Educational Zone #66 – Shooting a Black Powder Pistol

In Part One we built a Philadelphia Derringer from a kit.

Today, we will see how it shoots.

I will also be shooting a Kentucky Percussion Pistol that I built back in the early 1970’s.

I have often been asked just how well a black powder pistol will penetrate as compared to a modern smokeless powder pistol.

Today we will also look at that issue.


Black powder is some weird stuff.

It is very easy to ignite and it burns at a very different rate than smokeless powder.

And, it is measured by volume, instead of weight.

Years ago, I made a couple of powder measures, one from a .357 Magnum case for about 30 grains of black powder, and one from a .44 Magnum case, for about 40 grains of black powder.

I also have an adjustable measure that allows any amount of powder to be measured and used.


The ball for these pistols is a .44 caliber ball.

The bore of the pistol measures .45, but we must have enough “slack” to allow the ball to be patched.

We usually think of a .44 ball to be “big”, but I was surprised to see that they only weigh 128 grains.

That’s pretty light as compared to modern pistols.


I also brought a Colt Cobra and here’s how they compare in size.

The Derringer is bigger than some might think.

It is not a tiny pistol.


To start any shooting session with black powder, you should first swab the barrel to make sure it is dry of oil.

Then you snap 1 or 2 percussion caps to clean and dry out the nipple.


Then you pour in the desired amount of powder (by volume)


In this case, I started with a load of 30 grains of FFFg Black Powder.


Then place a greased patch under the ball, and start it in the barrel with the starter.

Then a rod is used to fully seat the ball tightly against the powder charge.

Continued below...

When ready to fire, place a percussion cap on the nipple and you are ready to fire.


This small pistol was made to be used at “across the card table” distances, so that’s the range we will shoot at, about 4 or 5 feet.

Here's the shot. Fire and smoke!

Here’s the shot. Fire and smoke!

It penetrated through only one gallon of water for a total of 3 inches of ballistic gelatin at a 2 to 1 ratio. That’s not much penetration.

The ball was so unaffected, I could have shot it again.


Black powder gains velocity as a function of the amount of powder and the length of the barrel.

So let’s try a longer barreled pistol and more powder.

Here I am loading 40 grains of FFFg powder into the Kentucky pistol.

Here I am loading 40 grains of FFFg powder into the Kentucky pistol.

Let’s see what it will do. Stand and deliver!


Fire and Smoke!

Fire and Smoke!

It penetrated 4 jugs, or 12 inches equivalent in BG.


Notice how the hole seals back up and very little water pours out.

It ended up in the 4th jug.


Let’s see what a modern day equivalent would do.

We will shoot a 150 grain Round Nose Lead .38 Special out of the snub nose.


It penetrated into the 5th jug, but didn’t make much of a hole, just like the ball.

It did, however, turn sideways and make a bigger hole than the round balls did.


I wonder how accurate the Derringer would be at across-the-table distance?


I aimed for the bottom mark and the shot went 6 or 7 inches high and left.


Well, before we quit, let’s try a maximum load of 40 grains of FFFg in the Derringer.


It penetrated 4 jugs, much to our surprise.

Here it is in the last jug.


  1. With a standard load, the Derringer was a weak sister of a pistol. It would not penetrate enough to reach vital organs.
  2. With a hot load, it penetrated as well as a longer barreled pistol and reached the required 12 inches of penetration.
  3. A modern .38 Special, even with a very poor load of a RNL bullet, out performed the black powder pistol.
  4. The .44 caliber lead balls did not expand at all and just punched a .44 caliber hole right through the jugs.
  5. Cleaning up the nasty black powder fouling ain’t much fun.

But one thing for sure… It’s fun to shoot stuff.