What is a real "Black Powder Substitute"?
This seeming simple question has apparently baffled the inline muzzleloading world. Words do, of course, mean things. Substitute is a simple concept to understand, that being “used in place of.” Dating back to the 15th century, Webster defines it as “a person or thing that takes the place or function of another.”
The more creative (or delusional) marketing departments have twisted and spun this simple meaning until it hopefully means “Buy Gyrodex,” or “Joe Schlockey’s Old.” Sometimes this works, apparently, serving more than confuse and obfuscate rather than being strictly honest. We do not have look very hard to find successful blackpowder substitutes. Schultze introduced the first commercially successful blackpowder substitute in 1864.
As mentioned in multiple sources, including in the October 1974 issue of the American Rifleman, "dram equivalents" are not loading data. Dram equivalents are simply a way to define the relative performance of shotgun shells. It is an obsolete term today, at best, but can still be found on many shotshell boxes. In any case, “blackpowder substitutes” are a very old idea, successfully achieved by Schultze and others in the 1860’s.
Like many things, from “sugar substitutes” to “butter substitutes,” the value of black powder substitutes is not a matter of hyper-technical details or aggressive ad campaigns that take extreme liberties with the truth. It is simply a matter of how they are used and how they perform “as a substitute.” There are two obvious considerations to a black powder substitute. A good butter sub can be used with a knife; a good sugar sub can be easily used with a spoon. Likewise, a reasonable definition of a “true blackpowder substitute replica powder” is that it is used with a “black powder measure.” Pyrodex, Triple Se7en, American Pioneer, Black Mag3 and Blackhorn 209 all fit that criterion. Pellets and sticks obviously do not. This hardly negates their use, despite their other inherent deficiencies. It just means that non-powders are not used in the manner that powders are.
Back to Schultze and other bulk smokeless powders. For a period of a couple of decades it was common, accepted practice to use these “bulk smokeless” powders in the same “blackpowder dram” measures of the day. In fact, Bruce Hodgdon (Hodgdon Powder) began in the powder business by selling “bulk smokeless,” the first successful blackpowder substitute and the best by far for most small arms applications. Only Savage Arms has properly developed a rifle that takes advantage of it, so though the smokeless powder loads recommended by Savage are subs, they apply only to the Savage 10ML-II. Clearly, the Savage has the versatility to shoot with whatever you want to shoot including all the subs mentioned, so you have a choice there. You may not use blackpowder powder measures with Savage certified smokeless loads, of course, but you may use smokeless powder measures (particularly for Accurate Arms 5744).
The second consideration of a “sub” is performance-based. Consistent velocity and quality equates to accuracy, eliminating Shockey’s Gold and American Pioneer from practical consideration. Non-existent supply and erratic quality eliminates BlackMag3.
As this is written, only Pyrodex, Triple Se7en and Blackhorn 209 are left standing. Pyrodex's filthy, caustic residue detracts from its usability. Triple Se7en is viable, the requisite spit-patching and crud ring are hassles, but it is consistent and gives good velocities. Not as corrosive as Pyrodex, it has appeal and since 2002 has found favor despite its poor shelf life and the slag-like fouling crud that varies with type of ignition and rifle.
Blackhorn 209 leads as the only true, high-performance blackpowder substitute. It performs spectacularly well in T/C firearms and, perhaps a bit ironically, the best of all in the Savage 10ML-II. No swabbing between shots (at last) and only a couple of sopping Hoppe’s #9 patches to clean up a propellant with no discernable caustic properties. No crud ring or frozen breechplugs to ruin your day. All of this with good, consistent velocities and pressures that are a lot easier on your sabot than the wildly erratic T7 three pellet loads.
Knight, Lyman and the others had better learn how to make a clean 209 breechplug, or their future sales are in great jeopardy. In any case, muzzleloading directed blackpowder substitutes have sucked for a very long time. As more and more users exclaim, “It is about time,” I could not agree more.
Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.