Not Worth the Risk

Thursday, 3 November 1763

Quick glances proved fruitless. Somewhere overhead little claws scratched bark. A different fox squirrel chattered in a distant slender oak. A yellow poplar leaf whip-sawed earthward. Gnats flitted about. The air smelled warm, damp and fall-like. The tarnished-brass lead-holder scribbled across a sunlit page. “An honest mistake…,” this passage began.

Daylight streamed through the forest. Mi-ki-naak, the Snapping Turtle, removed the fusil from his wigwam and leaned the battered, long-barreled smoothbore against the abode’s weathered canvas. He returned to the inside, retrieved his horn and shot pouch from a rumpled trade blanket, and once outside, slung them over his shoulder and pushed them back upon his right hip. A blue jay swooped low, then rose up and perched on a shag-bark hickory branch.

As his left hand reached for the French fusil, his right hand flipped up the shot pouch’s deerskin flap. Nimble fingers explored the front, then wandered to the back of the soft cavern. They felt the shot bag, pushed the wing bone aside, stepped over the gun worm,skirted two sharp flints, walked along the iron turn screw and passed around the burning glass—but found no brass powder measure.

A traditional woodsman measures out gunpowder in the palm of his hand.

Although “palming powder” might be period-correct, test results prove a powder measure should always be used. Palming powder is unreliable and unsafe.

With the butt grounded beside a moccasin, the woodsman’s left arm pinched the fusil’s muzzle against his left side. The walnut stopper dangled from the horn’s spout as black gunpowder collected in his left palm, fingers outstretched, the hand slapping flat. His thumb and index finger replaced the stopper, taking care not to spill the precious granules.

Mi-ki-naak cupped his hand, funneling the powder down the clean barrel. He reached inside the canvas and picked up two dry oak leaves from a little pile; morning dew damped the leaves outside the wigwam. He broke the stems from the leaves and rolled them into a ball about the size of the death sphere. The hickory ramrod tamped the wadding tight on the powder.

His fingers ventured into the pouch and found the bag of shot. Teeth gripped the stopper and like the gunpowder, his right hand poured shot into his left palm, approximating the same volume as the powder. The death bees buzzed down the barrel. A single leaf wad followed.

Loaded and primed, the woodsman who spent his youth among the Ojibwe, struck off to the northeast in search of wild turkeys. The blue jay watched in silence…

Another Wilderness Classroom Lesson

Trial and error is a powerful educational tool. Mistakes have always been my main method for learning, including that day in November, 1763.

After four seasons, Msko-waagosh, the Red Fox, is still evolving as a persona. I am getting comfortable with this alter ego, but as with any living history project, the process of re-creating a character portrayal takes time, a lot of patience and a heap of personal introspection and self-critique.

Mi-ki-naak was a new persona, and this was his first official outing. I expected problems and oversights, and I wasn’t disappointed. As I so often do, I scribbled notes on a separate, folded page tucked in the back of the leather envelope I call my journal. This page is always there, and acts as a quick reference to lessons learned or future laboratory work in the wilderness classroom.

The shot pouch and horn planned for Mi-ki-naak are not completed. That is a huge frustration, but there is nothing I can, or could, do about it. Family has to come first, even though I consider my three personas close relatives. Heaven knows I’ve shed a lot of blood over the first two, and the third should be no different.

For that first outing, I used a shot pouch and horn that I send along with the French fusil when I loan it out. Neither are used or pictured in any of my work, so they were unique to the Snapping Turtle, for now. When I set the bag up the night before that wild turkey chase, I failed to include a powder measure. I’ve done that before, most often after a shooting competition, and my response to that oversight is to “palm the powder.” Self-critique questioned that choice.

Palming Powder

Palming black powder as a form of measuring a charge is a difficult topic. Safety must be first and foremost for the traditional black powder hunter—no exceptions. From the outset, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating palming powder, and in today’s living history environment, there is no reason to undertake palming black powder as an everyday measuring practice.

I have several trade good inventories that I rely on for my 1790-era personas. These inventories mention kegs of black powder and describe the sale of “gunpowder” by the “handful.”  Several of the clerks’ journals imply a measuring cup was used instead of a trader’s hand. I don’t believe any of the lists include a powder measure for loading a smoothbore.

Likewise, I don’t recall any mention of using a powder measure in the journals of my hunter heroes. I am told there are accounts of riflemen using a measure, but again, my emphasis is on smoothbores. The question then arises, “What did John Tanner, Jonathan Alder, James Smith and other returned captives use to determine a correct powder charge?”

Some modern living historians have postulated that powder was simply poured into one’s hand and measured by sight—thus the term “palming powder.” I have had a number of long conversations with noted researchers who believe this was the method of choice for loading a smoothbore in the backcountry.

