BULLET HARDNESS for BLACK POWDER CARTRIDGE RIFLES
The Black Powder Cartridge News|Winter 2020
HISTORICAL INFORMATION ABOUT BLACK POWDER CARTRIDGE RIFLES
Rick Moritz

After purchasing my first Creedmoor rifle, I did not feel like I was obtaining the type of performance I desired. I was using the rifle for Black Powder Cartridge Target Rifle matches at distances ranging from 200 to 1,000 yards. So, I started a quest to determine if my loading procedures were correct, including velocity, primers, lube and bullet hardness.

Over a period of years, I looked at available historical information in an effort to glean what our predecessors had used to compete in matches over 100 years ago. Specifically, I focused on bullet hardness, sometimes known as “temper.” As is commonly known, lead bullets can be made harder by the addition of tin, antimony and/or arsenic. Antimony is more efficient in increasing hardness, but tin is more commonly used in Black Powder Cartridge Rifle (BPCR) shooting. There are some historical references to the use of mercury as a lead hardening agent, however, I would not suggest using it since it is considered a hazardous item. After digging, reading and doing a bit of research into bullet hardness this is what I have found.

My Creedmoor rifle is a Shiloh Sharps with a 30-inch, extra-heavy barrel (No. 6 Winchester barrel equivalent, 1.30 inches tapering to 1.25 inches) chambered in .45-90. The weight of the rifle on the official Raton scale is 14.5 pounds. This is slightly less than the allowable 15 pounds. For the longer distances (900 and 1,000 yards), I add a leather cheekpiece to aid in aligning my eye with the tang sight. With the cheekpiece addition, I am still able to make weight.

My initial shooting with the rifle was with my standard 25-to-1 (lead/tin) silhouette alloy. The results were a little less than spectacular, which indicated to me that I needed something different. All other loading parameters were as I had used for my silhouette rifles, which included pistol primers, Swiss powder, poly wads and .002 inch neck tension. However, using these standard loading parameters, the .45-90 accuracy was fairly mediocre. At that point, it was time to take some advice from the “Grand Masters” and see what was needed to be truly accurate all the way to 1,000 yards. And I say, “1,000 yards” because that is where most Creedmoor matches are decided. Most everyone, with a proper load and rifle, looks good at 800 yards, decent at 900 yards but the true test of a black powder Creedmoor load is 1,000 yards. I was fortunate to do a fair bit of shooting with two-time Black Powder Target Rifle Creedmoor National Champion, Lige Harris. He always insisted practice at 1,000 yards was more useful than any other distance. If I would suggest practicing at a shorter distance he would respond, “You win matches at 1,000 yards.” He is right.

To begin the quest, I reviewed available information on the Trapdoor Springfield, Whitworth and Gibbs Metford rifles. The list is by no means exhaustive nor is it meant to be a definitive review on long-range black powder target rifles, but it did end up providing me with the information I needed and perhaps it will help you too.

After the autumn 1879 Creedmoor matches, contested on the East Coast of the U.S., Forest and Stream journal reported specific load details, all for the 1878 Long Range Sharps rifles. Bullet weights were reported as 550 grain with 106-to-115 grains of black powder. Most interesting is the bullets were reported as hardened and were noted as 11- and 14-to-1, lead-to-tin ratio1. Upon finding this initial information from some of the best shooters of the time, I was surprised. Conventional wisdom in the silhouette game is very different. Bullet hardness is relatively soft, approximately 20- or 30-to-1. The more I looked at the available historical information, the more apparent it became that our ancestors used bullets much harder than I had been using.

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