Muzzleloading Babylon,
A Very Basic History of Propellant

By Randy Wakeman


There are scant few sources of reliable information in muzzleloading. And when it comes to very basic history of propellant use in modern muzzleloaders, what is commonly accepted is often spawned from marketing, rather than a factual look at where things came from, what they once were, and how they are currently presented.

The facts have been asked for in countless e-mails and telephone calls. Not everyone cares to know where things came from, of course, but many do. For those interested in such matters, I'll offer up my opinions based on verified sources for your perusing pleasure. Things are rarely what they are marketed as. Check the facts, and decide for yourself.

An odd set of circumstances has developed into a very profitable cottage industry. It has all the elements of good drama: death, deception, and perhaps a touch of greed.

Black powder is not a compound, but a mixture of three organic substances: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal, and sulfur. Whether it was the Chinese pyrotechnics that deserve attribution, the Arab scientists that exploited it, or the further development after it was carried by merchants back to medieval Europe that are deserving of the most credit has never been fully resolved. Suffice it to say that by the time the Articles of Confederation had been displaced by the United States Constitution on May 29, 1790, black powder (gunpowder) was already quite old news.

DANGERS OF BLACK POWDER

The dangers of black powder in manufacturing, storage, and use are well known and well documented. Its tremendously easy ignitability and impact sensitivity are both its advantage and its curse. One of the many sources that discuss this is Hatcher's Notebook by Julian S. Hatcher, Major General US Army, retired. His chapter titled "Notes on Gunpowder," pages 300- 333, offer a good background on small arms propellants.

This is not to say that black powder is an unacceptable propellant if proper care is exercised. The DOT classification as an explosive makes it hard to find. Due to its poor availability, few inline muzzleloading enthusiasts use it today; many never have. It still has no equal as a pan powder in flintlocks, and is still used today in certain military applications due to its fragile kernel structure and super-easy ignition.

IS PYRODEX SMOKELESS POWDER?

This gets into an area where the facts are led astray by marketing. For years, Pyrodex was sold as a "smokeless propellant for muzzleloaders," and labeled as such right on the can. The manufacturer designated it as smokeless powder. Now, for marketing purposes, the manufacturer says it is not smokeless powder. It would be less confusing if they just picked one.

Pyrodex is a synthetic propellant that has been called "more powerful than black powder," "smokeless powder," and more recently a "black powder substitute" as marketing and sales conditions have dictated. Part of the raw materials that goes into its manufacture is dicyanamide. Large bright red warning labels on all sides of these bags say "avoid heat or flame, when heated to decomposition emits highly toxic fumes of cyanide."

Pyrodex cannot be arbitrarily substituted for weight for black powder, and has been shown to actually be more corrosive than black powder. The Pyrodex patent covers its sodium benzoate formulation. It is harder to ignite than black powder, and that is why it can be shipped under the same classification as smokeless powder.

It is the widespread distribution and easy availability of Pyrodex that has made it so popular. Not used only as a small arms propellant, Pyrodex has been sold and used as a blasting compound in mining operations, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The "FEDERAL MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH REVIEW COMMISSION" Docket Nos. YORK 94-76-RM through 94-83-RM (Secretary Of Labor, Mine Safety And Health Administration (MSHA) v. Rock of Ages Corporation February 24, 1998) gives all the details.

To say that Pyrodex can be dangerous to manufacture is obvious; the explosions at the Pyrodex plant make that clear. The inventor of Pyrodex, Dan Pawlak, died January 27, 1977 when his powder plant blew up. Nevertheless, the excellent distribution and marketing of Pyrodex made it the standard muzzleloading propellant by the 1990s.

IS TRIPLE SE7EN SMOKELESS POWDER?

In the words of Hodgdon Powder Company, Triple Se7en gives the: "highest velocity possible" when compared to, "all other muzzleloading propellants." This is right on the Hodgdon Triple Se7en "FAQ" page.

Folks might get a little confused at the reports that Triple Se7en is "hopped up" with a little nitro. Well, that is in fact the case according to the most respected forensic lab dealing with bomb residue identification in the United States. The lab analyzed Triple Se7en, and found what other chemists already had suspected: sodium dinitrobenzoate sulfonate.

To ship sodium dinitrobenzoate sulfonate as a dry powder you must ship it as an explosive. It is sensitive to impact and friction. Made into a paste with 20% water, it can then ship as a flammable solid--see the D.O.T. for details.

It is well documented that the "dinitros" are used in low explosives while "trinitros" are employed in high explosives. It is not reasonable to think of Triple Se7en as a black powder replacement, equivalent, or substitute by volume or by weight or chemically or by velocity. The DOT classifies it the same as a smokeless powder, and it is used as a powder in modern centerfire cartridges. The Company Marketing presents it as something else, contingent on where the dollars are most likely to be coming from, which really should surprise no one.

WHAT OF THE RECENT USE OF SMOKELESS POWDER AS A "BLACK POWDER SUB"?

In the 1940s and 1950s DuPont "Bulk Smokeless" powder for shotguns was commonplace. It was used volume for volume as a substitute for black powder in shotguns. Its use, label, and marketing make it obvious that it was a black powder substitute in the volume for volume sense, which Triple Se7en is not.

The modern history of gunpowder has taken some strange turns. That DuPont powder was out before Bruce Hodgdon started filling up the shelves with Australian surplus military powder, which marked the start of the Hodgdon Powder Co. To this day, Hodgdon powder is made by Australia Defence Industries, now known as ADI Limited, Level 2, Building 51, Garden Island NSW 2011 Australia.

