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    Rational Expectations for Black-Powder Cartridge Accuracy

    A muzzleloading rifleman trying his best to place “three balls in a row in a sap hole.” From The Muzzleloading Rifle, Then and Now by Walter M. Cline.
    A muzzleloading rifleman trying his best to place “three balls in a row in a sap hole.” From The Muzzleloading Rifle, Then and Now by Walter M. Cline.
    A Richard Lawrence placed “three balls in a row in a ¾-inch sap hole in a Vermont maple tree at twelve rods, or 66 yards.”1 Accomplished in 1838, this might be considered the first recorded minute-of-angle (MOA) group. Lawrence had accomplished this with “his future boss’s turkey rifle which he had installed a peep sight.”2 If the name is familiar, the young shooter went on to become a partner in the firm of Robbins and Lawrence, which manufactured the Sharps carbine under contract in 1852. He also held the patents for the Lawrence sight so commonly seen on the Sharps rifle.

    It was a very nice group at the time. Perhaps therein lies a question. Was the distance and number of shots adequate to demonstrate a MOA group? I take nothing away from Lawrence. However, I wonder how many shots and at what distance is a MOA rifle defined? What is an appropriate standard?

    MOA five-shot groups at 200 yards can be fired with reasonable regularity. However, when the shot string is increased to 10 shots, the shooter’s stress and fouling increase, making it a very difficult task indeed.

    MOA Accuracy

    Part of the rifleman’s fascination with MOA groups may have resulted from Dr. Franklin Mann. He selected a “one-inch group as the standard for 100-yard accuracy.”3 J.R. Mattern Handloading Ammunition (1929), suspected that the 1-inch, 100-yard groups were the very finest of the five- and 10-shot groups. To me, this would mean that it was not a normal occurrence but out of the ordinary. Perhaps this would be classified as an aberration.

    I recall one gentleman stating on the internet that his black-powder cartridge rifle shoots MOA at all distances. I am uncertain what that means. One shot, five shots, 10 shots, from 100 to 1,000 yards? It is certainly possible to shoot MOA groups with a black-powder cartridge (BPC) rifle. If we limit the distance or limit the number of shots, (three-to-five shots in the group), we will certainly have a higher probability of success. I am not aware of a match-legal BPC rifle that will shoot 10 shots at 200 yards into MOA on demand, let alone at all distances. If I did own that gentleman’s rifle, I would certainly be making the competition at most matches a bit nervous.  

    Dr. Franklin Mann (left) conducting shooting experiments at his “Shooting Gibraltar” machine rest on the Mann rifle range. From The Bullet’s Flight by Mann.
    Dr. Franklin Mann (left) conducting shooting experiments at his “Shooting Gibraltar” machine rest on the Mann rifle range. From The Bullet’s Flight by Mann.
    I smiled when I read a statement by Colonel Townsend Whelen in the book Mr. Rifleman. He mentioned that there was “loose talk running around about minute of angle accuracy.”4 Whelen was a career military officer that went on to become a very successful author. Articles about hunting and shooting were his favorite topics. He kept very detailed notes of his rifle testing, recording the largest, smallest, and average group size for five-shot groups at 100 yards. Any light hunting rifle that would produce MOA accuracy was in his estimation exceptional accuracy. He went on to say that he had not seen any rifles, short of pure target rifles or heavy varmint rifles that would average MOA groups or anything like it.

    Whelen was no stranger to the target range or black-powder cartridge rifles. He started competitive shooting with the Springfield .45-70 Government cartridge under the tutelage of Captain William de V. Foulke. If you have not heard of Foulke, he used a Sharps-Borchardt chambered in .45-100-550 to win the Wimbledon Cup match in 1897. The course of fire was at 1,000 yards and Foulke was the last marksman to win the match with a black-powder cartridge rifle.

    Can BPCR rifles shoot MOA groups? It depends. How many shots are we going to fire into the group and at what distance? Is it required to center the group, as in the 10-ring, or just the group size? At the risk of stating the obvious, it is much more difficult to shoot a small and centered group than a small group anywhere on the target. Shooting a small tight group would indicate precision. Shooting multiple shots into the 10-ring would indicate accuracy. To perform well in a match, we want a small group in the 10-ring, or as close as we can get to the 10-ring. This requires wind reading ability as well as a quality load, coupled with a skillfully managed rifle. There is a bit of a problem with having a MOA rifle shooting a MOA group dead center in the target. How much do we allow for aiming error or inability to read the atmospheric conditions? I am not sure. Perhaps a cracker-jack shooter in mild conditions could read to ½-minute of angle conditions? In dead calm conditions, there may not be any atmospheric conditions to allow for.

