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Ammo Black powder primer: Part 2

Black powder primer: Part 2

History of airguns

Part 1

This report covers:

  • The fineness of the grains
  • Finer powder means faster ignition
  • How airguns relate to black powder firearms
  • Cannon powder
  • White powder?
  • Smokeless powder
  • Summary

In this report we continue our brief exploration into black powder. While this is not an airgun subject, it is airgun-related, as you will learn today.

The fineness of the grains

Black powder exists in a number of levels of fineness, from FFFFFg (5Fg) to Fg (1Fg).  The F stands for fineness and the lowercase g stands for “graphited”, as in coated with graphite. I never knew 5Fg existed until I started researching this blog, but a company online actually sells it. I have always believed that 4Fg was the finest black powder that could be purchased. 

Let’s relate black powder fineness to calibers. In rifles, muskets and cannons with barrels of .62 caliber and larger, Fg. is used. A starting load would be 1.5 grains of powder to each point of caliber. For a .62 caliber rifle 93 grains (1.5 X 62) would be a safe place to start. You work from that load up and down, searching for the best accuracy.

For a medium bore gun (.45-.61 caliber) use FFg powder. For a .54 caliber rifle you would use FFg powder and a starting load would be 81 grains (1.5 X 54).

For firearms smaller than .45 caliber, switch to FFFg powder and use one grain per caliber point. So, for a .32 caliber rifle, a charge of 32 grains of FFFg powder would be a good place to start. In some guns like cap and ball revolvers 32 grains might be too much powder to use because the ball must be rammed down on top of the powder in each chamber and the ball has to clear the breach so the cylinder will revolve. Firearms that are designed like that limit what can be loaded into them.

With black powder you don’t want any empty space inside the firearm or the cartridge. Empty space allows a pressure wave to build and it acts like a hammer as it passes through the gun. Black powder loads should always be compressed.

Finer powder means faster ignition

The fineness of the powder determines the speed at which it burns. The speed at which it burns determines the time it takes to rise to its maximum pressure and that, in turn, determines the calibers with which it can be used. Larger calibers have larger bullets, which means they resist moving more (longer) when the pressure rises.

Until discovering that 5Fg powder existed I would have said that 4Fg was the finest and fastest-burning of the black powders. It is used for priming the flashpans of flintlock firearms and for very specialized small-caliber black powder guns, such as .22-caliber derringers and so on. I suppose that 5Fg powder can also be used for these things, but having zero experience with it, I decline to say anything further.

How airguns relate to black powder firearms

I could make several points in this section about how the velocities of airguns and black powder firearms are similar — with the black powder firearms being limited to less than 2,000 f.p.s. and usually less than 1,400 f.p.s. I could also equate the power of black powder firearms to those of big bore airguns. While black powder elephant guns can develop over 5,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy (a 4-bore gun shooting a quarter-pound (4-ounce or 1,750-grain bullet with 540 grains of black powder behind it), the type of black powder cartridges that most people shoot today top out at around 3,500 foot-pounds, with a lot of what we think of as the big boys, like the .45-70, stopping at around 2,000 foot-pounds.

Big bore air rifles are now up to around 1,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle, so there isn’t that much difference. But that’s not where I’m declaring airguns and black powder arms have crossed paths in a major way. No, I’m going back to the 1770’s when Bartolomeo Girardoni worked on a repeating black powder rifle. 

Repeating rifles were unheard of in the black powder era until the self-contained cartridge came on the scene in the late 1850s. The danger of loose black powder being ignited in a repeater before it was safely inside the chamber was very great. When that happened, the gun blew up. Girardoni’s son was killed when his father’s prototype rifle blew his arm off. That was what led Girardoni to develop the repeating air rifle. His air rifle that the Austrian army adopted was .46 caliber and carried 22 shots in a tubular magazine that sat alongside the barrel and action. And I contend that if his black powder repeater hadn’t blown up he might never have developed his repeating air rifle of 1780.

Girardoni air rifle
The 1780 Austrian Girardoni air rifle was a 22-shot .46-caliber repeater.

Cannon powder

Okay, we now understand the Fg system of powder fineness, but it doesn’t stop there. Powder granules also get larger.

There is a whaling powder that is used to fire the large harpoons used by whaling ships. Because the harpoons are heavier than cannon balls, plus they have heavy ropes attached to them, this powder has huge granules that approach a half-inch in diameter. Cannon powder exists in several sizes that are smaller than whaling powder but much larger than Fg powder. And I am not even addressing several specialized black powder granule sizes that are developed for specific purposes, such as life saving. Is that the powder that launches a ring life-buoy to a person in the water? I don’t know.

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White powder?

Black powder doesn’t have to be black. It’s the charcoal that gives it a gray color, plus the graphite coating on some types of powder. But throughout history there have been powders that were brown, white, yellow and even pink. It all depends on what they are made from.

