2010 Black Powder and Black Powder Substitute Round-Up
Black powder is, of course, the earliest of the black powder genre propellants. It fell into disuse at the end of 1800's as higher energy colloid-based propellants were far safer to manufacture, use, and store. The Winchester .30-30 cartridge sold in 1895 for the Model 1894 lever gun marked the end of blackpowder for general sporting use. The .30-30 was named for its use of thirty grains by weight of smokeless powder in a thirty caliber cartridge as opposed to the prior .45-70 Government that used seventy grains of organic blackpowder by weight in a forty-five caliber bore. The .30-30 is considered the United States' first smokeless sporting cartridge, although smokeless was in common use prior to that. “Nitro proofs” for small arms have been on the world's stage since 1891. A basic history of propellant is found in the article, “Muzzleloading Babylon” on the Muzzleloader and Black Powder page.
Black Powder is cheap to make, can be very consistent, and has the benefit of being the easiest to ignite. It is classified as an explosive, making it costly to ship and store. What an “explosive” is remains primarily a matter of classification. Water, for example, can be used as an explosive in steel tubes and hoses if you heat it. Hero of Alexandria (10-70 A.D.) had a steam engine. Hero of Alexandria also invented a few other goodies like the vending machine, a wind-powdered organ and a fountain. Hero was more than a little bit clever.
The point of mentioning this is that though many things may explode (grain dust, boilers) the notion of “explosive” is largely a subjective one and a matter of classification. The Tripoli Rocketry Association and National Association of Rocketry were forced to sue the ATF for capricious and arbitrary regulation of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP), which is commonly used in the motors of hobby rockets. It took nine years, but on March 19, 2009, United States District Judge Reggie B. Walton found in favor of model rockets and against the ATF, ordering that the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is granted. Judge Walton also wrote, “It is further ORDERED that the defendant's decision to classify APCP as an explosive under 18 U.S.C. § 841(d) is VACATED.”
This is the type of government agency abuse that the muzzleloading industry must be eternally vigilant of. Just last Monday I was contacted by a law firm in Salt Lake City whose client was arrested for having Pyrodex and Triple Se7en pellets in his checked baggage a muzzleloading trip. Upon return to the U.S., he was charged with three counts of violating Federal Explosives Law and now faces up to ten years in Federal prison. Apparently the incompetent buffoons that made the arrest are ignorant of the facts that neither Pyrodex nor Triple Se7en are classified as explosives and they are not black powder. Small arms ammunition, primers, and propellants (other than black powder!) are exempted. So are APCP rocket engines for that matter, so whether the American citizen was going muzzleloading hunting or planning on attending a model rocket convention in South Africa, it seems he was covered. Perhaps we should all carry a copy of the regulations and Judge Walton's ruling with us when we go hunting?
Black powder, despite its suitability for flintlocks and sidelocks when used properly, it becoming less and less practical these days due to its classification as an explosive, its corrosivity, and its propensity to absorb water.
Pyrodex, essentially synthetic blackpowder that comports to the description of a perchlorate composite propellant, has been marketed as the smokeless muzzleloading propellant and is now called a “pyrotechnic mixture.” It is markedly corrosive, emits toxic fumes such as sulfur dioxide when burning and while wildly successful as a muzzleloading propellant is filthy enough, low-energy enough, and corrosive enough to leave most hunting and shooting enthusiasts looking for a more user-friendly propellant. It can be very consistent though its shelf life after opening is poor.
American Pioneer / Shockey's Gold
This ascorbic acid based propellant is horribly inconsistent, erratic in velocity, and needs comparatively huge charges to get good velocity. While not aggressively corrosive to gun barrels, it violently attacks brass. It also can leave a peculiar fouling ring at the muzzle. It is, by far, the worst muzzleloading propellant on the market. It is just pathetically bad.
