Getting the Most Out of Blackhorn 209, the Revolutionary Muzzleloading Propellant
Muzzleloading has suffered from "suggestions," misinformation, and just plain bad advice for decades. We've seen it over the years: just because a rifle loads from the muzzle, somehow it makes it something "other" than a rifle. We've had marketing departments that suggest we put up with attributes that would be quickly, harshly dismissed as completely unacceptable in any firearm. Yet, for "muzzleloading" it is somehow passed off as acceptable or even desirable. We have heard how it is smart to pour water down your barrel; that we need to put up with filth, mess, and poor performance just because a rifle loads from the muzzle. It has even been suggested that we "enjoy" filthy actions, filthy propellants, erratic velocities, and the stench of rotten eggs. Part of the thrill, we have been told, is spitting on patches between shots and cleaning our rifles with "Mr. Bubble."
Skeet shooters have known that swabbing the barrel between shots is really the long way around the skeet field for nearly 100 years by known, when the sport was invented as "clock shooting." Trap shooting has existed in the U.S. since about 1831 and pouring water down barrels wasn't a wonderfully bright idea even back then. It was French chemist Paul Vieille and Alfred Nobel that changed it all in the 1880s. Actually, it was Edward Schultze, a Prussian artillery captain, who predated them both around 1864 with his new shotshell propellant After 1870 it was just called Schultze powder.
Propellant makes a difference. None other than Annie Oakley attributed both confidence and success to "the English Schultze," that she discovered in England in 1886. During her tour later that year, Annie Oakley recounted her experience:
"After eight months in Paris I made a tour through Southern France, and, as there were several shooting tournaments in the towns on my way, I decided to take them in; for, although I was a professional, my membership in the Paris Club entitled me to compete in the events. By this time my Schultze powder was used up, and I had to again use the French powder. My first shooting was at Lyons, France, where they had a very fine gun club. My showing here was very poor. This may have been partly owing to my not having confidence in the load; whatever it was, my three days shooting cost me about $200.00, as I did not make a single win. The following week there was a big tournament at Marseilles, and Mr. Butler and myself decided to try it once more.
The day after our arrival I received notice that there was a package for me at the Custom House; I also found a letter from England with no signature saying two dozen fresh eggs had been sent me and requesting me not to throw away the packing until I tried it in my gun. At the Custom House, I found a large tin box securely wrapped, and I could not understand at first why it required such a large box to hold two dozen eggs. The officer opened the box and found the eggs packed in Schultze powder sent me by some good English friends. The duty on the eggs was about 40 cents, which I gladly paid. I never shot better in my life than I did the next three days, either winning or dividing every event. It may be that I was in better form, but I am sure my Schultze load had a great deal to do with my good scores. At the finish of the shooting I was requested to try three birds with a rifle, which I did, standing twenty-five yards from the trap, and was lucky enough to score all three, killing one with the second barrel. The Club had them mounted, and I understand they are still on exhibition at the Club House. Besides my winnings, which were a lot more than my losings of the previous week, the Club presented me with a magnificent gold medal." Confidence in your propellant is requisite to our confidence in the field. Annie Oakley recognized this long ago, and we should as well.
The .45-70 was introduced in 1865 but it wasn't standardized until 1873 bringing its renaming as the 45-70 Government as the official round of the new-issue Springfield rifles. It was the U.S. Army's standard service cartridge from that time until replaced by the .30-40 Krag in 1892. The .45-70 in a handful of years drove the American Bison and the grizzly bear to extinction. It's effectiveness as an effective killer has been well-demonstrated, to say the very least. Today, we have better bullets, and better propellants to boot. If we do our homework, super-clean one-shot kills are within reach on all North American big game.
Nothing can compensate for erratic, inconsistent propellant. Yet, that is what the muzzleloading hunter has had to deal with for years. Last year's powder, particularly last year's pellets may have no semblance at all to what there where when the seal was first cracked. Moisture suckage turn into real-world suckage when the velocity of the load you had last year becomes only half of that due to the rapid deterioration and horrible residual shelf-life of partially used pellet-packs and Pyro-bottles. Unless you chrono your loads on a regular basis, "when in doubt, throw it out applies."
Consistency and accuracy are synonyms. With bore conditions that may vary widely from shot to shot, again we can have problems: I know I have. The mainstream solution to Pyrodex pollution and Triple Se7en hard slag fouling build-up has proven to be Western Powders' Blackhorn 209. It was Theodore Roosevelt who drank coffee at the Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tennessee, and said it "was good to the last drop." The coffee served to him was from the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville -- a regional brand of coffee and so "Good to the Last Drop" began.
That's the beauty of Blackhorn 209: it is good to the last drop of powder. The fines and dust common with blackpowder and other subs are just not there-- and present no issues. It has a very hard, resilient, robust grain structure compared to the others. The strength of the extruded, consistent granulation means consistency, and BH209 has displayed just that.
