Blackpowder vs. Smokeless Powder Terminal Effectiveness

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Earlier this week, I was asked what my thoughts were on the video below, coming from HEMA instructor Matt Easton, on his YouTube channel Scholagladiatoria. In it, he discusses some of the limitations of early blackpowder (especially muzzleloading) firearms, specifically within the context of how they affected the development of edged weapons:

I am certainly not an expert on firearms development before the year 1886, but I do make a very serious effort to understand terminal ballistics. Fundamentally, a projectile hitting a target doesn’t care whether it was propelled to 300 m/s by a load of blackpowder, or smokeless nitrocellulose. Therefore, I feel reasonably comfortable discussing the terminal effects of weapons before 1886.

What Matt says in the video is generally correct. Blackpowder weapons are generally speaking less effective than smokeless propellant weapons, all else being equal. There are a few dimensions to this problem, which I will discuss briefly below:

1. Performance

First, blackpowder is a less energetic propellant than smokeless. Matt Easton mentions this and it’s very true. What this means is that, in general, a blackpowder weapon will have to be larger and fire larger cartridges (whether metallic or paper) than a smokeless gun for the same performance, or a gun of comparable size that is blackpowder will be much less energetic to start with than a smokeless powder equivalent.

Now, it’s not correct to think of this energy as directly related to what the projectile will do when it hits the body. Certainly, a higher energy round is capable of doing a lot of damage, but it may not actually perform better than a lower energy cartridge if it doesn’t expend all of its energy in the target or makes a narrow wound channel.

However, there’s another important advantage that smokeless powder guns have: They tend to produce much, much higher velocity. At low velocities like those below the speed of sound in air, a projectile that hits a target will generally poke a hole the same size as it, or possibly it may expand or flatten somewhat increasing the size of this hole. Generally speaking, though, the effectiveness at these speeds is proportional to the frontal area of the bullet – and in all cases effectiveness is by modern standards pretty underwhelming, for example a round might simply poke a hole of a certain size.

Smokeless powder is more energetic, meaning cartridges loaded with it will pound-for-pound launch the same bullet at a higher velocity than a blackpowder round will. Rounds traveling above the speed of sound may exhibit more dramatic effects, disrupting organs near but not directly in the path of the bullet – at lower velocities, say 1,200-1,400 ft/s you might think of this as getting a slight free caliber boost. There is another happy side effect of these higher smokeless velocities that is especially relevant to pistols, which will be discussed below.

Blackpowder rifles are capable of these velocities, too; in fact the highest performance blackpowder rounds from late in the era were capable of nearly 2,000 ft/s velocity. Therefore, the above paragraph mostly relates to pistols. However, rifles from the period before 1870 typically did not approach these high velocities, and generally sat more in the 900-1,500 ft/s range. So they were sometimes supersonic, but sometimes not. Regardless, velocity would quickly drop off and a target even 50m away might be struck by a bullet traveling at subsonic speeds, and exhibiting effects similar in type to pistol rounds, according to the above paragraph.

2. Bullet Technology

Since the 1900s, bullet technology has absolutely exploded and is in fact still in a state of radical and constant change. Better modeling capabilities from the 1890s to today can mean that a low energy round can more consistently perform at its best relative to higher energy rounds, resulting in rounds that are deadlier per pound than they ever have been.

In contrast, bullet technology in the mid to late 19th Century basically amounted to throwing chunks of lead in the direction of the enemy. Thankfully, lead is a soft metal, so this may have had its own virtues to it, but even a lead ball at moderate velocity striking a target and flattening won’t produce wounds any more grievous than a modern jacketed hollow point projectile fired from a subcompact handgun. It is in fact true that at short ranges the man armed with a Ruger LCP firing Hornady Critical Defense ammunition is much better armed than the 19th Century soldier with an 1853 Enfield pattern rifle firing Minie ball projectiles.

