This is where it all started. The invention of gunpowder.
Basically, an easily portable powder which with the application of spark or flame, will produce a large volume of gas. Confine that gas in a tube and put a moveable object in there, and Hey Presto, the moveable object is propelled out of the tube in the direction of the least area of resistance. We now call that the muzzle, and the gun is born.
So when did all this occur? We don’t really know for certain. We do know that there was an early recording of its use by the Saracens at Thessalonica in 904! In what form that was used is very uncertain.
Our very own Roger Bacon wrote a thesis on gunpowder in about 1269 which was then taken up by a German monk called Berthold Schwartz who is commonly credited with it’s invention.
Black powder is a compound of Charcoal, Sulphur and Saltpetre. The recipe varies according to the history record, and who actually manufactured it…One thing for sure, is that none of the current membership of the MLAGB were around at the time. Close though!
I am going to confine this epistle, to pistol. However we must understand that everything started from the same basic tube arrangement, before developing into the rifles, shotguns and pistols we know today.
Similarly, the development of rifling in that tube is a subject best left to the academics. Suffice it to say that rifling spins the missile creating a gyro stabilized bullet or ball, and thereby improving accuracy.
So, what is defined as a pistol? One could also use the term handgun or in historic terms a Hande Gonne. That spelling varies too.
A short barrelled firearm able to be discharged whilst being held in one hand. Brief, but it will do for now. The interesting aspect of all this is the development of ignition systems. These hold true to all firearms. It is just a matter of scale. So let us start with the earliest.
Matchcord or matchlock – This is where a glowing end of a lit piece of rope is introduced to the priming powder at the breech. The craft of producing matchcord which glows with a suitable cone is an art in itself. It is best to buy this from a dealer or someone who is skilled in it’s production.
Initially the shooter of antiquity, would hold the firearm with one hand whilst introducing the glowing match to the priming powder at the breech. The gun would discharge towards the intended target, with not much accuracy. Hence the matchlock. This mechanism allows the match to be lowered into the priming powder under control, and under aim.
In the MLAGB and MLAIC we compete with Japanese Matchlock designs in a competition called the Tanzutsu. The pistols are all smooth bored and in a wide variation of calibres. I will visit the aspects of load later in this.
The Wheel Lock – We don’t use this style of ignition in competition due to it’s fragility and complexity. Basically, alongside the breech is a serrated wheel which is wound up with a key against a spring. Pressing the trigger spins the wheel against which is a piece of pyrites which is held between some jaws. The friction produces sparks which ignites the priming powder.
The Flintlock – this follows the wheel lock by virtue of having a moveable set of jaws holding a flint. This arrangement which is called the cock drops under spring power against a frizzen. The frizzen is a hardened piece of metal, and the friction causes a spark. As this spark is being produced, the frizzen springs out of the way to reveal the priming powder in the pan alongside the breech of the barrel. This in turn ignites the priming powder. There were many different styles of flint lock, all with different names, as this style of ignition was perfected. The final flintlock design was really very efficient, but prone to rain causing the powder not to ignite.
Competition under MLAGB/MLAIC rules for the flintlock take place under the title Cominazzo.
The Percussion Lock – I referred above to the problems encountered when it rained, using a flintlock. That, as well as the flash and smoke of the primer igniting used to startle the birds, and many a game bird got away.
Enter Edward Charles Howard, and the Rev Alexander John Forsyth. Two gentlemen to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude. Edward Howard for inventing the fulminate in 1800, which made the percussion caps, invented by the Rev Forsyth in 1807, actually work. One puts the fulminate in the bottom of a cup of thin metal, give it a sharp crack and the fulminate explodes. Direct the jet of flame created by this process, to enter the breech of a firearm, and it will ignite any powder inserted there. The locks created to use this system were efficient, fast and waterproof. They were also much simpler to manufacture. There are a huge variety of firearms designed to use this system, including shotguns, rifles, single shot pistols, and revolvers.
Competitions under MLAGB/MLAIC rules are called Kuchenreuter for the single shot pistols. Colt for original Revolvers, and Mariette for reproduction Revolvers.
Every type of ignition has it’s own competition title except wheel lock, and also bear in mind that each type of ignition has a competition for both Originals and Reproductions.
Choosing A Gun
This is very much individual choice. However, one can only make that choice with experience, so I will make some starter suggestions in relation reproductions for you.
