Frequently asked questions …(from the UK)
What documents do I need to obtain before I can use black powder?
Unlike nitro, black powder is classed as an explosive and requires certain documents to acquire, transport and keep.
The certificate for the grant of an explosives certificate and the certificate to acquire and keep explosives is applied for using Forms COER1 and COER3 which are available at police stations. The certificate is currently free and will be tailored to your specific black powder requirements. The maximum amount of black powder you will normally be allowed to possess is 15Kg. You will have to store it in a secure place. Ideally, this should be locked in a sturdy wooden box with a weak seam. Powder should not be stored in a steel box. This could act like a bomb in the event of an explosion! You will also need to apply to the Health & Safety Executive for a Recipient Competent Authority Transfer Document, or RCA/POMSTER. It approves the transfer of explosives anywhere in Great Britain. This is the document which allows you to carry black powder from the seller to your home and the range. It will invariably relate to black powder only and exclude such items as fuses, detonators etc. The current limit for transportation is 5Kg unless you have a TREM card (TRansport EMergency card) which permits you to transport up to 50Kg.
What rifle should I buy and which calibre is best?
Most of the rifles used in the Club are modern reproductions of either the Sharps, or Remington Rolling Block. Occasionally, you will see Browning Hi-Walls or maybe even a custom built rifle such as a Meacham. The choice is really down to personal preference but any one of these rifle will do the job nicely, they don't have to be of "American" origin just so long as they have an external hammer and meet the age requirements. What ever rifle you choose, make sure the style is within the spirit of the Club rules; that means a rifle of the period up to 1896. It should have an external hammer fall between .38 and .58 calibre. It is not usual to see an original rifle on the firing line. The Italian company, Pedersoli, are one of the best known for making good quality copies of Sharps, Remington and Springfield Trapdoor and their rifles are readily available with no waiting times. Their main dealer in the UK is Viking Arms Ltd. of Harrogate. Custom-made rifles like Shiloh (Sharps) and Meacham Hi-Wall will cost at least double and take many months from date of order, but well worth the wait !
Whatever style of rifle you go for, don’t skimp on sights. Good quality rear-mounted tang sights and front sights with interchangeable elements are money well spent, especially when shooting at long ranges. If you do intend shooting at ranges over 600 yards then make sure you get Long Range sights to avoid running out of elevation.
Some of the common calibres used are .45-70, (where 70 is the approximate powder charge in grains) more accurately known as .45-21/10” [to denote the case length].45-90, .45-100, .45-120, .40-65. Some shooters prefer smaller calibres like the .38-55, although at the longer ranges with a cross wind blowing, these lighter bullets do not have the same accuracy as the heavier ones. The cheapest and most readily available cartridge cases to buy are .45-70. Some of the bigger cases can be difficult to find and can cost up to £3.00 each.
Properly loaded, a .45-70 should regularly hit the target at 1000yards and group well at 600 yards. If you prefer more smoke, and are not shaken by recoil, have fun and go for something bigger.
What should I apply for on my Firearms Certificate?
Some police forces will allow you to simply specify “one .45 cal. single shot breech loading rifle”. Others will insist that you specify the full calibre designation such as .45-70, .40-65 or whatever. To give you more flexibility, try asking for the rifle bore calibre and not the cartridge designation. After all, very few of us will manage to squeeze 70 grains of powder into a .45-70 case and seat a bullet on top. The final charge will depend on which powder and bullet you use and how much compression you apply to the powder, if any.
How do I start loading ammunition and what equipment will I need?
The first step is to buy a quantity of empty brass cases. Remington, Winchester, Federal, Bertram all make empty cases for black powder reloading. There are several suppliers of standard size brass such as .45-70 and these can be found in gun magazines. A hundred cases should be sufficient for most events and last for several years if they are treated with respect and not “worked” too much during the loading process [when cases have been fired several times, it’s a good idea to anneal them by heating the necks until they are a cherry red colour and then quenching them in water. This will help prevent any splitting at the neck]. Try to ensure that they are all from the same batch so that they are as identical to each other as possible. It is important to have the same internal volume from case to case. Avoid those cases with a cannelure groove around them, such as Winchester; they are intended for magazine rifles and help prevent the bullet from being pushed back into the case on recoil. It is a potential weak point and serves no purpose in single shot rifles. If you are loading for some of the larger calibres and have trouble finding suppliers in the UK, you can usually obtain brass from companies such as Buffalo Arms in the USA (see LINKS) or Bertram (Australian). You will find they all have their own web sites.