    To have a MOA rifle and load, we should be able to shoot a MOA group on demand. For a moment, let us assume that we can shoot our very best groups under favorable range conditions when we are not constrained by time or rules. However, in the heat of competition, we are required to shoot within a set time with the current weather conditions. During a rifle match, there are no do-overs or mulligans. You approach the firing line when it is your turn and present your best efforts.

    Group Measurement

    I think the measurement standard should be 10-shot groups at 200 yards. I do not think it makes any difference if the groups are fired from a benchrest or prone. For that matter, I think a person could wear a shooting coat as is currently allowed during black-powder target rifle competition. I certainly find a fine group shot with a mechanical rest extremely interesting but it may not translate directly to the same accuracy from the prone position. It does demonstrate the available accuracy of the rifle and ammunition combination.

    Typically, group size is measured based on the two widest shots. It seems statistically incorrect to fire 10 shots and only measure two. That is the accepted method, but there are some good alternatives and some methods give us a better indication of accuracy.

    String measurement is a historical method by which the distance from the center of the target to the center of each bullet hole is measured and summed in inches as the total distance. If you have a nice group with only one or two shots that are a bit wide, you are given credit for the good shots and not just the two widest as in group size. An alternative method is the mean radius method. This method does vary from the string measurement since we are counting the average shot distance from the center of the group rather than the center of the target, or aim point. Since this method uses all the shots, I find this method attractive for comparing group shots for evaluation purposes. One more method worth mentioning is the figure of merit. This is an average of the maximum vertical and the maximum horizontal measurement of the group.

    For this article, I will use the group size as defined by the two widest shots, because a very large portion of the available historical information is reported as group size based upon the two-shot method or conversely the diameter of a circle that would contain all the shots, which are essentially the same.

    Historically, there were some rifle manufacturers that supplied accuracy guarantees for its rifles. Pope and his famous barrels come to mind. Within his catalog “all calibers, except .25, are guaranteed to shoot within a 2½-inch group at 200 yards, muzzle-loaded and 3 inches with a breech-loaded bullet.”5 It should be kept in mind that during this era, it was standard practice to use a duplex load of smokeless and black powder. The loading method Pope preferred for his rifles consisted of loading the bullet through a false muzzle while placing the charged cartridge in from the breech when ready to fire. This method not only gave very good bullet alignment, but allowed the bullet to upset and quickly seal the bore to prevent gas cutting of the bullet base and blowby from the powder gases. Various sources quote slightly different accuracy guarantees for Pope barrels. Some of the confusion may lie with Pope’s pricing. If you were willing to pay a bit more, the group size was guaranteed to be smaller and actual groups fired from a machine rest were provided with the rifle.

    One comment Pope made regarding the .45-70 Springfield was, “the .45-70 was never a real accurate cartridge at 200 yards, 10-shot groups 4-5 inches, machine rest with the best barrels, factory 500 and 405-grain bullets.”6 Pope did mention that .45-caliber match rifles using 100- to 125-grains of black powder with 550-grain paper-patch bullets were highly accurate. With a charge of this size, I would think the velocity would be well over 1,300 fps and perhaps approaching 1,350 fps. This relatively high black-powder cartridge velocity may have likely contributed to the long-range accuracy.

    Impact of Distance

    Ned Roberts, (author of noted works such as The Muzzle Loading Cap Lock Rifle and The Breech-Loading Single-Shot Rifle) believed that 100-yard groups of 10 shots should span 1.5 MOA, while groups at 200 yards are acceptable at 1.75 MOA, an increase of 17 percent in group size while doubling the distance.

    Freeman R. Bull, noted match shooter and calibrator of Springfield sights.
    Freeman R. Bull, noted match shooter and calibrator of Springfield sights.
    Randy Wright, in his most recent book, The Golden Age of the American Schuetzenfest relayed Ned Roberts’s view, “When a rifle reliably shot 10 shots into groups of 1½ inch at 100 yards or 3 to 3½ inches at 200 yards,” he wrote of those results as excellent accuracy. Roberts does detail occasional accuracy of 1-inch groups at 100 yards (1 MOA) “but those were the exceptions, not the rule.”7 I highly recommend Randy Wright’s book. I have read my copy multiple times and use it as a reference frequently.

