December 2011 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~
2011 is coming to an end. by Cliff Hanger

2012 is upon us. The Brimstone Gazette has 7 years of articles.  I made a mistake right from the start by not putting a hit counter in the Gazette. I don't know how many readers I have. Maybe a lot and maybe none. I don't know. I am finding it harder and harder to find articles and get others to write articles to put out there for everyone to read. 

I have a thought. No one wants to write articles but how about a questions and answer section? If you have any BP (or substitute) related questions, e-mail them to me. I will find someone who can answer your question and publish both the question and the answers in the Gazette.

At the bottom of every Brimstone Gazette there is a Submit Articles link. That will open an e-mail window where you can send your questions directly to me. 

If the Brimstone Gazette is to continue, please send in your questions and/or your articles that you want to share.

Cliff Hanger

Historical Aspects and Black Powder Manufacturing

Michael A. Rosen, Ph.D., M.D.
Dade Behring Diagnostics™ 
Medical Products Division-DuPont Chemical®

Black powder was the original gunpowder and practically the only known propellant and explosive until the middle of the 19th century. Although it can explode (only when tightly compressed) [NOTE: I have first hand experience with black powder exploding when confined but NOT compressed.  Forty Rod], its principal use is as a propellant. Gunpowder was invented by Chinese chemists in the 9th century. Originally, it was made by mixing elemental sulfur (S), charcoal (C), and “saltpeter” properly named potassium nitrate (KNO3). For the most powerful black powder "meal" a wood charcoal is used. The best wood for the purpose is pacific willow, however, grapevine, hazel, elder, laurel and even pine cones have been used. Charcoal is not the only carbon fuel that can be used. Sugar is used instead in many pyrotechnic applications.The ingredients are mixed as thoroughly as possible. This is achieved using a ball mill with non-sparking grinding apparatus (using lead balls), or similar device. The ingredients are mixed as thoroughly as possible.

When the ingredients were carefully ground together, the end result was a powder that was called 'serpentine.' The ingredients tended to require remixing prior to use, so making powder did involve significant risk. Powder works realized that a large portion of the risk could be mitigated by making certain that the serpentine remained wet through out all but the last step of its manufacture.
Black powder was  also “corned” as a simple but effective means by which its burn rate could be adjusted. The initial step of the corning process was to compress the fine black powder "meal" into wet cakes or blocks of a “standardized” density (1.7 g/cm³ or grams per cubic centimeter). The blocks, once allowed to dry would harden and become brittle, then broken up into granules. The granules would then sorted by size to yield the various “grain sizes” or grades of black powder. Standard grades of black powder run from the coarse and slower burning Fg grade used in large bore rifles and small cannon though FFg (medium and small-bore rifles), FFFg (pistols), and FFFFg the very fine and faster burning (small-bore, short pistols and priming flintlocks). Very coarse black powder was used in mining before the development of nitroglycerine and dynamite.

 Chemistry, Composition and Combustion of Black Powder
The optimum proportions for gunpowder are: 74.64% saltpeter, 13.51% charcoal, and 11.85% sulfur (by mass). The current standard for black powder manufactured by pyrotechnicians today is 75% potassium nitrate, 15% softwood charcoal and 10% sulfur. A simple, commonly cited, chemical equation for the combustion of black powder is:

2 KNO3 + S + 3C → K2S + N2 + 3CO2

A more accurate, but still simplified, equation is:
10 KNO3 + 3S + 8C →2K2CO3 + 3K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5N2
The products of burning do not follow any simple equation. One study's results showed it produced (in order of descending quantities): 55.91% solid products: Potassium carbonate, Potassium sulfate, Potassium sulfide, Sulfur, Potassium nitrate, Potassium thiocyanate, Carbon, Ammonium carbonate. 42.98% gaseous products: Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen, Carbon monoxide, Hydrogen sulfide, Hydrogen, Methane. 1.11% water

Black powder is classified as a low explosive, that is, it deflagrates (burns) rapidly. High explosives detonate at a rate approximately 10 times faster than the burning of black powder. Although black powder is not a high explosive, the United States Department of Transportation classifies it as a "Class A High Explosive" for shipment because it is so easily ignited. Highly destructive explosions at fireworks manufacturing plants are rather common events, especially in Asia. Complete manufactured devices containing black powder are usually classified as "Class C Fireworks", "Class C Model Rocket Engines", etc. for shipment because they are harder to ignite than the loose powder.

