Shooting Antique Firearms: Recoil is The Enemy

Guns were made to be used. It doesn’t matter if they are brand new or more than a century old, and I buy antique guns to shoot them. There are a variety of reasons to do this; a sense of connection to history, the ability to buy a better quality gun without paying modern prices, curiosity to see what they can do, or even just because it’s fun. But these are not modern firearms with modern material science; they have limitations, and you ignore these at your peril.

I am nobody’s idea of an ‘expert.’ I don’t have access to high-tech scientific equipment. I’m not a material scientist, a chemist or any other relevant sort of ‘ist.’ This is not ‘The Received Gospel,’ it’s my opinion. It’s based on experience, research and observation… but at the end of the day it’s just an (arguably) informed opinion.

C96 Mauser ‘broomhandle,’ a WW1 Civilian Model. Chambered in 7.63 Mauser… but it will chamber 7.62 Tokarev… which will break this gun in short order.

I’ve been mucking around with firearms for a good few decades now, and for the last few years I’ve been shooting antiques a lot. I routinely ignore the advice against using smokeless powders in these guns, and it has never even once proven to be an issue.

Mind you, I’ve seen more than one antique broken, and I can say when I have seen this occur it has almost always been a gun that was in no condition to shoot to begin with, or it broke under circumstances that would have been equally lethal to a modern firearm. Plugged bores, double charges, wrong caliber ammunition… a gun doesn’t have to be a ancient to fall to these things!

Another thing to recall is that not all guns were created equal. In my recent ammo test my 3-1/4″ barreled H&R routinely fired the same loads at significantly lower velocities than my S&W… despite the S&W having 1/2 the barrel length! This was owing to sloppy tolerances on the H&R, which was an economy brand in the way-backs.

H&R .38 Safety Hammerless- beautifully refinished with lovely mother-of-pearl grips… but it was still a cheap gun, with specifications and tolerances that reflect that.

My Smith & Wesson .38 Safety Hammerless, for comparison is still tight and right after more than three-thousand rounds of comparatively ‘hot’ ammo. I doubt the H&R would be unscathed after two or three hundred rounds of the same ammo.

Some guns were set up for failure, notably surplussed Webley .455 revolvers. Most of these had the cylinders cut to take .45 ACP in moon clips, since .455 was not a popular caliber in America. Unfortunately while this ammo can be made to fit, commercial ammo is significantly overpowered for these guns, and quickly reduced most of them to loose, wobbly junk. Which brings us to the crux of this conversation…

Webley Mk.1 .445 cut for .45 ACP. Excellent revolver, but if you shoot factory .45 ACP in it it won’t be excellent for long.

We make much of the difference between the pressure of black powder rounds versus smokeless rounds, but in a sound antique gun this really isn’t what makes the difference. Pressure is not directly responsible for a fine antique double going off-face, or a revolver loosening up. It’s recoil that does it. The metallurgy of these old guns is not up to modern standards, and repeated hammering with high-recoil loads stretches and deforms the metal.

L.C.Smith damascus double- the barrel material isn’t the issue, it’s the condition of the bores that matters. In it’s day this was very nearly a top-of-the-line shotgun… but a steady diet of high-powered modern loads will put it off-face, necessitating expensive repairs, or worse, consigning it to wall-hanger status.

Yes, high-pressure loads are likely (but not guaranteed) to recoil harder. Heavy projectiles or shot loads will also accomplish this. Some ammunition, like .32 S&W or .38 S&W, are commercially loaded with this in mind. These loads are deliberately anemic to avoid breaking old and/or poor quality guns. You can safely shoot them in any sound gun chambered for these cartridges.

If you reload your own cartridges, black powder or black powder substitutes can be a good option. In the 19th century if you wanted to make a cartridge more powerful you made it hold more powder. Black Powder needs to fill all the empty space in the cartridge, and ideally it should be compressed. You can’t fit enough FFg in a cartridge to blow up the gun it was designed for, provided that gun is in sound, shootable condition.

Two options in .450 Adams- on the left a 210gr. bullet ( instead of the more typical 225gr. bullet) seated deep over a slightly reduced charge of BP. On the right is a 138 gr. round ball, seated deep. Even though the powder charge is significantly larger that the round on the left, the light projectile causes dramatically less recoil, and consequently less wear on the gun.

Reduced black powder loads can be obtained a number of ways; you can insert spacers to take up room, allowing you to use less powder without creating a dangerous air-space in the cartridge. You can use light-for caliber bullets seated more deeply in the case. You can even physically shorten the case so that it holds less powder. Any of these methods or combination of them can be used to produce reduced-recoil loads.

For shotguns RST produces a wide range of ammunition in a large variety of bores and lengths tailored to be used in antiques. They aren’t cheap, but they are excellent ammunition; extremely reliable and consistent. Despite the lower pressure and power of these loads they are so good that most users don’t feel they have given anything up compared to modern shells.

You can of course reload your own, and there are websites devoted to this; a little Google-fu could be well worth your time! RST tends to use light-for-caliber loads in their shells, and if you load your own you’d be well-advised to do the same. Look for light slugs, load 1/4-ounce less shot… your gun will last a lot longer.

Another thing to remember with antique shotguns is to use the correct length of ammunition; antique shells were often not quite the same length as modern shells. These days cartridges like 12-gauge have pretty much settled in to 2-3/4″, 3″ and 3-1/2″. In antique guns, however, the chambers can be 2″ or 2-1/2″. While it might not be disastrous to shoot modern 2-3/4″ shells in a 2-1/2″ gun, it could be… and it certainly won’t be good for the gun!

The most important factor, both for safety and to preserve your guns and insure you can enjoy them for years to come, is to know what you are doing. Educate yourself; there are vast resources online, including not merely blogs and forums, but also out-of print books that can be downloaded, often for free, in .pdf form. Sharpe’s 1937 ‘Complete Guide to Handloading’ is excellent; Google it. You’ll be glad you did!

If you are mindful, educated and careful antique guns can provide years or decades of great enjoyment and satisfaction. I recommend it highly… provided that you are prepared to do the footwork to do it sensibly and safely.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 20 January 2019

5 thoughts on “Shooting Antique Firearms: Recoil is The Enemy

  1. Gary P Boyco

    I recently purchased an A. Martin .45 percussion gentlemans travelling pistol circa 1850-1860.

    It was a great bargain because it has some damage to the stock and trigger assembly. I am convinced that this damage is this weapons saving grace in that the “hot parts” are all in perfect condition. The hammer and nipple are both completely unburnt! I would be willing to bet that the damage occurred early in its existence so it has just been sitting around for the last 100 years and has been shot very few times.

    The plan is to repair the stock, refurbish the lock and then clean, hone and lap the bore and then re-proof the barrel with a full service load remotely.

    This is practically the only way a Canadian can legally use a pistol outside of a shooting range.

      1. Gary P Boyco

        It has some damage to the trigger that was inexpertly addressed a very long time ago. I plan to “repair the repair” but it functions perfectly and isn’t falling apart so I will probably get it firing before doing a refurbishment.

        Gary in Agassiz.

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