A Black Powder Primer

A Black Powder Primer

black powder

Where to purchase black powder

Black powder may be purchased at many gun shops. In some parts of the country it can be purchased in regular department stores. Seek those that carry "Muzzle Loaders" supplies. You are looking for a one pound can or plastic container of "fg (1f) or ffg (2f)" Black powder.

Pyrodex (RS) and other black powder substitutes don't work as well for blank loads, but are good for firing a ball.
You may contact a member of a reenactment group in your area. A link to many of their sites can be found by clicking here.

Please help with our Black Powder survey. Click here!

Black powder and the term "gun powder" are not interchangeable. Black powder is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal and potassium or sodium nitrate. A gun powder could be black powder, but it can also refer to many other chemical combinations. Black powder is not the "stuff" inside a firecracker, nor that inside shotgun shells or cartridges unless their contents are stated as being "Black Powder".

Only use, ...and I repeat, Only use real Black Powder.

Black powder is sold and specified using two parameters, its weight and the size of the granules. Black powder weight is measured in different units. Modern shells have the weight listed in Drams. Powder sold in cans is measured in ounces or lbs., and recommended black powder loads for small cannon are measured in grains (a unit of volume). We sell various black powder measurers in our arsenal store. One is certainly worth having. So how much is that?

1 dram = 27.34 grains = 1.77 grams
1 gram = 15.43 grains = 0.56 drams
1 ounce = 16 drams = 437.5 grains

The granule size making up the powder is referred to as the fg number. It correlates to the size of the screen mesh which it falls through for sorting. Ranges are "cannon" (very course), fg (1fg), ffg (2fg), fffg (3fg), and ffffg (4fg) which is very fine. Small particles, higher fg numbers burn much faster. The resulting explosion from very fine powder can cause a cannon barrel to explode. The fg grade (1f) is the correct size for small cannon however ffg (2f) is ok. Cannon grade is typically used for larger cannons.

All images are in "thumbnail format, click on image to see a larger picture.

A single, one pound can of black powder provides for several loads in a artillery sized cannon or one with a 3 inch bore, 66 inches long and weighing some 750 pounds.
Think about that when deciding how much powder to use.

Shown below is what is inside a 10 gauge black powder blank, a common shell for cartridge cannon having a bore diameter of about 1 inch. The shell consists of a primer (a small percussion cap in the end, which when struck by a pin (firing hammer) creates a spark igniting the powder). 10 gauge black powder blanks are loaded with 8 drams of ffg powder (1/2 ounce). It is the equivalent of about one level tablespoon of black powder (ffg). It doesn't look like much, however it's enough to make a very loud boom, and creates a large cloud of white smoke. For comparison, a standard 12 gauge shell for hunting has about 3 drams of smokeless powder and a blank 12 gauge holds 6 drams of black powder.

10 ga blank
219 grains or 1/2 ounce
ffg black powder

A 35mm film canister holds approximately 500 grains, or 1.13 ounces of ffg black powder

A typical coffee measurer holds approximately 800 grains or 1.8 ounces of ffg black powder.

To keep the powder in, a bit of wadding (compressed fiber particles) is placed at the end on top of the powder. The plastic or paper casing (hull) is then crimped over it. Wadding can be very dangerous, as it leaves the barrel at nearly the speed of sound and travels several feet. Make sure no one is in front of a cannon (any cannon), or will be when it goes off.
(Children & animals can run in front of the cannon after the fuse is lit!)

With small cannon, black powder is the only thing to use safely with the exception of (RS) Pyrodex and other new black powder substitutes for ball shooting. Pyrodex is similar to black powder, however it differs in weight (it's much lighter) and is safer to handle. Its' correct usage, is to use it in equal volume as black powder. As it burns faster, I would use less than equal volume. In many trials, Pyrodex only created a flame and smoke when used as a blank load. Never, never mix powders! The effect is not nearly as good as using black powder.
Under no circumstances use smokeless powder (it burns too quickly).
Click here to see a barrel that exploded because smokeless powder was used.

We would like to hear from anyone who has ever exploded a cannon barrel. Pictures, and stories would be most appreciated!

Recommended loads of black powder should never be exceeded or altered. This includes weight, volume and the granular size (fg no.). Exceeding the recommended amount of powder or using the wrong type or mixing powders can be very dangerous, i.e fatal to you or a bystander. Cannon barrels are designed to withstand specified amounts of pressure caused by the explosion of the powder (expanding hot gases caused by the rapidly burning powder).

Never attempt to fire a cannon that wasn't designed to shoot! There are thousands of "toy" and mantle types that were never meant to be fired, however many of them look like they could. "Slush" metals, aluminum, and light weight barrels aren't for firing. Fancy ornate barrels commonly seen in many mantle cannon are cast from cheap soft metals. Attempting to fire one of these will result in someone getting hurt or killed. The barrel will explode. Can I use pipe? No. Pipe is for water. Beware, many dealers often say, "Oh, it can probably be fired"... they don't have a clue what they are talking about. Many will even say to use black powder in carbide cannons! It's up to you to become educated - Use common sense.

How do I tell?