Manufacturers come and go, but one keeps on getting better as time goes on. Davide Pedersoli makes almost every type of reproduction pistol going (also rifles and shotguns). My advice would be to start with one of the percussion pistols such as the Le Page, Mang in Graz or Kuchenreuter. These pistols are all capable of putting the ball in the centre of a target at 25m. The current pistol being used to win medals is the Feinwerkbau
History One. An under hammer pistol. However, there are issues with it’s not being in the spirit of the original, and it will soon have to be altered to conform, or it will not be allowed in competition. Revolvers can be obtained from Pedersoli or Uberti to name but two. If you can get hold of a Feinwerkbau revolver, then do so. They are excellent.
The trick here is to talk to the shooters when you visit any of our events. Some favour one manufacturer over another. Don’t forget to discuss loads with them at the same time. Every shooter wants to share his knowledge, and everyone is different. For example. In my Original Remington revolver, I use 29 grains of Swiss 2 powder. That is a lot more than most, and certainly more than the 22grains I use in my reproduction revolver. It works for me. That is the point I am trying to make here. Always ask an experienced shooter. Never guess, and be careful. Your local club know it all, may not actually know it all. There are recommended loads on the Internet, and some actually come with the pistol. Be advised, and stick to them until your experience gets better.
All the above has been in relation to reproductions. The other half of competition relates to Original Pistols. Here it is even more important to get advice. Buying an original pistol is very rewarding.
To start with. The law allows you to buy antiques without a firearms certificate. However, as soon as you wish to shoot it, you should put the pistol onto that certificate. One very interesting aspect here, is that there is also an investment angle to this. Buy an original pistol and look after it, and it will go up in value after a certain length of time. Hence your sport could also be an investment. This does not apply to reproductions unfortunately. Try to get someone with knowledge to examine your intended purchase for you. Most dealers are honest folk, but not all. Even then, dealers are human beings and can be fooled as well.
Most originals have not been proofed. This is a process whereby the proof houses put an above average charge into the firearms and fire it in a safe environment. If the pistol survives the firing, and inspection, it is proofed and safe to use. You do not have to have a stamp on the barrel, which may devalue it, you can get a proof certificate. I made the mistake of not specifying this, when my Japanese Matchlock went for proof. It now has a stamp on the barrel, I didn’t want. But I know it is safe to use.
Muzzle Loading Law
I could spend quite some time here, outlining Firearms Law. However, this is in the habit of changing at short notice which would date this, and make it useless and misleading after a while.
Get to know who your local firearms officers for the police are. Most, but not all are quite chatty, and will advise you quite readily. That is not always the case, but in the main you will get your answer.
Black Powder currently needs a separate licence to your firearms certificate, and you need yet another document to be allowed to carry it. After you have applied for your certificate and it has been granted, it will arrive with a document telling you how to apply for your licence to carry from the HSE.
Firearms certificates are a necessity. Currently you will need to join a home office approved club. Your local firearms officers can more than likely guide you in that direction. Once you have joined the club, you will have to serve a probationary membership that can last from three months to six months depending on the club. In law, they could sign you up as a full member straight away. But if they are sensible, they will find out if you are a suitable person first. Just be aware that not all clubs offer black powder shooting during this probationary period. The MLAGB is a home office approved club from it’s home at Wedgnock in Warwick.
So now you are a fully certified firearms owner. As mentioned here earlier, you may buy as many antique firearms as your budget will allow as a collector. But do not shoot them until they are on your certificate. Once on a certificate, you can sell to another shooter and complete the hand over by completing his certificate, and informing the police. You can also return the pistol to collector status, but you must again inform the police.
Loads, powder, patches and wads.
This where I quote an appropriate disclaimer. I am not going to give you any specific recommended loads here. Read the literature that comes with your pistol. Go on the MLAGB website and see David Spittles excellent winning loads list.
However, here is a rough guide to get you started
Flintock – between 15 and 35 grains
Matchlock – between 15 and 35 grains
Percusion single shot – between 10 and 20 grains
Revolver – between 12 and 30 grains
This guide is by no means proscriptive, but stay within those limits and nothing unpleasant should happen as long as the pistol is sound. It is at your own risk.
Just be aware that the thickness of a patch can vary according to preferences. In a large bore, I prefer a thick patch and a smaller ball. Some will prefer a thin patch and large ball. This is for you to discover. Some pistols like the Feinwerbau History One tell you the load to use. A .362 ball, ten thou patch and 10.5 grains of Swiss One powder. It works! Pedersoli ship a printed list of loads for each pistol that comes in the box. Try them first.
You can buy patches from many sources. Equally you can buy all sorts of lubricant. I did some research many years ago and found that spit is a wonderful lubricant. Cheap too. Similarly, water and fairy liquid works well. And it shifts black powder afterwards. Do not use WD40 or Brunox as a patch lubricant, as it affects the powder.