At one time, DuPont owned both Remington Arms and the IMR Powder Company, both of which have fallen into decay since they were spun off. Canadian-based IMR was in such disarray that Hodgdon Powder was able to buy them with the cash they have reaped from the "black powder substitute" industry, thus becoming an actual manufacturer of smokeless powder for the first time. On October 1, 2003 Hodgdon Powder Company announced the asset purchase of IMR Powder Company Inc.

SAVAGE ARMS and SMOKELESS POWDER

Savage Arms Company was organized in 1894 by Arthur Savage in Utica, New York. It has been around for over 110 years, through good times and bad. To put this in context, Savage Arms has been making firearms for smokeless powder before Bruce Hodgdon, Tony Knight, or Thompson/Center Arms were even born. Thompson entered the firearm market in 1965 with Warren Center's Contender, and did not produce a muzzleloader until their strange interpretation of a "Hawken" rifle appeared in 1970.

For those interested in tradition, Savage Arms is by far the oldest American manufacturer that offers a muzzleloading rifle to the consumer. Savage Arms itself was founded to produce the legendary Model 99 lever action rifle. This strong, hammerless rifle was able to handle ammunition loaded with spitzer (pointed) bullets that competitive Winchester and Marlin models could not.

The heritage of Savage Arms is well evidenced in their production during the World War II years. Savage manufactured some 1,250,000 Thompson submachine guns, and over a million Lee-Enfield rifles, along with hundreds of thousands of Browning .50 caliber machine guns. All told, during World War II, Savage produced over two and one half million infantry rifles, submachine guns, and aircraft machine guns. One could say that the name "Savage Arms" is synonymous with the United States of America. They have demonstrated that they can build a rifle.

Savage Arms has been one of the fastest growing American manufacturers of firearms for the last several years. The reason has not been the personal charm of CEO Ron Coburn alone; it is simply the quality and performance of their products, year after year, that keeps today's consumers coming back.

MUZZLELOADING TODAY

I've tested and hunted with the majority of quality muzzleloaders in the marketplace today, and have also spent too much time inspecting the remains of poorly made imported rifles. It takes no stroke of genius or brilliant dose of perceptiveness to be able to tell the difference, which is why I am able to. Time builds confidence; and Knight, Savage, and Thompson products have stood that test of time.

As for the peculiar reinvention of "fake black powders" or so-called "black powder substitutes," as we have seen these were previously common fare, made by DuPont and others. It should be clear that the dissemination of misinformation is from ad copy desperately in search of consumable dollars, rather than a sober look at what propellants really are, and really can do. It may come as a shocker to some, but both Pyrodex pellets and Triple Se7en pellets can produce higher muzzle velocities with saboted projectiles than can Accurate Arms 5744 smokeless powder.

Repeatable accuracy, cleanliness, visibility after the shot, and non-corrosivity remain entirely different matters, however. It is time to apply some common sense to the issue. Use the propellants recommended by a quality manufacturer, use a witness mark on your ramrod every time you seat a bullet, and remove your ramrod before firing your muzzleloader. As for the rest, do your own research, and come to your own conclusions. Informed consumer choices are the best way, not what the girl at the chain store might have to offer, and even less the nonsense perpetrated by smarmy ad copy.

If muzzleloading is not fun, then why bother? I know what makes it fun for me. The important thing is for individuals to define what makes it fun for them, and to make the best rifle and powder choice for themselves.

FINALLY

Times have changed, and dramatically so. It wasn't that long ago that Thompson/Center Arms threatened to void warranties if sabots were used; now they rejoice in selling them. They still persist in selling "Bore Butter," thinking that it can season rifle barrel like a cast iron skillet, and perpetuating the myth that it is a bore protectant that causes fouling; not Pyrodex or Triple Se7en itself. They make good muzzleloaders, though, and their best efforts to date are form 4473 arms--muzzleloading barrels added to their smokeless centerfire actions.

I believe that no one can hold an inline muzzleloader in his or her hands today without a bow of gratitude to Tony Knight. It was Tony Knight that alone fought the ATF, and won. The sport has grown to what it is today directly because of the efforts of Tony Knight, Del Ramsey, Doc White, and others who understood that history serves best as a teacher, not as something to be enslaved by.

Recently, in an interview with Tony Knight published in the American Rifleman, Mr. Knight had this to say:

"I think we all ought to get together: I respect the man who wants to be traditional, but he should also respect me for wanting to be modern. What sets us [all muzzleloaders] apart, is the fact that we have one shot and we are handloaders in the field. We are handicapped with one shot when it comes to comparing us with general firearms. Even an archer can shoot several arrows before we can get a second shot ready to go. It's for that reason we have a separate season. Bless the hearts of those traditionalists because they started the [special muzzleloading] seasons, but now it's expanded, and to do this you have to welcome everyone. We are following the same course that compound bows did. You would be hard-pressed to find a bow hunting household in this nation that does not have a compound bow in it. I think the same thing for muzzleloading--if we want it to grow, we have to accept everything."

Sage words from Mr. Knight. Sometimes better is just that--and if we can quickly, safely, more humanely harvest game with less hassle, less maintenance, and using a higher standard of equipment there is no reason not to do so.

No relatively heavy, large caliber projectile that loads from the muzzle can fly particularly flat or far. The muzzleloading limitation of one shot, slow reloading, and large caliber projectiles is a very real one. Other finite barriers are acceptable, such as gun weight, and recoil levels. Muzzleloading remains a short range affair compared to centerfire cartridges, which have also progressed over the years.

Using the finest equipment we can to fill our tags is only the nature of a hunter that wishes to get the job done as reliably and as efficiently as possible. While the invasive cry of the media barrage grows increasingly shriller, the reality is our animals are taken at the same distances under the same conditions as always. Doing so as ethically, reliably, humanly and quickly as possible is true to the school of "One Clean Shot, One Clean Kill" muzzleloading of which we can all be justly proud.




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Copyright 2005 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.



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