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Black Powder Shotgun Basics

In Pteryplegia: Or, The Art of Shooting Flying, a poem written in 1727, A. B. Markland said, in part:

 

To ram the Powder well, but not the Ball;
One Third the well-turned Shot superior Must
Arise, and overcome the nitrous Dust,
Which, dry'd and season'd in the Oven's Heat,
Has stood in close-mouthed Jarr the dampless Night.
Now search for Tow, and some old saddle pierce:
No Wadding lies so close or drives so fierce.
And here be mindful constantly to Arm
With Choice of Flints, a Turn-Screw and a Worm;
The accidental Chances of the Field
Will for such Implements Occasion yield

When 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.

 

Fusils, 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. 

 

Regardless 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 

 Arise, and overcome the nitrous Dust,

Load 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.

It 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.

 

Now search for Tow, and some old saddle pierce: 

No Wadding lies so close or drives so fierce. 

 

Once 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.

 

The 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.

 

Lubrication 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 water-soluble oil.

 

Once 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.

 

The 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.

 

Set 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.

 

Use 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.

 

Use 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 over-powder wad.

 

Use 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.

 

Any 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 doves.

 

Anyone 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 you.

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

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