Monday, March 28, 2011

Reloading & Muzzle Loading

A few days ago the subject of reloading came up and what started out as a simple email turned into this blog instead. My original plan for this blog was to share with my family my life experiences, especially my younger years. So this counts.

Reloading is a fun hobby and there is a lot less to learn about it than you might think. My brother and I started reloading 12 ga. shotgun shells around the age of 16. He ordered a Lee Hand Loader from the local hardware. It came with everything needed except the powder, shot, wads and primers. He upgraded it with additional powder and shot measuring cups and an attachment that fit on a drill to heat seal the crimped folds on plastic shot shells that were just coming out then. At first we followed the instructions and made many reloads by the book. It was very simple to do. First you had to check the empty shells for damage (i.e. - cracks, dents, dirt, corrosion) anything that was suspicious was tossed and dirty shells were cleaned up and checked again. The you removed the old primers with the included tool and cleaned the primer pocket (pipe cleaners worked well for us). Following that you carefully installed a new primer using the included tool. Next you add the right measure of gunpowder, (before starting you must consult the charts for the proper brand and type for the load you want to make and choose a shot size) followed but wadding or shot cup, and then you add the proper weight of shot (I liked using #5 shot size because of the larger BB size and the increased killing power at a distance. This also meant that each shell held fewer BB's. My brother on the other hand liked using #8 shot, filling the air with dust sized lead balls). Finally you crimp the shell and Viola !! You have just reloaded your first round. Make a few more and then go out and try a test shot and chart the pattern. Repeat a couple of times for consistency. If you weren't happy with the outcome you could try a different recommended powder, primer or shot size on your next batch. If you were happy, it was time to go hunting. We loved our new hobby.

After a while we started customizing shells for our own purposes, you could do that back in the day of paper shells and felt & cardboard wads. I used too make ultra light loads with less powder and less shot but more wadding, to get squirrels without tearing them all up and it was pretty quiet too. As a matter of fact instead of a bang it sounded more like someone blowing down a length of plumbing pipe. We also made some magnum type loads for bird hunting. When I think back on it, I am amazed that we never got hurt messing around like we did. A little knowledge and a teen-age attitude towards danger made for some scary loads, I would give you some examples but I am afraid someone might try them out. But we were smart enough to test fire our wildcat loads with the gun tied down to a tire and a LONG string on the trigger with us behind good cover. Kind of like the coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. Maybe the new one piece plastic wad/shot cups are a GOOD thing.

Anyway LEE PRECISION CO. still makes those inexpensive loaders in most rifle and handgun sizes. And they work pretty much the same way. (Unfortunately they no longer make them for shotguns. But they do make an amazing inexpensive shot shell loader. I have had mine for years and punched out many rounds.)

I do have a British .303 cal. rifle hand loader but would like to upgrade to a set of dies for my loading press to get better accuracy and to better crimp the shell to the bullet to get factory load power. But since I don't hunt with it, I don't really need to.

Plus I can buy military surplus ammo cheaper than I can make reloads for it. But there is a certain satisfaction in shooting your own loads that makes it fun. It's kind of like fine tuning a black powder rifle. Getting the right primer, to the right powder, to the right wad, to the right lead, so you can get the most power and the best accuracy out of your gun. And that is why there are so many people who are fanatical about reloading. It only has to be as complicated and expensive as you want to make it.

And speaking of black powder, when I was shooting Muzzle Loading competitions (something my brother talked me into, as I suck at shooting paper targets with any gun, but give me a challenging shot and I'm there), it took me years to get the right combination (at that time I lived in town and worked too many hours to get in much target practice). I had a .58 cal. almost smooth bore musket, an Italian reproduction of the Civil War era Remington Zouve. It had an over sized bore so would not fire the standard minnie-ball that it was designed for, so I had to use a round patched ball. I got it to the point where I was consistently shooting in third place in competition with rifles, but I wanted more. I knew it wasn't me or the gun, I just hadn't found the right load combination yet. I had bought enough sights for it that I also new that wasn't the problem (I used fixed sights to match my shooting style). I tried different patch thickness and ball diameter combinations without any luck, finally settling on HORNADY .560 soft lead ball with a .58 cal. plastic "POLY PATCH" that was available at the time. I could only buy one brand of black powder or use "PYRODEX". I tried that and didn't get good results, so I tried using FFF instead of FF sized powder. (Either was recommended for use with my musket but FF was the preferred charge). Black Powder is graded to 4 sizes, from cannon powder F (the slowest burning) to FFFF or flash powder (the fastest burning, used for charging flintlocks and flash pans for very old cameras). I had even less success with that, so I hunkered down to to minute changes in the ff black-powder charge. As with all of the charge change attempts, I also tried using a variety of available caps including musket caps (which are way larger). Still no joy. Finally I came across an article in a magazine about homemade (made partly from chicken manure or women's urine) and mixing grades of black powder. Now that is something that anyone will tell you is a definite No-No, but since both FF and FFF were recommended for my gun I was desperate enough to try it. (different size powders cause different pressures along the barrel.) It didn't take me long to find the right combination. (I based this on the lowest recommended charge of FFFand gradually omitted some and replaced it with FF and blended it together.)

