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The muzzleloader hunting season is when many new muzzleloading rifle hunters begin harvesting prey using trusty, old-method firearms. With more game options and fewer hunters in the field, this early phase has the most excellent weather; it offers a chance to fill your entire season’s limit. But what powder is the only kind that you should use in a muzzleloader?
Black powder is the only variety of powder that you should load in a muzzleloader. Although synthetic alternatives exist, you should only use approved substitutes and never the new smokeless types. This propellant is easily ignitable, with a widespread reputation in the muzzleloading community.
Keep reading as I dissect the ins and outs of powder for muzzleloaders. We’ll talk about how to use and why only specific varieties are suitable for your firearm.
What’s a Muzzleloader Firearm?
With a muzzleloader hunting license, you’re entitled to one deer, rabbits, squirrels, quail, and migratory birds. Unlike modern firearms, you must load this rifle from the muzzle, which goes for each shot. There are no mechanical levers or bolts for load or reload, and designs include the inline and break action.
Your inline muzzleloader features a threaded breech plug at the end of a long tube on the shooter’s end. A nipple on this plug holds the primer, after which a hammer striker combination is the igniter or detonator of your powder charge. As the powder burns, gas pressure drives the propellant, often a ball, down the barrel and out the muzzle.
Many modern inline muzzleloaders use a 209 shotgun primer that doesn’t require a unique tool for capping or de-capping. Percussion caps are also used to make the powder explode. However, their breach plugs are different so that you can use 209 primers and Number Eleven caps interchangeably.
Break action muzzleloaders use a lever to pivot the barrel away from the stock, exposing the primer bay or recess. There are also falling block, trap door, plunger, and bolt action muzzleloader models.
What Is Black Powder, and Which Type Should Be Used in a Muzzleloader?
Are you starting as a muzzleloader shooter, or maybe the staggering options on offer for propellants are overwhelming? Contrary to years ago, this sector has come a long way in powder choices. It remains your choice of which brand is the best fit for your firearm.
Black powder is made from sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter. This granular substance can be black, grey, or brown and ignites in a dense cloud of white smoke.
As the only powder that you should use in a muzzleloader firearm, black powder is available in four distinct granulations;
- Fg is the coarsest grained black powder used mainly in cannons, ten or larger gauge shotguns, and rifled of .75 caliber or more.
- FFg is medium-grained and typically used in shotguns of 20 to 12 gauge, muzzleloaders of .50 to .75 caliber, and pistols in .50 caliber and above.
- FFFg is a fine-grained black powder that’s best used in pistols under .50 caliber, smaller shotguns, and rifles.
- FFFFg is an extra fine-grained black powder used as a primer in flint-locking rifle flash pans.
The coarser the granulation of powder, the larger the caliber or gauge of your firearm. Unfortunately, the original substance is mainly inefficient and corrosive, not to mention messy. Actual black powder produces so much smoke because only about 50% of the loaded sample burns. Much of this is blown out of the muzzle as smoke, while other residues remain within your barrel.
Alternatives to Pure Black Powder for Use in a Muzzleloader
One of the ingredients of black powder for muzzleloader priming and firing is sulfur. That’s the reason a foul smell is emitted once you’ve fired your fire-stick, often confused with rotten eggs. The composition is also hygroscopic, meaning that it’ll absorb moisture that affects its ability to ignite when exposed.
This charge is a sensitively combustive compound that can be highly hazardous when mishandled. As such, black powder is classified by the federal government as an explosive. There are strict regulations concerning the manufacture, transportation, and storage of this propellant, leading to its unavailability commercially.
Black powder for muzzleloaders also comes in two presentations, including loose and pelletized powder. In the US, Swiss Black Power and Goex are the two most famous black powder brands among muzzleloader hunters. While Goex is more readily available, Swiss Black Power is regarded as the finer-grained and better propellant.
Loose Black Powder:
This is an accurate and precise propellant that will offer incredible pellet groups 200 yards. Blackhorn 209 is the most accurate loose powder substitute in the market. It is best when you’re looking to have an advantage at the range or against prey in the woods.
Pelletized Black Powder:
The pelletized black powder comes in pre-measured pellets that offer simplicity and ease of use with muzzleloaders. Sizes range from 30, 50, and 60 grains. All you need to do is to drop them into your firearm without measuring volume or mass. It’s, however, challenging to accomplish the fine-tuning of your grain usage with these black powder substitutes.
What’s the Safest Black Powder Substitute for Use in a Muzzleloader?
Issues with its storage, presentation, and how black powder ignites have driven many muzzleloaders to opt for substitute powders instead. Typically classified as smokeless propellants, alternatives aren’t subject to the same stringent regulations that surround true black powder. As such, they’re readily available commercially, leave less residual pollution and offer a powerfully efficient burn.
While more difficult to ignite than the original, some substitutes are available in pellet form, making loading easier. If you use 209 primers, you’ll have fewer ignition hangfires, familiar with Number 11 percussion caps and muskets. Another thing to keep in mind is that every substitute is denser than black powder, varying on the brand, and you should use volume and not mass load measures.
Pyrodex is a popular black powder substitute that was the first developed for muzzleloader shooters. Although supposedly an alternative, this substitute is messy, smoky, and corrosive, just like the original black powder.