To summarize, black powder consists of a fuel (charcoal or sugar) and an oxidizer that supplies oxygen to the reaction during combustion (saltpeter or niter), and sulfur, a “matrix constituent” that allows a more stable, hotter, even burning combustion reaction. The carbon from the charcoal plus oxygen forms carbon dioxide and energy. The reaction would be slow, like a wood fire, except for the oxidizing agent. In order to burn efficiently carbon (charcoal) must be able draw oxygen rapidly from the air. The saltpeter (potassium nitrate) provides that extra oxygen. Potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon react together to form large volumes of nitrogen and carbon dioxide gases and potassium sulfide. The large volume of expanding gases, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, provide the propelling force imparted to projectiles by black powder combustion.

Here are some questions regarding Civil War black powder:

1. What is the ignition temperature of Civil War black powder?  Potassium nitrate black powder can be ignited with a low temperature flame, but ignites more readily with a hotter flame closer to the decomposition temperature of potassium nitrate which is about 400°C. It is ignited in firearms using concussion and friction/spark. Merely heating it up won't ignite the propellant.

2. What is the detonating temperature of Civil War black powder?  It doesn't explode.

3. Is it highly sensitive to impact?  No. Friction - if it leads to sparking, static electricity, spark, and flame. Static Electricity is a spark finer powder FFFG & FFFFG could be more susceptable; spark - yes by design; flame - yes by design

4. If you drop a Civil War shell could it explode?  It could if it has a percussion, fulminate of mercury (mercury diisothiocyanate), detonator on its nose and if the slider is able to move freely.  The percussion cap also has to be resting on the nipple in order for the slider to strike against the anvil cap.  This is highly unlikely that a excavated percussion fuzed shell would explode when dropped.

5. Does the powder get stronger with age?  No

6. Does the powder turn to Nitro Glycerin?  No

rev1 publish date July 30, 2006

Sharps Rifle from Wikipedia

Sharps rifles were those of a series that began with a design by Christian Sharps. Sharps rifles were renowned for long range and high accuracy in their day.


Sharps's initial rifle was patented September 17, 1848 and manufactured by A. S. Nippes at Mill Creek, (Philadelphia) Pennsylvania

The second model used the Maynard tape primer, and surviving examples are marked Edward Maynard - Patentee 1845. In 1850 the second model was brought to the Robbins & Lawrence Company of Windsor, Vermont where the Model 1851 was developed for mass production. Rollin White of the R&L Co. invented the knife-edge breech block and self-cocking device for the "box-lock" Model 1851. This is referred to as the "First Contract", which was for 5,000 Model 1851 carbines - of which approximately 1,650 were produced by R&L in Windsor.

In 1851 the "Second Contract" was made for 15,000 rifles and the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was organized as a holding company with $1,000 in capital and with John C. Palmer as president, Christian Sharps as engineer, and Richard S. Lawrence as master armorer and superintendent of manufacturing. Sharps was to be paid a royalty of $1 per firearm and the factory was built on R&L's property in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Model 1851 was replaced in production by the Model 1853. All Sharps rifles were manufactured in Windsor until October 1856. Christian Sharps left the company in 1853; Richard S. Lawrence continued as the chief armorer until 1872 and developed the various Sharp models and their improvements that made the rifle famous.

The 1874-pattern Sharps was a particularly popular rifle that led to the introduction of several derivatives in quick succession. It handled a large number of .40- to .50-caliber cartridges in a variety of loadings and barrel lengths.

Hugo Borchardt designed the Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878, the last rifle made by the Sharps Rifle Co. before its closing in 1881.

Reproductions of the paper cartridge Sharps M1859 and M1863 Rifle and Carbine, the metallic cartridge 1874 Sharps Rifle, and Sharps-Borchardt Model 1878 are being manufactured today. They are used in Civil War re-enacting, hunting and target shooting.

