Product Review: Black Mag Powder
A Simple Comparison Test of the New "Black Mag" Blackpowder Substitute
Those of you who read muzzleloading related magazines, such as Muzzle Loading Hunting, may recall seeing ads for a new black powder substitute. For several years now there have been sporadic ads for a product called Black Mag. Each time I inquired about availability I found that production had been delayed and commercial quantities of Black Mag were not yet on the market. So, I was pleasantly surprised when, while attending the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association championship matches at Friendship, Indiana, I saw a representative for the Arco Co. passing out samples of Black Mag.
In recent years, there have been two other black powder substitutes produced. Both fell far short of being viable products and, because of this, I was a bit skeptical when I set out to test Black Mag. The literature makes several claims for this new muzzle loading powder that includes -- moisture resistance, faster ignition, consistent velocity, non-corrosive, non-fouling, safe, non-toxic, and clean.
Since I do not have a lab capable of scientific testing, I was reduced to spending several hours on the range. While the results are not scientific, several observations could be made concerning their claims.
As a test gun, I used a .45 cal. Ohio rifle that I built myself about twenty years ago. For the control in the experiment, I fired a five shot group with a .451 ball, .015 wonder lube patch, 60 grains of 2F GOEX powder and CCI #11 caps. When I switched to Black Mag, I left my powder measure setting, and all other load factors, unchanged.
Black Mag2 is presented as being a volume for volume equivalent to 2F black powder; Black Mag3 being the equivalent to 3F for pistols and small caliber rifles. Lacking a chronograph, I had only the shot placement as a velocity indicator. Since my five shot group with Black Mag2 overlaid the five shot control group, it would appear that the two powders produced roughly equivalent velocities.
I did notice perceptible reduction in both recoil and report when using Black Mag. These observations were clarified when I saw some graphs comparing the pressure curves of black powder, Black Mag, and Pyrodex. Black Mag produced a lower and longer curve which means it produces a lower peak pressure, but extends the pressure over a longer period of time.
After an afternoon of shooting, I can clearly say Black Mag is non-fouling. A twenty-five shot string left no noticeable residue and the bore completely cleaned with two patches. Ignition in my percussion rifle was quick and depend-able. However, I discovered that ignition in my flintlock smooth bore was very slow and subject to chronic misfire. I ignited a small quantity of Black Mag2 on a block of bare steel which I left untended for several days. At this point, I can find no signs of rust formation so I believe Black Mag in indeed non-corrosive.
Black Mag claims an ignition temperature of 345 C while black powder ignites at 300 C. Black Mag burns noticeably slower than black powder when ignited unconfined. As near as I can tell, these factors are the basis of the improved safety factor claim. From a practical point of view, I would not want to be near a quantity of either powder when it was ignited in the open. In the case of a house fire the ignition point of either product is way above any temperature a person can tolerate. So you would either be out of the area, or beyond caring, when they finally ignited. Both products must be used and handled properly with reasonable care and respect. Keep out of the hands of children or adults who may try to use these products improperly. Store in sealed containers and keep them away from sparks or open flame. DO NOT smoke when using any muzzle loading powder. DO NOT load directly from a flask or a powder horn.
Based on my limited experience with Black Mag, I will say that it will be a very workable substitute for black powder in percussion muzzle loading firearms. However, there is still one factor that may give the consumer pause and that is the price. I have seen price lists that show a retail price of approximately $25.00 per pound. This makes Black Mag more than double the price of black powder and 25% more than Pyrodex. Since I try to shoot as often as possible and use several pounds of powder per year, the negative cost factor outweighs any benefit I can see in the reduced maintenance afforded by Black Mag. On the other hand, if you only use a muzzle loading firearm once a year for hunting, you may find a pound of Black Mag will last you several years and the cost would not be a serious factor.
While writing this segment, I was reminded of two historical stories relating to black powder safety. One is taken from The American Daily Advertiser a Philadelphia newspaper dated December 28, 1839. It reads as follows:
"Serious Gunning Accident -- Mr. Joseph Askew, of Burlington, N.J., in company with his brother, Mr. Peter Askew, and Mr. Joseph Haines, were out shooting partridges recently. A covey was raised and Mr. A. discharged both barrels at them. While re-loading, an explosion of the contents of his powder flask took place, lacerating in a dreadful manner his right hand, destroying, it is feared, his right eye, and fracturing the bones of the nose and upper jaw. It is said that experienced sportsmen always put the powder into the hand, and thence into the barrel, but never pour direct from the flask."
The second story comes from the pages of the History of Wayne Co., Ohio printed in the 1870s. It relates to the frontier period of that area in about 1809.
"A singular incident is recorded by Howe, in his "Collections," as having occurred in a small building, an appurtenance of the mill of Joseph Stibbs, built in 1809, and then owned by him. It had been erected and fitted up for a store, in which was kept a variety of goods, such as would be in requisition by the Indians and first settlers, and was managed by Michael Switzer, who was sent hither by Mr. Stibbs. Describing the incident, Mr. Howe says: "In the store was William Smith, Hugh Moore, Jesse Richards, J. H. Larwill, and five or six Indians. Switzer was in the act of weighing out some powder from an eighteen pound keg, while the Indians were quietly smoking their pipes, filled with a mixture of tobacco, sumach leaves and kinnikinnick, or yellow willow bark, when a puff of wind coming in at the window, blew a spark from one of their pipes into the powder. A terrific explosion ensued. The roof of the building was blown into four parts and carried some distance, the sides fell out, the joists came to the floor, and the floor and chimney alone were left of the structure. Switzer died in a few minutes; Smith was blown through the partition into the mill and badly injured; Richards and the Indians were also hurt and all somewhat burned. Larwill, who happened to be standing against the chimney, escaped with very little harm, except having, like the rest, his face well blackened and being knocked down by the shock."
"The Indians, fearful that they might be accused of doing it intentionally, some days after called a council of citizens for an investigation, which was held on the bottom, on Christmas Run, west of the town."
The basic safety rules involving black powder, or any black powder substitute, have not changed. Even nearly 200 years ago, people paid a high price for their careless acts.