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Black powder loads for "sharpshooters!"

* In several articles carrying my byline over the past few years I have made statements of my extreme distaste for black powder. The guns, and modern replicas of the guns, that helped win the American West are among my favorites but the propellant that these arms were built for is not dear to me.

Therefore, it came as a surprise when Guns & Ammo Black Powder Editor Phil Spangenberger asked if I would do a piece on loading several of the old Sharps cartridges with black powder. My first thought was, "Why me?" There are other gun writers who even profess to like that stuff. They say the stink, mess, and sloppy cleaning chores are just part of the nostalgia for them.

But, who in their right mind actually likes getting that dirty? Who likes cleaning guns with hot soapy water on the same day they were fired? Who likes to have to clean their brass cases on the same night they were fired so they too won't be ruined?

Anyway; enough complaining. I decided to go ahead with this project for several reasons. Firstly: I enjoyed working with the old-time cartridges, and am logical enough to admit that only half the story is being learned by doing all loading with modern smokeless powders. Secondly; I am a sucker for shooting the fine quality Shiloh Sharps, and since original Sharps in shooting condition are extremely valuable and mostly reside in collections, this would give me plenty of shooting to do.

Also, there is the matter of trying to make a living as a gun writer. Free-lance gun writers just do not turn down requests for articles!

Initially I figured this project would be fairly simple. All I thought that I had to do was gather up the guns and appropriate loading equipment. Then after the shooting was finished I would write up the results and sit back to wait for my paycheck.

As Usual in my life things do not go so simply. I am writing this six months after Phil Spangenberger suggested the idea. In those six months I have fired well over 1,000 rounds of black powder, duplex (black powder with a starter charge of smokeless) and Pyrodex handloads through a variety of the modern Shiloh Sharps rifles.

In this project I have also used up on the plus side of 15 pounds of assorted powders, and about 100 pounds of lead! Someone handy with a pocket calculator and familiar with handloading and bullet casting could probably figure out how many hours I devoted to this shooting. I don't want to think about it!

The first stage of this project was to pick exactly which calibers would be tested. The Shiloh Sharps production rifles in all their versions are chambered for a total of eight big-bore cartridges. In .45 caliber these are the .45-70, .45-90, .45-100, .45-110, and .45-120. For .50 caliber the choices are .50-70, .50-100, and .50-140. In addition to those eight offerings the C. Sharps Arms Company of Big Timber, Montana, has a custom shop from which are available three of the original .40 caliber bottleneck calibers. These are the .40-50, .40-70, and the .40-90. Arbitrarily I discounted the .45-120 and .50-140 cartridges from my testing. These two cartridges are very popular according to the people connected with the Shiloh Sharps Company, but they use cases a full 3-1/4 inches long and regardless of popular myth they were never offered by the Sharps Rifle Company of the 1880s. Some Sharps rifles were rechambered by independent gunsmiths for the 3-1/4-inch cases, but the Sharps factory itself was never involved with them.

I did decide to use the .45-70 and .50-70 for two reasons. For one they are the small fries of their respective bore sizes and it is interesting to see how they stack up against the larger cases.

Also, they were included because of their extreme popularity during the buffalo hunting times of our American west. In fact, the .50-70 is listed by some authorities as the second most popular chambering of the original Sharps rifles.

Next I included the .50-2-1/2-inch case (.50-90 and .50-100) which is actually the "Big Fifty" Sharps of folklore. Where the huge .50-140 ammunition was not even made until the early 1880s, the 50-2-1/2 was introduced by the Sharps Rifle Company in 1872 just in time for the slaughter of the great herds. The .50-70 uses a case 1-3/4 inches long.

My choice for a longer .45 caliber for testing was somewhat of a compromise. The .45-110 with a case 2-7/8 inches long was the longest ever used in the original Sharps rifles, but on the other hand the .45-90 with a 2.4 inch long case was more popular. My compromise was using the .45-100 with a 2.6 inch case. In other words I "split the difference."

Actually the .45-100 was not overly popular in the early Sharps rifles with only a few hundred built mainly for target shooting. However, I felt that using it would give a general idea of what the large case .45s were capable of. In contrast to the 2.6 inch case of the .45-100 the .45-70 uses a 2.1 inch case.

