you mention black powder shooting, most people assume you are speaking
of black powder rifles, maybe black powder pistols, but rarely black
powder shotguns. The rifles get all the glory, and shotguns are
relegated to the background. That's too bad, because a more versatile
and enjoyable black powder gun doesn't exist than the shotgun.
northwest trade guns, fowling pieces, even muskets can all be thought of
as forms of the shotgun, although the gun we normally give that name is
a fairly late arrival on the scene, somewhere in the second or third
quarter of the 19th century. The typical form of that gun was a
side-by-side double barrel percussion shotgun, and from it evolved,
directly, the modern shotgun.
of the name, and whether flintlock or percussion ignition, all those
guns have certain things in common, and the care and feeding, shooting
and cleaning of them all can be considered as one topic.
One Third the well-turned Shot superior Must
and overcome the nitrous Dust,
development for the shotgun is, overall, easier than for a rifle
shooting a patched ball, but attention to some principles will yield
better results. Here, the versatility of the shotgun is evident, because
every shot is essentially a custom hand loaded one, the only difference
being that it is done in the barrel, not in a shotgun shell.
First, the powder used should, generally, be of a
coarser grade than for other black powder guns. Experience shows that
the slower ignition and lower peak pressures of the coarse powders give
more even and consistent patterns in most guns. Thus, FFg is considered
best for 28, 24 and 20 gauge, and most people include 12 gauge in this
group. In 11 and 10 gauge, Fg will give good results. FFFg powder can be
used in the smaller gauges, but most experienced shooters feel the
rapid, high pressures generated tend to 'blow' the pattern.
Second, the amount of powder needs to be balanced
against the amount of shot being used. The sport of black powder
shooting is rife with 'rules of thumb', many of which turn out to be not
at all useful, but one used in black powder shot gunning has stood the
test, and works very well in most shotguns. That rule is: Use the
same volume of powder and shot. That is easily accomplished by
using the same measure to load both shot and powder. A good way to
approach this is to decide upon the amount of shot needed, say 1 1/8 oz.
for rabbit hunting, set the measure for that, and use it also for the
powder. If the game is passing ducks, maybe you want to increase the
load to 1 1/2 oz. of shot. If so, apply the same method, and good
patterns will result with that combination.
is generally true that any change in ratio from equal volume loading
will affect the pattern, and that can be used to custom tailor loads for
different circumstances. Shooting more powder than shot will, in most
guns, tend to open the pattern a bit, and if that doesn't create too
many 'holes' in it, can be used to mimic the effect of less choke.
Conversely, using less powder than shot, by volume, will tend to tighten
the pattern, make it more dense. As is obvious from Mr. Markland's poem,
this principle was understood even by the very early 18th-century wing
shot....One Third the well-turned Shot superior Must Arise, and overcome
the nitrous Dust...or, as much as 1/3 more shot than powder, by volume.
search for Tow, and some old saddle pierce:
Wadding lies so close or drives so fierce.
the type and amount of powder and shot are decided upon, the shotgun
load can be constructed. First, the powder is put down. Then, some form
of wad is used over the powder, to keep the flame of the igniting powder
from invading the column of shot as it moves up the barrel. This would
not only disrupt the column by blowing hot gases through it, but could
melt/deform the individual shot, causing them to sail wide once they
escape the muzzle. The standard over-powder wad used by most is simply
dense cardboard, 1/8 inch thick. For many decades it has been thought by
some that a soft cushion wad should go down next, the idea being that
some of the shock of the igniting powder would be absorbed by that soft
wad, thus protecting the shot. These cushion wads are available in two
basic forms, a harder, more dense 'fiber' wad, and a softer 'paper felt'
wad. Both are about 1/2 inch thick. Once these are down, the shot is
dropped, and then an over-shot wad, usually 1/16 inch cardboard, is put
in last, simply to keep the shot from rolling out of the barrel.