Sharps military rifles and carbines

Sharps Model 1852 "Slanting Breech" 
Carbine, open for loading, two
The military Sharps rifle (also known as the Berdan Sharps rifle) was a falling block rifle used during and after the American Civil War. Along with being able to use a standard percussion cap, the Sharps had a fairly unusual pellet primer feed. This was a device which held a stack of pelleted primers and flipped one over the nipple each time the trigger was pulled and the hammer fell - making it much easier to fire a Sharps from horseback than a gun employing individually loaded percussion caps.

The Sharps Rifle was produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. It was used in the Civil War by the U.S. Army sharpshooters, known popularly as "Berdan's Sharpshooters" in honor of their leader Hiram Berdan. The Sharps made a superior sniper weapon of greater accuracy than the more commonly issued muzzle-loading rifled muskets. This was due mainly to the higher rate of fire of the breech loading mechanism and superior quality of manufacture.

Sharps military carbine

The carbine version was very popular with the cavalry of both the Union and Confederate armies and was issued in much larger numbers than the full length rifle. The falling block action lent itself to conversion to the new metallic cartridges developed in the late 1860s, and many of these converted carbines in .50-70 Government were used during the Indian Wars in the decades immediately following the Civil War.
Original 1863 carbine in .50-70 Government.
Some Civil War-issue carbines had an unusual feature: a coffee mill in the stock.

Sharps sporting rifles

Sharps made sporting versions from the late 1840s until the late 1880s. After the American Civil War, converted Army surplus rifles were made into custom firearms, and the Sharps factory produced Models 1869 and 1874 in large numbers for commercial buffalo hunters and frontiersmen. These large-bore rifles were manufactured with some of the most powerful black powder cartridges ever made. Sharps also fabricated special long-range target versions for the then-popular Creedmore style of 1,000-yard (910 m) target shooting. Many modern black powder cartridge silhouette shooters use original and replica Sharps rifles to target metallic silhouettes cut in the shapes of animals at ranges up to 500 meters. Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company, and C Sharps Arms of Big Timber, Montana, have been manufacturing reproductions of the Sharps Rifle since 1983 and 1979, respectively.

In film

Movies which showed the strengths of the Sharps rifle are the 1990 western Quigley Down Under where Tom Selleck's title character's Sharps rifle has a 34" barrel as opposed to a standard length barrel of 30" and Burt Lancaster's character, Bob Valdez, in the movie Valdez Is Coming. As a result of Quigley Down Under a Sharps match is held annually every year in Forsyth, Montana known as the "Quigley Match". A 44-inch target is placed at 1,000 yards for each shooter, remniscent of a scene from the movie. Theater Crafts Industry went so far as to say, "In Quigley Down Under, which we did in 1990, the Sharps rifle practically co- stars with Tom Selleck." This statement was echoed by gunwriters including John Taffin in Guns and Lionel Atwill in Field & Stream. Gun manufacturers such as Davide Pedersoli and Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company have credited these movies with an increase in demand for those rifles. An 1874 Sharps Carbine in 45-70 calibre played a prominent role in both movie versions of True Grit. Texas Ranger La Boeuf extolled the power and accuracy of his Sharps early and often in both films. His "bully" 400 yard shot (Mattie's estimate in the 2010 Coen brother's version) killed Lucky Ned Pepper and saved the horse-pinned Marshall Cogburn from execution at his hand.

Colt Revolving Rifle from Wikipedia

The Colt Revolving Rifle Model 1855 was an early repeating rifle produced by the Colt's Manufacturing Company.


Revolving rifles were an attempt to increase the rate of fire of rifles by combining them with the revolving firing mechanism that had been developed earlier for revolving pistols. Colt began experimenting with revolving rifles in the early 19th century, and made the revolving rifles in a variety of calibers and barrel lengths. Colt revolving rifles were the first repeating rifles adopted by the U.S. Government, and an early model was used in the Seminole wars in 1838.

