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Loading Black Powder in the 38-40 

by Harry O

I started loading black powder (BP) cartridges the first time between 35 and 40 years ago. I was told by several older (and wiser?) people at the time to just fill the case to where the bullet compresses the powder about 1/8" when seated. It wasn't long before I quit using BP in disgust. There is no question that BP is safe. You cannot pack enough powder in the cartridge to blow up a gun, at least a modern one. Beyond that, there was no reason to stick with BP, and there were a LOT of reasons to abandon it. 

My 45LC Hy Hunter SAA handgun clone would usually start binding in about 25 rounds of BP and I would usually give up (quit shooting) between 40 and 50 rounds. The accuracy was only so-so for the first cylinder full from a clean gun, was pretty good for the next two or three cylinders full, and would start slowly going downhill from there. It was never as accurate as a good smokeless load in the same gun. The BP fouling would cake in the barrel and corrosive smoke would condense on the gun. Removing it would slowly rub off the bluing, and it had a bad habit of showing (a week or two later) where I didn't quite clean enough the first time around (like under the ejector rod, in the center cylinder bushing, or the internal parts near the slot in the recoil shield). In other words, RUST. That corrosive smoke gets into everything. Also, the BP fouling caked in the bottom of the fired cases and was difficult to remove.

So, I got away from BP. Not entirely. I owned a few muzzleloaders through the years. They were easier to clean and I did not have to worry about caked cartridge cases. I also read a few articles on BP cartridge loading through the years, but they just convinced me all the more to stay away from it. The descriptions of all the gyrations they went through seemed more like voodoo to me than handloading. 

But, a few years back, I had to get back into BP cartridge reloading again. I got involved with the 41 Long Colt and found that its undersized, hollow-base bullet (a 0.386" bullet in a 0.400" bore) needed BP to get acceptable accuracy. BP ignites faster than even Bullseye and that is exactly what was needed to get the skirt bumped up enough to grip the rifling.

I fell back on the old advice, "fill the case so the bullet compresses the BP 1/8 inch when seated" like I did before. And I got about the same results. BP is a mess. I tried Magnum primers in an effort to get more complete combustion, but there did not seem to be much difference in cleanliness. I have seen Magnum primers improve the accuracy in large cases (38-55 and 45-70 for example), but it did not seem to make much difference in little ones. I found that the BP cleaning solutions we have nowadays are a LOT better than the oil based stuff I used years ago. I also found out that BP bullet lube is a lot better than whatever was on the bullets I bought before (probably smokeless lube). Stay away from hard smokeless lubes if you are shooting BP. It is a waste of time unless you like spraying lead. BP lube does more than just lubricate the lead as it forces itself down the barrel. It melts into the BP fouling and softens it. Hard fouling hurts accuracy. 

And, I found that the problems with caking in the fired cases could be easily taken care of by bringing a plastic margarine tub (with a lid) half-filled with soapy water to the range. Whenever I punch out an empty case, I just dump it into the tub of soapy water. When I return home I shake them up for a minute or so, then drain and rinse. The internal caking is gone. I let the cases dry overnight and then polish, size, decap, and neck expand them. Normal brass colored cases used with BP become darker and darker with use until the case is patchy black. It looks ugly, but doesn't seem to hurt the cases. Another thing I am doing now is to carry some "handi-wipes" and a cleaning rod in my range box. I run one through the barrel, cylinder (if it is a revolver), and wipe down the outside before I leave the range. It makes the guns a LOT easier to clean when I get home. Of course, I live 50 to 60 minutes drive from the range, so people who live closer to their range might not have to do this.

So things are a little better now. The next step was to try my 38-40's with BP (first, in a Uberti 1873 Colt SAA clone). I have two classic Lyman 400 43 single-cavity bullet moulds for it. I cast the bullets soft; 40:1 lead/tin. If you don't cast, Hornady makes a soft-lead, swaged, truncated-cone bullet that works about the same. They call it a 10mm for some reason. Unfortunately, the 400 43 bullet does not work well with smokeless powder. You have to crimp in the top lube groove rather than crimping it over the front curve of the bullet (ahead of the front lube groove) like it was designed to be used. If crimped on the curve, the bullet easily gets bumped WAY down into the case, especially if you use it in a lever action. I had heard that a case full of BP would keep this from happening. I did notice that, in working up to this, that the more I compressed the powder, the cleaner it burned. However, I couldn't compress it much more without damaging the base of the soft bullets I was using.

I built a 36" brass/walnut drop tube to try and stuff more powder into the case. I found that drop tubes do not work well with small (handgun sized) cases. There was no measurable difference in the packing height of BP dropped through the 36" tube and the same amount dropped through a short plastic funnel. I think the reason is that the first grains dropped through the tube bounced off the bottom of the case and hit the following grains (going in the opposite direction), slowing their fall. I know that drop tubes work with larger cases (like the 38-55 and 45-70), but I believe the small case fills up too fast for any packing to take place.

The next step was to mechanically compress the powder with something harder than the bullet. That worked even better. I filled up the case all the way to the top of the neck with FFFg BP. I then put it in the press and raised it into a 38-40 neck expanding die. The die length was set to compress the BP to just about where the base of the bullet would be when seated. This is approximately 3/8" to 7/16" with the 400 43 bullet. The BP compressed easily. Once this is done, the powder will not pour out even if the case is inverted. I did pick out the powder of one that had been compressed and looked at it under a 10x magnifier. There were some grains broken, but fewer than you would expect. I don't think that compressing BP this much is detrimental. 