Again, I have never seen this practice described in a primary journal entry regarding a smoothbore. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t done, or that I just haven’t read the right journal.

I suspect the idea of palming powder can be traced back to John James Audubon’s writings. He writes of Daniel Boon [sic] “Barking off squirrels,” and when he describes Boone’s loading method he fails to tell the reader how Boone “measured” his powder:

“The gun was wiped, the powder measured, the ball patched with six-hundred-thread linen, and the charge sent home with a hickory rod…” (Audubon, 61)

In a later story about raccoon hunting in Kentucky, Audubon is more specific on how “the bold Kentuckian” (he does not say this is Boone) measured his powder:

“He blows through his rifle [this is not considered a safe practice], to ascertain that it is clear, examines his flint, and thrusts a feather into the touch-hole. To a leathern bag swung at his side is attached a powder-horn; his sheathed knife is there also; below hangs a narrow strip of home-spun linen. He takes from his bag a bullet, pulls with his teeth the wooden stopper from his powder-horn, lays the ball on one hand, and with the other pours the powder upon it until it is just overtopped. Raising the horn to his mouth, he again closes it with the stopper, and restores it to its place. He introduces the powder into the tube; springs the box of his gun, greases the ‘patch’ over with some melted tallow, or damps it; then places it on the honeycombed muzzle of his piece. The bullet is placed on the patch over the bore, and pressed with the handle of his knife, which now trims the edges of the linen. The elastic hickory rod, held with both hands, smoothly pushes the ball to its bed: once, twice, thrice has it rebounded. The rifle leaps as it were into the hunter’s arms, the feather is drawn from the touch-hole, the powder fills the pan, which is closed. ‘Now I’m ready,’ cries the woodsman…” (Ibid, 282 – 283)

In the 1930s, during the revival of interest in black powder arms and the birth of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, this passage was cited as historical proof of how to load a muzzleloader. As Audubon would say, “dear reader,” I include the entire passage for those traditional black powder hunters who insist on using a smoothbore with deep scratches in an otherwise pristine bore…

By simple repetition, this passage stating one historical observation became accepted practice. Sam Fadala penned a chapter on “Black Powder Fact and Fancy” in his book, The Complete Black Powder Handbook. Fadala’s test results from “Rule 16” debunk the myth:

“…But you never know until you try; so I tried. The variations of powder charge were tremendous, of course. A cupped hand hid part of the ball, producing an undernourished load and a ball held flat in the hand required a lot of black powder to cover it. In some cases, charges were extremely heavy. The only thing you will get from pouring powder over a ball resting in the palm of your hand is a dirty hand.” (Fadala, 74)

Testing a Theory

One of the basic tenants of the wilderness classroom concept is that any living historian should be able to duplicate a lesson plan and achieve the same or similar results over and over. With that in mind, I started testing.

The first question that arose dealt with powder granulation. Even today, when safety is the big issue, folks fail to mention what granulation they are using. Different granulations burn at different rates and produce different pressures; the finer the granule size the faster the burn and the greater the pressure. Burn rates and pressures vary from manufacture to manufacture, too. Thus, 3Fg Goex, being a finer powder, will result in about 25 percent more pressure than the same volume of 2Fg Goex.

Up through the 1990s, 2Fg was the standard powder granulation for smoothbores. In recent years, more traditional hunters have switched to 3Fg for a cleaner burn and less fouling. (Please note that switching to a finer powder or a different manufacture requires adjustments in the measured charge to allow for the greater pressure.) Therefore, knowing what “a proper pile” of black powder looks like in the palm of a hunter’s hand depends on which granulation that person is using.

In theory, given two piles of powder that look the same, one of each granulation measuring 65 grains, the pile of 3Fg will produce the equivalent pressure to 81 grains of 2Fg (65 x 1.25). The implications for safety are immediately evident; make a mistake on gauging “a proper pile,” and you risk exceeding the allowable pressures of a specific muzzleloading arm.

In practice, I found it almost impossible to cast two piles of equal size with the two granulations. The 2Fg powder, being a larger granule, had a tendency to spread out more, but left the impression that the pile was smaller. On my first try with the 2Fg, what I would call “a modest pile” measured 110 grains. That was a scary revelation.

The first test involved the ball in the palm theory. One of the traditional hunters I consulted emphasized keeping the palm as flat as possible. His experiments noted that cupping the palm resulted in erratic results, which mirrored Fadala’s findings. But as Fadala wrote, I had to try.

