A Green horns progress
By Richard Lees
When I wrote my first chapters as a novice shooter, it was December 2009. Now at the end of 2011, after two years shooting I thought it was time to add some more information and tell what I have been up to for the past few years.
When you purchase ammunition for a conventional modern gun, you buy it pre-packaged: each round will be the same and it is nicely packaged with the same amount of smokeless powder and weight of projectile. You chamber the round, aim the rifle and fire it.
Black powder muzzle loading enthusiasts have no such luxury and would disdain the use of it if they had! Each muzzle loading gun requires a different amount of powder, a different thickness of patch and there may be several choices of ball (projectile.) Then there is lube, but more about that later.
For example, my Lyman 50 calibre can take a 490, 494 or 498 ball. A different thickness of material patch would be required depending upon the size of ball. A different amount of black powder would be required for the different sizes of ball. So there are variables and it is up to you, the shooter - to find the best combination for your gun. It is not as simple as saying “Oh well, today I will fire 490 ball and tomorrow 494 and I think I will try 50 grains of powder and I’ll use a piece of this old tea towel for patches, or can I have a piece of your old dress dear?” Which brings us to load development.
What is an optimum load?
The black powder shooter will want to find the best combination of powder, patch and ball for his or her muzzle loading gun. This is called the optimum load: The best sized ball, the right patch and the right amount of powder to consistently cause the ball to group on the target. By group, we mean that the ball will form a tight group on the target – perhaps your initial goal should be to get 5 ball falling in a 2 inch radius at 50 metres. Don’t worry about accuracy at this stage – you are looking for grouping. If you can do that you will be the envy of many! Site adjustment can come later.
To begin developing a load, the shooter will need the following:
A powder measure,
Your initial choice of size of ball,
Patches , all of the same thickness of cotton or linen material,
A bench (often available at the range).
Note book and pen– very important.
Much time will need to be spent on the range testing from a bench to arrive at the right combination of powder, patch and ball. A bench is designed to take the human variables out of testing. The forepart of the stock will be supported on sandbags on the bench; the shooter will sit at the bench and support the stock as firmly as possible against the shoulder.
To begin the process, an amount of powder , say 50 grains in the case of the Lyman is put in the gun, a 490 ball is put into the barrel on a cotton or linen patch, (or a combination of linen and cotton patch) note synthetic materials are never used - they are unsuitable. Note the load: the ball size and type of patch material and thickness, and the amount of powder in the note book. Very careful aim is taken at the target and a number of shots (5 minimum) are fired with the same size of ball, the same thickness of patch, the same amount of powder at the same point of aim on the target, at the same distance.
In choosing the distance, it is best to select the distance at which you will shoot most often. Most of the Black powder shooting I do is at 50 metres - that is where most of the interclub shooting is done.
Post firing analysis
After firing the 5 shots collect the patches and examine them. Are they reasonably intact? Did they tear? Did they disintegrate? Patch analysis is an important part of load development. Any of the above will require you to try another patch material.
The target. Where did the shots go? Did they group?
Let us for the purpose of this article assume the patches were intact and the ball was randomly scattered over the target.
Make a note in your book and proceed to up the charge by 5 grains and fire 5 more shots in the target. Analyse the results as before, patch and target and update your notes.
Providing your patches hold together and you use same size of ball, you will reach a stage after upping the charges within the recommended maximum load for your gun where your group starts to draw in and becomes tighter. Of course this assumes that the ball size you are using is the best one for your gun. You may have to try a 494 or 498 ball
You may have to try many different thicknesses and types of patch. By types of patch I mean that the weave of the cloth may be different and may ‘conform’ to the rifling or not conform as the case may be.
Grouping can be a tricky thing. It is not unusual for a gun to have several grouping loads and the group to go in and out as you up the charge by 5 grains each time. It may group at 60 grains; go out again at 65 and group best at 70. This is what black powder shooting is about: fully understanding your gun. Only when you have developed the optimum load for your gun will you be able to shoot with confidence knowing the load is correct. Of course, when shooting of the body and having sighted the gun in off the bench after developing your optimum load your ball may not hit the target where you want it to - but you will have the certainty of knowing it is your fault and not the gun!
When you find a suitable patch material buy a few metres of it, there is nothing worse than putting in the time and then finding you cannot get the same material again.
The next stage is to develop an off the body shooting technique and that incorporates variables too; how you hold the gun, how you stand, your site picture. Do you wince when the gun goes off? Or fail to follow through ( hold on target after the gun goes off)? No one said it would be easy being a black powder shooter and 3 years down the track, I’m finding that out, but it is a lot of fun.