|February - March 1999
Volume 34, Number
The Winchester Model 1873 .38 WCF rifle with a ful
Mike included a Cimarron Arms Model
1873 saddle ring carbine and Colt Single Action Army Frontier Six Shooter in the
From the south Texas deer blind I could see in a 360-degree circle, but the dense brush
limited shooting range to about 75 yards. For over an hour there had been nary a movement.
Then almost by magic appeared the most
impressive whitetail buck I have ever seen. He was out only about 70 yards, and with the
binocular it was evident his antlers were thick, wide and extremely tall. I'm far more
familiar with Montana mule deer, but this buck's rack rivaled anything I had ever seen
Looking down at the Cimarron Arms Model 1873 Winchester replica in my hands, I experienced
a feeling of inadequacy. Not only was this rifle in .44-40 Winchester, but the cartridges
were loaded with cast lead alloy bullets powered by a case full of black powder.
Furthermore, I had never taken a deer with black powder loaded .44-40s. Nevertheless, I
raised the rifle and sighted carefully. . . .
Does this sound like your typical hunting story? Well, it's all true up to this point,
except I was participating in a depredation hunt on the south Texas shooting school known
as Thunder Ranch (HCR 1 Box 53, Mountain Home TX 78058). We could only shoot does and
spike bucks, and it was an excellent opportunity for a classic gun lover like me to try a
variety of calibers and loads on game.
When I raised the rifle, I wasn't sighting on the huge buck. The trophy fee he would bring
was far beyond my means. Instead I was carefully placing my sights on the doe following
behind him. At the boom of the Cimarron .44-40, the huge cloud of white smoke obscured
vision for a moment, but when it cleared I could see the doe lying in a heap. She hadn't
moved from her tracks after being hit laterally through the chest cavity by the 214-grain
RCBS flatnose bullet (44-200-FN).
Interest in black powder cartridge guns is currently at an all time high, as is reloading
for such. In the 1990s we shooters have demanded and gotten not only reintroductions of
late nineteenth century guns (Winchester Model 1892s, Marlin Model 1894s, replica S&W
Schofields, Model 1874 Sharps, High Walls, etc.) but also all the reloading paraphernalia
to go with them. For instance, Starline has added such calibers as .32-20, .38-40, .44-40,
.45-70 and even .41 Long Colt to their line of very reasonably priced bulk brass. Lyman
now offers .44-40 and .40-65 reloading dies priced no higher than .30-06 or .30-30 dies.
All companies making bullet moulds are offering a variety of designs intended for the
black powder cartridge shooter.
With such interest it is inevitable that a great many of us handloaders want to go beyond
just shooting black powder cartridge guns with safe smokeless powder loads. The lure of
finding out just how well they would work with black powder is too great. How accurate
were the old big-bore single shots and lever guns? How long would accuracy maintain before
fouling caused wild shots? With revolvers how many rounds could be fired before fouling
caused the cylinder to bind?
As an active competitor in both NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette and cowboy
action shooting, I've become an avid user of black powder in the cartridges that were
originally designed around such a propellant. Furthermore, after firing several tens of
thousands of rounds loaded with both black powder and Hodgdon's Pyrodex, I've come to one
firm conclusion Ð when the rounds are handloaded properly, no other powder will give
results quite as good in cartridges originally intended for black powder.
The key words here are "handloaded properly." If you simply scoop a case full of
black powder or Pyrodex and mash in some custom caster's bullet, then your loads might not
even stay on the backstop. Black powder cartridge reloading requires some particular
techniques and specialized components.
Our major adversary is black powder's fouling. It starts building up from shot number one
and accumulates quickly. Anything the handloader does that either reduces or softens
fouling will enhance the ammunition's performance.
To illustrate my point, I conducted a brief test centered around the .44-40 Winchester.
The two revolvers used were recently acquired and not previously fired with black-powder
ammunition. In other words they were clean slates. For a long gun I picked another
Cimarron Arms Model 1873 Winchester replica. Whereas the Cimarron Arms Model 1873 .44-40
mentioned in the lead to this story was one of their 24-inch octagon barreled, pistol grip
Sporting Rifles, this new one is a 19-inch barreled saddle ring carbine.
For a revolver I turned to a nickel-plated Colt Frontier Six Shooter with 71Ú2-inch
barrel. This is one of the 2,002 Peacemaker Centennial Commemorative .44-40s made back
about 1975 (another 2,002 were made as .45 Colts). Except for the "1873 Peacemaker
Centennial 1973" markings on the right side of the barrels, these Colt SAAs are
correct down to the most minute detail with 1870s vintage originals. Except, that is, they
are made of modern steels. I consider them among the finest Colt SAAs ever made and had
been shooting one .44-40 for several years. A few months back the second sixgun was
offered at a reasonable price, so I decided to have a brace of them.
Next I chose the powders to use. Currently we have two brands of black powder commonly
available in this country. They are GOEX, which is now being manufactured in Louisiana,
and Elephant brand, which is being imported from Brazil. Also included was Hodgdon's
Pyrodex, which is manufactured in Kansas.
Black powder commonly comes in several
granulations termed Fg, FFg, FFFg and FFFFg. The more Fs the finer the powder with Fg
commonly being recommended for big bores of .45 caliber and over and FFFFg used only for
priming flintlocks. Additionally, in 1994 GOEX began marketing "Cartridge" grade
black powder, which is basically aimed at the BPCR Silhouette shooting crowd. In burning
rate Cartridge grade is just slightly behind GOEX FFg. Pyrodex is made as P, RS, CTG and
Select grades. The first one is intended for cap-and-ball pistols, the third for cartridge
reloading, and the other two are said by Hodgdon to equal FFg black powder. As the name
indicates, Select is their premium grade.