No swabbing between shots means a consistent bore. Swabbing and spit-patching means we are constantly altering it. This is often a necessity with Triple Se7en or Pyrodex, to allow loading of a properly fitting sabot without a hydraulic press.
The fouling is such a prevalent issue, particularly with Triple Se7en, that we have seen a variety of pricey "special muzzleloading primers" introduced to capitalize on our crud rings. Some help somewhat, some help not at all, some work with some breechplugs, some give misfires. It is a mess. There are no accepted standards for breechplugs, 209 primers, or even flash hole diameters. Small wonder there are all kinds of various frustrations in concert with the random array of configurations out there.
So, to get the right results with Blackhorn 209, we need to use the right stuff. Thompson Omega breechplugs present no issue. Nor do Thompson Encore (old or new style), Thompson Triumph, nor does the Savage 10ML series breechplugs. In all cases, don't waste your money on "muzzleloading primers."
Perfect ignition is contingent on an adequate flash hole, flame temperature that reaches the charge, and the particulate matter from the 209 primer that infuses the powder charge as well. W209 Winchester, Federal 209A, and CCI 209M primers are all considered "magnum strength" primers and work well.
An excessively loose sabot or bullet cannot offer any backpressure that ensures consistent and proper ignition. If it rattles down the bore, it is likely to rattle its way out as well. Induced bullet pitch and yaw do not help accuracy. They should load smoothly, properly, but with some resistance and light engraving. A .002 - .003 inch interference fit of loaded sabot outside diameter to rifle bore diameter has shown to be just ideal in most applications.
Have you cleaned your breechplug lately? Many muzzleloading enthusiasts never have. Shoot a primed 20 gauge hull and you'll see all the residue from a 209 primer. Now, imagine that same volume of residue being injected through the same breechplug again and again. It forms a hard, carbon layer that closes up your breechplug. Savage shooters have the advantage: they know that drilling out a breechplug ensures top accuracy and perfect ignition. Same rule applies for Thompson breechplugs-- grab an electric drill and drill out that hard carbon every 100 shots or box of primers if you want the best possible ignition.
As to the "best" powder charge, it takes a bit of our own trial and error. 90, 100, or 110 grains by volume is a reasonable window-- settle for what groups the best. To me, the better load is the load that does its job in 90 degree weather, and also 10 degree weather. 100 - 110 grains is very likely your most consistent year round load, but again your rifle will let you know what it likes to be fed. Saboted bullets yield better ballistics than "bore-sized" for a given weight of projectile. That's easily the way to go, unless regs say otherwise. In that case, the Hornady 350 FPB is the best option to try, a far better bullet than the hula hoop "Puttybelt" blobs of lead. Another option is the custom "Thor" bullets, made from Barnes spire-point copper bullets in .501, .502, and .503 diameters to fit your individual rifle.
Let's talk about corrosion. Blackhorn 209 is easier on muzzleloading barrels than any other "blackpowder sub" class of propellant, and is essentially non-corrosive. However, "non-corrosive" primers are still somewhat corrosive, and any light ash left in your barrel (in Illinois we call it dirt) is somewhat corrosive in the sense that sooner or later, it can hold some moisture against your bore. Common sense applies: any gun worth keeping is a gun worth cleaning as soon as possible. All it takes is 2 or three patches of Hoppe's or Montana X-Treme "Cowboy Blend" and you're done. No water, spit, or moose-milk required or desired. On the road, I just use Breakfree CLP. Leaving a dirty gun in a high-humidity environment is unsmart and ungood. We run our automobiles through the wash leaving them clean and dry to deal with the perils of dust and dirt; our firearms deserve at least that much respect.
Why 209 shotshells primers in the first place? Good question. Organic blackpowder has a very fragile grain structure, and needs very little help to ignite. Flintlocks wouldn't work at all if pan powder required a flame to begin the ignition sequence. More sophisticated, better gas-generating propellants need hotter far hotter spark plugs. While #11 cap fired muzzleloaders did well with blackpowder and loose "Pyrodex P", the better and safer gas making products need a lot more help. Consider the shotshell, a very large internal volume straight case application. That's what 209 primers were designed for, as it takes a lot of fire and particulate matter to infuse the powder column of a large bore; and that is with the powder sitting right on top of the primer itself, with no breechplug in the way.
No thought was given to 209 breechplug design at first, it was merely an afterthought. Screw in a nipple that somehow attempts to retain a 209 primer, and all is well-- or, at least that is what some manufacturers thought. But, pellets happened, and #11 caps quickly revealed themselves to be inadequate. Adding musket cap or 209 holder ignition just made filthy, scope burning actions filthier. The rifle companies that felt "Hey, I can build a muzzleloader as well" attempts by now are long gone from the scene. Remington, Ruger, Austin & Halleck, and so forth-- all the two-way or three-way type ignitions are history. I personally have nothing against nipples: I was raised on them. But, a 209 shotshell primer against a nipple can be problematic. A comparatively huge volume of gas is expelled in the general direction of the nipple's flash hole. Some makes it through, of course, but only a small portion. The balance gets blown all over the action, the scope, spewed indiscriminately all over your gun instead of the intended target-the powder column inside your barrel.