For example, a mixture of crushed vitamin C tablets (ascorbic acid) and potassium nitrate (KNO3) makes a white, gold or pink powder that burns clean with little or no smoke and leaves water vapor in the bore. With this powder it is possible to shoot a gun clean! In the 1980s there was a company in Las Vegas that was trying to bring this kind of powder to market. It was to have been called Golden Powder, but from what I can tell it never came to market.

Smokeless powder

The advent of gunpowder made from nitrocellulose ended the high-level experimentation with black powder and related gunpowders. Nitrocellulose powder that we commonly call smokeless powder today is so much more powerful and controllable, that it eclipsed black powder in about 30 years after coming to market. The changeover was actually much faster than that, but black powder hung on for certain applications — both because it worked so well and also because the new smokeless powders had initial teething problems.

The military was quickest to recognize the advantages of smokeless and they pushed its development to get the velocity that extended the range of their rifles and machine guns. Black powder was left for the country boys who continued to use it even after smokeless proved to be better. It probably reached its lowest point in ther 1950s when Dixie Gun Works started promoting it to American sportsmen again. Know this — the .30-30 Winchester cartridge was the first popular smokeless rifle cartridge, and the second 30 in its name was to designate how much smokeless powder was contained in the case — just like the black powder cartridges had done (e.g the .45-70). That was the last big gasp of the black powder era.


This short series has been a quick look at black powder to address some things that some readers asked me to. As far as I am concerned, this is the final report. But if you have questions ask them and we shall see.

author avatar
Tom Gaylord (B.B. Pelletier)
Tom Gaylord, also known as B.B. Pelletier, provides expert insights to airgunners all over the world on behalf of Pyramyd AIR. He has earned the title The Godfather of Airguns™ for his contributions to the industry, spending many years with AirForce Airguns and starting magazines dedicated to the sport such as Airgun Illustrated.

42 thoughts on “Black powder primer: Part 2”

  1. I would like to comment on black powder guns, not airguns, nor airgun related:

    In addition to the rule of thumb BB mentions for black powder loads, I have read that for pistols it is half that of long arms (due to their much shorter barrels there is less time to accelerate the projectile).

    Personally, I have been surprised how the amount of black powder affects accuracy, ie for me, bigger loads mean bigger groups. So, I mostly shoot much reduced loads from the rule of thumb. I say ‘mostly’ because sometimes I enjoy the louder bangs, bigger clouds and stronger recoil. 🙂

    Finally, there is a lot of information online, of which my two favourite sources are, Blackie Thomas’ youtube videos (practical advice on revolvers) and, particularly, John Fuhring’s extensive articles (interesting fouling management), linked here:

    (elsewhere I will add BB’s blog, because I learnt so much from it, eg who knew white powder could shoot a barrel clean?!)

  2. BB,

    Hmm you used on the RMAC a charge of a chamber ¾ full of 4Fg black powder. Using the rule of thumb above that means the starting charge should be a minimum of 22 grains up to 33 grains. Would that correlate with the amount of black powder you used then?


  3. BB,

    OK, I understand why you are using grains for measuring black powder charges as most people really should be measuring loads for there new powder burners with a grain scale, but was not the original way to measure black powder was in drams, a volume measurement?

    The .45-70 casing will hold 70 drams of black powder, the .30-30 casing will hold 30 drams, etc. When reloading, the old timers used to fill the casing with black powder and then compress the bullet onto the load. It made reloading quick and easy with no fussing with weighing loads. That is very likely why them ol’ country boys hung onto black powder for as long as they did.

    Under Smokeless Powder
    It probably reached its lowest point in ther(the) 1950s when Dixie Gun Works…

    • I shoot old style muzzleloading guns, which means that I need to make up my own charges.
      Although I do not follow strict historical procedure, ie I am not a reenactor, here is my method:

      In the beginning I used to weigh black powder for every shot on precision scales. Replica muzzleloader manufacturers typically recommend black powder charges in grains and grams.
      This soon became tedious, and so I invested in one of those brass powder flasks with an interchangeable spout. To dispense a particular amount of powder, I just screw on the appropriate spout.
      Although this is a volumetric measure, it is nevertheless consistently accurate (I know, I double checked with my scales). This is not just quick but also avoids spillage that occurs when filling a measure to the brim.

      Note: happily here in France, vintage black powder muzzleloaders (pre 1900) that operate without metal cartridges (paper ones are ok) and their replicas are license free to adults (including me 🙂 ).

      • LOL! I did a similar thing when I used to load my Pedersoli 1851 Navy Colt. I would fill the cylinder level and then cram down the ball.