I mentioned before that smokeless powder rounds are more energetic than blackpowder ones and will generally produce higher velocities – this higher velocity makes practical some of the more effective bullet types in use today, and certain velocity thresholds are reached where bullets may expand or flatten (and jacketed hollow point rounds are in fact designed specifically to do this – a characteristic that makes them the favorite choice of law enforcement officers and private citizens with an interest in self-defense), and even explode into many fragments (certain types of .223/5.56mm caliber rounds have a reputation for doing this at shorter ranges). These effects, in terms of their ability to stop a target and to wound him in such a way that is difficult to treat, generally separate smokeless powder rifles and pistols from their blackpowder counterparts, although a blackpowder rifle may exhibit similar characteristics to a smokeless powder pistol.

3. Medicine

Which brings us to the medical realities of both today and the mid-19th Century. Medical science in the 19th Century should not be underestimated, but it was crude by today’s standards. A clean bone fracture could still cripple a man for life, and wounds that would not be difficult to treat today caused a high rate of mortality in soldiers at the time. Some of the techniques used at the time could harm a patient as much or more than the original injury, and germ theory had not yet become dominant. The chance of infection and maiming was very high, even for wounds that today would be considered minor. In contrast, today medical science is in an arms race against extremely deadly weapons, such as IEDs that are often made from old artillery warheads, which can disintegrate a limb without hope of recovery.

This is all to say that what would be a terrible, grievous wound by 19th Century medicinal standards might be a wound that today a soldier could be successfully treated for in a matter of hours, and returned to duty in a week or two.

4. Metallic Cartridges

One final mention should be made of the realities of paper cartridges vs. metallic cartridges. Metallic cartridges are self-contained and fed into the gun whole – not broken until firing. A paper cartridge was typically broken before use – this means that there was always the chance of some powder spilling or being lost during the loading of a muzzle-loading firearm. It would not be inconceivable for a rifled-musket of the time to be accidentally downloaded and fired at an adversary, leading to the “bouncing off” phenomenon that Matt describes in the video. Further, paper cartridges preserved the propellant inside much more poorly than do modern metallic cartridges, meaning that some of the propellant could be ruined even before the cartridge is loaded, and might not ignite, amount to a weak charge. Any of these things could lead to a projectile moving too slow to penetrate heavy clothing, and are more the result of the ammunition configuration of the time than the propellant used.

 

In closing, it’s important to recognize that there’s nothing special about the propellant used to send a bullet downrange. A projectile of a given type fired on a load of smokeless powder to a velocity of 1,000 ft/s is no more deadly than one of the same type fired on a load of blackpowder to the same velocity. However, that basic principle does not account for every difference in the comparison between historical 19th Century blackpowder firearms and modern, highly effective smokeless powder weapons.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Tom

    Another issue is that of the original powder quality. Whilst making black powder is not inherently difficult per say you do need the right ratios and good quality (i.e. no impurities) ingredients to begin with. I am not sure how good the Russian powder used in the Crimean War was but this could be an issue along with the chance of powder becoming wet or being spilled during loading. During the 19th century the British had a big advantage in black powder due to being able to exploit very good naturally occurring saltpetre deposits in India.

    I have always found it very interesting how the Europeans still placed a massive emphases on the use of ‘cold steel’ whilst the American (who had the same technology) seemed to rely almost solely on firearms.

    • I think part of the ‘cold steel’ aspect was honor and bravado, conflating battlefield effectiveness with the pride of the nation. It was as much about Glory as it was victory.

      Even in WWI, the head of the French Army insisted that “le pantolone rouge c’est la France!” and had blue panted infantry bayonet charging German machine guns.

      • FWIW, there was some of that, but I recall reading somewhere that actual studies of conflicts in the mid-19th Century showed the bayonet was by far the biggest casualty producing weapon. I find that interesting, and certainly if most of your fighting is still hand to hand, and more men die to disease than combat, then discipline and moral are extremely important.

        So perhaps that’s why military thinkers even as late as the 1910s thought that unit morale, bravado, and dash were the most important things. Their information was obsolete, but at one point made a certain sense.

        • James

          There’s also the fact that two units of infantry shooting at each other will not force a conclusion except by attrition. However, if a unit can manage a successful bayonet charge, which depends on morale, bravado, and dash, they can force the enemy to flee and win the engagement, without having to go through a length firefight.

          The bayonet emphasis makes sense because the bayonet was the weapon of maneuver and attack.

          • Jonathan Ferguson

            Exactly; very useful (essential for a while) tactically, but at the same time not actually an effective *weapon*. Actual bayonet combat is rare, and means someone is winning a medal in the process..