Assuming you want control over the quality of your bullets, you will want to cast your own in preference to buying them. With ready-made bullets, you never really know what metals, other than lead, they are made from. This will affect the hardness of the bullet. Most shooters who have been shooting BPCR for some time prefer an alloy of between 20 – 30 parts of lead (Pb) to 1 part of tin (Sn). Tin will harden lead and this mix seems to give an acceptable degree of hardness to the bullet. A common source of almost pure lead (99+%) is rolled lead flashing use in roof construction. Most builders’ merchants sell it in different thickness. It is easy to cut with big scissors or metal snips into manageable sizes to go into the melting pot. Tin can be found in bar solder as a proportion of lead and it is not always easy to work out how much to add to your lead to get an alloy of known composition. It is often easier to buy a quantity of pure tin from a supplier such as Carn Metals in Cornwall (see LINKS). A small quantity such as 5kg will last a long, long time so it is a good idea to share with someone else. Having said all this, there are shooters out there who are getting excellent results using only wheel weights for their bullet mix. It’s all a question of how much control you want!
As to bullet moulds, well, there are many to choose from. Lyman, RCBS, NEI, SAECO are among the best known manufacturers, although there are an increasing number of custom bullet mould makers.
Bullet casting with a lead pot is an art in itself and if you’ve never done it before, you should read about the do’s and don’ts from a recognised book. There is a split between those who favour electric bottom-pour melting pots and those who favour gas heated pots with ladle pouring. Both can give good results. Reading about casting may help you decide which is best for you. There are a series of very good books written by Paul Matthews which cover all aspects of black powder cartridge reloading and bullet casting. The SPG Lubricants Black Powder Reloading Book by Mike Venturino & Steve Garbe is also excellent.
You may also need the following equipment and tools:
A set of dies for de-priming and resizing your brass cases
Priming tool to insert new primers
Powder scales capable of measuring to 0.1 grain
Case length gauge and trimmer
Powder dribbler (brings thrown charge up to exact weight)
Drop tube (helps compact the powder as it pours in)
A loading press
Wad cutter for your calibre.
Bullet sizing dies (if you need to reduce bullet diameter).
* Lube/sizers will size and lubricate a bullet in one operation but are quite expensive and not essential if you apply the lube by pan lubing or dipping in melted lube or you decide to shoot paper patched bullets.
It is recommended that you get a good book on reloading techniques however, the basic steps to reloading are:
- Prime the cartridge case and check that length is correct
- Fill case with required powder charge leaving no air space but enough room for card wad and bullet seated to correct depth
- Lube and size bullet and thumb seat onto wad
- Lightly crimp case mouth enough to hold bullet in place. Do not over crimp as this will shorten the life of the case. Some shooters do not size or crimp at all. It’s all a matter of what works in your rifle.
After shooting, always remember to clean black powder fouling from your empty cases as soon as possible. It is very corrosive. Dropping them into a mixture of water, vinegar and washing-up liquid on the range will start the cleaning process while you drive home. Once there, de-prime them and rinse in clean water. A small round brush like the ones used to clean teapot spouts is very useful. At this point, you can either throw the whole lot into a tumbler for a couple of hours for a final clean or simply turn them upside down to dry on a piece of kitchen tissue. It won’t take you long to adopt a method which suits you best.
What other equipment will I need to shoot Black Powder Cartridge Rifle?
Fortunately, you will not need lots of equipment to start shooting. Apart from a rifle and ammunition, the basics are:
Something to lay on
Crossed sticks to steady your rifle (we discourage machine-type rests, car jacks, etc.)
Spotting scope (useful but not essential)
Rifle cleaning kit (cleaning rod, patches, BP solvent, oil or WD-40)
If you're recoil sensitive then a Shoulder Recoil Pad such as made by Past is worthwhile.
A good sense of humour - a definite pre-requisite for membership to the SSBPCRC