    Freeman R. Bull was a machinist and gaugemaker employed at Springfield Armory. Bull began shooting the Springfield rifle (Trapdoor) in competition in 1875, and continued to do so until it had become obsolete as a U.S. service arm. As a member of the Springfield Armory Rifle Club and as the head of the experimental department at Springfield Armory for many years, Bull had a profound influence on the design and manufacture of small arms made there. He was charged with graduating rear rifle sights by actually firing the arms at various ranges to obtain the required data, including the Model 1884 Buffington rear sights.8

    The firing for the Buffington sight was done at ranges from 100 to 2,000 yards, 10 shots at each distance and the groups were recorded by Bull, as part of his calibrating sights. Whether these groups were fired during one session or over some time is not known. Of interest is the very small variation in the group MOA by distance. We do not know if these were typical or select groups. Based on Bull’s reputation as a rifleman I would like to think this was his normal performance under good conditions.

    The 1,000-yard group was listed as 46 inches, although eight of the shots fell within a 36-inch circle. Even today, people still mention Bull’s name. When anyone refers to a rifle as having a “bull barrel” Freeman R. Bull was one of the first to fit such barrels to military-type rifles.9

    Number of Shots

    Walter F. Roper was a mechanical engineer, specializing in the study of guns and ballistics. If you have ever heard a mention or owned a pair of Roper handgun grips or stocks, he was the gentleman that developed the design.

    Roper was constantly experimenting with pistols to obtain maximum accuracy. As part of his work, he designed some match pistols, which were commercially produced, and conducted numerous experiments around accuracy and aiming error. What I found very interesting was his experiments with the number of shots in a group and the impact on group size. He found that by shooting 10-shot groups instead of five-shot groups, the size of the groups increased by 33 percent. Thirty-shot composite groups increased the size by five percent over the 10-shot groups.10

    Dick Trenk, a Davide-Pedersoli representative, would hold a five-shot group match at 200 yards during the Black Powder Cartridge Nationals. The match was named “5 at 200.” There were various classes for scope and iron sights as well as over and under .40 caliber. This was a reentry match format, so if you did not like your target, you could purchase additional targets and have another opportunity. Recalling from memory, the results which I saw required a five-shot group near or under 2 inches (or MOA) to take the match.

    Trenk also had a “Minute of an Angle Challenge” for several years. It required a witnessed string of five, 5-shot groups that averaged MOA for the five groups. I had a conversation with Trenk about the challenge and he stated that he had only given out three plaques to successful shooters who met the challenge. My understanding was two of the plaques went to Dan Theodore, unfortunately, I do not know where the third plaque resides.

    Small Centered Group

    It is certainly very difficult to consistently shoot small groups. It is even more difficult to shoot a small, centered group. The process of adjusting the sights to get the center of the group aligned with the center of the target is fraught with estimation errors. We often think of one bullet hole in the target as representing the middle of the group. If we assume for a moment that we are shooting a 3-inch group at a given distance, our bullet hole can and will fall anywhere within the 3-inch group. This adds credence to the old advice of adjusting the sight half the distance to the desired target impact point.

    BPC rifle target rifle competition presents an interesting reference to potential BPC rifle accuracy. For this discussion, I will use the 300-yard SR-3 target. The X-ring is a true minute of an angle, as is typical, 3 inches at 300 yards. The 10-ring is generous at 7 inches, representing 2.2 MOA. We cannot use the 200-yard target since it was designed to be shot offhand and has the same scoring rings as the 300-yard target. The only difference is the 200-yard target is black to the nine-ring while the 300-yard target is black to the eight-ring. These black bulls present an appropriate iron sight aiming bull for the given distance. The 200-yard X-ring is 1.5 MOA while the 10-ring is 3.4 MOA.

    I retained the National Championship Match reports for the Black Powder Target Rifle match for the years from 2001 to 2015, inclusive. I did not have the results for the years 2010, 2011 or 2012. I either did not compete, or I lost the bulletin or it could have been one of the years where the results were reported electronically.

