GUNPOWDER ON THE AMERICAN FRONTIER
Updated: Feb 13
“Gunpowder” The Fuel of a Changing Land and a Currency on the Border Regions of a Young Nation
From Ancient Alchemy to the open expanse of America’s Plains, black powder fueled the weapons of the explorers, travelers and tribesmen who would capture the imaginations of generations to come.
Popo Agie Rendezvous, (1829) American, European, and Native voices murmured in the breeze as a group of trappers, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians gathered in the maw of Sublette’s trading tent. A clerk for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was loudly proclaiming the quality of his gunpowder brought “out from the states” and was willing to sell at a “farr price in fine hides or plews”. Feeling the need to convince his customers, the clerk produced a copper cup holding a dram from the powder keg behind him. He offered the cup to a weathered trapper who pinched a few grains. He rolled the powder with his fingertips and then touched to his tongue. All eyes were on the skin-clad mountaineer as he nodded for the clerk to proceed with his demonstration. The now grinning clerk placed a sparing pinch of gunpowder into an empty flintlock pan. The frizzen was struck followed by a flash and loud report as his rifle spoke. Eyes shifted from one neighbor to the next; each meeting with a look of approval. An Arapaho brave stepped forward with a bundle of skins motioning for 10-pounds of powder followed by a chorus of eager voices and clattering empty horns.
A Valued Commodity
Among the most ubiquitous items throughout early America was gunpowder. Firearms played a large role in the lives of adventurers, travelers, soldiers, and the rural homesteads of Emigrants and Indians alike. It was necessary for putting meat in the household’s larder and a formidable foe against. Firearms also served as a fairly effective deterrent against human and animal threats in a place where any form of organized law enforcement may be days or even weeks away. What they called “gunpowder” then is what we more commonly refer to as black powder now.
We do this to distinguish “black powder” from the modern varieties of smokeless propellants typically made with nitro-cellulose and nitroglycerine to be used in modern firearms. Modern propellants burn more efficiently at a greater pressure, produce little to no smoke when fired and will not be affected by “fouling” when fired repeatedly. Black powder is the opposite. It’s smoky and after about a score or so (20-ish') shots, the fouling in the barrel may be so bad, you will need to clean your bore to even fit a ball all the way down.
Modern Shooters: Getting back to this, an important safety tip worth noting is to NEVER USE MODERN PROPELLANTS IN A BLACK POWDER FIREARM. Since black powder burns at a much lower pressure, black power firearms will explode if modern propellants are used with them. Fortunately for us, black powder is still made for primitive shooting enthusiasts and continues to serve as a dynamic and valuable asset to the primitive outdoorsman.
The Ingredients of Black Powder
-75 parts Saltpetre
-10 parts Sulfur
-15 parts Charcoal (pref. of dogwood, alder, or willow)
There is a complex mixing process involved and volumes have been written on its particulars.
How much powder was carried by the typical frontiersman? Most period accounts suggest a weight ratio of 2 pounds lead to every one pound of powder. One exception I came across was in Disturnell’s Guide to California & New Mexico (1849) which recommended 25 lbs. powder and 30 lbs. lead to sustain 3 men armed with a rifle and 2 single-shot pistols each for the period of 1 year or roughly 8lbs. powder and 10lbs. shot per man.
Another period source: In his 1849 book, Joseph E. Ware said the following on arms to be carried along with the powder required. Notice that they specifically point out Laflin's gunpowder to be the preferred brand. The Laflin family had been involved with gunpowder manufacture since the American Revolution and as a firm, they had large operations in New York and Wisconsin by 1810. The Laflin Powder Company contributed greatly to the fur trade, eastern movement and the Northern war effort during the American Civil War.
"For arms, you want a good rifle, and a pair of long pistols, (some companies foolishly talk of taking small cannon along,) or a revolver, 5lbs of powder, “Laflin’s” best, with lOlbs of lead, and a few pounds of shot."