        Many of the old timey muzzleloaders would take a buckhorn tine and hollow it out to the volume of powder they wanted. I also remember reading how the mountain men figured out their max load by laying in the snow and slowly increase their load until they would see unburnt powder on the snow. Then they would back off just a little.

  4. A dram is one sixteenth of an ounce (avoirdupois) or one dram equals 27.34375 grains. So no, the second number of 30-30 or 45-70, does not equal drams. Not even close, and is downright dangerous to try to substitute for grains. Grains (7000 per pound) has a long history as a measurement of weight. Measures, the devices used with black powder, closely approximate the grain weight of a charge. They are very repeatable, charge to charge, under field conditions. Somewhat similar to tuning a PCP to get a consistent shot string, no?

    I have some old measures calibrated in drams. Mostly they were used with measuring powder for shotguns. There was also an apothecary’s dram, entirely different from the avoirdupois scale.

    Hope this helps.

    • Paco,

      It’s grains, not drams. The .45-70 contains 70 GRAINS (not drams) of powder. Grains was used in the late black powder era. Or do you think that a .44-40 holds 40 drams of powder?


  5. BB

    So vitamin C almost found another use.

    Is black powder still used in large naval cannons? Not sure large cannons still exist in any navy.

    Did not know about the air pocket hammer.


    • Decksniper,

      In your questions are you talking about the Large projectile launchers in turrets?
      “Is black powder still used in large naval cannons?” No.

      Naval Artillery is usually called a gun and the individual barrel/breech in a turret on a modern ship is called a rifle.

      Not sure large cannons still exist in any navy.”. Cannons (smooth bore) went away around the time sails and wooden hulls departed naval service.. Large caliber deck guns have been replace by missiles, small and perhaps a few functioning rail guns. What is being used today on US Navy ships is: U.S. naval artillery gun mount consisting of a 127 mm (5 in) L54 Mark 19 gun on the Mark 45 mount.[1] It was designed and built by United Defense, a company later acquired by BAE Systems Land & Armaments, which continued manufacture.

      Mark 45 5-inch/54-caliber lightweight gun or a
      5-inch/62 caliber Mark 45 Mod 4.
      Specifications (Mod 2)
      21,691 kg (47,820.5 lb)[1]
      8.992 m (29 ft 6.0 in)[3]
      Barrel length
      6.858 m (22 ft 6.0 in)[3]
      Rifling: 5.82 m (19 ft 1 in)[3]
      Mod 4: 7.874 m (25 ft 10.0 in)
      127 x 835mm .R
      Conventional: 31.75 kg (70.0 lb)[1]
      54 caliber
      −15° to +65°[3]
      Max. elevation rate: 20°/s[3]
      ±170° from centerline[3]
      Max. traversing rate: 30°/s[3]
      Rate of fire
      16–20 rounds per minute automatic[4]
      Muzzle velocity
      2,500 ft/s (760 m/s)[1]
      1,500 ft/s (460 m/s) reduced charge for defilade fire or illumination rounds
      Effective firing range
      13 nmi (24.1 km)[4] or 20 nmi (37.0 km) (Mod 4)[5]
      The latest 62-calibre-long version consists of a longer-barrel L62 Mark 36 gun fitted on the same Mark 45 mount.[1] The gun is designed for use against surface warships, anti-aircraft and shore bombardment to support amphibious operations. The gun mount features an automatic loader with a capacity of 20 rounds. These can be fired under full automatic control, taking a little over a minute to exhaust those rounds at maximum fire rate. For sustained use, the gun mount would be occupied by a six-person crew (gun captain, panel operator, and four ammunition loaders) below deck to keep the gun continuously supplied with ammunition.

      The World’s navies no longer use black powder as a matter of fact it was the need for better propellant to avoid the harsh environment at sea that pushed advancements beyond Black Powder about the middle of the 19th Century.


      • On April 19,1989 US navy battleship Iowa’s number 2 turret exploded killing 47 crewman. It was reported that bags of black powder were mishandled for a 16” gun. Some say the bags were rammed too hard, others say a crewman deliberately caused the explosion. Also the D-846 powder used may have been too fast burning for the heavy projectile. Not sure correct cause has ever been determined. Black powder was used in the primer charge. No idea what D-846 is.

        In my earlier comment above I was thinking 16” or more projectiles. Do they exist anywhere? I guess not.


  6. Interesting stuff BB! Thanks for sharing!

    I have a couple of books on reloading and considered it for economical reasons but never invested in the equipment. Factory loads were accurate enough for my type of deer hunting.

    Your comments on tweaking the powder loads for accuracy make the same sense for airguns where small adjustments can make the difference between a one-inch group and stacking pellets.

    I’m still surprised how few PCPs are “tuner-friendly”. Myself, I don’t consider an PCP unless is is regulated and adjustable (without disassembly).


