A Correction, and Pyrodex & Skirmishing - Part II

By Tom Kelley

Last month, we looked at the issue of skirmishing with Pyrodex, the components of Pyrodex and the suitability of Pyrodex as a skirmishing propellant. You may remember, I had minor misgivings over the amount of pressure that a full charge of Pyrodex generates in antique arms. I also discussed the way both black powder and smokeless powder generate pressure, but I screwed the relationship up. What I should have said was:

The pressure peak of a black powder discharge is at the front of the time continuum. Smokeless powder discharges build to a peak pressure limit more slowly, which is why they are sometimes called "progressive" powders. This also explains why we often see pictures of smokeless powder damage to black powder guns with the damage down on the barrel rather than at the breech. A Pyrodex discharge peak would be between the black powder and smokeless peaks on the time continuum.

I want to thank the readers who quickly pointed out my user headspace error. I apologize for the mistake. Now, this month lets look at some Pyrodex loads for skirmishing, and their suitability for target shooting.

Please also note, I am not advocating the use of Pyrodex as an approved Skirmishing propellant, and, conversely, I am not advocating banning Pyrodex for the same purpose. What I wanted to do is review what Pyrodex is, how it can be used, and then let the reader make his own informed decision.

Shooting Pyrodex

Pyrodex pours and measures just like black powder; it is just as easy to use as black powder. The Pyrodex is loaded into the chamber, bore or cartridge case just as BP is loaded, and the projectile is then placed on top of the load just as it would be placed on BP. No air gap or space should ever be left after loading an arm with Pyrodex, just as no such space should be left when using BP. A small amount of compression of the powder by the projectile is a good way to insure the lack of an air space.

A Pyrodex load behind an identical projectile as used for your regular blackpowder load will generate what can be perceived as more recoil, but not significantly more. I noticed the recoil increase in the musket, where I was pushing a 500 grain bullet out of a ten-pound Harper's Ferry Three Bander. In the Henry, where the bullet weighs half of the Minie Ball (and the Henry weighs more than my musket), the recoil seemed about the same. The recoil in the Smith Carbine and my pistols was also not noticeably higher with Pyrodex. From the recoil standpoint, Pyrodex and Black Powder are about the same until you get into the large caliber slugs, and then the increase is nominal. Most of the time, I was shooting from a bench, which always increases felt recoil. An offhand shooter may not notice the increased recoil at all.

One thing I did notice was that my Pyrodex groups in the Smith and Henry were very close to those I get with my Black Powder loads. I even got one group better than the black powder Smith loads, which I found encouraging for applications outside of N-SSA competitions. This test was a bench test, though, and the Smith was also the only firearm that exhibited noticeable hang fires with the Pyrodex propellant. As I mentioned last month, Pyrodex ignites at a much higher temperature than black powder, and that requirement, combined with the long primer communication channel and two turns in that channel resulted in hang fires more than half the time. A steady bench helps eliminate the effect of the hang fires, however, we all know the N-SSA is not a bench shooting competition. Since N-SSA rules prohibit duplex loads of any kind, using FFF or FFFF powder in the back of the Smith cartridge is out of the question.




BP Velocity

Pyrodex Velocity

M1855 Musket

60 grain or equivalent

Ball Accuracy

.580 450 gr

688.3 fps

781.4 fps

Smith Carbine

25 grain or equivalent

Ball Accuracy

.517 350gr

684.2 fps

751.5 fps

Henry Rifle

30 grain or equivalent


250 gr

893.8 fps

1090 fps

M1858 Remington

18 grain or equivalent

Speer RndBl

.454 141 gr

553.2 fps

510.4 fps

I actually liked the Pyrodex best in the Smith and Henry applications. In the Henry, with magnum primers, quick ignition was delivered routinely. The internal ballistics seemed identical in the Henry, and Pyrodex results were on a par with the black powder, with the noticeable exception that velocities in the Smith and Henry with charges of equal volume of black powder and Pyrodex always resulted in higher velocities for the Pyrodex loads.

I had inconsistent results with the Remington pistol. I was using a reduced load, and it may be that you need to use more Pyrodex to get consistent results. The Musket test also resulted in higher velocities for Pyrodex, but the group for black powder was more consistent. Further testing of the musket and pistol may result in more refined data.

Cleaning Pyrodex

While the chemical composition is a trade secret of the manufacturer, the combustion of Pyrodex leaves behind a residue that tests positive for the presence of chlorides among other complex compounds. I think these chlorides are more corrosive than the residue from blackpowder, and, accordingly, the Pyrodex shooter should always clean his arm immediately after using Pyrodex. Luckily, chlorides are very water soluble, so any water-based cleaner, or even water alone, makes a good cleaner. I have had good luck with my new old standby, Balistol, when cleaning up after using Pyrodex. You'll notice that your patches come out of the barrel at first with a greenish hue, an indicator of the presence of the chlorides bleaching out the black carbon soot that is also present in the residue. Continue cleaning until the patches come out of the barrel without traces of dirt.

For cleaning Henry cases after Pyrodex use, I just soak them for ten minutes in a vinegar bath to neutralize the residues. Cases can then be prepped as usual for Henry. Be careful not to get any of the vinegar solution on blued firearms, as it can cause severe spotting of the finish.


I learned a lot about Pyrodex in completing this investigation. Currently, my applications of Pyrodex loads include Cowboy Action Shooting and hunting with the Henry. I've been searching for a good 100-yard load with the Henry, and the 250-grain Henry carries 1435 foot pounds of energy out to the goal line, and is only 4 inches high at fifty yards. That sounds like a likely swamp load to me!

Pyrodex certainly has its place in historical shooting. I use it in shotgun as well as Civil War firearms. Whether or not it is suitable for skirmishing is a decision out of our hands. Personally, I wouldn't use it in original black powder firearms, but do use it in modern replicas. I think the use of Pyrodex can be successful, but is up to the individual where Pyrodex is an allowed propellant. I hope you enjoyed learning about Pyrodex as much as I did.

Until the next time, promote responsible gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

2001 by Tom Kelley

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