Recharging primers and making black powder, while safe in the author’s experimental experience, can be dangerous. The author and SurvivalBlog.com do not endorse recharging primers, nor making black powder, and you do so at your own risk. Making primers and/or black powder could also be in violation of the laws in your jurisdiction. You are responsible for compliance with all laws in your area. Neither the author, nor SurvivalBlog.com, are responsible for your use of the information in this article. The processes described herein are therefore for informational purposes only.
Important Safety Note:
Black powder can be dangerous if there is a gap between the powder and the projectile, when the firearm is loaded. When loading a muzzleloading firearm, be sure to seat the projectile firmly, so there is no empty space above the powder. This includes cap-and-ball revolvers, which can have no space between the powder and the ball or bullet, although wads can be used to fill the space when a light powder charge is used. When loading black powder cartridges, there must be no empty space inside the cartridge, and the powder should be compressed slightly (about 1/16 inches, or about 2mm). You may need to use a wadding or other “filler” over the powder to take up the space inside the case.
This article is intended for people who—like me—are “hedging their bets” when it comes to firearms. I have stocked up on a few good firearms, along with magazines, ammunition, and reloading components, but I know I can’t have considered every possible future event…
I began looking at making ammunition as a backup plan and soon found that every component needed for loading a muzzleloading rifle, pistol or shotgun (powder, bullets, caps, lubricant etc.) could be made at home with little trouble, without much in the way of “exotic” ingredients. Further, many cartridges can similarly be “fed” almost indefinitely with black powder, recharged primers, home-cast bullets, homemade lubricant, and other, fairly simple components.
This article may also benefit someone with limited resources, or who is faced with increasing laws and regulations which make it more difficult—and more expensive—to stock up on ammunition. I’m not suggesting homemade ammo for self-defense or for other times when lives are on the line. Rather, it can be used for practice, for plinking, for hunting, and for pest elimination, or as a backup plan for darker times, when shelves are empty again and no resupply is in sight.
This article will cover current sources for reloading components, as well as my experiments recharging fired primers and converting a modern shotgun to use primers and homemade muzzleloading cartridges, as a way of getting started in black powder inexpensively. We’ll look at the (low-cost) tools needed and the process and show how you can—for very little money—add a skill to your “toolbox,” just in case you cannot obtain new primers, powder, or ammo.
Making brass is beyond the skills of most home hobbyists. A better strategy is to backorder what you need and look for other sources in the meantime.
It’s a very good idea to save your own fired brass, even if you don’t reload. It can be a great barter item with those who do reload, or you may want to finally make the jump and start reloading. You can start small, with one or two calibers, while components are still (somewhat) available.
As a dedicated brass hound, I’ve found and scavenged thousands of brass cases over the years. Any range pickups must be carefully inspected for cracks, stretch marks, and other flaws before use. Some good reloading manuals include illustrated guidelines for inspecting brass.
The range brass that I can identify as once-fired factory stuff (often discarded with the factory box) is set aside. The rest is relegated to lighter loads or rejected. I generally prefer scavenging pistol brass, as flaws in straight-wall handgun brass are generally easy to find. Rifle brass, on the other hand, can be good for several loadings and firings, or it can be worthless even after a single firing, depending on the load that was used and the gun it was fired in.
Fired shotgun hulls can sometimes be found by the bucket-full at gun clubs that offer trap, skeet or sporting clays to shotgunners. They may be free for the asking, at least at ranges operated by private clubs, as many shooters (still) do not reload their fired shotgun hulls.
Now, even if I find brass in a caliber I have no interest in, I’ve been picking it up to scavenge the fired primers. This is especially true for shotgun shells. Presently, I only handload .410 and 20 gauge shells, but almost all shotgun shells use the same (“#209”) primers, and these have been very useful to recharge.
I have not had much trouble finding bullets. I shoot a lot of lead bullets, so I’ve been able to find projectiles from some of the smaller producers, even when the larger dealers were temporarily out of stock. I’ve also been casting more bullets, especially in specialty types, like bullets for black powder shooting.