However, Pyrodex is easier to find on gun store shelves, unlike its predecessor, and it stimulates projectile performance up a notch. While more difficult to ignite than black powder, this alternate propellant is the easiest at combustion than other substitute powders.
If yours is a musket, an inline or side lock muzzleloader, or when you’re using a No. 11 caps, Pyrodex is an excellent substitute option. It’s available commercially in three granulation levels equivalent to similar black powder ratings. These include;
- Pyrodex P:
This is equivalent to black powder of FFFg granulation and works best with pistols of less than .45 caliber and muzzleloader rifles.
- Pyrodex RS:
Close to FFg black powder in size, Pyrodex RS works best with muzzleloading rifles and shotguns of 12-gauge or above.
- Pyrodex Select:
This is the newer Pyrodex variant that’s more consistent in performance with shotguns of .45 caliber and above as well as muzzleloaders. While similar in granulation to Pyrodex RS, it’s more accurate and cleaner burning than Pyrodex P.
You can also find Pyrodex substitute powder in 50-grain pellets that assist in faster muzzleloader firearm loading.
Hodgon’s Triple Se7en
Known as triple 7 or 777, this is another popular black powder substitute that’s in use for muzzleloader hunting applications. Triple se7en is a relatively new propellant and is more powerful and consistent while burning much cleaner. Being slightly less corrosive than Pyrodex or true black powder, it’s slowly edging out other alternatives, including Pyrodex as the best propellant in use with muzzleloading firearms.
Hodgon’s 777 is available in loose powder presentations of both FFg and FFFg granulation. There are also 30, 50, and 60-grain pellets, and the company recently started offering 33-grain FireStar pellets. These propellants are star-shaped instead of the typical cylindrical pellet shape, and the manufacturer claims they offer higher velocities without much fouling.
Out of all the loads I tested, the 777 FireStar matched up well against other black powder substitutes. Apart from overall performance, the alternate propellant also produced consistent velocities compared to other muzzleloader loads that I put to the test.
Triple Se7ev is widely available commercially, and you’ll find them in any self-respecting sporting goods store. While there are no ignition issues if you’re using 209 primers, 777 is more difficult to ignite than Pyrodex and true black powder. For my CVA Optima Northwest and Wolf inline muzzleloaders, Hodgon’s is my preferred substitute powder, but I don’t recommend you use it inside lock muskets.
Accurate Blackhorn 209
The newest kid on the block for black powder substitutes is Blackhorn 209, featuring the highest velocities of all available alternatives. This powder has excellent performance consistency, which helps with its trajectory accuracy. As one of the cleanest burning muzzleloader propellants, it’s also non-corrosive, and it’s unnecessary to use bore swabs between shots.
Accurate Blackhorn 209, while not as readily available as Triple Se7en or Pyrodex, is still pretty easy to obtain that true black powder. As defined in its name, this substitute powder is designed for 209 primers like CCI 209M and Federal 209A.
This black powder substitute works best with breech plus and specific primers. I wouldn’t recommend using it with No.11 percussion caps or pistol and musket muzzleloader primers to avoid ignition problems. Instead, use an inline muzzleloader as a hunting choice for great results, but you can’t exceed a 120-grain charge.
What’s Best for Muzzleloader Loading, Pelletized, or Loose Black Powder?
Whether you are using loose or pelletized powder, you’ll prefer a load charge of around 100 grains. You can also use heavier projectiles that’ll max out your muzzleloader rifles on longer shots, such as 120 grains of Blackhorn 209. 150-grains of pelletized or loose powder will also work well, but maximum loading charge can cause you to lose placement and shot consistency.
I’ve seen hunters and shooters hit a bull’s-eye and then their following few projectiles pattern between 12 and 18 inches off the mark. The question for me for using both pelletized and loose powder is one of shot distance, ease of use, and cost. When I am shooting less than 150 yards, I employ pellets, but above that, I find loose powder a bit more accurate.
Avoid using a muzzleloader that’s not designed to shoot smokeless powder, as it can cause a barrel explosion. Smokeless varieties are those used in rifle cartridges and shotgun shells.
With new inline muzzleloaders, ignition uses the ubiquitous 209 shotshell primers, and for that reason, it’s not a problem to light off. Using an older No. 11 percussion cap, as is prevalent in unaltered original Knight Rifles, it’s better to use Pyrodex pellets. That’s because these feature a true black powder ring that’s easily ignited, thus offering the advantages of both original and substitute powders in one.
You can find true black powder in granular form, while its substitutes offer pellets that make it easy to load your muzzleloader. While these are the only powders that you should use with your firearm, you must measure loose powder before pouring it down your barrel.
Powder measures ensure that you have a consistent load every time. As such, you shouldn’t use a powder horn or manufacturer shorn to load your charge. Store muzzleloader powders of any type in cool, dry safes or lockboxes.
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36 years old, been hunting and fishing my entire life – love the outdoors, family, and all kinds of hunting and fishing! I have spent thousands of hours hunting hogs and training hunting dogs, but I’m always learning new stuff and really happy to be sharing them with you! hit me up with an email in the contact form if you have any questions.