        • Jonathan Ferguson

          Interesting; everything I’ve read says the opposite; the bayonet contributed very little to actual injury of combatants and was more a psychological weapon/deterrent/tool used to induce a final rout, control prisoners, cut firewood etc.

          • I’ll have to find the source again – it was examining a specific conflict – I think maybe even a specific battle. The context of the source was that this informed major decision making later on, and is one of the reasons they spent so much time agonizing over the bayonet in the late 19th Century.

          • gunsandrockets

            Even before the invention of the bayonet, during the English Civil war the typical mix of muskets to pikes was around three to one. Even then firepower was recognized as the most important element in producing casualties and pikes were mostly important in fending off cavalry from over-running the infantry during musket reloading.

          • Jon

            Cuting firewood with a bayonet? I don’t think that period armies would have the money and the will to arm it’s soldiers with those,

        • Paul Epstein

          If you grievously injure someone with gunfire and then run up to stab them with a bayonet, then the technical means by which their life was ended was the bayonet. Some soldiers would have been killed instantly in the gunfire, due to getting hit square in the head or heart, but a large number who sustained injuries likely to kill them over a number of hours would have been running on adrenaline long enough to engage in hand to hand combat.

          If we can distinguish between the use of the bayonet as the sole weapon which killed someone and it’s use as effectively a misericorde, then we can begin to make statements. But I’m not aware of that data being available from an objective perspective.

        • iksnilol

          I remember reading about the bayonet only causing 2% of combat casualties (which themselves were only 10-15% of total casualties).

          I think that was in regards to the American Civil War.

          • That wouldn’t shock me at all, as by that point they were using Minie balls. I really must dig up this source, but I think it was studying conflicts pre-rifled-musket.

          • iksnilol

            It would be interesting to say the least.

    • kyphe

      It was not uncommon for European Officers to supplement the equipment and ammunition of their soldiers out of their own pocket and earn money from trophy’s taken in victory. Use of cold steel is simply cost effective in terms of material.

    • gunsandrockets

      “I have always found it very interesting how the Europeans still placed a massive emphases on the use of ‘cold steel’ whilst the American (who had the same technology) seemed to rely almost solely on firearms.”

      And that also includes favorite musket ammunition too. Europeans favored ball cartridges, while Americans advanced the idea of buck and ball loads, a combination load that added some pellets of buckshot to a ball cartridge. Those differences influenced by the nature of combat in the old world vs the new world. The very invention of the military musket in Europe intended to defeat plate body armor and still inflict a fatal wound. While in the new world much combat was against fleet groups of nearly naked savages.

  • Victor Nicolao

    I don’t know ,but I think that I prefer to be hit by a higher velocity bullet that will go thru my body and lucky enough won’t hit any organs that to be hit by a bullet shot by a black powder gun that will remain in my body and with instant pain and shock,besides the consecuences of a dirty bullet.

    • Hi Victor, a high velocity bullet is more likely to fragment and do other nasty things that will leave you with a hard to treat wound and could even permanently cripple you (besides obviously potentially killing you).

      I wouldn’t underestimate them, for sure.

      • Nashvone

        Having grown up with a civil war battlefield in my front yard, I would have to say that no matter what type of firearm I were to get shot with, I would prefer modern medical treatment to what those unfortunate young men received.

        • iksnilol

          +1

          Knowing people who got shot, so much of what you’re saying. Shot placement is everything, even wonder bullets like fragmenting 5.56 or yawing 7.62×39 won’t do much damage unless they hit something (bone, organs, mayor blood vessels).

          • Out of courtesy, I won’t link them, but I recommend you take a look via Google at what high velocity rifle rounds will do to a femur.

          • iksnilol

            Your point being? I thought the femur was a bone?

          • Canadian Vet

            It is. And even a “mere” round of 5.56 fired from a C7/C8/M4 etc can turn one of the strongest bones in the body into a mess of fragments. There is a reason Canadian troops were trained for shots to the pelvic cavity, at least for a time, when dealing with suspected suicide bombers. 1) less risk of a sympathetic detonation and 2) no matter how hopped up on whatever the bomber may or may not be on, no one can stand, let alone walk or run if a load-bearing structure like the pelvis and/or the head of the femur has been shattered.