The most widely produced revolving rifle was the Model 1855. This was produced in a rifle version as well as a shortened carbine. In 1855 it became the first repeating rifle to be adopted for service by the U.S. Military, but problems with the design prevented its use until 1857. The principal problem was that gunpowder would sometimes leak from the paper cartridges in field conditions, lodging in various recesses around the firing cylinder. Hot gas leaking from the gap between the firing cylinder and the barrel would ignite this powder, which would in turn, ignite all of the powder in the chambers waiting to be fired. This is known as a "chain fire" and was a relatively common failure with early percussion revolving firearms. When this happened with the Colt Revolving Rifle, a spray of metal would be sent forward into the left arm and hand of the user.

This fault resulted in an understandable distrust in the weapon. Commanders attempted to get around the problem in a number of ways. The rifle had to be properly and thoroughly cleaned, since sloppy cleaning would leave residue behind that would increase the risk of a chain fire. Some commanders instructed their men to fire the weapon only while supporting it directly in front of the trigger guard or by holding the lowered loading lever, which moved their left hand out of the path of danger during a chain fire. Other commanders instructed their men to load only a single chamber, preventing any chain fires from occurring. Loading a single chamber at a time also reduced the weapon to a single shot weapon, effectively defeated the entire purpose of having a repeating rifle.

Design and Features

The design of the Colt revolving rifle was essentially similar to revolver type pistols, with a rotating cylinder that held five or six rounds in a variety of calibers from .36 to .64 inches.

The Model 1855, which was the most widely produced revolving rifle, was available in .36, .44 and .56 caliber. Four barrel lengths were available: 15, 18, 21 and 24 inches. A six shot cylinder was used if the caliber was .36 or the .44. If the caliber was .56, a five-shot cylinder was used.

Colt Model 1855 Carbine

The revolving rifle used percussion caps, like revolving pistols of the time. A cartridge consisting of powder and a lead ball were loaded into the front of the chamber, and were then compressed with a plunger that was located beneath the barrel. Once the cylinder's chambers were loaded, percussion caps were placed over the vent nipples at the rear of the cylinder. The weapon was now ready to fire. In addition to being susceptible to chain fire problems, the revolving cylinder design also tended to spray lead splinters into the wrist and hand of the user. Revolving pistols did not suffer from this problem since the user kept both hands behind the cylinder while firing a pistol.

Some models could be fitted with sword style bayonets. In these rifles, the front sight would double as the bayonet lug.


A combination of Colt revolving pistols and revolving rifles were used on the Pony Express by the eight men who guarded the dangerous run between Independence, Missouri, and Sante Fe. When doubts were expressed about the ability of these eight men to reliably deliver the letters on this run, the Missouri government declared that "these eight men are ready in case of attack to discharge 136 shots without having to reload. We have no fears for the safety of the mail." All mail deliveries on this route were completed safely.

The U.S. Government had purchased 765 Colt revolving carbines and rifles prior to the Civil War. Many of these were shipped to southern locations and ended up being used by the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.[4] After the war began, the Union purchased many more rifles and carbines. Sources disagree over the exact number purchased, but approximately 4,400 to 4,800 were purchased in total over the length of the war.

The weapon performed superbly in combat, seeing action with the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Union forces at Snodgrass Hill during the Battle of Chickamauga during the American Civil War. The volume of fire from this weapon proved to be so useful that the Confederate forces were convinced that they were attacking an entire division, not just a single regiment. Despite these victories of the weapon, the rifle's faults would prove fatal for the weapon. A board of officers met, and after evaluating the evidence, it decided to discontinue the use of the weapon. The weapons were sold for 42 cents a rifle, a fraction of the original purchase cost of 44 dollars each.

Use in film

In 3:10 to Yuma (2007) the Mexican sharpshooter Campos (Rio Alexander) carries a Colt Model 1855 fitted with a full length telescopic sight and converted to fire metallic cartridges.

In the John Wayne movie El Dorado, actor Arthur Hunnicut's character, Bull Harris, carries a Model 1855 revolving carbine as his main weapon.

All articles submitted to the "Brimstone Gazette" are the property of the author, used with their expressed permission. 
The Brimstone Pistoleros are not responsible for any accidents which may occur from use of  loading data, firearms information, or recommendations published on the Brimstone Pistoleros web site.