In general the various test rifles were picked in regards to styling to correspond with the various cartridges. For instance, the .45-70 is the smallest of the four, so for a test gun I picked a Shiloh Sharps, Hunter's Carbine with 24-inch round barrel.

Likewise, since the .45-100 was most often used for target shooting its test gun was a C. Sharps Arms custom long Range Express with a 32-inch octagonal barrel. In .50-100 caliber the Shiloh Sharps Number .3 Sporter was used with a 30-inch octagonal barrel, and in .50-70 caliber the test gun was a Business Rifle with a 28-inch heavy round barrel.

Sighting equipment for the four rifles varied and this is a factor that must be considered when referring to the group sizes in the load charts. Both the .45-100 and the .50-100 used tang-mounted peep sights. However, the front sight for the "Big Fifty" was the normal, blade while that on the Long Range Express was the custom spirit level, wind gauge with aperture. Sights on the .45-70 and .50-70 consisted of the standard semi-buckhorn rear with blade front. Considering the sights, I did not expect groups with these latter two guns to be as tight as with those having better equipment.

Once the guns were on hand, the loading equipment gathered, and the mass of necessary components in-house, the only decision remaining to be made was just what I was aiming for in this work.

Like most Western history buffs I wanted to find out what several of these calibers and guns felt like to the old-timers who used them on the plains. The recoil and killing power of some of these rounds was legendary so that it was my intent to work up some loads for each caliber that approximated those of 100 years ago as closely as possible. As can be seen from the loads charts several of my handloads were right on the money ballistically with some factory load figures that I dug up from various sources.

However, I must make a warning here. I said that the original loadings were being approximated as closely as possible, but they were not being duplicated. To do that is practically impossible because of the changes in cases, primers, powder, and the available bullet designs. One hundred years ago all the Sharps cartridges were loaded with Berdan type primers, plus the science of conical bullet design was only beginning.

Also 100 years ago black powder was the only type of gun powder around. For that reason it was developed to a degree not known today. In fact some very knowledgeable people on this subject have told me that there were as many different types of black powder on the market in the late 1880s as there are smokeless powders today! Aside from American powders there were also some English grades imported that were especially popular with the target shooter of the day.

As interested as I was in getting the "feel" of how our forebears shot their Sharps rifles, I decided early in this project that tradition was not going to be a limiting factor. My handloads were not only meant to make huge clouds of white smoke and loud noises; they must also give some adequate performance in the accuracy department. For that reason such modern adaptations as Pyrodex, gas check bullets, jacketed bullets, and duplex loadings were also included.

This subject of accuracy in regards to the Sharps rifles and cartridges is an interesting one. What is considered accurate? I have had interested parties, knowing that I am a Shiloh Sharps shooter, ask if they could get 1-inch groups from these guns.

Sure, under the right circumstances of light, sights, load development and other factors 1-inch groups are possible. But who needs 1-inch groups from a big-bore hunting or target rifle? I expect 1-inch groups from my small-bore, high-velocity, scope-sighted rifles, and even then I don't expect such accuracy all the time and from each and every rifle!

Today we have a tendency to judge the accuracy of guns designed 100 years ago by our modern standards, and I feel that is wrong. In the late 1880s the newly developed cartridge guns were judged in comparison with muzzle-loaders and muskets. I doubt if anyone felt the need for, or even dreamed of, 1-inch groups at 100 yards. To get a better idea about such matters I read the classic arms book "Major Ned Roberts and the Schuetzen Rifle," published early this century and edited by Gerald O. Kelver. In this book Ned Roberts talks of many of the older rifles and cartridges with an eye towards accuracy. I find this especially interesting because he was using them for target shooting and hunting when black powder was still the main propellent. Major Roberts makes mention of several high grade target rifles being able to shoot 2-inch groups at 100 yards from a rest. Also he refers to his favorite uncle saying that any rifleman worth his salt should be able to keep five shots in a 4-inch circle at 20 rod (110 yards). This uncle by the way had been one of Berdan's Sharpshooters during the Civil War. Therefore, for the purposes of my loading project I adopted accuracy standards of 2 to 4-inch, five-shot groups at 100 yards.