          • iksnilol

            I know, that was sorta my point. No matter how “weak” or “powerfull” round you use, it won’t do much unless it hits something important. Something important being bone, major blood vessels, organs or nerves.

          • FarmerB

            Err, in my experience it depends on the bullet. I’d MUCH rather get hit with a 7.62 ball round than a high velocity 5.6-6mm varmint projectile. The shock wave thing is real and absolutely devastating.

          • Tassiebush

            I don’t have experience with bigger rifle calibres on game but I certainly also find small high velocity rounds make a big mess of soft tissue. Tried to upload a few cool pics to illustrate point but sadly they were too big.

          • FarmerB

            Gi’day Tassie…
            If you copy them here, I can make them smaller for you…
            //www(dot)dropbox(dot)com/request/va0QSFqCKC50QLuFPi8c

          • Tassiebush

            Hi mate I’ve put it in there. Hehe lets hope I haven’t sent it to the wrong account lol. Anyway if you can de identify if my name is on the image I’d appreciate it. 🙂

          • FarmerB

            Didn’t look too big…

          • Tassiebush

            Thanks for that mate. So that’s the exit wound on a pademelon wallaby shot with a 45grain .223rem at less than 50m. Photo angle doesn’t quite show how much tissue is gone but as you can see it has plenty of cavitation completely disproportionate to bullet size.
            Oh and don’t worry folks they’re extremely common in my state exceeding pre European numbers and this one made tasty bolognaise.

          • iksnilol

            Of course

            magic bullet > regular non-magic bullet

          • They do not actually have to hit the femur to shatter it.

          • iksnilol

            How does that work? Are we operating on bloody telekinesis now?

            Where are these psychic bullets? I haven’t gotten my hands on any of those.

            Or is it just if it is going fast enough that the shockwave will shatter the bone?

          • ostiariusalpha

            Yep, inside the body a shock wave from an expanding supersonic bullet can shatter even thick bone pretty easy, though not always consistently. I’ve seen it done on coyotes and deer.

          • iksnilol

            That certainly caused some damage but I didn’t really see any bones shattering except the direct hits.

            Maybe it is time for new glasses? The vid is good but they could have shown more clearly. A side view and a disection wouldn’t have been bad.

          • Southpaw89

            I can vouch for that, having cleaned a deer that I shot and finding it wasn’t actually the bullet that killed it so quickly, but a chunk of the shoulder blade passing through its lungs, that was with a .243, the damage a 30-06 will do to the same bone, on the way out no less, is much worse (as seen on another deer).

      • Victor Nicolao

        YES,YOU ARE RIGHT BUT I WAS REFERING TO THE BIG BORE GUNS SUCH AS THE .45,60 69 CALIBERS THAT WERE USED DURING THE CICIL WAR TIMES.

    • Don Ward

      Well you’re in luck. Because at the TFB comment sections, we have real life veterans who have shot NVA and Viet Cong with their M14s where the bullet passed clear through and hit the guy marching an close order formation behind!

      • iksnilol

        Are you one of them? I know a guy mentioned shooting through a couple of guys with an M14. Though I don’t remember how effective it was in regards to killing them.

        Only war experience thing I can tell you is that making armor out of scrap metal ends up way too heavy. 9mm shoots through stuff like crazy (7.62×25 is even crazier) and that you can shoot through body armor with inferior rounds like .45 ACP if you send enough of them (like with a Thompson). Not my experiences but the experiences of my friends and family.

  • John

    >In contrast, bullet technology in the mid to late 19th Century basically
    amounted to throwing chunks of lead in the direction of the enemy.
    Thankfully, lead is a soft metal, so this may have had its own virtues
    to it, but even a lead ball at moderate velocity striking a target and
    flattening won’t produce wounds any more grievous than a modern jacketed
    hollow point projectile fired from a subcompact handgun. It is in fact
    true that at short ranges the man armed with a Ruger LCP firing Hornady
    Critical Defense ammunition is much better armed than the 19th Century
    soldier with an 1853 Enfield pattern rifle firing Minie ball
    projectiles.