For my shooting tests I picked GOEX FFg, FFFg and Cartridge grade. From Elephant's
offerings FFg and FFFg granulations were used. I centered only on Hodgdon's best, Pyrodex
Select, because in previous shooting it had given better results than the other grades.
These six powders were coupled with two .44-40 cast bullet designs that I have come to
favor over the years. They were the RCBS 44-200-FN, with which I dropped the south Texas
whitetail mentioned earlier, and Lyman's 427098. Both of these flatnose bullets were cast
of 1/20 (tin to lead) alloy. Such an alloy has a Brinell hardness number (BHN) of about
10. We black powder cartridge shooters have long since discovered that antimony hardened
alloys with higher BHN numbers (Lyman No. 2 alloy is 15 and Linotype is 22) give much
worse leading than the softer alloys. I use a 1/20 mixture for all black powder cartridge
shooting now, ordering it in by the ton from a foundry.
Something else that is absolutely necessary to good black powder cartridge shooting is a
proper bullet lube. Besides the normal property of trying to stop leading, a black powder
bullet lube must also be able to mix with the fouling in order to keep it soft. Hard lubes
are virtually worthless for black powder cartridge shooting. For many years I owned half
interest in the SPG Bullet Lube Company (PO Box 1625, Cody WY 82414). Even though I'm no
longer connected, it's only natural that I still use it.
Besides that, it works very well. The above
two cast .44-40 designs were also sized to .428 inch while being lubed. Finished weights
were 214 grains for the RCBS bullet and 209 grains for Lyman's.
From much testing experience I've come to the conclusion the hottest primers give best
results from black-powder cartridges. My theory is that the hotter, longer flame helps
com- bustion and reduces fouling. In some machine rest testing with the .45 Colt last
year, the best black-powder groups always came with CCI 350 Large Pistol Magnums. That's
what I used here, and for brass only Starline cases were used.
Incidentally, with our modern brass one should forget the 40 in .44-40. That stood for the
amount of black powder originally loaded in this cartridge. There's no way modern made
cases will hold that much. However much unlike smokeless propellants, the proper amount of
black powder is however much will fit into the case. In fact my opinion is that the proper
amount is what will fit into the case so the bullet compresses it about 1/8 inch. That's
not a critical measurement. If the compression is only 1/16 inch or even 3/16, then no
harm is done. You just don't want to try to compress the powder so much that the bullet is
deformed during seating. Uncompressed black powder gives much worse fouling.
As the table shows, the proper amount of black powder with these bullets in Starline brass
ranged from 33 to 35 grains. Each charge was hand weighed to plus or minus .10 grain. Also
be informed that the thinner Winchester cases might allow for a little more powder while
the thicker Remington ones will accommodate a little less. The bullets were seated so the
RCBS design was crimped in the proper groove, while the Lyman brand was crimped over the
ogive. Overall loaded cartridge lengths are given in the table, but it should be mentioned
that rounds with both bullets functioned perfectly in the Cimarron Model 1873.
Aside from the powder compression factor, the only other reloading technique that is
different from smokeless reloading is that most of us black-powder shooters put the powder
into the cases with the aid of a drop tube. Why this helps black powder burn with less
fouling, no one can say. Perhaps it's the compaction given as it trickles into the case.
Regardless it does help and allows two to three grains more powder in the .44 WCF cases.
In long range target shooting with black powder cartridge rifles we always rely on some
sort of wad (vegetable fiber or cardboard) between powder and bullet. It acts as a
primitive gas check. However, for these close-range loads, my testing has shown that wads
have no benefit, and they weren't used in this shooting.
The test procedure with the guns was simple. The Colt was mounted in a Ransom Machine
Rest, and groups were fired at 25 yards. The carbine was fired at 50 yards from sandbag
rest. A single five-shot group was fired with each load assembled. However, there was one
arbitrary decision to make. That was whether or not to clean the guns after every group?
That would be time consuming, so instead I decided that after each black powder or Pyrodex
group, five smokeless powder loads would be fired to burn the fouling out of the bores.
This is something I often do after firing black-powder loads, as it greatly reduces
As can be seen in the table, this little test was a great success. The Colt produced
groups as small as 1.50 inches at 25 yards, and the Cimarron carbine got down to 1.25
inches at 50 yards. It is also interesting to note that the Colt gave better average
accuracy with Lyman's age old .44-40 design, while the carbine liked the newer RCBS one.
Interestingly, both of these .44-40s like GOEX FFFg best. I would have bet on FFg. Three
of the four groups fired with Pyrodex Select were in the respectable category. Only the
one fired with Lyman's bullet in the carbine at 50 yards got too big to be acceptable.
Neither .44-40 shot Elephant brand black powder well, and its velocities were
substantially lower than with any of the other powders. Perhaps some experimentation with
primers might cause Elephant brand to perk up some.
Speaking of velocities, especially note the speeds generated from the 71/2-inch barrel of
the Colt with both Pyrodex Select and GOEX FFFg. They approach the 1,000-fps mark. Not
many reloading manuals list .44-40 smokeless loads which do that.
Personally, I intend to use the .44 WCF Colt and Uberti carbine for hunting and
competition, and now I know which loads they are going to shoot well. It wasn't very hard
to find out.
Note: Since doing this original testing, I have had the occasion to fire 50 rounds
of GOEX FFg with the RCBS bullet through the Colt Frontier Six Shooter. Only in the last
cylinder- full was any binding from the fouling evident.
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