Legend has it that black powder in the late 1800s was far superior to that which is available today. Further legend has it that the best of the 1890 black powder was Curtis’s & Harvey’s No. 6, an English powder that was highly prized in the U.S. It was both expensive and hard to come by, but shooters loved it. Alas, modern shooters are not in a position to prove or disprove either of these legends, since none of the powders from the 1800s are available for testing.
A few years ago, I found myself in a gathering that included a GOEX executive. GOEX is the American black-powder company, now owned by Hodgdon, successor to a long line of explosives manufacturers stretching back to DuPont, Hazard’s and Laflin & Rand. In the course of our conversation, this gentleman became insistent – and later forcefully insistent – that his company’s products were not only the best available today, they were as good as any black powder ever produced. The basis for his position, apparently, was the results of various laboratory tests. Any idea that Curtis’s & Harvey’s No. 6 was better, he simply dismissed as myth and folklore.
Today, there are many brands of black powder available to the American shooter – far more than there were, for example, in the 1960s. Today we have not only GOEX and its various sub-brands, such as Olde Eynsford, but also Elephant (Brazil), Schuetzen (Germany), Swiss (Switzerland) and house brands like that from Graf & Sons.
Evaluating them is tricky. It’s not at all like comparing different types of smokeless powders, for a number of reasons. First, smokeless powders are chemical compounds. Without getting much further into it than that, we can say that what differentiates smokeless powders are their relative burning rates, which are dependent on such factors as grain size, shape and coating, as well as their chemical makeup.
Black powder, on the other hand, is a mechanical mixture of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter. It’s an explosive (for lack of a better term) that releases all of its energy in one big bang. (It is not quite that way, technically, but it doesn’t matter.) Unlike smokeless powders, however, much of this energy is turned into smoke and solid compounds left behind to foul the bore. In theory, at least, the only thing that determines black powder burning rates is grain size, with Fg being the largest and FFFFg the smallest, with some almost dust used only for priming pans and such.
To an experienced black-powder shooter, this explanation may be simplistic to the point of absurdity, but for newcomers to the game, overly technical explanations may be incomprehensible. The purpose here is to give some practical guidance. In my own case, my experience with smokeless powders goes back 55 years, but I’ve been using black powder in various guns and rifles for only a decade or so. What I’ve found is that black powder is fascinating in its own right, but you have to check preconceptions at the door and approach it as a whole new field of endeavor.
One writer who has made black powder almost his life’s work is Sam Fadala. Some years ago, he contributed a “Propellant Profiles” column that can be found in the latest Wolfe Publishing publication of Propellant Profiles. He makes the point that different brands of powder, ostensibly the same grade (i.e., granulation, such as FFFg) will produce different velocities given the same amount, with the same projectile, in the same gun. This “does not make one better than another, only different.” This is a good point. Higher velocity is not always the goal.
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