    Which also indicates that we need a better understanding of black powder technology as well. Black powder revolvers apparently take a ball of lead and sheer it against the cylinder or barrel for a tight fit, which helps propel it faster and straighter when fired. So instead of a ball, why not load a lead cone?

    That’s just one idea.

    • ostiariusalpha

      That’s the friggin’ Minié ball, man. They figured that out in 1848.

      • John

        Heh. Not horizontal groves. Vertical grooves cut by the rifling of the barrel itself. .

        • iksnilol

          Pushing a bullet into the rifling is nothing new, F-class shooters and the like do it all the time.

          That shearing isn’t too good, it is only effective in making sure that the bullet isn’t undersized for the bore. And the shorn lead accumulates over time.

          I just don’t understand what you mean by a lead cone. That sounds awfully similar to the minie ball.

  • PK

    Top-notch article.

  • The_Champ

    “It is in fact true that at short ranges the man armed with a Ruger LCP firing Hornady Critical Defense ammunition is much better armed than the 19th Century soldier with an 1853 Enfield pattern rifle firing Minie ball projectiles.”

    Are you still talking about terminal effects on target or the capabilities of each firearm because if the former, I’d have to contest this.

    Based simply on my experience seeing big Canadian white tail deer hit with big slow basic lead muzzle-loader bullets and getting completely pole-axed, I doubt very much a .380 ACP of any bullet design could replicate that effect on target. Just my two cents.

    On a related note, some of the literature I’ve read on the British wars with the Zulus mentions absolutely horrific wounds produced by their Henry-Martini rifles, mainly when those big slow lead bullets struck major bones. Anecdotal evidence, I know, but many nearly severed and amputated limbs are described. Again nothing you could replicated with a modern handgun.

    • As always, Champ, “it depends”. First, it’s important to consider that modern muzzleloading blackpowder hunting rifles may be more powerful than a rifled-musket from the 1850s. The Martini-Henry in this video is firing a smaller caliber, lighter bullet a bit faster, but the gel test should give you an idea of what sort of terminal effect those weapons have – i.e., lots of energy, but potentially undramatic effect. And, of course, you have to consider the fact that the Ruger is a breechloading semiautomatic.

      • gunsandrockets

        You stretched your argument way too far by comparing a minie-ball firing rifled-musket to something as puny as an LCP.

        • I originally wrote the article for a very introductory audience and was trying to illustrate my point. But I’d still rather be armed with an LCP than an 1853 musket at least if the ranges were short, since with the handgun there would be a tremendous firepower advantage.

    • iksnilol

      Oh you could replicate it with a handgun. I have heard of that happening with Tokarevs. That fancy “shatter the bone which later demands amuptation” effect.

      • Victor Nicolao

        Tokarev’s firing 7,62×25, exit at about 1750 fps is the only handgun factory cartridge that penetrates a bullet proof vest

        • iksnilol

          Not the only one, but the easiest one to use IMO. It is flexible , common components, easy to use and can be necked down to provide even more velocity.

      • Tassiebush

        Reading “shooting to live” by Fairbairn and Sykes they mentioned that in the Shanghai municipal police there was a great fear of the wounding effect of .30mauser pistols as it was known a hit to an arm often necessitated amputation. Given that the Tokarev is basically a hotter loaded version of it must be potent!

        • iksnilol

          Ohmigawd! I read the same book. Though I’d recommend taking some parts with a grain of salt. Like the part where they recommend disabling the safeties on a pistol and chopping off the trigger guard claiming it will get in the way during a draw. No wonder they recommended carrying with an empty chamber with practices like that.

          Also, the Belgian takedown is brutal. Not for the faint of heart.

          • Tassiebush

            Haha I just checked my copy to remind myself of what Belgian takedown was and it was right on the page with cut down revolver in .45colt with 2″ barrel, removed spur and trigger guard. Still looking for the Belgian takedown though. I actually think their pistol mods and carry method makes a heap of sense though (as opposed to revolver). Basically nil risk of accidental discharge and easier for an instinctive shooter under fire to do. Well at least that’s how they pitch it anyway.

          • iksnilol

            Well, I wouldn’t mind carrying a cut down gun like that with an empty chamber. But with a round loaded? No way.