Black Mag 3 / Black Mag XP / Alliant Black Dot
Black Mag, another ascorbic acid based propellant, has been both horribly bad and very good in times past. It has suffered from horrible production and packaging problems. A couple of bottles I had were just solid masses, nothing you could possibly measure, much less load.
A later batch was very good and I gave it a great review based on its performance. Then, it vanished from the market once again. A couple of years ago I was told it was back and better than ever, as it was now being handled by MDM out of Maine. So good, in fact, that I've yet to see the first bottle of it. It seems that MDM still had production problems and distribution problems.
At the 2010 SHOT Show, Alliant announced their new blackpowder sub, BLACK DOT. As it turns out, Alliant has been testing and helping MDM get it right and they have reached a marketing agreement with MDM. Alliant has a good name and good distribution, two things that Black Mag has never had. The name would seem to indicate that it compliments the traditional premium Alliant double-based shotshell powder line of Red Dot, Green Dot, and Blue Dot.
Properly made, BM3 has low corrosivity, low residue and easy ignition. The “good” type of this propellant is everything that American Pioneer / Shockey's Gold has failed at. The good stuff also yields respectable velocities and is consistent. Alliant has promised to get some in my hands soon, so it will be given a full and complete review. It has the potential to be one of the best subs ever. Whether that potential has been realized or not time will tell.
Hodgdon Triple Se7en / IMR White Hots
When Hodgdon released Triple Se7en, it was an immediate home run. Outstanding velocities, consistent velocities and less corrosion than black powder or Pyrodex. A bit harder to ignite than either, when the pellets came out they were billed as “209 only,” though they have been used successfully with musket caps. It is a solid propellant choice, I've hunted with Triple Se7en quite successfully. Hodgdon has always been good at marketing and distribution, so availability has never been a problem. The crud ring and a tendency to freeze breech plugs has been a known issue, though, and while it does not aggressively attack metal, it still is corrosive after a short while.
Despite its own set of issues, Hodgdon T7 has been the propellant to beat for some time. Though I think pellets are a pretty sorry way to work up a load and loose powder is a far more intelligent approach, there is no denying the success of pellets and cylindrical pellets are Hodgdon intellectual property, as some have found out in court. Hodgdon has long been the leader in the black powder substitute business, developing a monopoly in muzzleloading further enhanced by their acquisition of Goex, so now Hodgdon owns the only domestic manufacturer of black powder, as well.
Western Powders' Blackhorn 209
As this is written, Western Powders' Blackhorn 209 is the best of the blackpowder replacement propellants available. It has been the most successful new product Western Powders has ever released. Virtually non-corrosive, no swabbing between shots, excellent velocities and superb accuracy. It won't stick or freeze a breechplug, and clean-up is two patches soaked with Hoppe's No. 9. It also has an indefinite shelf life.
As the name states, it needs a full-strength 209 shotshell primer for proper ignition and also needs an efficient breechplug (Thompson/Center, Savage Arms) for best results. Folks have reported excellent results with Knight Red Plastic Jacket rifles, but opening up the flash hole to .035 in. is often needed. It's only limitation is your judgement on how to use it. For example, it really isn't suitable for percussion cap or sidelock rifles. For modern inlines, it is at its best with a sealed ignition, a normal 209 primer and snug-fitting 250 to 350 grain saboted projectiles.
While not the best for all uses (it would make a crummy flintlock pan powder), when used in what it was developed for (T/C Omega, Encore, Savage 10ML-II) it is the highest performance black powder sub I've used. Its sole drawback is that you have to use it as directed, if indeed you can call that a drawback at all. When all else fails, read the directions. It cuts holes at 100 yards and that 6-1/2 ft. Minnesota black bear last year didn't know what hit him; he is now both a rug and what's for dinner. It is a sophisticated two-part propellant that is costly to make. The performance more than easily justifies it, though, and you hardly need more than 90 – 100 volumetric grains of it to net 200 yard+ performance. It is still far cheaper per shot than pellets.
That where it all stands at this point. A full review of the “new” Alliant Blackdot is soon to follow.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.