    Specifically, within the reports, I tabulated the number of shooters taking part in the 300-yard, midrange prone match. These matches are four sighter shots followed by 10 record shots each day over two days. For the available data set, there were 1,424 scores shot at 300 yards, representing 712 shooters each shooting two, 10-shot strings. For the available period, there were no scores of 10-X, which would represent a MOA rifle.

    Only a small percentage of shooters shot a score of 100 at 300 yards. Shooting a 100 only occurred .8 percent of the time for the 1,424 attempts. Keep in mind the 10-ring is 2.2 MOA. Out of the available 12 years, there were six years where no scores of 100 were posted, the highest being 99. These are match conditions with a time limit and are much more stressful, placing high demands on the shooter, his equipment, and the spotter.

    I carefully checked the National Records to see if perhaps there was a MOA score fired at any time. Jack Odor of Colorado holds the Iron Sight National Record at 300 yards prone with a 100 and seven-X’s. Jack was using a Winchester High Wall chambered in .40-65 and firing a 409-grain Paul Jones “Money” bullet. Doug Gazaway of Georgia holds the Scope National Record at 300 yards with 100 and eight-X’s. Gentlemen, very nice shooting and in match conditions as well. Congratulations.

    Possible Path to 10-Shot, MOA Groups

    Perhaps more velocity is required? Cast Bullet Association (CBA) shooters use higher velocities than BPC rifle shooters. Schuetzen shooters also use higher velocity for their 200-yard competitions. If you have a copy of Mann’s book, The Bullet’s Flight from Powder to Target and by chance it is a copy with the Pope margin notes, on page 121, Mann stated that “1450 fps was too fast and accuracy sufficient for target work disappears.” Pope contradicts Mann, saying “No it doesn’t. Usual velocity for Pope Schuetzen loads.”11

    Most shooters are aware that we have increased wind drift at a velocity over the speed of sound, but if the load is more accurate, we can hopefully compensate for the wind. A bigger issue might be finding someone that can shoot a .45-caliber rifle with 525-grain bullets at 1,450 fps and survive a match. Certainly, a smaller caliber would result in more manageable recoil.  

    Perhaps another area of improvement is breech seating the bullet. This method gives excellent bullet alignment as well as allows the bullet to seal the bore before powder ignition. Within the NRA rifle silhouette rules, rule 3.4e specifically allows breech-seating but no additional time is allowed.

    I do not think the use of black powder instead of smokeless is an issue. They both generate gas but the black powder leaves a fair bit of solids behind. Most shooters have beat the fouling issues with good lubes and fouling-control techniques. Many of the old successful benchrest shooters used duplex loading. I think it was not only cleaner, but gave them additional velocity.

    I am not sure of the solution to consistent MOA groups with a BPC rifle, but I certainly endeavor to persevere and get as close as possible to 10 shots at 200 yards in 2.08 inches or perhaps less.


    Any discussion of black-powder cartridge rifle accuracy would be incomplete without mention of the record 10-shot group fired at 200 yards on May 16, 1901, by Charles W. Rowland. Rowland’s group, which stood as the smallest 200-yard, 10-shot record for many years has arguably never been equaled, as it was done with a duplex load of black powder primed with a small charge of smokeless and a plain-base, cast lead bullet. Over the years, there have been many smaller 10-shot, 200-yard groups shot, but these have been with either smokeless powder and jacketed bullets or cast lead bullets and straight smokeless powder.

    The Rowland group was measured in 1950 by L.R. Wallack and Joel Hodge (president of the National Bench Rest Association) at .725, plus or minus .005 of an inch. Many riflemen consider the group to measure .722 and that is what has been commonly used as the yardstick for accuracy. It has been described as a “black powder record group” but that isn’t quite correct. Rowland reportedly used a duplex load of 3 grains of No. 1 DuPont smokeless powder topped by a bulk charge of 46 grains of Hazard Fg black powder, fired by a 7½ U.M.C. primer. The 197-grain, .32 bullets were cast of 1:10 alloy, lubricated with Leopold’s No. 6 lubricant and an oleo wad was used as well, presumably at the case mouth. The bullets were loaded from the muzzle into the Pope barrel, which it must be said would be similar to wiping between shots as far as fouling control would go. That, coupled with the use of a small charge of smokeless, would considerably cut down on fouling left in the barrel between shots. This information first appeared in an article about Rowland’s remarkable shooting by Outdoor Life magazine in October 1902. 