          • Tassiebush

            Fair point.

          • Tassiebush

            Haha I googled it in the end! Looks awesomely painful! I love reading those old manuals. Kill or get killed by rex applegate is a great read too.

    • Sulaco

      And I am assuming we are not considering accuracy over distance? A rifle long arm even one with less power is going to be able to hit targets at distance better than a hand gun for most people…or did I miss something here?

      • Right, I wasn’t considering that.

      • John

        I think the issues of low powder charge, wet powder, loose bore fitting causing lost compression, poor workmanship and a myriad of other issues severely affecting the accuracy of old rifles are problems that modern handguns don’t have. I would take the .380 and keep my shots under 50 yards. However, Jerry Miculek made a 200 shot with a .380 and it still rang the steel so….

        • Sulaco

          Jerry Miculek is not most people.

  • Herky-Bird

    Slashing and impaling, compared to gunshots at 1000 fps, are both poor ways of killing. Takes too long for the adversary to bleed out. The biggest thing going for firearms is the need for little training to be highly effective. Swords and bayonets require a lifetime of training to be effective efficient killers.

  • ghost

    There is an article in there somewhere, waiting to get out.

  • Tassiebush

    A great read for at least one person’s thinking on this topic in black powder times is the book, The Sporting Rifle and its Projectiles by Lieut James Forsyth, the second edition of which was published in1867. In it he goes into the best choices for calibre and load for hunting the game of India and describes the best projectiles for this. He pretty much dismisses military rifles from the start for having too little velocity and too little frontal area. He says that military rifles need a much longer maximum range than for hunting but don’t have to shoot as flat and only need to wound rather than kill. Basically a rainbow trajectory with sight settings to compensate for this and smaller calibre conical projectile like the minie bal (with better ballistic coefficient) is adequate. He actually makes reference to the odd directions of travel minie balls took within body cavities of those shot in Crimean war too which is interesting.
    For hunting a very different set of priorities are needed. he emphasizes the need for enough frontal area and complete penetration and flat trajectory at closer ranges suggesting enough velocity for a point blank range of around 150yards is needed. So for hunting he recommends a spherical ball over a conical one that must be pushed fast enough to punch through in a straight line. He describes a 16gauge being enough for all deer species (that’d include the big and tough Sambar) but he recommends a 12gauge for tigers and bears. He’s pretty clear about the ethical responsibility to kill without causing undue suffering and this is dangerous game so I

  • Tassiebush

    That was an interesting watch. I get the impression that a significant advantage cold steel could have was in dominating quickly against a poorly trained and lead opponent who couldn’t keep up a good rate of fire and certainly couldn’t match the close quarter fighting prowess of various regiments (highlanders always seem to feature). It’d be one thing to shoot it out against better trained opponents but to hold ground against a bayonet charge where some are even skillfully using a sword would be too much morale wise.

    • Tom

      I think that is why bayonets are effective. Its not that they are great weapons in terms of killing power. After all its hard to aim and reload (harder still in the days of muzzle loaders or even single shot breech loading rifles) when someone is screaming at the top of his voice and lounging at you with a bayonet.

      I remember reading that during the Falklands war the Argentine troops were quite happy to hold their positions and shoot at the British but once the British troops closed for the bayonet charge the Argentine troops tended to run, surrender or generally panic and their positions fell apart. Its not that the bayonet is an effective weapon but it does induce panic in poorly disciplined forces.

      • Tassiebush

        Absolutely agreed! People who lack confidence will cede the important ground and ultimately flee if faced with such aggression. It’s probably not unlike gaining fire superiority nowadays. Shooting is definitely a complex enough skill that it can break down under pressure. Conversely confident troops will see opportunity and dominate.

  • Looks to me like that wound got infected pretty bad, which helps drive home the point about their medical care being really crude.

    You’re right that the .380 doesn’t have the kind of energy to break bones and keep going that a Minie ball has, but I should think the rapidity of fire would make up for that.

    • marathag

      Almost bet that guy wished he chose amputation.

      Yeah, multiple hits would do the trick.

