It seems an odd thing, 128 years after the advent of smokeless powder, to be reporting progress in black-powder technology. Black powder has been around for a thousand years. What more could there be to learn?
Since the days of the alchemists, however, the making of black gunpowder has always been more art than science. During its sporting heyday in the late 1800s, there was intense competition among makers of gunpowder and the greatest practitioners guarded their secrets jealously. When companies went out of business, or their old employees died, those secrets often died with them.
Today, we know the basic formula for black powder (charcoal, sulphur, saltpetre) but not the nuances and techniques that made the black powder of the 1880s such a superb propellant. Even more than with smokeless powder, the quality of the black powder you burn determines the performance of a black-powder cartridge rifle.
High quality powder can mean a 200- to 300-foot-per-second difference in muzzle velocity, and determine whether your iron sights can even be adjusted to put the bullet on a large target at 100 yards. Good powder, with consistent ignition, promotes accuracy. Poor powder can be very dirty, gumming up the bore, affecting accuracy, and making cleaning a grubby and unpleasant chore.
As black-powder shooting gains popularity, competition is increasing among powder manufacturers. In the United States, the Goex brand is owned by Hodgdon. Graf & Sons, the reloading supply house, imports a powder from Germany called Schuetzen. Powder has also been imported from Switzerland, Brazil, and other countries.
It is an article of faith that the best powder ever made was Curtis’s & Harvey #6, an English powder from the 1880s. Even American buffalo hunters wrote about the superiority of English powders. Most attribute this to the quality of the charcoal used as the third ingredient. Saltpetre and sulphur are pretty straightforward chemicals. As long as they are pure, there is not much variety. Not so with charcoal.
In making a powder, the manufacturers’ options come down to the exact percentages of each ingredient, plus the quality of charcoal. In that case, the question is which wood was used to make the charcoal, which is then ground to become part of the mixture.
According to legend, Curtis’s & Harvey used alderwood charcoal, and other manufacturers have, at times, claimed the superiority of their product because of the particular charcoal, or the way in which it was made. Again, however, they do not want to be too specific and give away trade secrets.
Hodgdon has steadily expanded its variety of black powders, including standard Goex, Goex Express, and Goex Cartridge. Now, Goex has introduced a premium powder called Olde Eynsford Royal Blend, intended to excel even the best imported powders.
Olde Eynsford is offered in three grades, or granulations: 1½Fg, 2Fg, and 3Fg. In an initial (and admittedly unscientific) comparison between the 1½ Fg and some standard Goex Fg in an 11.15x58R Werndl, I gained an immediate increase in velocity, from 1200 feet per second to 1350 fps.
Goex describes Olde Eynsford as possessing “match grade consistency and speed.” From my brief experience with it, that seems a very accurate description.
Quality of black powder is extremely important to owners of old double rifles, for a number of reasons. You may want to hunt dangerous game with one, and if so you need both power and accuracy. The regulation of a black-powder double depends to a large degree on obtaining the same velocity as the manufacturer a century ago. There are other factors too, and every double rifle is a law unto itself, but undoubtedly powder quality plays a significant role. The more black powders we have to work with, the more likely we are to find a load suited to a particular rifle.
I have yet to try Olde Eynsford in either my .450 3¼” (J. Woodward & Sons) or H&H .500 Express 3¼”, but I’m about to start on it. Those two rifles are as individual as the makers themselves, and what applies to one seems very emphatically not to apply to the other. Maybe Olde Eynsford will change that.—Terry Wieland