Safety of Black Powder vs. Substitutes

[cryout-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”100%”]The following is a message board post from Bill Knight, a retired chemist who worked in the black powder industry. The post was forwarded by Bob Maerdian.[/cryout-pullquote]

Question from John R: Many game departments, game commissioners, and other people in official positions believe that the black powder substitutes are safer than black powder.

A case in point; the Boy Scouts of America insist that if and when Boy Scouts shoot muzzleloaders, only black powder substitute is used.  This all goes back to when game officials in every state were convinced by those wishing to use black powder substitutes for hunting that it should be legal because it was safer.

The only reason this came about is because it is more difficult to ignite and therefore safer. Totally stupid reasoning but as long as people can be convinced (with any reason), that’s all that counts. You have just discovered  one of these “stupids” but don’t try to convince those who continue to regurgitate the stupidity.

Some people have minds like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set.

Bill’s answer:  I am sort of surprised that Chas has not closed this discussion down since it involves black powder subs which is a taboo after the grace period expired.  But I hope that Chas lets this one through Because a valid point has been raised.

The idea being that BP is so treacherous to handle.

Back some years go Chuck Dixon, of Dixon Muzzleloading, began to run pre-flintock season classes for the public. I was asked to speak on the safe handling of BP. The crowd came through in groups, moving from one instructor to another.

I had talked to one group. When the question period was over they moved on to the next “station”. One guy stayed. He sort of stood out. He certainly was not the usual flintlock deer hunter.  He asked why I had not mentioned Pyrodex. I told him that since it did not work alone in a flintlock I ignored it in my talk.

He went on to tell me that he is a firearms instructor for the Valley Forge Boy Scout Council. He asked me what was in Pyrodex. So I began to rattle off the formula. When I got to the 6 parts of dicyanamide a look came over his face like he had been gut shot. At that point I knew he had a background in chemistry. I jokingly asked him if the rug rats parents might not be too keen on having the kids exposed to cyanide fumes. His response, “Don’t even joke about that!”

His Boy Scouts were shooting on a covered firing line range with a low roof. He was upset that there was no warning on the label about the possibility of cyanide fumes being given off by the firing of the powder. Turns out the guy is a chemistry professor at a college near Philadelphia and is knowledgeable on cyanide compounds and how they behave.

He was going to talk to the powers to be and see if he could go to black powder with the scouts.  I never heard any more on it but he was sure upset with the idea of the covered range and the kids breathing the fumes from the firing of the guns with Pyrodex.

Now, if you go back to the old black powder list, Fred Miller got into it with Mike Daly from Hodgdon Powder. Mike tried to make a jerk out of Fred on this thing about the dicyanamide in Pyrodex. Then I waded into it. While I worked in a lab in a chemical plant, I was often drafted to work out in the polymerization reactor area. Sometimes just doing physical labor. One day I had to restack a skid of bags of dicyanamide. Big red warning labels on the bags: “Avoid fire or flame. When heated to decomposition emits highly toxic fumes of cyanide.”

If used in the open with “adequate ventilation” the fumes are not an issue. But in a poorly vented area they are a problem. I learned that the hard way in the basement doing flash testing on steel and brass plates for corrosion work. The black powder samples were not a problem.  After flashing a few samples of Pyrodex, I ended up outside feeling ill. I had industrial exposure to the vapors of acrolnitrile which when metabolized yields cyanide, so I knew what the feeling was and its cause. Then I checked the Pyrodex patent.

But anyway, the idea that the subs are so much safer than black powder is utter nonsense. When 777 came out, I ran some open flashing tests on it, and quickly spoke to a guy at the ATF bomb squad lab, telling him he better look at this one. Open flashing [of 777] is as fast and as violent as with black powder. The ignition temperature difference is doo-doo.

Bill K.

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