      As far as I can determine, the last blackpowder rounds used in combat were the .45 Martini-Henry, used in Maxim guns, used in WWI Zeppelin Busting.
      Those bullets being able to contain more incendiary material than the .303

      • Tassiebush

        A fascinating topic would be how many rounds a black powder machine gun like that could fire before fouling induced failure of some type and what was done to sustain fire!?

        • marathag

          All of Maxim’s durability tests(thousands or rounds) were done with the Martini-Henry and Gardner BP .45 cases.
          Maxim didn’t have stoppages and breakdowns till they used the brand new French rounds with smokeless powder

          • Tassiebush

            How very interesting! I’m speculating that metalic cased breech loaders have an advantage regarding black powder fouling compared to muzzle loaders or nitrated paper breechloader insofar as they probably hit a point where they push some fouling out of the chamber mechanically by loading and out of the bore with subsequent shots so maybe the fouling plateaus at a level which allows reliable functioning!?

          • marathag

            It really surprised me too, reading up on Maxim’s trials.

            I, as everybody else, believed that fouling should have been a problem, but doesn’t seem to be the case.

            Maxim did firing trails for near everybody in the mid-late 1880s, Swiss, Austrians, Italians and so on in their national caliber.

            Only the French Trials were breaking parts and having extraction problems, there was so much more energy that the guns rate of fire almost doubled.

        • gunsandrockets

          Reading of fouling problems with cap and ball revolvers, leads me to guess that the reason many black powder fixed cartridges have small powder charges by modern standards is to cut down on fouling and smoke.

          Consider, the 1866 Winchester military musket in .44 Henry rimfire caliber. Oddly this weapon was still offered for sale by Winchester way past the dates of apparently superior weapons like the 1876 Winchester. But then consider that the 1866 military musket had a 17 round magazine, and the smoke generated by a line of rifleman firing 17 rounds each would not be any more than that generated by firing 6 rounds each of .45-70 cartridges.

          • Tassiebush

            That’s an interesting point about smoke volume diffences. It’d be substantial I’m guessing with some loads.

  • Sulaco

    Sandow/Marsall in one of their books on ammunition and bullet effects investigated black power revolvers and came to the conclusion that for instance the .36 cap and ball revolver that Bill Hickok loved were the same ballistics as todays FMJ .380. He did say that the .44 Colts Walker was a real man killer and on a par with some .357’s though…for what its worth.

    • Marcus D.

      This is true. The .36 is not terribly powerful, and its penetration was modest except at very close range. Colt’s .32 pocket pistol was useless beyond point blank range. But the .44 with 30 grains of black powder and a ball was very effective against human targets. The Walker, which could be loaded as high a 50 grains (though usually only loaded to 35 or 40) was powerful enough to take down a horse, as was the .45 Colt SAA (7 1/2″ barrel) when loaded with 35 grain full power cartridges (often the Army issued cartridges downloaded to 30 grains).

  • gunsandrockets

    In this article describing blackpowder vs smokeless powder I’m amazed that there was no discussion of cartridges in use today, some still extremely popular, which were originally loaded with black powder such as the .22 Long Rifle, the S&W .38 Special, and 12 gauge shotgun. It’s important to point out the smokeless powder loading used today in those cartridges reflect the original pressure limits of the original black powder loads.

    The fact is black powder, particularly in fixed cartridge form was quite deadly in military use. As the Russians found out when the Turks slaughtered them with 1866 Winchester repeating military muskets at the battle of Plevna. Those 17 round Winchesters firing the puny .44 Henry rimfire black powder cartridge were quite deadly.

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    It is generally conceded that Turkey was able to purchase sufficient numbers of M1866 Winchester rifles and carbines to play a decisive role in delaying, for almost half a year the reapeated major assaults of the combined Russo-Roumanian Armies at the Battle of Plevna (1877). This was the first major military engagement in which the use of repeating firearms had a substantial influence on it’s battles and in which extraordinarily heavy casualties were repeatedly inflicted. The Turks engaged the charging Russians at long range with theirM1872 Peabody-Martini rifles (long range, powerful and flat trajectory for its day). The Russians were armed with the already obsolete Krnka rifles and only a limited number of Berdan Iand Berdan II rifles. When the Russians closed to within 200 yeards, the Turks switched arms and engaged them with the repeating Winchesters and cut them to ribbons.