-The Emigrant's Guide to California, J. E. Ware (1849)
Gunpowder Tips for the Shooter
If Your Powder Gets Wet and There is No Screw to Remove the Ball -Lay out on the ground (lockplate-up) to sun for many hours or securely prop upright with the lockplate facing away from the fire & the primer pan empty so that the heat will warm up the barrel like a reflector oven. If sparks be present, wrap a layer of linen or cotton round the lock to keep sparks from causing the unlikely but terrible. This is potentially dangerous so keep the barrel propped straight up and aimed away from everyone. Keep others clear from the area. Prime and discharge. If the primer does not work, see bullet #2.
To Eject a Dry-Balled Round or a Bullet with a Damp Charge - Use FFFFg powder or fine crush regular gunpowder using your pan cover (part of the 'frizzen' or 'hammer') work it down into the touch hole of percussion-cap cone; prime and discharge.
Remedy a Short-Started Ball - If the fouling be great enough to stop a ball mid-barrel while loading. Do not try to shoot out the ball. It will burst the barrel. Moisten a patch and run it down on your ramrod. It will crush against the ball releasing moisture to break up the fouling and allow the ball to be driven home.
Author’s Note on Carrying Powder - When carrying arms mounted or on foot, I tend to carry a half pound in a flask or horn with my bullet pouch while a 1-lb. can of reserve powder is kept in my pack. Lead can be recycled but powder cannot. Besides, I wind up sharing more powder than lead when I am with a group. Because of this, I subscribe to carrying more powder to lead in an 8:10 ratio, as opposed to the earlier 1:2 ratio.
Additional Notes -Also, it is advisable to occasionally sun dry your horn -powder or cartridges if travelling in wet weather. The salts in black powder may draw moisture out of the air so it is important to proverbially “keep your powder dry”. Since 1825, powder is commonly tumbled with graphite and this greatly reduces the risk of powder drawing humidity from the air but still, be aware. Excess powder should be carried in an airtight container as shown here. Commercial operations would transport powder in larger containers but the smaller one-pound flasks are safer and easier to transport by individual travelers.
It Was a Valuable Trade Commodity.
Black powder could be a useful trade item with fellow travelers but this was especially so with Indian tribal members who commonly carried firearms by the time of the mid-1800s. According to the memoirs of Mountain Man Dick Wooton, the rates typical to him upon the plains and southwest are as follows.
· One Buckskin got 3-charges of gunpowder and 3 balls · One Buffalo hide got one pound of gunpowder, with caps and 60 balls
Fur Trade Exchange Rates
Powder was much cheaper in the eastern states where it could be easily obtained. When emigrants crossed the plains gunpowder can be had in places like Boston, New York, Shreveport, or St. Louis for around $5.50 for 25lbs. This is about 22¢ per pound. Before wagon roads were blazed, fur trappers had to manually carry their trade goods for hundreds of miles deep into America's interior. This meant pack horses and mules or canoes and long portages. The operational cost would drive the price exorbitantly high for white and Indian trappers at the various rendezvous and trading posts. Fortunately, there were enough furs as well as demand for them to allow trappers to sustain themselves for many years in this business. Here are a couple of those rates from the early 1800's for comparison.
· Hudson Bay Co. placed a $3 exchange rate on one made beaver pelt. This means that one beaver pelt could fetch 1 1/2 lbs. powder
· Rocky Mountain Fur Co. placed a $3 exchange rate on one made beaver pelt. One made beaver pelt could earn 2 lbs. of powder.
*Note: 1820s trade prices were around $3 per made beaver pelt. This went up to $3.50 by 1833 and then plunged to $2 by 1840.
Powder Granulation Ratings
The various grain sizes or “granulation” determines how quickly it burns. Larger grains burn slower so the finer the grain, the faster the burn and the greater the pressure upon ignition. Originally, black powder had no universal grading standard. Just like any brand today, different makers were known for the quality and proper application of their product. In 1825, the “FF” grading standard was established. Adding graphite to the tumbling process helped make the nice glossy black flakes that could be easily graded by size. “1-F” or fg is large grained powder that is best used in cannon and large bore muskets and fowlers (typically more than .70 cal.). “2-F” or ffg is the ideal fuel for muskets up to .75 cal or muzzle-loading fowlers and rifles of the same size to as small as .40 cal. “3-F” or fffg is best for small bore muzzle-loading long guns, pistols or revolvers. They provide the optimal burn/pressure for pushing a .28-.45 ball down a short barrel. “4-F” or ffffg is primarily used as priming powder with flintlock arms but I have also seen it used in very small caliber pistols.