  7. Back in the early ‘70s, when FM got a notion to explore black powder world, don’t recall the literature on the subject addressing the air pocket no-no as B.B. has done now and in previous discussions. Essentially had to become self-taught on the craft. Thankfully, FM always instinctively rammed the .58 “minny” home and firmly into the Zouave barrel, so never messed up the rifle.

    Seem to recall the recommended load for my percussive friend was 60-65 gr FFg, although immature/inexperienced FM tended to kick the load up to 70 gr; bigger bang, more smoke, less accuracy though.

    Always learn something here, whether it is about airguns or powder burners.

    • FM,

      That was when I started to fool with black powder also! That ’51 Navy Colt I had would turn a feral soda can inside out at 50 yards. That long hand cannon would shoot.

      • That is one thing I regretted, not getting hold of a black powder revolver, in .36 or .44 cal – went off into the WWII artifacts and related “stuff” instead. But wait! There is still time for aforesaid revolver…and airguns…is there sufficient wampum for all that? That is another matter.

  8. Well I finally see why I never got into black powder when I was a kid and throughout time.

    I always had shotguns and a 30-06 that gave all the power and boom I needed. 😉

    And then there was air guns. 🙂

    • GF1

      The thrill of smoke and a sheet of fire at twilight is considerable! If you can shoot firearms in that field at home invite a buddy over who shoots black powder wheel guns. You may be in for hobby expansion.

      Thanks for contacting Chris.


      • Deck
        Yep I can shoot firearms where I live.

        And can’t say that I know anybody that shoots black powder by me. It’s shotgun, bow and arrow, rimfire, centerfire and on occasions potatoe guns. Oh and of course airguns.

  9. B.B.
    Thanks for the interesting read. Love it! I too have owned and shot bp guns. Funny thing, I know bp is pressure sensitive, or so I read. Therefore every time I’ve rammed home a round ball in a rifle, I can’t help but thinking is it possible to push hard enough that the gun would go off? I’ve never had them do it, but have often wondered. But I know if it’s not all the way down the barrel, there would be an air gap. Thanks again

    • Doc Holiday, I’m not sure that black powder is that pressure sensitive.

      I remember, for example, reading of someone who, in order to maximise his charge in a limited space, would regularly use a mallet to deliberately hammer home, with vigour, his projectiles (I think the idea was to have the maximum power behind every shot, in his every-day-carry black powder revolver).

      I imagine for auto-ignition to occur (over 400°C) there would have to be some burning ember in the barrel, the black powder to be contaminated, a suitably hot spark to strike, etc…

    • Doc,

      I haven’t heard that black powder is pressure sensitive. I believe you can hit a pile of it with a hammer and nothing will happen. Now, if it is burning when hit, that’s a different matter.


      • Or if the hammer blow produces a spark…might ruin the poor unfortunate’s makeup. Let’s not give any ideas to those Hollywood pyrotechnic “experts and geniuses.”

    • I’ve found that a $10 aluminum fire piston, loaded with black powder, will ignite just fine. I only use as much as what will fit inside the char cavity on the tip of the piston, but very tightly pressed into place. Perhaps 5 grains? The piston with a wooden handle added, will launch up into the air about 50 feet or so

      Based on that, I recommend against having a large air cavity between powder & ball & then ramming that down as quickly as possible

  10. “And I contend that if his black powder repeater hadn’t blown up he might never have developed his repeating air rifle of 1780.”
    I wasn’t around yesterday, so I missed this till today; I knew about his black powder repeater blowing up, but I hadn’t reached your contention…however, thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense.
    I also didn’t know about 5F black powder, so that was pretty interesting. And as to the recommended grain size for caliber, I would say that’s another area where black powder guns are like airguns: they each have their own individual preferences. When I got my Hawken replica, friends told me it was a .50 caliber, so I would have the best results with FFG powder. However, with a lot of experimentation, I found the best accuracy load to be 70 grains of FFFG powder. Great report, and I am really enjoying this series; thank you.
    Take care & God bless,

  11. Anyone interested in the history of black powder and smokeless powder is invited to read “The big bang. A history of explosives” by G I Brown.
    It focuses on US powder history, which is good or bad depending on what you are searching for. Well written and highly recommend.

  12. Another blackpowder/airgun tie-in you might find interesting: Samuel Pauly’s first cartridge, patented in 1814, used a spring-powered piston to compress air in order to ignite a priming compound on a small piece of paper glued to the end of his cartridge. His patent describes the firing device as a ‘syringe’, which I think would be in reference to the fire syringes that were popular at the time

  13. B.B.

    I am hoping that you will do a series of blog articles on the firearms of the Civil War. The US Civil War, lol. I understand that Germany sent over military observers to see what the new firearms and strategies were.


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