Wads come in many different sizes. Speak to a retailer or experienced shooter to get advice for your pistol.
Oh, and inert filler. Semolina POWDER is good. Not Ambrosia pudding! I have seen it happen. Honest! Washing powder will also work.
If you are starting with a recently acquired antique pistol. Always start low, say 10 grains and work up in one grain increments. Every pistol likes a particular load. You don’t want a dull thud, too low. You don’t want a loud crack either, too high. You will know it is right when the pistol rings, not the right term really, but it fits. Work up through the thuds, until suddenly the report is clear and sharp. Then work everything else around that load. Then again. ASK. Don’t risk it please.
Powder available to us in this country comes from quite a few sources. Swiss one and two for pistols. Henry Kranks Fine and medium powder works very well. And other powders are being imported. For International Competition we stick to Swiss, because it is available. Similarly I have had wondrous groups with Henry Kranks. So get what you can. Please bear in mind that there are other powders about that are not black powder. Pyrodex for example. This is not allowed in MLAGB/MLAIC competitions and it is very hygroscopic! (it absorbs water and causes rust).
Have your lit match in a container, away from the pistol before you carry out any other function.
Prime the pan on an empty barrel and flash off the priming hole.
Brush off the pan and blow any residue away.
Put a thin piece of wire into the touch hole.
Put the loading funnel into the barrel and pour the powder into the funnel from a phial. (never from a flask!)
Withdraw the funnel, and put a lubricated patch on the muzzle.
Place the ball onto the patch and centralize it.
Using a plastic or wooden hammer, Hit the ball until it is flush with the muzzle.
Using a short rod, start the ball down the barrel.
Take the long rod and ram the ball all the way down onto the powder.
Withdraw the long rod and then, pull the thin wire from the touch hole.
Pour a small quantity of priming powder into the pan and tap the butt to settle it.
Push the pan cover back over the priming powder.
Take your match from the container and blow until a glowing cone is evident.
Keeping the barrel pointing down range, fit the match into the serpentine with the glowing cone just above the pan cover.
You are now ready to shoot.
Pull back the pan cover with the non shooting hand.
Extend the arm. Aim. Depress the trigger and the serpentine will fall dropping the match into the priming powder. It will fire.
If the pistol does not fire at this point. Keep the pistol aimed down range and pull the serpentine back with the non shooting hand. This may fire it! If not WAIT 30 seconds! Remove the match to it’s container. Then brush off the priming compound (ALWAYS!). Push the thin wire back through the touch hole. WAIT 30 seconds. Then reprime, Do not use a flintlock primer or anything that contains a storage of priming powder. Then refire as above.
The matchlock is the pistol that requires the greatest care and concentration.
Choose your flint. One that is about the same width or just smaller than the frizzen.
Clamp the flint into the jaws of the cock using leather or lead on each side to hold the flint. This is generally folded over lead or leather.
Half Cock the pistol and prime the pan.
Close the frizzen over the priming powder and fully cock the pistol.
Aim the pistol and pull the trigger. This should flash the pan and clear the touch hole.
Half cock the pistol and brush off the pan, blowing away any residue.
Place a thin piece of wire into the touch hole and close the frizzen to hold it in place.
Holding the barrel vertical drop a long funnel down the barrel, and pour in the powder from a phial (never a flask)
Place a lubricated patch over the muzzle and centralize it.
Place a ball onto the centre of the patch and using a plastic or wood hammer, make it flush with the muzzle.
Take a short loading rod and start the ball down the barrel, then complete the ramming with the long rod. It is always good to mark your loading rod so that you know when a full load is down the barrel. Always load to the same level.
Remove the thin wire from the touch hole and prime the pan, tapping the butt to level the powder.
Close the frizzen over the priming powder and pull the hammer back to full cock, keeping the barrel pointing down range.
Aim the pistol, and fire.
Single Shot Percussion
Before any other action. Place a cap on the nipple and having pulled the hammer to full cock. Fire it. This is called capping off. It clears any obstruction and oil from the pathway from the nipple to the powder in the breech. In competition this should always be done during the competition 30 minutes. Use the time to reinforce the sight picture and trigger pull.
Drop a long funnel into the barrel and pour in your pre measured charge of powder. Then remove the funnel.
Centralize a lubricated patch onto the muzzle of the pistol.
Place a ball into the centre of that patch and with a plastic or wooden hammer knock it flush with the muzzle.