So, did I dump my Sharps cartridges full of black powder and immediately sit down and shoot 2 to 4 inch groups? Not by a long shot! And that is why this loading project evolved into such a long one. In the beginning I could not get five-shot groups at all. Instead they were patterns of about 12 to 18 inches! A switch to Pyrodex as a propellent gave similar results.

This lack of accuracy mystified me. In the past two years I have fired many thousands of rounds of handloaded ammo through a variety of the Shiloh Sharps rifles. I had found many handload combinations that grouped five shots into 1-1/2 to 3 inches using cast bullets and smokeless powders. In fact I had personally fired all four of these test guns with smokeless powder and gotten good results.

To make a long story short, as soon as the powder was changed from smokeless to black or Pyrodex any semblance of accuracy disappeared. In an effort to master the situation I tried just about any remedy ever mentioned in print. These included grease wads, cardboard wads, paper-patch bullets, grease lube bullets, gas check bullets, plain base bullets, very soft to moderately hard bullets, Fg, FFg and FFFg black powder, and duplex loadings using SR-4759 as a starter charge. I tried seating the bullets deep and seating them shallow. Also the sizing diameters were varied from .451 to .457 in the .45 caliber, and from .509 to .512 in the .50 calibers. I even tried unsized bullets that I had lubed by hand, and I hate lubing bullets by hand!

None of these remedies or combinations thereof gave a single 2- to 4-inch group at 100 yards. Knowing that the guns were accurate, and that my cast bullets were also capable of accuracy I naturally tended to blame the black powder. I was neither completely right nor completely wrong as I will detail shortly.

My first breakthrough came one day while preparing some handloads for the .45-100. My eyes came to rest on a box of Hornady 500-grain jacketed soft point bullets intended for the .458 Winchester Magnum that I had been hoardling for some time. Looking at those bullets I thought, "What the hell; nothing else works so I'll see how these things do." Not having any real hope I loaded only three of them over 95 grains of Fg black powder.

Can you imagine my surprise when those three shots plunked into only 1-1/4 inches at 100 yards! Immediately after shooting those three rounds I jumped into the truck and roared home to load another five. That same afternoon those five grouped into an even 2 inches!

Now I was in a real quandry! My scape-goat--the black powder--had been absolved. It may have been responsible for some of my troubles, but certainly not all of them. This was a fine situation: the jacketed bullets and black powder shot just fine, but cast bullets and smokeless powder would not stay on the paper. On the other hand, cast bullets and smokeless powders with some selected charges would shoot as well as the jacketed bullet loads.

What attributes do jacketed bullets have that cast bullets do not? The most important thing is that they are hard, or as one friend puts it, "They're harder than woodpecker lips!"

Earlier I had mentioned using a moderately hard alloy, specifically one consisting of 20 pounds of wheelweights to one to one 50/50 solder. I realize that linotype is probably the single best alloy for bullet casting, and is the hardest practical alloy most of us can lay hands on. However, I had avoided using it because of its expense, especially since these big-bore buffalo cartridges shoot away such great gobs of it with every pull of the trigger.

Anyway, I cast up a mess of linotype bullets in a variety of styles and loaded them over the appropriate charges of black powder, but to my horror they would not group either. Then I referred back to Major Robert's writings. He stressed over and over that to get the groups he spoke of the barrel had to be "wiped" carefully between every shot, and that it had to be done in the exact same manner each and every time.

The next time I traveled to the range with my .45-100 I took along three cleaning rods! For every shot I intended to clean the bore with a damp bristle brush, swab it clean with tight fitting patches and then dry it with fresh patches.

It worked too! Those same loads that had been giving me 1-foot groups immediately dropped down to under 4 inches and some to my great pleasure dropped down to about 2 inches. I admit that the cleaning chores were messy. In fact I ruined a perfectly good pair of boots by slopping black powder-fouled water over them, and I do think that my hands are permanently stained.

But the important thing was that my loads were accurate with cast bullets. I even think that old Major Roberts would have been impressed with some of them!