Bullet moulds in this time of supply disruptions can go in and out of stock, but I’ve had good luck obtaining the moulds I’ve needed by checking multiple vendors and putting them on backorder, if needed. Keep in mind that in addition to the well-known companies, like RCBS, Lee, etc., there are many smaller companies. Some produce a wide variety of bullets, while others specialize in one area. I have found a few moulds on eBay, though prices from some sellers are ridiculously high.
I’m very happy with my mould from one of the specialty companies: Big Lube® Bullets (http://www.biglube.com). They make bullets for black powder shooters, with large grooves to hold as much lube as possible. Another relative newcomer that I’ve heard good things about is NOE Bullet Moulds (https://noebulletmolds.com/site/), but I have not done business with them personally. The point is that there are many places to look for moulds.
Metal for casting is still available and is an excellent item to stock up on if you can. Gun banners and the Leftist environmentalists have been pushing for a ban on lead bullets. Even if you don’t use it yourself, lead and lead alloys have a nearly infinite shelf life with minimal care and could be a useful barter item in the future.
Another item that could be very useful is lead shot. It is very difficult for a home hobbyist to make, so it may be prudent to purchase a few bags in useful shot sizes, like #4 or #6 birdshot. You can improvise shot for short-range use—such as pouring out a sheet of lead and cutting it into small squares—but quality shot is essential for good patterns out past 10 yards or so. Shot has been getting very expensive, but if you talk to shotgunners in your area, you may find someone who gathers and sells reclaimed shot from a trap or skeet range. This shot often sells at quite a discount, though it tends to be of the smaller birdshot sizes that are found in “target” shells.
“Black powder and alcohol,
When the states and the cities fall,
When your back is against the wall;
Black powder and alcohol.”
– Chorus of “Black Powder and Alcohol,” by Leslie Fish
Note: The song is fun, but the proportions of sulfur and charcoal described in the lyrics are wrong and will result in weak powder.
The supply of smokeless powder is limited, but there are still some choices available, if you aren’t picky and are willing to pay about double what powder cost before the pandemic. Small gun stores may be your best bet, especially if you’re a customer they’ve come to know and recognize. You may not be able to find the powder for your favorite load, however. Instead, you may need to buy what you can find and then go looking for the load data to match your new powder. Be ready to check quickly on your phone to see what calibers an unfamiliar powder can be used in and what types of loads it can be used to create.
“Universal” Smokeless Powders
A few smokeless powders—such as Trail Boss, Herco, and Red Dot—are listed in loading data for a wide variety of rifle and pistol calibers. Use your reloading manuals to identify powders that can be used with multiple calibers that you reload. This approach will not give you high-performance loads in all cases, but will allow you to load cartridges for most—or all—of your firearms with just a few powders, if you have to.
This leads us to another type of powder that can be used in a wide array of cartridges, although it generally gives best results in the cartridges that date back to the 19th century.
Black Powder Substitutes and Black Powder
Don’t dismiss the black powder substitutes out of hand when looking for smokeless powder online. The black powder substitutes are like black powder in application: they won’t work in semiautomatics, but they can be run—in limited quantities—in revolvers, or in bolt, lever, pump, or single shot rifles and shotguns, although some firearms handle black powder fouling better than others.
The substitutes are generally treated like black powder, in terms of loading techniques, safety rules and the need for thorough cleaning after use. Some substitutes deliver slightly higher velocities than black powder, however. Black powder cartridge loading is a skill all its own, but there are numerous books and online resources to guide you.
The advantage of substitutes over black powder is that they are much easier to find. As they are not true black powder, a different set of rules apply in the United States. They can be often be shipped directly to a customer, and far more sporting goods stores and gun stores carry black powder substitutes than traditional black powder. During the worst of the COVID shortages, I walked into a large sporting goods store and found multiple cans of one of the most popular substitutes—Pyrodex®— on the shelf, but not one can of smokeless powder, nor of black powder.
There are two big advantages of traditional black powder. First, it’s easy to ignite, making it an excellent choice for use with homemade percussion caps or home-recharged primers. Secondly, black powder is neither difficult nor expensive to make! The tools are neither expensive nor hard to find, and the three main components are cheap and common as well. I detailed one process in a SurvivalBlog article, on these dates:
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)