Saturday, May 14, 2005

My own favorite fifty

Disclaimer: If you are already familiar with black powder firearms, you will probably not find this informative. If you have never used one, you may find this useful.

Some recent discussions about the .50 BMG (see Carnival of Cordite #13) put me in mind of a few years ago when someone I know (at the time he was a co-worker) had purchased a single-shot .50 BMG (I forget the exact make & model). We were discussing it at work, which involved me asking lots of questions and him answering them. Someone overheard and asked if I had a "fifty." Sure, I replied, a .50 Hawken. What's that? they asked. "It's a muzzle loader," I answered. "It sounds like thunder and makes a big cloud of blue smoke that smells like the fires of hell." A somewhat overblown description, perhaps, but not entirely inaccurate.

My earliest memory of anything to do with the Hawken is the movie Jeremiah Johnson. For years as a kid, I was under the impression that this was an immensely powerful rifle that only the baddest and toughest could shoot. I mean, after all, the first time Jeremiah shot it, it flipped him over backwards. My impression can be excused as childhood ignorance, I hope. That said, it is still quite a potent firearm in the realm of black powder.

In my opinion, every gun buff should own at least one black powder muzzle-loading rifle. Perhaps, arguably, he/she should own a handgun as well. I say arguably, because I don't own a black powder handgun myself yet. I would like a single-shot pistol such as the "Hawken style" pistols that can be found to match the rifle, but I would also not mind having one of these:
Posted by Hello

That's a replica Walker Colt, the .44 Magnum of black powder revolvers.

But I digress. As I said, I think every gun buff/nut/owner should also own a muzzle loader. Not one of those fancy-shmancy bastard guns inline abominations that eat Pyrodex pellets, for goodness sake, but a real replica (can you have a real replica?) of the olden days when every shot had to count and speed loading wasn't really an option.

Mine looks like this:
Posted by Hello
Except that mine is a left-handed version (the patch box, hammer, and nipple/fire hole are on the left side of the gun). I would have nothing against a Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifle either, but after talking it over a lot with another blackpowder gun owner, I decided to go with the Hawken style because the hooked breech design makes cleaning a lot easier.

Why do I say that you should own a gun like this? Because using it will give you a whole new perspective.

Make sure you go shooting on a nice, hot summer day. Even better if you live somewhere (like I do) where the summertime (that is, April through November) humidity rarely falls below 80%. Be sure and use black powder. You can use Pyrodex and a few other substitutes, but that's cheating. They don't foul enough. I can't speak of the other substitutes because I've never used them, but I can also add that Pyrodex has a higher ignition point than black powder, so in practical terms, black powder will fire off faster and more reliably. Besides, Pyrodex is fake. According to what I have read, back when it was first invented, it was too clean. It didn't smoke enough, and it didn't smell like black powder. So they added some extra goop to make it more closely simulate black powder. Just use the real thing. You won't be sorry.

Why a hot, summer day? Why high humidity? After 30 to 40 minutes of constantly loading, shooting, and barrel-swabbing, you will begin to realize it's like work. If you have a flintlock, it's going to be even more like work. High humidity makes the fouling that much stickier and gunkier. It could mean the difference between swabbing the barrel every other shot (high humidity) or every fourth or fifth shot (lower humidity).

And I can guarantee it's not going to knock you over backwards. That's just Hollywood hooey. I once touched off one of those enormous sabot slugs backed up with 90 grains of the black stuff and the recoil only made me take about half a step backwards to regain my balance. It's not that big of a deal. Just make sure you have your shoulder firmly seated in the curve of the butt. A little bit off-center and one of those sharp ends might make you yelp.

Sometimes I feel like I'm still, well, cheating. I started out using pre-lubed patches, but that was just too easy and not authentic enough. So I went to some patches that I lubed myself with Neatsfoot Oil. It works quite well, but I tried some other stuff called Bore Butter and it seems to help reduce fouling better than Neatsfoot. So I've been using Bore Butter ever since, but in an emergency I could go back to Neatsfoot if I had to. I just wish they made an unscented version of Bore Butter. The stuff I have smells like wintergreen. I've heard they also have a pine-scented version (good grief!).

I once ran into a guy who was into cowboy action shooting and black powder shooting. Ah ha, I thought, this is the guy to ask about patches. I told him what I had been using and asked him what he used. "Oh," he said, "I just use the pre-lubed stuff." Go figure.

So anyway. If you are looking for nice, tight groups with a muzzle loader you not only have to carefully aim each shot, but you also have to carefully make sure each shot is loaded exactly the same if you want to have any kind of consistant accuracy. This may sound obvious, but what it means is that your powder measure has to be topped off at the same level every time, your patch has to be completely and throroughly lubed the same way every time, your ball has to be centered exactly in the patch every time, and the whole package has to be rammed and packed in the same way every time. After you've taken care of all these loading details, then you can shoot.

My accuracy is still kind of lousy. I can get all my shots onto the standard rifle target at 100 yards, but getting them inside even the outer ring is another question. But, I didn't really buy this gun for hunting. I bought it for fun.

With everything I've said, it may sound like I'm trying to discourage anyone from owning one of these. Not at all. I said everyone should own one, and I meant it. After a day of thunderous, brimstone-infused target shooting, you will come home dirty, grimy, and smelling, like, well, brimstone. (Some people say rotten eggs but to me brimstone sounds much cooler). Oh, and when you get home, the day isn't over. You know how when you go shoot your suppository smokeless powder gun of choice, and you sometimes just "wait until later" to clean it? That doesn't go with black powder. It is highly corrosive and will eat the metal of your gun away if it isn't cleaned well. That's where the hooked breech design of the Hawken comes in. The barrel easily detaches from the stock. You just fill up a 5-gallon bucket with very hot soapy water (I just use Dawn dish soap), put a cleaning patch on a jag, and work it up and down in the barrel. This will cause a sort of hydraulic action by pulling and pushing water in and out through the fire hole. Use very hot water so that when you take it out, it will quicky evaporate and air-dry itself. Then run a dry patch through a few times just for completion's sake.

Some people have asked me what the difference is. In simplistic terms, a smokeless powder rifle will go crack, and the recoil is a sharp kick. A black powder rifle will go boom, and the recoil is a fast push. Also, a black powder rifle makes a big cloud of blue smoke that smells like the fires of hell. Did I already mention that?

It will give you a whole new perspective. Shooting a cartridge firearm afterwards will almost seem like cheating. And you will have a whole new respect for those guys who didn't have a choice in the matter. The mountain men, the Minutemen, those guys at that place called the Alamo, that lone farmer homesteading on the prairie, with a wife and kids, and nothing between him and the wilderness but a lead ball, a patch, and 75 grains of gunpowder.

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