Black Powder and Pyrodex For Traditional Muzzle Loaders

Once known only as gunpowder, for centuries, the only available firearm propellant was black powder, a mechanical mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur. The general proportions by weight are 75 parts potassium nitrate, 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur. The formula has sometimes varied but not by much.

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Image of cans of Elephant brand and Goex brand  FFG blackpowder

Today, black powder is sold in standard granulations for different muzzleloading applications.

FFFFG - A very fine grain powder that is used in the priming pans of flintlocks
FFFG is used in black powder revolvers and rifles of 45 caliber or under.
FFG is used in rifles of 50 caliber or larger and metallic cartridges as well as shotguns
FG is used in large bore muzzle loading shotguns and small cannon.

Storage and Properties of Black Powder

If kept, dry black powder is very stable and has an almost unlimited shelf life. The is not necessarily true for the myriad of black powder substitutes developed in recent years as they have yet to prove themselves.

U.S. Department of Transportation Regulation classify black powder as an explosive which make it shipping and placement in retail stores problematic. Black powder is generally delivered by a placarded truck, it cannot be shipped by a common carrier such as UPS or FedEx. This can raise the shipping costs quite a bit. This was one of the major motivations for creating the black powder substitutes such as pyrodex which can to be transported by common carriers.



Goex really is the blackpowder by which all other brands are compared. It generally outperforms its competitors in terms of velocity per chargeweight and consistancy but it is also more expensive.


Although Elephant brand black powder was only sold in the United States for a relatively brief period of less than I decade, I still come across it now and then.

Manufactured by the Pernambuco Powder Factory in Brazil, over two million pounds of Elephant Brand Black Powder was imported into the United States between 1992 and 2001 (Knight 2). It is difficult to say what percentage was sold for military and pyrotechnic applications but the primary market was for muzzle loading firearms.

At varying times, Elephant Blackpowder was packaged in plastic bottles and steel cans. The essay, "S/A Pernambuco Powder Factory - The Final Years, 1992 to 2001" goes into a fair amount of detail to explain the history of the brands packaging

By most accounts, it was pretty good black powder but quality varied some what from year to year. According to some souces, 1999 was perhaps the best run.

Personally, I have only had experience with vintage 1997 Elephant Blackpowder but I found it to be perfectly satisfactory but although it did not burn quite as cleanly as Goex.

Though the Pernabuco factory had been in business for over a hundred years previous to the first shipment to the U.S, it seems that they saw little opportunity for sales in North America. According to William Knight's paper on the Pernambuco Powder Factory, it was only after a 1991 explosion at the Goex Plant had resulted in a black powder shortage in the U.S. did the time seem right to enter the American Market. The Pernambuco Powder Factory closed its doors in 2001.

A few years later however, the business was restarted in Brazil at a new location, under new management under the company name of, Elephant Industria Quimica. The powder made by this plant is sold in the U.S. under the Diamondback brand.


According to the Hodgdon website, Pyrodex was introduced to the public in 1976. Invented by Dan Pawlak and Michael Levenson (Wakeman), pyrodex was the first commercially successful black powder substitute sold.

A mixture of sodium benzoate, potassium nitrate, potassium perchlorate, sulfur, carbon and dicyandiamide, the exact formulation of Pyrodex is a trade secret.

Though Pyrodex fouls slightly less than black powder, its main selling point is that it is not classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation Regulations as an explosive. As a result it is can be transported by common carriers without being placarded as explosive as is the case will real black powder.

A press release from the Pyrodex Corporation after "a disastrous acccident" killed the Company President, Dan Pawlak and three others on January 27, 1977 goes into a fair amount of detail to explain that the incident was a "possible very low-order detonation"(Pyrodex Corp). It goes on to say that the damage to the plant was not what one would see with the detonation of a high explosive .

Using Pyrodex

Pyrodex is a little more difficult to ignite than blackpowder but it works well in cap lock guns.

Pyrodex is designed to be loaded on a volume basis using a standand black powder measure. Pound for pound it is more energetic than black powder, the weight of pyrodex needed to duplicate a blackpowder load is 30 percent less, which means more loads per pound. If the powder charge needed is 100 grains, then you will get 70 shots per pound of black powder versus 100 shots per pound of pyrodex.

Pyrodex in Flintlocks

While it is possible to use pyrodex in Flintlocks by first priming the main charge with 10 grains of black powder, most users of flintlock rifles will opt to used old fashioned black powder.

Gunpowder Manufacturing

It is very easy to make blackpowder, it is very hard to make good quality blackpowder.

Explosions and deaths at powder mills were not unknown. The manufacture of black powder especially on a large scale was and still is a dangerous occupation.

It was once a common practice in powder mills to fasten the sheathing boards on these buildings with a single nail at each end so as to allow them come off easily in the event of an explosion. The hope was that the building could then be reassembled after such an incident using the old building materials.

With the increasing popularity of hunting with inline muzzleloaders, a number of other black-powder substitutes have been created in addition to pyrodex. None of these new propellants are appropriate to used in Flintlock and Traditional caplock rifles, pistols and shotguns. These firearms are not designed to withstand the pressure spikes produced by more energetic propellants such as Clear-shot, Triple 7, and Blackhorn 209. So too the new propellants can be difficult to ignite with an old fashioned percussion cap.

Hodgdon Powder Co. "Our History "
Knight, William A. "S/A Pernambuco Powder Factory - The Final Years, 1992 to 2001"
Pyrodex Corp "Four Men Killed at Pyrodex Plant&334; Handloader Mar-Apr 1977 p. 10
Wakeman, Randy

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