late Mr. V. M. Starr, the shotgun guru from Eden, South Dakota, stated
that he saw no use for cushion wads, at all. He cut his own wads from
3/32 inch poster board, and simply loaded two over the powder, one over
the shot. This method works well in most guns, and the choice as to
which wads will be used must be left to the individual shooter.
of the cushion wad will allow unlimited shooting with little or no need
for cleaning between shots. Either fiber or paper felt cushion wads can
be lubricated prior to the shoot by submerging them for a moment in
melted solid Crisco shortening, with good results. Anything to soften
the fouling at the breech will allow it to be scraped off by the
over-powder card wad as it is rammed down, essentially cleaning the
barrel each time. Many shooters of trap or skeet use simply water and a
little detergent, or some form of Moose Milk, which is water plus
again Mr. Markland shows his understanding of the problem, when he
says....To ram the Powder well, but not the Ball...., because hard
ramming or pounding of the shot column once the shot has been added will
deform the shot, causing them to sail and damage the pattern.
end result of building the load in this way is a very efficient, hard
shooting round. The velocities of black powder loads are on average
about 100 fps-200 fps less than that of modern shot shells, but that
difference is not enough to prevent the clean taking of game or
consistent breaking of clay birds. In order to minimize the difference,
a few things can, and should be practiced.
a shorter range limit, about 5-10 yards shorter, depending upon the gun.
This will in effect tighten the pattern, since there's less time for the
shot to scatter, and more shot will strike the target. It will also mean
that more energy is retained by the shot, since it will have slowed
less....and energy is equal to weight X velocity.
one shot size larger than you would normally use with a modern shotgun
in the same situation. The larger shot will retain energy better out to
game range. This will, of course, mean fewer shot, but in most
situations will not be a telling factor.
some type of 'shot cup'. For those longer shots, this can work well. A
frequent technique is simply to use plastic shot cups manufactured for
shot shells, but cut off the cushioning column, leaving only the cup.
There are some disadvantages to this; one, that there are no cups made
which will completely hold a heavy load of shot, and; two, that the shot
cups are too small in diameter. This latter is true because they are
manufactured to fit inside a shot shell, not the barrel directly. To
avoid problems caused by this mismatch of size, always use a good
a choked gun. Since the beginning of 'shooting flying', shotgunners have
always wanted to take game at greater ranges than their guns would
allow. As early as 1781 the idea of extending the range and
concentrating the shot on the center of the target by changing the shape
of the bore of the barrel had been hit upon. The idea was worked on by
many people for almost a hundred years before success was achieved. A
patent for a choke-bored barrel was granted to one Roper, an American,
in 1866, but his choke never proved practical. It remained for W. W.
Greener, the famous British gun developer, to work out the tools and a
practical method of choking, and his first guns with this configuration
were not developed until 1874.
accurate replica of a shotgun using flintlock ignition will be a
cylinder bore, as will any percussion replica of guns up to 1874. A
variety of chokes are offered in our modern replicas, and each must
decide if they are for him. Standard modern chokes of Improved Cylinder
(IC) and Modified (Mod) are available in modern black powder shotguns,
and these can be used with little difficulty. Full Choke (Full) guns are
also available for special situations, as in turkey hunting or trap
shooting. These chokes are available as fixed configurations, that is,
ground in, or as replaceable choke tubes, screw-in type. Full choke guns
of either type can be a problem to load, since the wads are larger than
the choke, will be difficult to push past it, and may be deformed in
passing through it, with possible detrimental effects on the pattern.
Other than this, choked black powder shotguns achieve the same
improvement in range and pattern density as modern shotguns, just not
quite so much, because of the inherently lower velocities.
A special type of choke, the 'jug' choke, can be done to cylinder
bore barrels, and this is a very efficient choke. It consists of a
precisely shaped widening of a short section of the bore just behind the
muzzle, achieved by removing metal. Since the smallest diameter of the
cylinder bore is not decreased, but only increased in that one area, no
difficulty is encountered in ramming wads down, yet the gun will shoot
with the best of the modern chokes. This is a custom gunsmithing job,
and has never been offered on any commercial replica.