Another issue is positive location of the primer: the 209 primer needs a backstop to perform like a 209 should. In a shotshell application, we don't have that. The 209 primer is press-fit into the bottom of the hull. A complication develops in the case of, say, the recently tested Knight Shadow. Though Knight has ceased production of firearms, there are still a lot of Knights out there, and "new" Knights being blown out at prices you'd expect from discontinued product. Buyer beware, I suppose. Anyway, the breechplug on the Knight Shadow is inset excessively deep into the barrel. On my test rifle, you can drop a pair of nickels on top of the breechplug and close the action with no troubles. With that extreme level of slop, there is nothing to prevent the 209 primer (temporarily held to the breechplug as the breechplug is magnetized) from shooting itself violently rearward, spewing its ejecta all over the outside of the breechplug and into the action. Again, only a portion of the primer fire can make it through the flash hole and onward into the powder column. There are many poor designs like these that inhibit instant, positive, proper ignition with Blackhorn 209 or with pellets for that matter. To be fair, I have used Blackhorn 209 in the Shadow, KP-1, and Knight Rolling Block without universal issues. It is a case by case basis, something that no powder manufacturer can control. Not too many people would care to O ring their individual 209 primers, through, or enlarge factory breechplug flash holes to get adequate primer flow. So, try it and see is the best advice I can offer-muzzleloaders, like all firearms, have their own personalities. When we have a suspect design to start with, tolerance stack-up becomes an issue.
There's never been a general inline "black powder sub" as good as Blackhorn 209 before. There have been some very interesting attempts in times past, but never from companies with adequate production, distribution, or staying power. Such has been the case with the intermittently available Black Mag 3, for example. Other attempts, like "American Pioneer" or its related "Shockey's Gold" have been bad beyond belief. My understanding is that it is the single most successful product ever offered by Western Powders, so this is consistency and uniformity that isn't going away. Use an appropriate set-up, and like the Ron Popeil slogan, it is "Set it and . . . forget it!" It seems it is to the point where many muzzleloaders that don't have properly designed 209 shotshell breechplugs also have very limited appeal for many folks that want to keep the fun in muzzleloading, and want to wring all of the game-getting accuracy out of their rifles they can.
If you want hassle-free top performance out of a modern muzzleloading inline rifle with Blackhorn 209:
Use full-strength Winchester W209, Federal 209A, or CCI 209M shotshell primers only, avoiding the gimmicky (and expensive) "muzzleloading" primers.
Don't settle for a crummy breechplug design. You need a breechplug that properly captures and secures the 209 primer, not one that shoots a primer against a nipple. These are all "sealed-action" style inlines, meaning the Savage 10ML-II, Savage 10ML-BP from Cabelas, T/C Encore series, T/C Omega, and related designs.
Use a properly fitting saboted projectile with approximately a .002 - .003 inch interference fit to promote not just proper ignition but good accuracy.
Don't introduce water into your barrel. Don't swab between shots. Do clean your gun though, as soon as possible after use with Hoppe's or Montana X-Treme "Cowboy Blend" or similar--no runny, watery, pricey "blackpowder solvents." Even no to low-corrosivity propellants leave some residue, and any soot will grab moisture in a humid environment. Blackhorn 209 is a great propellant, but is not intended to be a Breakfree CLP replacement or a bore protectant.
Monitor your breechplug, and decarbon it regularly to insure 100% consistency.
Clear your muzzleloader by shooting it out at the end of the day. Nothing improves after it is removed from the bottle. We screw lids back on bottles of powder for a reason. A fresh charge prior to the hunt is the best charge.
Stored properly, Blackhorn 209 has an indefinite life. It remains consistent, and is good to the last drop. When working up a load with 250 - 300 grain projectiles, 90 - 110 grains by volume seems to be the window of best performance. The "best" load will vary a bit by specific rifle and of course by specific projectile. For those who load to a velocity, 1900 - 1950 fps is a good window and what I feel is generally a good combination of manageable recoil, effective exterior ballistics, and excellent accuracy.
Protect your sabot! Blackhorn 209 is so very easy to load and shoot, load and shoot that you can get your barrel hot. If you can feel heat coming off that barrel, let it cool before reloading again. If it is warm on the outside, it is hotter on the inside. That higher heat softens and weakens the best of sabots, so keep cool sabots and you'll have very cool groups.
Here's a recent, representative three-shoot 100 yard group I fired with 100 grains by volume of Blackhorn 209 pushing a Barnes T-EZ flat-based 290 grain saboted bullet:
fun. I have a feeling you will. Blackhorn 209 is both "Good to
the Last Drop," is "Set it and Forget It" once
you find the combination your rifle prefers, and I believe even
Annie Oakley would both approve and well appreciate that propellant may
make all the difference in the world.