Then start the ball down the barrel with a short rod, and complete with a long rod marked to show a full load as you ram it down.
Some loads require quite an effort to push the ball down, and some do not. Always try to remember how much effort you use and duplicate it every time.
Remove the rod and point the pistol down range before putting a priming cap on the nipple.
Aim the pistol and fire.
Repeat the process.
As with the single shot, you should always cap off prior to loading. If during a competition, this is always within the competition 30 minutes. Don’t forget to do this, it’s important. Otherwise you could be left with a gun which won’t fire. We shall deal with that later.
A point to mention here is that to get good accuracy, you should try to load each ball to the same level. Preferable, just below the chamber mouth. Any higher would jam the pistol as you try to rotate the chamber in the pistol. Accurate loads of powder, are not full loads of powder. So you must use either an inert filler such as semolina powder, or a wad. If you use semolina powder, I recommend Sainsbury’s semolina as it is as coarse as gunpowder, and can be applied through a flask and spout. A wad is simpler and is a matter of personal choice.
Now to load your chamber. In competition you are not allowed to use the revolver as a single shot. So load the chamber appropriately for your 13 shots, or 14 if you fire a fouling shot (recommended)
Start with 6 so you can fire your fouling shot, leaving five shots for the target. Then load 5, and 3 after that.
Using a small funnel pour your measure of powder into the chamber. Then, follow with the wad or semolina.
Put the ball over the loaded chamber and align it under the pistol rammer. Then press the ball home as far as it will go, making sure it is below the chamber mouth.
I prefer to load each chamber fully before moving on to the next.
When you have all your chambers, you will need to apply lubricant to each loaded chamber on top of each ball. This is to prevent flash over, and lubricate the barrel. When you fire the pistol, a ball of flame surrounds the chamber and if that flame gets through to the powder it will ignite that or all the chambers. That is called flash over.
Lubricant is another personal preference issue. You can buy lubricant such as bore butter, or simply use lithium grease. There are many other options for you to try. I started with hoof grease. It stinks, but it works! Make sure the area around each ball is covered.
Your next task is to cap the nipples. There are tools on the market to assist with this, or you can use your fingers. As long as it works. ALWAYS keep your fingers behind the front of the chamber when you cap the nipples. An eagle eyed range officer may step in to stop you if you don’t. If one goes off with your fingers in the way, the result is as painful as it is obvious. Keep the barrel pointing down range as you carry out this function.
You are now ready to fire.
Nock Chamber on single shot pistols
Be aware, that at the base of some single shot barrels, alongside the touch hole or nipple is a chamber designed to hold the powder but not allow the ball to compress it. This is a machined narrowing of the barrel which allows the ball to sit in a sort of cup on top of the powder chamber. Finding out how much this chamber holds can be complicated. But in theory the powder should just fill the chamber with the ball sat in it’s cup over the top, with minimal or no air space. Having any air space between ball and powder is not good. It can cause the barrel to bulge.
I cannot stress how important this is. Whilst black powder is hygroscopic, Pyrodex is even more so.
I have known some shooters simply soak their pistols in WD40 after shooting and leave it until they start again the next time. Not recommended even though those individuals were senior members, and very good shooters.
Cleaning a black powder pistol is not difficult. Some do it on the range immediately, some half clean it, then others will use the WD40, take the pistol home and boil the barrel in comfort.
In any case it is important to get rid of any residue from black powder and caps. There are many commercially available black powder solvents. Some good and some bad. Others use water and fairy liquid, and others use standard windscreen washer fluid. What matters is the end result. Soak it, scrub it, dry it, and then oil it for storage. A good stiff toothbrush is all you need to scrub away the external crud.
Down the barrel is VERY important. A good commercial rod with attachments is imperative.
First soak the barrel with water. I prefer boiling water. Then use a patch until the barrel is clean and dry. Always then pass an oil soaked patch through the barrel until it is completely covered. Then rub all external surfaces with oil until a THIN film covers all metal parts.
At home, I would remove the nipple or touch hole before I drop the entire barrel into boiling water for a soak. Then I clean off the crud.
I do the same thing with a revolver. I soak the chamber and the full pistol (no grips please) before flushing and cleaning. Boiling water will heat the pistol to evaporate off the water before oiling.
It is equally acceptable to sit on range and completely dismantle your pistol to clean each tiny bit. To do this, you must know how it goes back together without damaging springs and sears.
Taking the side plate off single shot pistols is also recommended, to get rid of crud that has fallen into there. Be careful not to over oil the internal lock mechanism. It will alter your trigger pull.