With all the above factors in mind, the gun needs to be patterned,
fired to check the density and evenness of the shot at target range. As
with any black powder gun, any component in the load can affect the
results in a good or bad way, and many combinations should be tried
until the optimum load is discovered. Since the gun may be used in
several different situations, each calling for different performance,
most shooters will want to develop an optimum load for each. A load for
quail over dogs will be quite different than one for pass shooting
with much experience shooting modern shotguns has been gently
brainwashed into thinking that choke is a great thing, and that there
cannot be too much power. As a result, converts to black powder
shotgunning often feel there is a significant disadvantage to shooting
the guns. This is not true. In most small game situations, an open choke
and light to moderate loads will prove more than adequate for the job.
Many a man has found the old black powder scatter gun to be just the
ticket for most of his hunting needs.
And here be mindful constantly to Arm
With Choice of Flints, a Turn-Screw and a Worm;
Very good advice, even today, especially for the
flintlock shotgun shooter. Regardless of ignition, though, that worm is
a handy thing to have in your pouch while afield with the black powder
shotgun. A jag is a poor tool for cleaning the smoothbore barrel, but a
worm does it very well. A piece of cloth pierced and twisted on a worm
will reach the recesses of the breech much better, and will not get
stuck, as a jag is very likely to do. Another handy tool is a
ball-pulling screw, one of those with a brass collar to prevent it
touching the bore. This can be used to easily screw into wads and remove
them, in case the occasion arises to pull a load.
Which, dry'd and season'd in the Oven's Heat,
Has stood in close-mouthed Jarr the dampless Night.
Surely no one would put his powder in the oven, today.
There are a few safety items that need to be mentioned in relation to
black powder shotguns, though, items not encountered with other types of
guns. Double barrel...a wonderful configuration, handy for that quick
second shot, or for loading each barrel in a different way. Having two
barrels creates two potential dangers, though. First, when you have shot
one barrel and must reload it before you shoot the second, ALWAYS
uncap that loaded barrel first, if shooting percussion, or open the
frizzen and dump the prime if shooting flintlock. Obvious, but easy to
forget. Second, when you shoot the same barrel repeatedly, it is
possible for the recoil to cause the shot column in the unfired barrel
to move forward a bit. As with any other muzzle loading gun, it's
critical that the entire charge be rammed against the breech. An easy
problem to solve...every 3rd or 4th time you reload, slip the ramrod
down that unfired barrel and make certain it's still well seated.
Another aspect of the versatility of the shotgun is
its ability to shoot solid projectiles, roundball, instead of shot. This
is easily worked out by simply substituting a patched round ball for the
shot and leaving out the over-shot wad. Everything else stays the
same....powder, card wad, cushion wad, then a tightly fitting lubricated
patched roundball. An ounce of any lead shot weighs 437.5 grains, and we
shoot up to 1 1/2 ounce of it, 656 gr., in the larger gauges. A typical
Brown Bess musket of .75 caliber is an 11 gauge. A roundball to fit it
will weigh 625 gr., so although that roundball seems heavier, it is
actually lighter, and can be quite safely shot with moderate to heavy
powder charges in a strong gun. A roundball for any given gauge will
weigh less than the maximum charge of shot for that gauge. Any shotgun,
single or double barrel, which puts the center of its charge of shot
right where the bead is pointing will shoot groups acceptable for large
game out to about 50 yards, 75 yards with practice. At first
consideration, one would think that having no rear sight would be a
severe disadvantage, but it isn't so. A well fitting shotgun will cause
you to point naturally at the target, with your eye and head position
serving well as a rear sight, and the groups will surprise and please
The black powder shotgun gets little of the attention
of the average black powder shooter, and that's regrettable. For a
versatile, enjoyable, efficient and reliable companion in the field or
on the range, it's hard to beat.
©1997 B. E. Spencer