    Rowland was the epitome of the scientific rifleman, using the philosophy of “eliminating variables and repeating all procedures alike” as his Holy Grail. He spent much of his life striving for the ultimate in accuracy with the precision firearms of the time. For the greater portion of that time, he had the funds to purchase and modify high-quality rifles fit with custom barrels. He worked with the best products made by gunsmiths such as Schoyen, Pope, Zischang, Perry and Peterson as well as many other lesser-known craftsmen.
    The rifle that he used in making the record 200-yard group was a highly customized Ballard, fit with a breech-muzzleloading .32-40 barrel made by Harry Pope. In breech-muzzleloading, the bullet is loaded at the muzzle with the use of a false muzzle and bullet starter. The bullet is pushed to a plugged case in the rifle’s chamber, the false muzzle removed, a charged case is then inserted into the chamber and the rifle is ready to fire.

    I have used this method myself, including the use of a priming charge of smokeless and can say that it is an efficient and repeatable way to get best accuracy from a black-powder single-shot rifle. It is too slow for use in our timed modern-day black-powder Silhouette matches and of course, the priming charge of smokeless would be illegal as well. The use of fixed ammunition introduces many variables that breech muzzleloading does away with.

    Was Rowland’s .32-40 Ballard, one of the most accurate rifles of the day, an “on-demand” 10-shot MOA rifle? I doubt it, even as accurate as it obviously was, because every rifle can have an off day. Ten shots at or under 2 inches at 200 yards every time it is shot is a very tall order for any rifle, modern or vintage. Even following Rowland’s painstaking methods, a variable is sure to crop up and spoil an otherwise excellent 10-shot string. It’s obvious then why, when describing a rifle’s accuracy potential, many modern-day riflemen prefer to talk about three or five-shot groups.

    If all this has piqued your interest in Charles W. Rowland and his spectacular shooting, there is no better source to read than the book, Ballard: The Great American Single Shot by noted single-shot rifle collector John Dutcher. John has researched Rowland extensively and provides much more insight into this great rifleman and his lifetime of shooting in his book.

    If breech muzzleloading sounds like something you’d like to try, then I highly recommend a copy of Randolph Wright’s excellent book, The Golden Age of the American Schuetzenfest. Randy is an excellent rifleman who has written what I consider to be the “Bible” on the proper use of the single-shot Schuetzen rifle and backs up all his information with hands-on experience. There is no better reference work on this type of shooting available today. 

    – Steve Garbe


    • Kelver, Gerald O. – Respectfully Yours H.M. Pope, Robinson Press, Inc., Fort Collins, Colorado 1976
    • Mattern, J.R. – Handloading Ammunition, Small Arms Technical Publishing Company 1926 (Reprint 1985, Wolfe Publishing Co. Inc. Prescott, Arizona)
    • Mann, Franklin W. – The Bullet’s Flight from Powder to Target, margin notes by Harry M. Pope (Reprint 1980, Wolfe Publishing Co. Inc. Prescott, Arizona)
    • Roper, Walter F. – Experiments of a Handgunner, Stackpole and Heck, Inc., New York, New York (Reprinted 2005 Paladin Press, The Firearms Classic Library, Birmingham, Alabama)
    • Truesdell, S.R. – The Rifle, Safari Press Inc., Long Beach, California 1992
    • Waite, M.D. & Ernst, B.D. – Trapdoor Springfield, BEINFELD Publishing, North Hollywood, California 1980
    • Whelen, Colonel Townsend & Angier, Bradford, Mister Rifleman, Peterson Publishing Company, Los Angeles, California 1965
    • Wright, Randolph Schreiter, The Golden Age of the American Schuetzenfest. A History and Study of the Marksman Art, Wright Galleries LLC 2018
    1. Truesdell pg. 55
    2.  Ibid
    3. Mattern pg. 149
    4. Whelen pg. 166
    5. Respectfully yours, H. M. Pope pg. 4; Mattern pg. 210
    6. Ibid pg. 87
    7. Wright pg. 226
    8. Waite & Ernst pg. 191
    9. Ibid pg. 191
    10. Roper pg. 151
    11. Mann pg. 121

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