Black Powder Musings

By Schuyler Barnum

Black powder is outdated. There is no question about that. It is inefficient, it does not burn cleanly, it makes a lot of smoke, and overall is quite inferior to smokeless powder. However, that does not mean that black powder has no place in modern shooting.

Black powder has the advantage of nostalgia. With a classic rifle like the Thompson/Center Arms Hawken, you can feel like you're a frontiersman in 1805 traveling with Lewis and Clark. Or, with any of the numerous Sharps rifles you can feel like you're with Buffalo Bill, hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. With a Colt 1860 Army you can feel like you're on the streets of Laredo. There's a certain romanticism that comes from a black powder gun.

But, I feel that in today's world, black powder is being pushed beyond its natural limits. It does not, and never will, replicate the abilities of a smokeless powder rifle. If you want an easy to use, fast-flying bullet you shouldn't turn to a black powder rifle, even if it is a supposed "magnum." It simply doesn't have the ability to propel a bullet that fast.

Black powder is made up of roughly 75 percent potassium nitrate, 12.5 percent charcoal and 12.5 percent sulfur. This makes a quick-burning but inefficient agent. Most smokeless powders use nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose. These are far more powerful and energetic, with the capability to propel a bullet much faster.

I am not trying to discredit the abilities of sabots and magnum black powder rifles. They are definitely more powerful than a traditional black powder rifle. They also shoot a little flatter. But, in the olden days, hunters' used traditional muzzleloading rifles and did the job pretty well. They didn't have an inline muzzleloader with a sabot and a JHP bullet. Such things didn't exist.

As far as I can tell, there really isn't much point to black powder hunting and shooting beyond nostalgia. So why use these ugly, modern rifles with special ammunition that simply deletes the nostalgia? If you don't want the nostalgia, shoot a smokeless powder rifle.

Don't get me wrong, hunting with a muzzleloading black powder rifle is a fine sport. Even just plinking with a black powder rifle is fun. But, black powder will always remain black powder. It does not, and never will, equal the power of smokeless powder.

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Schuyler Barnum and/or All rights reserved.