If you are only shooting a handgun, this is all you need to do. The compressed BP, soft lube, and a heavy crimp burns clean enough so that you can easily shoot 50 rounds straight without any binding and the accuracy is acceptable throughout. However, I found that there was not enough lube in the bullet grooves alone when the same cartridges were shot in a 24-1/4" rifle barrel (a Cimarron/Uberti 1873 Winchester clone). After looking at the small size of the bolt on the rifle, I decided I had better stay with BP, so I had to make it work. What about grease cookies, wads, and all the other voodoo stuff? I decided to try them. 

I melted a little straight beeswax in water in one of my wife's sauce pans and then let it cool. Don't worry guys. Beeswax doesn't stink and cleans up easily. I ended up with a smooth disc of beeswax about 1/8" thick and 7" diameter. I dusted the two sides with corn starch (to keep the wads I was about to cut out of it from sticking together) and then used a fired case with the base drilled out to cut out neck-sized beeswax wads. 

The next time I loaded 38-40's, I did pretty much what I did before with the BP. Then added the additional lube wad. I put a beeswax wad in the neck and tamped it down with a wooden dowel. The bullet was set with a little pressure and crimped over the curve. It worked even better than before. The load was accurate in both the rifle and handgun. And, the bullet did not move back into the case, even in a lever action. I did find a few minor problems, though. 

Now I see how easy it is to get sucked into the voodoo game with BP. Using a conventional neck expander to compress the powder was not ideal. The tapered portion near the bottom of the rod meant that it was pushing BP outward in addition to downward. That sometimes bulged the thin neck a little making it hard to chamber. I rigged up a neck sizer to correct the ones loaded that way, but later bought another inside neck expanding rod and ground off the tapered portion. I have to be careful when raising the case to compress the powder now, but it is compressed straight down. No more neck sizing is needed after loading.

The beeswax wads were sometimes blowing out the barrel (with both rifle and handgun) and some were evidently sticking on the base of the bullet, causing occasional flyers. Ideally, the wad should be completely gone just as it reaches the muzzle of the longer barrel. I decided to soften the wads a little. I remelted the beeswax disc and added some Bore Butter. You could also use petroleum jelly. Just don't overdo it. Very little is needed (like maybe 1/5 to 1/4 of the weight of beeswax). Also, I cut out a bunch of wax-paper discs the size of the neck (with the same fired cartridge cutter I use for the beeswax wads). Wax-paper is easy to cut and doesn't take up any space in the case. Folding the wax-paper over several times means that you can cut a lot of discs in a short period of time, too. I put a wax-paper disc above the powder, put in a beeswax/bore-butter wad, and then put another wax-paper disc above that. Tamp all of them down with a wooden dowel and seat the bullet as before. And, yes, this makes it a lot slower to load than smokeless.

I also got away from dead soft bullets for this gun. A lot of people suggest 40:1 lead/tin mixtures for BP bullets (about 8.5 Bhn). That is what is needed with the 41 Long Colt since it MUST expand to grip the rifling. However, I came to believe that it was too soft for the 38-40. I believe that hard BP fouling in the rifling can randomly deform a soft bullet as it passes through the bore, making it inaccurate. And, hard fouling collects in the corners of rifling grooves. I believe that this makes it act like worn out rifling. I started using slightly harder bullets. Not too hard. About 11.0 to 11.5 Bhn. There are a lot of ways that you can get to that. A lead/tin mixture of between 10:1 and 15:1 will do it. Wheelweights with about 1.5% to 2% tin added will do that, too. That also makes the bullet easier to cast. In my case, I use 3.5# of pure lead to 1.0# of monotype. This gives 3.9% antimony and 2.1% tin with the remaining 94.0% lead. The bullet upsets (obturates) enough to grip the rifling, but does not get gouged by BP fouling. I would probably not use a bullet this hard in an oversized bore, but it seems to work well if the bore and bullet reasonably well matched like they are here.

The last problem was with the dies. I have conventional Lyman, Redding, and Lee dies along with a Lee Loader for the 38-40. NONE of them sizes the case neck back to where it was sized by the factory. I am not talking diameter here; I am talking length. For some reason, the neck on sized cases is quite a bit shorter than the neck on new brass and new cartridges as they come from the factory. The problem here is that cases that are sized with these dies do not have a neck as long as the part of the bullet that is seated in the case. I decided to shorten my Lee dies (because they were the least expensive ones I own) by 1/8". That makes the neck 1/8" longer and now the wax-paper discs, wad, and bullet are all completely contained in the neck. 

Anyway, all these things seem to work together well. I can easily shoot 50 rounds without binding or noticeable loss of accuracy. I have shot 100 rounds on occasion without cleaning and with acceptable accuracy. I can also ring the 200 yard manhole gong at the range regularly if I do my part (with a rifle on a rest, of course, but with standard iron sights and my aging eyes). The fouling inside and out is less, too. And, the same load works well in both my 38-40 rifle and handgun. Have fun. BP shooting has gotten better.

PS: All of these things should work just as well with the 44-40. I just haven't gotten around to trying them with it yet.