What were the different “types” of gunpowder? And when should the various granulations be used?
· ffffg – Priming powder for flintlocks – Also handy for ejecting a dry-ball
· fffg – Small caliber (.28-.45 cal.) long guns & pistols / as well as revolvers
· ffg – Most all muzzle-loading long arms and single-shot pistols between .40-.75 caliber
· fg – Cannon, Field Artillery, Swivel guns, and Larger arms over .70 caliber
*Note: Powders with an “A” designation rather than “g”, are blasting powders and should not be used in any type of firearms.
Powder Charges Per Caliber
The chart to the right shows the recommended powder loads for optimal ballistic results based on the author’s personal range experience. This serves as a guideline for a shooter to start from. You may decide that the loads stated here are too high or too low based on your personal experience. I leave the exact load up to the individual shooter. What works best for one may be a little different from others. A lot of this depends on the muzzle loading gun’s barrel (length & bore size), patch, and even the quality of powder. As the size of the ball increases, the powder charge will change accordingly.
Caliber to Gauge or 'Balls to the Pound'
Caliber is essentially the width of a gun’s bore measured in inches. A 75/100 inch-sized bore is .75 caliber. A 62/100-inch bore would be .62 caliber. Gauge tells you how many balls of a certain size can be made from one pound of pure lead. If you were to cast bullets that are .75 cal., a pound of lead will provide enough material to make 12 (round) musket balls. Because you get “12-balls to the pound”, the bore size will be 12-gauge.
Another example would be that one pound of lead provides enough material to make 20 musket balls that are .62 cal. in diameter so this would be 20-gauge. In other words, the smaller the gauge, the larger the musket ball.
Additional uses for gunpowder on the frontier
· Charcloth (fire making) – Moisten some 1-2 inch square fragments of cotton cloth.
Rub in some black powder and set aside to dry. Use with a flint and
steel. It will flash burn the material giving a strong ember that will light tinder.
· Food flavoring – Capt. R. Marcy (US Army – 1859) I got curious and tried it once. With some imagination, maybe you can fool yourself into believing it a serviceable substitute for pepper, but my advice is that you're better off to lay in an extra supply of Lea & Perrins or some pepper sauce. · Eye wash - Mix a pinch of gunpowder into a dram of warm water. Keep adding water till it has the subtle saltiness less than that of a tear. · Poison oak and poison ivy treatment - Apply a paste of black powder and water to the affected area. It works amazingly. · Insect repellant - It is said that the occasional whiff will drive insects from camp. I ‘m still not convinced that it’s more effectual than tobacco smoke but convincing others to detonate a cartridge in their tents over the years has provided countless moments of entertainment for me.
· Eye protection against snow blindness – Snow blindness is when light reflecting off light sand or snow literally sunburns your cornea causing you to temporarily lose your vision. There is also a risk of permanent eye damage. A good countermeasure is to wet some powder into a paste and apply it onto the skin beneath the eyes. It cuts down the glare and is an effectual protection. Many birds and mammals have dark patches of fur or feathers beneath their eyes that serve the same purpose.
At the end of the rendezvous, trapper and Indian alike set off in separate directions. Trading outfits returned to their trapping grounds; the various tribesmen departed for their ancestral lands and the lone hunters set out for their secret waterways deep within the realm of a friendly tribe. Each powder horn was replenished, and bullet bag filled. The wanderlust was calling and only a virgin trail could soothe it. The weathered mountaineer adjusted the strap on his powder horn while casting a wistful eye skyward. He may not rule the air nor wield it’s lightning, but for now, command of the fire and smoke was his.