important safety consideration
Lately it has come to my attention that many people are having problems with misfiring. I know I'm repeating myself, but this is so important that it bears repeating in more detail, so please bear with me.
When a misfire occurs, many times a cylinder won't rotate and the revolver has to be take the cylinder out only to find that the ball is sticking half way out or is halfway into the barrel. Sometimes the ball goes all the way into the barrel, gets stuck there and so the shooter might be tempted to take another shot. If you have a misfire or a real weak shot ABSOLUTELY DO NOT TRY TO FIRE THE NEXT CHAMBER UNTIL THE BARREL IS CHECKED FOR OBSTRUCTIONS or a dangerous overpressure will occur in the barrel and it will balloon or crack open. It is highly unlikely you will be hurt, but it will ruin your revolver.
If you use too much grease (especially if it is a runny grease in hot weather) and/or if you use too much rammer force, you may end up with contaminated powder. Even if it is real black powder, it will be impossible to light properly. When you push the ball out from the back of the chamber (if it isn't already out), you will have a mess of grease and powder because the gases from the cap will push the ball part way out (sometimes all the way out) and mix the powder and grease together. Many times this very same mixing thing happens if you are using small (squib) charges of 777 or another hard to light powder, even though you used the right amount of grease. Here's what it looks like in the chamber after a cap fails to set off the main charge.
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.
The lesson here is to avoid squib loads with 777 or other hard to light powders, use only a small amount of grease (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.Something important to notice
If you notice that your last shot was very weak (a quiet 'pop'), stop shooting and check the barrel to insure that a bullet isn't stuck in there. If there is a stuck bullet, remove it and wipe out the chamber. If the slug protrudes out of the chamber, but you can push it back in, try another cap to clear the chamber or take off the nipple and push the whole mess out. If you succeed in clearing the chamber with another cap, be sure to check that the slug isn't in the barrel. Next time you load, use quite a bit less grease.
Now, if you don't use quite enough grease on subsequent loadings, fouling will slowly build up, but you can experiment with that. You will have to experiment a bit to find just the right amount of grease to use as is described below. 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.
Finding the optimum amount of grease to use behind the bulletsOne 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 jojoba oil on a patch and let it dissolve the hard fouling. When the barrel is clear of fouling, reload but this time use 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.
(if you didn't take your cleaning rod with you to the range)
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. By the way, if you want to shoot "blanks" put in your charge 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.
A final and important step before capping your revolverOK, here's where it gets controversial again. DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT put any "lube" (grease) on top of the loaded chambers after the ball has been seated. I know that everybody tells you to do this, but just don't. Any "lube" you put up there will just make the top of your cylinder sticky thus attracting grains of powder when you reload and it is loose powder grains that are responsible for the vast majority of chain fires. Please believe me, putting "lube" (grease) on top of chambers does not prevent or even lessen the chances of having a chain fire, it just enhances their probability. I invite you to experiment for yourself and see if this is not true. Now, having said that, if you range is run by some kind of a dictator who absolutely insists that you put grease over your loaded cylinder, go ahead and do it, just to keep peace. It won't help anything, but it doesn't hurt much either and it just isn't worth making a fuss over. Speaking of capping, I feel this is such an important and potentially hazardous operation, I want to say a special word about it even if it is off the subject of grease and fouling.
A special word on cappingIt 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. 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.
The improvements you will notice shooting with grease behind the bulletsWhen you load by means of one of the methods described above, 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. 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 in the next article.
Substances you should and should not use when loading your revolverAs a final note, 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. Everybody recommends using eatable fats that contains "natural" substances. 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. 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. For a wax to increase the melting point of your shooting grease, what could be better than beeswax?
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 using all natural ingredients 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.
Page SummeryIn summery, for best accuracy 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 equivalent shooting precision. 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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