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Black powder cartridge pistols.

Readers have commented they enjoy my articles on black powder cartridge rifles (BPCRs). That's pleasing. Now how about a column on another type of BPCR--the black powder cartridge revolver? But to keep things sorted let's call them BPCPs: black powder cartridge pistols. (Sure, I know there's a difference between pistols and revolvers, but even the Old West gunfighters often called their revolvers pistols, so just bear with me.)

Colt didn't begin to warranty any of their handguns for smokeless powder shooting until 1900, and Smith & Wesson began the metallic handgun cartridge era circa 1858 for rimfires, and 1870 for centerfires. Therefore, during those four decades which actually comprise the "Wild West" of fact and fiction the only propellant used in handguns was black powder. To the surprise of many shooters today, black powder can perform very well in cartridge handguns. If the ammunition is loaded properly it delivers power, precision and reliability.

Foul Fouling

What's with this "reliability" thing? Let's look at that first. As anyone who has fired a cap-and-ball revolver knows, black powder leaves a lot of crud upon firing. So much it can gum up a sixgun to the point its cylinder won't even turn. Therefore, in loading black powder cartridge ammo two things are desirable: reduce fouling as much as possible and keep whatever fouling still produced soft. That latter point is accomplished by the bullet lube--it should be soft so it mixes with fouling and makes it greasy. And the more lube a bullet carries the better. There are many BP specific bullet lubes on the market today, but I've stuck with SPG because I used to own half the company.

To reduce the amount of fouling left by BP cartridges, I rely on primers, but even more on how the powder is dispensed. In my testing I've found hot primers help reduce BP fouling and I always trickle the powder into cases by means of a long drop tube. That compacts it so more powder fits in the cases, and for some unknown reason drop-tubing BP makes it burn cleaner. No, I don't weigh out each and every charge. They are thrown from one of the new Montana Vintage Arms powder measures and then trickled down the 24" copper tube.

Fill The Tank

An oft-asked question is, "How much black powder should I load for cartridge 'X'?" It doesn't matter. Just fill up the case so the bullet's base compresses the powder slightly--say about 1/16". The brand of case and seating depth of the bullet will determine how much powder fits. Don't worry--you can't get in too much black powder to harm a handgun in good condition. If it's not in good condition you shouldn't be firing it anyway?

In machine-rest testing I've done with many BPCPs over the years, it turns out the best groups were often delivered with CCI brand small or large pistol magnum primers, as the case might be. Other brands often did well, but it seemed like the CCIs usually had the edge. Along with drop-tubing the powder I made them my standard for BPCPs. Admittedly it's not a critical factor, but since they cost no more, why not use them?

Chatter Matter

Now, on several Internet chat rooms it's been said, "Venturino recommends all that stuff, but it's not really necessary at the distances cowboy action matches are fired, and all you have to do is squirt down the guns with water to keep them working?" That's all true enough, but in my mind it's just as easy to load the ammo correctly and leave the squirt gun at home. All of the BPCPs I use will go all day without gumming up. Once at the big Arizona cowboy shoot called Winter Range, I let my pair of Colt Frontier Six Shooters (.44-40s) go uncleaned for the entire three days and they still functioned --albeit a little stiffly--at the end.

Something else I don't do with BPCPs is "load them down." Some shooters reduce the powder charges to a pinch and take up case space with inert fillers. My attitude is, "If I want a big bore, then I'll shoot it big." Maybe the sort of cowboys of Brokeback Mountain like pipsqueak guns, but most cowboys of the real "Wild West" shot .44s and .45s. And powerful .44s and .45s they were! Colt made more Peacemakers in .45 Colt than any other, and it was followed by .44 WCF (.44-40). Smith & Wesson used punier cartridges, initially due to their Model No. 3's shorter cylinder. Eventually they got it adapted to .44-40, too. Still, they sold more Model No. 3s in .44 Russian caliber than any other, and the US Army actually issued the .45 S&W "Schofield" cartridge for use in the big Colt Single Action more than .45 Colt.

The .44-40 and .45 Colt are powerhouses in BPCPs. Original factory loads used 40- and 35-grains of BP in the same order. Today .44-40 and .45 Colt cartridge cases will still hold that much, but a little powder compression might be required. That won't hurt anything. And if you want the utmost in power then I recommend you go to FFFg Swiss BP. That's the hottest stuff on the market. A case full will push a 200-grain .44-40 or 250-grain .45 Colt bullet to 1,000 fps from a 7 1/2" barrel.

Back in the 1870s the US Army tested BPCPs for power by shooting through l"-thick pine boards. They felt 1" of penetration equaled a serious or potentially fatal wound. I tried the above BPCP loads from 7 1/2" Colt single actions in a baffle box holding a dozen 1" x 6" pine planks. The .44-40 bullet went through nine boards and stopped in the 10th. The .45 Colt bullet went through 11 boards and put a severe ding in the 12th. At each shot with such loads the sixguns' muzzles pointed skywards.

How about Smith & Wesson's finest? The .44 Russian with 250-grain round-nose went through six boards. The BPCP was a Navy Arms 3rd Model Russian with 7" barrel. The .45 S&W round performed identically. It was fired from the same sixgun as the .45 Colt load. By comparison a .45 ACP 230-grain FMJ factory load from a 1911 lodged in the eighth board.

What about accuracy? Believe it or not I've actually fired five-shot/one-hole groups at 25 yards from several BPCPs mounted in a Ransom Machine Rest. Mostly those were .44 and .45 caliber Colt SAAs. The Navy Arms .44 Russian is capable of sub 2" groups from sandbag rest at 50' and my original S&W Schofield has done likewise. Yes, it's true Old West shootists could have snuffed out candles with their sixguns! At least until their barrels got really dirty. And if you want to experience something really different from shooting smokeless powder, try this. On an 80- to 90-degree day in bright sunlight, fire five or 10 black-powder loads quickly through any BPCP. Then watch your own antics as you try to hang onto that thing while unloading it. It'll burn the be-jeebers out of your hands.

The bottom line is that BPCPs don't give up much to our modern self-defense revolvers--at least until fouling builds up in them. But you do have to scrub them out completely after shooting--no tossing them on a shelf for weeks until you feel like cleaning guns. That's for sure and a topic we'll get into in another column someday.
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Title Annotation:MONTANA MUSINGS
Author:Venturino, Mike
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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