Black-Powder Cartridge Target Bullets
Handloader|October - November 2021
Fine-Tuning for Accuracy
Mike Venturino

These are Mike’s “pet” BPCR Silhouette handloads: a .40-65 with a 425-grain pointed bullet (right) and a .45-70 with a 560-grain Creedmoor bullet (left). Both are from custom Steve Brooks molds.

These are three Black Powder-specific bullet lubricants with which Mike has had considerable experience.

Off-the-shelf and custom bullet designs. All these are .45 caliber: (1) Lyman 457658, 480 grains pointed with three grooves, (2) Steve Brooks custom 500-grain Government RN with five grooves, (3) Redding/SAECO 645 530-grain Creedmoor with a flat tip, (4) Buffalo Arms 458540, 540-grain Creedmoor with four grooves, (5) Buffalo Arms 458565, 565-Government RN with four grooves, (6) Steve Brooks 550-grain Creedmoor with four grooves, (7) RCBS 45-530-RN Creedmoor with three grooves.

In the 1980s, there came a renaissance of black-powder cartridge rifle shooting focused on the big-bore single shots, such as those used by bison hunters or long-range “Creedmoor” competitors of the 1870s. Those modern events began as informal “gong” matches with various types of steel targets usually placed at amazing distances. Following soon, more formal NRA sanctioned metallic silhouettes and paper target competitions appeared. As might be expected, rules for informal events are at the whims of match directors. However, with NRA events there is one rule carved in stone. That is: only lead alloy bullets are allowed. Even gas checks are not permitted.

Back in the mid-1980s, upon my introduction to BPCR shooting sports, it was as if someone had designed shooting games just for me. Cast bullets, black powder, and Old West guns: in the West Virginia vernacular of my youth, I thought, “It doesn’t get better than this!” Over the decades, I have cast bullets and loaded with black powder tens of thousands of rounds for both games, albeit I primarily consider myself a silhouette shooter.

Before getting into bullet details, I’d like to briefly describe the demands of each type of competition. NRA BPCR Silhouette and BP Target (paper) games require precision. In the former, metallic targets are at 200 (chickens), 300 (pigs) 385 (turkeys) and 500 (rams). That’s in meters, with chickens shot offhand and the rest from sitting or prone with a crossed stick rest. The silhouette size details are too lengthy to cover here, so I’ll suffice it to say that rifles and hand loads must be capable of less than 2 minute-of-angle (MOA) groups to be competitive. Paper targets for NRA BP Long Range at 800, 900, and 1,000 yards have a 20-inch, 10-ring with 10-inch X-ring. Likewise, they are fired at from sitting or prone with a cross-stick rest. Accuracy requirements to be competitive are at least as stringent for this game as a silhouette – probably more so.

The cast bullet alloy maxim I grew up with as a smokeless powder shooter was that harder was better. Lyman lists all its cataloged bullet weights as poured from its No. 2 alloy blend with a Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) of 15. Linotype has a 22 BHN. Conversely, my chosen alloy for black-powder cartridges is 1:20 (tin-to-lead) alloy with a BHN of 10. Many very successful competitors use even softer bullets of a 1:30 to 1:40 (tin-to-lead) mix. The BHN of the latter alloy is 8.5. (Note: These BHN numbers are borrowed from the Lyman 50th Edition Reloading Handbook, 2016.)

Smokeless powders ignite when fired and burn progressively as they pass down the barrel. How long their burn lasts depends on how “fast” or “slow” the propellant burns. Conversely, black powder is a low-yield explosive. When ignited, it goes all at once, giving an explosive whack to the bullet’s base. Softer bullets obturate, i.e. swell to seal in rifle chamber leaders. Thusly, they prevent gas blowby, which causes lead particle transfer from the edge of bullet bases to barrel interiors. Hard bullets don’t obturate as easily, hence contrary to most cast bullet logic, they lead foul badly when coupled with black powder. I know a passel of high-placing BPCR Silhouette competitors nationwide and have learned of none using antimony in their alloy blends.

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