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Using Hodgdon's Pyrodex Pellets For Cowboy Action Handloads

Pyrodex Pellet loads produce acceptable accuracy; Mike's Dixie Gun Works Model 1874 Sharps .45-70 averages three inches for five-shot groups at 100 yards.

Every once in a while there comes along an invention that is so simple it just doesn't seem like it would work. That's what I first thought upon seeing Pyrodex Pellets for the first time. I thought, "What about all the complicated procedures that go into loading cap and ball revolvers, muzzleloading rifles, and blackpowder cartridges? Can this simple pellet make them go away?" The answer is, "Yes."

Pyrodex Pellets are ordinary Pyrodex compacted into pellet form. Thus far I've had the opportunity to work with .50-caliber rifle and .44-caliber pistol pellets. The latter are approximately .40 inch in diameter and .63 inch in length while the former are .45 inch wide and .715 inch long. The larger pellets are formed of rifle-grade Pyrodex while the pistol-size ones are made of P-grade (pistol) Pyrodex. Both types have a hole down the center to facilitate burning. Pyrodex in any grade is loaded by volume, which is how blackpowder has always been used in muzzleloading firearms. The .44-caliber handgun-size Pyrodex Pellets equal a 30 grains by volume charge. That makes them suitable for all types of .44- and .45-caliber cap and ball revolvers. The .50-caliber rifle pellets are 50 grains by volume.

When pistol-size Pyrodex Pellets were introduced I took only mild notice, figuring they would come in handy on those rare afternoons when I fire up one of my cap and ball revolvers. When Tom Shepherd of Hodgdon told me the company ballisticians had been working up data on reloading blackpowder pistol cartridges with .44-caliber Pyrodex Pellets, I took much more interest because to get fine results when loading blackpowder or regular Pyrodex in cartridges is a rather time-consuming and fairly complicated process. My best results have come by dispensing the powder into cases through drop tubes, compressing the powder charge, and using special blackpowder lubricants on the bullets. With Pyrodex Pellets two of those three procedures can be ignored. I still use special blackpowder lubes on the bullets, but I simply drop a single .44-caliber Pyrodex Pellet inside my .44-40 or .45 Colt cases before seating and crimping the bullet. I actually timed myself at it, and I was able to charge 50 primed cases in a loading block with a pellet each in just under three minutes.

Using Pyrodex Pellets in both cap and ball revolvers and muzzleloading rifles is easy. With revolvers, point the muzzle up and drop a pellet in the chamber. Next place an Ox-Yoke Wonder Wad over it and a proper size pure lead round ball on top. Then the rammer will seat everything properly. Thus far my shooting with the .50-caliber rifle-size Pyrodex Pellets has been limited to a .50-caliber Dixie Gun Works Tennessee rifle using Hornady sabots. A 50-grain charge for such a rifle is relatively puny so I drop in two of the .50-caliber Pyrodex Pellets. Then Hornady's plastic sabot containing a .44-caliber XTP pistol bullet is rammed on top. The only thing special I do with either pistol- or rifle-size Pyrodex Pellets in muzzleloaders is to ignite them with CCI No. 11 "Magnum" percussion caps. Pyrodex is known to be a bit harder than blackpowder to ignite and the extra flame from the magnum-strength caps eliminates hangfires.

Now back to blackpowder cartridges for a moment. Going beyond loading the pistol-size rounds I decided to give the .45-70 a try also. With it I drop in two of the .44-caliber pistol-size Pyrodex Pellets and then seat a Lyman No. 457193 420-grain flatnose bullet on top. Results have been excellent here too when fired from my Dixie Gun Works Model 1874 Sharps. As with the muzzleloaders, I think strong ignition is good with the cartridge guns also; therefore, my .44-40 and .45 Colt rounds are primed with CCI 350 Large Pistol Magnum primers while the .45-70s carry Federal 215 Large Rifle Magnum primers. (Brass for all loads used in cartridge guns for this report was Starline.) The only other tip I can give in actually loading the Pyrodex Pellets in cartridges is that a firm crimp of case mouth to bullet definitely seems to promote cleaner burning. A COUPLE CAVEATS
Now here are two caveats. Many experienced blackpowder cartridge shooters use a card wad between bullet and powder. This is used as a sort of primitive gascheck to help protect the bullet's base. Card wads should not be used in cartridges loaded with Pyrodex Pellets. With extra room inside the case the card wad is apt to fall away from the bullet's base leaving air space. When the round is fired, that air can be compressed and cause a ring to form in the chamber. The result is similar to when a firearm is fired with some sort of obstruction in the bore.

Handloads charged with Pyrodex Pellets are not "wimps"; velocity should be checked before using them in cowboy action matches to ensure that they fall within SASS limits.

The other warning about using Pyrodex Pellets is very simple. The firearms must be cleaned after use! The plastic container in which Pyrodex Pellets are shipped says "Smokeless Propellant" but not nitrocellulose base. That might prompt some less-initiated users to skip cleaning, but doing so will be to the detriment of their gun's condition.


I have one other comment about loading Pyrodex Pellets specific to the cowboy action shooter. These 30-grain charges do not make "wimpy" loads. In revolvers SASS (Single Action Shooting Society, Dept. ST, 23255 La Palma Ave., Yorba Linda, CA 92887; 714-694-1800; rules call for a maximum muzzle velocity from handguns of 1000 fps. With long-barreled revolvers having tight barrel-cylinder gaps velocities from the pellets might exceed that. All the loads I test-fired for this article were under 1000 fps, but this is something the shooter should know about.

After doing much paper target shooting using Pyrodex Pellets in the variety of guns listed in the chart, I've come to the conclusion that they work very well. I do not receive the level of accuracy from Pyrodex Pellets in blackpowder cartridge guns that I do from my carefully crafted handloads using either regular Pyrodex or blackpowder, but for fast-paced cowboy action shooting competition the differences are negligible. For shooters who would like to experience firing either muzzleloading or blackpowder-cartridge guns without delving into complicated and time-consuming handloading techniques, Pyrodex Pellets are worth a shot.


BulletPyrodex PelletMuzzle Velocity (fps)Velocity Variation (fps)25-Yard Accuracy (inches)100-Yard Accuracy (inches)
.44 Caliber EMF Model 1858, 8.0-Inch Barrel
Hornady 147-gr. Round Ball.441 (30 grs.)862723.13- -
.50-Caliber Dixie Gun Works Tennessee Rifle, 32-Inch Barrel
Hornady 300-gr. XTP Sabot.502 (100 grs.)152447- -3.83
.44-40 Colt SAA, 4.75-Inch Barrel
RCBS No. 44-200FN 214-Gr. RN/FP.441 (30 grs.)864552.75- -
.44-40 Cimarron Model 1873 Carbine, 19-Inch Barrel
RCBS No. 44-200FN 214-Gr. RN/FP.441 (30 grs.)1224610.88- -
.45 Colt SAA, 4.75-Inch Barrel
NEI No. 324 252-gr. RN/FP.441 (30 grs.)872503.08- -
.45-70 Dixie Gun Works Model 1874 Sharps, 32-inch Barrel
Lyman No. 457193 420-gr. FN.442 (60)136139- -2.79

NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three five-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at the distances indicated at the top of the chart for all guns except the Cimarron carbine; its accuracy is for a single string of 10 shots. Velocity is the average of at least 10 rounds measured six feet from the guns' muzzles. Bullets for .44-40, .45 Colt, and .45-70 were cast by author of 1:20 tin-to-lead alloy and lubed with SPG. Sizing diameters were .428 inch for .44-40, .454 inch for .45 Colt, and .459 inch for .45-90.

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