My theories on the problems encountered are these: in his writings Major Roberts refers to their favorite black powders of the day as burning "moist," and leaving a soft fouling. In contrast our modern black powder leaves a hard fouling. Couple this with the fact that the Shiloh Sharps are cut with fairly shallow rifling best suited for modern propellents and we see the problem. That black powder fouling was filling the grooves to the point where the cast bullets were skidding instead of taking the rifling. That was why jacketed bullets would shoot accurately at the same time that cast bullets would not. The softest jacketed bullet is still much harder than the hardest cast bullet, and therefore, they are what I call "forgiving." They will shoot accurately in poor quality barrels; they will shoot accurately in pitted or rusted barels; and, important to my work, they will shoot accurately in black powder fouled barrels.

An interesting aside that I should cover here is what happened when I tried shooting jacketed bullets while cleaning the barrel between rounds. In every instance the groups were worse with jacketed bullets if the barrel was cleaned for every shot, and velocities would drop from 200 to 300 feet per second (fps)! I haven't figured that one out yet, but I did try it over and over again and the results were always the same. I did not recommend cleaning the bore every shot if jacketed bullets are being used.

After learning the combination of secrets necessary to get my four test bullets and powder charges through each. I might add that this last testing was standardized a bit. For example, in every caliber I tried a load using straight black powder as to duplicate the ballistics of the originals as closely as possible. Then in each caliber I used a duplex load with SR-4759 as a starter charge and I used a load of Pyrodex. All loads were slightly compressed as I found that velocity variation was at a minimum then. No wads or fillers were used.

In the preliminary testing at least one half-dozen different cast bullet designs were tried in each bore size, and I came to the conclusion that those designs intended for gas checks gave the best results. Therefore, in the final testing two gas check bullets were tried in each rifle. For the .50 calibers these were the new NEI 440-51OGC and 520-510OCG both of which were fitted with NEI band gas checks. I have found these two bullets to be the most accurate in .50 caliber regardless of the propellent used. In .45-100 caliber the cast bullets were Lyman No. 457406 and RCBS No. 45-405FN. For the .45-70 that latter RCBS bullet was again tested along with Lyman No. 457483. The particulars of all cast bullets can be found in the load charts.

No jacketed bullets were tried in .50 caliber, but in the .45s a total of three were used. Again, refer to the load charts.

As can be seen in the charts these black powder rifles had their preferences just as modern smokeless guns do. Some loads shot fine; some were adequate; and others were plain poor regardless of how ell the barrel was cleaned between firings.

One thing that threw me for a while was the fact that the .45-70 carbine would outshoot the .45-100 Long Range target rifle. That isespecially noteworthy in view of the fact that the .45-70 was fired only with open sights while the target gun had the more sophisticated aperture sights.

I liken the .45-100 and the .45-70 to the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester. The smaller case is considered more accurate and is often used in benchrest matches. No one argues that the .30-06 has the potential accuracy of the .308 Winchester (all other things equal), but when one is needed for shooting 1,000 yards the .30-06 is seen on the ranges where the .308 Winchester is not. I feel that the .45-100 doest not have the 100 yards accuracy potential of the .45-70, but it was meant for much longer range shooting. Its black powder velocities were much higher than those velocities of the .45-70 caliber.

From my shooting these last months I have developed a great respect for the guns and cartridges of the last century. They were accurate and powerful. I have also developed a great respect for the old boys who fired them regularly for the will kick you senseless in short order! I would advise anyone doing much shooting of such rounds to use some sort of recoil pad. I had to go to the "recoil shield" by the PAST Corp. (210 Park Ave.,Columbia, MO 65201) to prevent bruising.

After all the shooting, testing, cleaning, scrubbing, and evaluating were over and I as satisfied with the shooting results from these four guns I still had to ask the question, "Why me?"

Why did Phil ask me to do this testing knowing that I had badmouthed black powder on many occasions? Then the answer dawned on me! He tricked me into subjecting myself to all that vile black powder in order to get even with me for my disparaging comments about something he actually likes! He thinks black powder is fine stuff!

But maybe I'll have the last laugh after all because now that I can clearly see that black powder will perform in big-bore cartridge rifles I don't hate it so much!
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Author:Venturino, Mike
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Oct 1, 1984
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