At the next competition I came in second at the 35 yard standard targets, I finally out shot my brother (on paper targets) with his black powder double 20 ga. using a round patched ball.
Then they had a buffalo shoot. They put up life size cardboard buffalo targets at 500 yards and invited us to try to hit them. This was a surprise for all of us. I knew that the Zouve musket had the ability with a minnie ball and that using a Poly Patch was close to it, as they stuck on the ball throughout it's flight. So I gave it a little Kentucky windage and elevation and let 'er fly....completely missing the target. I wasn't the only one, as a matter of fact only one person managed to hit the cardboard at all. Next round called for a little more elevation....same results. Now I was beside myself with disappointment. Then a light went on above my head, when I was target practicing at 50 yards my ball flew a little high. 35 yards my sight was set on the up curve of the flight trajectory...I was shooting way too high. My next round I aimed for the front leg where it met the bottom of the body and placed my round in front of the knee. BINGO!! I had the round with correction on elevation and windage was a little high but a lung shot anyway. My final round was deemed a heart shot. Second place again. First place went to 3 lung shots and a body shot, by the guy who's idea it was to shoot the buffalo targets (he claimed that he didn't get in any practice shots...huh). He also took first place in the 35 yard shoot, but then he always did whenever he showed up.

I then went on to shoot at an axe-blade driven into a cedar post with a board behind it supporting clay pigeons on either side. The idea was to split the ball and break both targets. This was supposed to be just a fun target but no one had tried it. When the competition was over the judge asked me to give it a shot. How could I say no. At 35 yards I did just what was asked, I shot 4 more times with the same results. A crowd had gathered and they were shouting at me to keep going, so I did....19 times in a row, standing, reloading as fast as I could. I could have done more but by this time my gun was so fouled up with lead and powder deposits I could hardly get a ball down the barrel. After I was done everyone else had to try it. No one else even came close to my record, (a few did manage to split a ball though) even with their fancy rifles. bet. But the only first place ribbons I ever got were for moving targets, odd shots, knife and tomahawk throwing, but that's for another blog.

Sadly after this competition, the guy who started it passed away. He was the owner of the local black powder gun shop and an amazing friend. Several people tried to get it going again but it never happened, nobody had the heart for it. After many years of sitting idle I finally got rid of my gun. They had quit making Poly Patches many many years ago for some obscure reason. I bought up any I could find, but my supply was running out. And it was getting hard to find the round lead balls for it anymore, the New Wave in black powder shooting is sabot rounds and pre-measured powder formed into a solid pellet. I could have bought some ball molds and made my own, and reworked my load recipe. But it is too cold for me to go out and sit during muzzle loading deer season anyway. If I ever get another muzzle loader it will be a small  .36 or .22 caliber, just for plinking. They sure are fun to shoot.


Kelly said...

I enjoyed your story. It is truly amazing that any of us ever make it to adulthood. The odds are so against us. I was amazed at your picture. You look so much like my ex husband back in the day. I remember how happy he was when I bought him his first muzzle loader. We really could not afford that guy but it made him so happy. We were just kids playing at being adults. The pic really brought back memories.

warren said...

This is so cool! I have been looking at the cheapest Lee Loader stuff for awhile now. They sell for under $50 but I keep wondering if it is worth the money. Sounds like it is! I would love to try some of my own loads so I am going to have to break down I think.

Now as far as black powder, I have only shot a few rounds but holy cow was I bad! It was a lot of fun though!

Great story! Please tell more!

GreyWolf said...

Kelly: I was going to write a bunch of Darwin Award runner ups from my childhood but didn't want everyone to know just how stupid me and my brother were. And just as afraid that someone might try the stuff we survived. Well now for more amazement, we couldn't really afford mine either. As a matter of fact it was a few weeks before I could afford to buy all of the accessories I needed to even shoot it. And I was just tickled pink with mine too.

Warren: Don't rush to buy one yet.
I will post more very soon. What type of shells do you want to reload...Rifle, Pistol or Shotgun?