  • gunsandrockets

    Another interesting point is when British military forces switched to .303 caliber for quite some time there were complaints of lack of lethality on the battlefield compared to the older .45 caliber cartridges.

    Even though the tough round-nosed full metal jacketed .303 bullets demonstrated amazing powers of penetration, penetration put to good effect by some elephant hunters, that same tough bullet tended to just punch a small hole through a human target. That problem with lethality eventually lead to the Mk Vil ball .303 cartridge with a compound core bullet deliberately designed to tumble within human flesh.

  • Victor Nicolao

    Over here in Argentina we have many cases of criminals hit by the police 9mm’s they still could shoot back and kill them,in many cases run 4 o 500 yards before falling death.
    I was hit when I was in the army by .38 special bullet,,because I was aiming with my handgun in sort of an angle the bullet hit me in a rib,it ricochet and it run under the skin and exit by my back.I did not feel a thing,and I did not know I was hit until a few minutes later.

    • iksnilol

      Interesting but not surprising. What kind of bullet was used? Did the police use hollow points? Where did they hit the target?

      • Victor Nicolao

        In this country is illegal to use hollow points,(Argentina)this goverment seems to be more on the criminals side that on the decent people.

        • iksnilol

          That explains a lot. Trust me, .45 acp wouldn’t have made a difference.

    • Tassiebush

      Thanks for sharing your unpleasant experience! There was a very informative article by Nicholas C, Medical POV: Rifle vs Handgun Wounds on January 13 this year which gave a great description of how bullets travel through tissue and their effects. I recall that skin actually offers much more resistance than flesh which is why bullets often travel under skin. It also seems that significantly more people survive being shot with handguns than die (in US anyway).

  • John

    I think it’s so funny how we are kind of spoiled as shooters. Now we scream foul if our rounds don’t land perfectly between 12-18 inches of ballistic gel or achieve the 1100 fps we were promised on the box. If we get a few hard primers in a batch, the ammo is called “crap”.

    200 years ago, you were lucky to not blow yourself up with a double charge done out of panic or get a poorly made projectile that wasn’t able to hit a barn from the inside with the door closed! How many shots out of 10,000 failed in 1776 vs 2015. Just a thought.

    • iksnilol

      I’d prefer 1050 fps instead of 1100, simply because I prefer accuracy and 1100 fps is a bit too close to the speed of sound for my comfort.

      Though you do got a point, then again I assume more people died with faulty weapons than they do now.

  • Marcus D.

    I would not underestimate the power of black powder firearms. True, they can’t compete with modern smokeless, but still, a .45-70 out of a 36″ barrel could take down a buffalo at half a mile, and had an ultimate range of 3,500 yards. The .57 cal. Minie ball fired over 60 or 70 grains of powder did grievous damage at typical combat ranges of 300 yards to point blank range. As one example, at the Bloody Lane at Antietam did not fire on the Confederate troops in the first charge until they were less than 50 yards away. Or read about Shiloh and the Battle of the Hornet’s nest, so named because the slow moving incoming rounds made the sound of “angry hornets,” rounds that made a wet smacking sound when they struck flesh. Whether conical or ball, a .57 cal projectile makes a .75 caliber hole.

    Yes, amputations were partly due to poor medical technology, but the fact is that when several inches of bone are missing from an arm or leg, and that which remains is pulverized slivers, there was nothing to do but amputate.

  • Zebra Dun

    The Black powder Bobcat I use is .54 caliber at 80 grs FFg it will shoot a round ball at 25 yards into a large metropolitan phone book soaked all night and lift it off the ground.
    The Ball will strike and travel halfway inside, then flatten slightly before turning into a long twisted string of lead like a swizzle stick.
    The conical balls penetrate deeper to all the way through and flatten into backwards facing mushrooms.
    They drop deer like a shotgun slug or a 30/30 would.
    Using them in combat must have been like shooting shotgun slugs at 50 yards at each other lined up for parade.
    Gruesome.

    On the 7.62 x 25 mm Tok. My brother has this old Czechoslovak M-52 which we shot one day and I was amazed at it’s accuracy and the ability to penetrate just about everything we shot with it.
    I would take a modern handgun in this caliber perhaps a 1911A1 if I could find one.