The first half dozen tries using 2Fg Goex powder in a cupped palm showed a variation from 65 grains to 110 grains. I stopped there and opted to spend my time with the flat palm tests. The flat palm was the method I used on that morning. I should note that I pulled that load after the hunt. I palmed 64 grains of 3Fg powder and 80 grains of #5 lead shot. The load was within the acceptable limits of the fusil, which patterns best with a third more shot than 3Fg powder by volume.

A trade gun ball covered with 2Fg Goex black powder.The flat palm test using 2Fg included 20 attempts, ten one day and ten another. The data showed a low of 85 grains, a high of 115 grains and an average of 95 grains. The maximum charge of 2Fg I’ve ever used in “Old Turkey Feathers” is 85 grains, so this test exceeded my limits and raised red flags concerning safety.

The same test (10 + 10 samples), following the same procedures, with 3Fg produced a low of 70 grains, a high of 85 grains and an average of 75 grains. The low of 70 grains of 3Fg Goex is the upper limit for Old Turkey Feathers, the equivalent in 2Fg being about 88 grains (70 x 1.25).

In reviewing the data, I noted that the 2Fg equivalent for the average (75 x 1.25 = 93.75) and the high (85 x 1.25 = 106.25) are real close to the test data for 2Fg. And again, this raises huge red flags regarding safety. I don’t have an explanation for this similarity, other than the observation that 2Fg creates a different pile shape than 3Fg, which I attribute to granule size/shape.

The next set of tests involved pouring powder only into a flat, open palm: that is, palming a consistent powder charge. The ultimate goal was to palm 65 grains of 3Fg and the equivalent in 2Fg (65 x 1.25 = 81.25), which is the best patterning charge in the fusil and Old Turkey Feathers.

A pile of 3Fg Goex black powder in the palm of a hand.As a guide, I dumped a brass measure, set at 82 grains, of 2Fg Goex into my left palm. This classroom experiment included the same 10 + 10 sampling to allow for different perceptions on different days. The first few tries cast over 100 grains in the pile, but after a few more tries the average dropped into the mid-80 grain range. The final data recorded a low of 82 grains, a high of 112 grains and an average of 89 grains. For the most part, all attempts fell over the self-imposed 85 grain limitation.

A sample brass measure of 65 grains of 3Fg Goex was used as a guide. The 3Fg results (10 + 10 sample) fell closer to the desired optimum load with a low of 58 grains, high of 75 grains and an average of 64 grains. The data included a 70, 74 and 75 grain cast; all others were 68 grains or below. Thus, 15 percent of the attempts exceeded the maximum desired charge. The low charge converted to 73 grains 2Fg equivalent (58 x 1.25), which is sufficient to kill a turkey at the effective distance of 28 paces.

Old Turkey Feathers is more forgiving than the fusil de chasse. I have a concern with the wider variation in the 3Fg tests, and lacking pattern-board experience, I need to withhold judgement on those limits with respect to the fusil. There would be no appreciable change in pattern with Old Turkey Feathers, other than the lowest attempt might tighten the pattern some.

Conclusion

I think it is important to point out that these tests dealt with one variable: powder charge. If a traditional woodsman left his or her measure home as a matter of everyday practice, a second variable would be added to the equation: palming a shot charge.

The same goal exists in this instance, and that is measuring a consistent load, time after time. The shot column affects pressures, too. A light load reduces pressure as compared to a “standard load,” and a heavy load increases pressure. Overestimate the powder charge and do likewise with the shot, and a recipe for a period-correct, catastrophic woodland disaster manifests itself.

As already stated, the first three tests exceeded the maximum load that is acceptable to me. The pour-powder-over-a-ball-in-your-palm method is unsafe. Thus, my tests confirm the findings of others. Likewise, palming 2Fg produced similar erratic loads, most of which exceeded the same safe load requirement. The last test fell within limits, but, like the other tests, showed a tremendous variation, as Fadala put it.

The goal of any hunting load is safety first, and all four tests failed. None can guarantee safe loading in the field, none.

Further, the goal of any traditional black powder hunt is to produce consistent patterns that kill game in a clean, humane manner. There is an implied responsibility in this regard for all hunters, traditional and/or modern. We owe that to the wild birds and animals we pursue. Setting safety issues aside, none of these methods guarantees a consistent, effective load, none.

On that November morning, I forgot my powder measure. When I palmed the powder and shot, I tried to error on the side of a lighter load. I don’t like to hunt with the grim reaper as a companion. In reality, I hit the optimum load, which is not what I thought I was doing. Thus, that attempt failed, in my opinion.

The conclusion produced by this wilderness classroom lesson is simple: carry a powder measure and use it. The practice may not be period-correct, but it is so universal that it is overlooked by all but the staunchest thread-counter. The consequences are not worth the risk.

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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