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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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!

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Fire and Smoke!

Fire and Smoke!

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

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

It ended up in the 4th jug.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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It penetrated 4 jugs, much to our surprise.

Here it is in the last jug.

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Conclusions:
  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.