The barrel must be made of steel, cast iron, brass or bronze. The barrel must not have any cracks or be "light weight". The diameter of the muzzle (open end of the barrel) should be roughly twice the bore diameter. This means a .25 inch bore diameter should have a muzzle of .5 inch, and walls, 1/8 inch thick. A .5 inch bore diameter should have a 1 inch muzzle, and a wall thickness at least .25 inches. A 3/4 inch bore should have a 1.5 inch muzzle, as shown in the examples here. Also, the bore should be the same diameter to the breech. Bores that are drilled (machined) are safer than those cast. Some cannons are cast with steel sleeve inserts. These are very strong.

To date, I've never found an instruction sheet which accompanied an old black powder toy cannon even though there were thousands sold in many different sizes. This chart can be used as a guide line for proper cannon loads using fg sized powder. If you have ffg powder, use less! You are the final judge. Think and be safe, not sorry. In any case, do not exceed these loads. Chart revised 5/11/99

1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons

Bore diameter
in inches Typical barrel length in inches
(depends on barrel style) Black Powder
Maximum Black Powder
Maximum Approximate volume fg - powder -
Using a aluminum measuring spoon
(level measure)
1/8 1.5 - 2 L 10 .02 oz 1/8 teaspoon
3/16 2 - 3 L 15 .03 oz
1/4 3 - 5 L 20 .05 oz 1/4 teaspoon
3/8 5 - 7 L 40 .1 oz 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 7 - 8 L 60 .15 oz 3/4 teaspoon
5/8 8 - 12 L 100 .23 oz 1.25 teaspoon
3/4 12 - 14 L 140 .32 oz 1.75 teaspoon
1 14 - 26 L 438 1 oz 2 tablespoons
1.5 25 - 40 L 656 1.50 oz 3 tablespoons
2 40 - 50 L 875 2.00 oz 4 tablespoons
2.25 50 -60 L 1313 3.00 oz 6 tablespoons
2.5 60 L 1313 3.00 oz 6 tablespoons
3 65 L 1750 4.00 oz 8 tablespoons

If balls are loaded, the charges should be cut in half!
Barrels with bore diameters greater than 3/4 inch are not "child's play" or toys, and should be considered extremely dangerous.
Over 2 inch bore cannons should fire using the coarser grade "cannon" grade black powder.

Loading and firing precautions become critical safety issues. Information about the procedures for firing these cannon can be found by contacting reenactment groups, or by writing to the Artilleryman Magazine, R.R. No.1, Box 36, Turnbridge, VT 05077, and requesting the official rules of muzzleloading cannon shooting, compiled by the American Artillery Association.

On line - Click here!

Mortar information - Click here!

Ok. I know all about powder. How do I load my cannon?

(You can print directions here)

Before loading, think about the recoil (that's not a Model A part...). The cannon will want to "jump" backwards when it goes off. With some cannon this could be a few feet! And yes, some cannon flip over, Even a Winchester cannon often flips over on it's side. You want to consider that possibility. Depending on how substantial the carriage is, you may want to stake the cannon, and lash it down. Also consider starting with a lighter charge and work up until you "know" your cannon. How about a big rock behind it?

Put the cannon fuse in first, making sure it goes through to the bottom of the bore. There should be at least 2.5 inches protruding out of the hole. Bend the fuse after inserting it, so that when lit, the sparks won't fall into the hole and set the cannon off prematurely. Standard fuse burns at a rate of about 1 inch per 2.5 seconds. This should give you about 6 seconds to retreat.

Not all fuse is the same! Click here!

Black powder should be poured in and never packed. On the other hand, Pyrodex should be packed. A small aluminum funnel works well, as does a folded piece of paper. Use a wooden ram rod to push the powder to the end of the barrel, if you must. Make use of wood, brass or aluminum utensils to eliminate the potential of a spark (no plastic). Make sure the barrel is tilting up at least 20 degrees from horizontal. Don't be silly and stand in front of the barrel when you do this. Hold the ram rod between your fingers in case the powder ignites, so the ram rod won't go through your hand. That might hurt. You really don't need any wadding, however a small ball of tissue will suffice nicely. The secret is to keep the powder confined. Contrary to popular belief, tests have shown that it doesn't make the boom any louder. However it does increase the recoil.

Safe alternate loading procedures and firing procedures! Click here!

Check around, be sure no one is in front, or will be in front of the cannon when it goes off. The resulting explosion will send a "flash" flame several feet in some cases. Light the fuse and retreat several feet (to the side and rear of the cannon).......


Caution! The "boom" from a cannon is usually quite loud. Just, "How loud is "loud"? See our test results here. Remember that children's hearing is far more sensitive to loud noises.
Hearing protectors are recommended, for you also. We sell simple, inexpensive disposable ones in our arsenal store.

Wait several minutes before reloading, making sure no live ember's are still in the barrel. Clean out the ash with a bottle brush or cleaning kit. Inspect the cannon, and insert another fuse, repeat steps above.

Ok, we're done shooting, how do we clean the cannon?

Black powder is very fouling and subsequently very corrosive. You must clean and oil your cannon well after firing! A good solvent is simply a mixture of soap and water. Using a rag and bottle brush, or a cloth over a wooden dowel, clean the barrel (inside and out). Dry it, and then apply a light coat of oil. A regular light weight machine oil works fine, like "3 in 1®" .

It really is important to clean and oil your cannon.
They rust & corrode very quickly. With breech loading cartridge cannon, it is important to keep the firing mechanisms in good operating condition.
We sell an assortment of very good cleaning & oiling materials in our on-line arsenal store.

Taking care of your cannon will insure that it will last a life time.

samD's picture
Posted by: samD
8 years 2 weeks ago

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