24 September 2011

Forsyth Rifling - Forgotten Magic

Well, it’s about time again for my annual plug for Forsyth rifling. For those of you who are new to this blog, with your continued reading you will learn that I am a devout prophet of the Forsyth system of rifling gun barrels, having proven its advantages in the course of building over 200 Forsyth rifles of various calibres.

Lately there seems to be a bunch more hub-bub about Forsyth rifling as muzzleloaders everywhere begin to discover the truth about big-bore round balls and their superiority over other projectiles for taking down big game - dead - with one clean shot.

There’s also a lot of misunderstanding as to what Forsyth rifling is, does, and how it works. For those of you who are not yet familiar with the brainchild of Lieut. James Forsyth and wishing to learn more, just send me an e-mail request - underhammers@safe-mail.net - and I will be very happy to e-mail to you a pdf version of his wonderful book, The Sporting Rifle and Its Projectiles.

Lest I steal his thunder and your enjoyment of his book, let me just touch on the subject of his rifling methods.

Hey, slow down!

In a nutshell Forsyth rifling features very narrow lands and wide, shallow grooves cut at a very slow pitch of 1 turn in 100 to 144 inches – the exact twist being the result of considering certain other factors. There are some barrel makers who offer slower twist rifling, but slow twist alone does not a Forsyth barrel make.

In coming to an understanding of this concept one simple truth must be clearly understood - that is the round ball, being a perfect geometric form, requires very little spin to stabilize its flight. And, the larger the diameter of that round ball even less spin is required. While a 48-inch twist works in .36 or .45 calibre, it limits the full potential of a larger round ball. Again, the larger the ball, the slower the spin needed to keep it on a straight path. However, there are certain limitations with Forsyth rifling, too.

Clicking on the photo will enlarge it for a closeup view of the rifling.
Clicking the Back arrow will return you to the text.

To really appreciate the significance of our re-discovery of Forsyth’s research it must be understood that he postulated those wonderful concepts about the optimum rifling for muzzleloading hunting rifles way back in the mid-1800’s. Yes, it’s been around that long. Unfortunately, the first edition of his book was printed in 1863 in England and by the time his revolutionary concepts made it across the pond and to the far flung game fields of the world, cartridges had made their debut and no one cared much anymore about muzzleloading performance. His work and his book were lost in history.

The fact is that Forsyth had overcome all of our modern day objections and complaints about muzzleloading rifles over 150 years ago!

Forsyth is for hunters

It should be understood that the advantages of Forsyth rifling are intended for the big game hunter in the field where shooting over unknown distances may be the norm. We burn lots of powder in our big bore hunting rifles which is not an objective of the competitive muzzleloading crowd.

Could you accurately guesstimate the range of this deer within 10 yards? 
A mistake of a mere 10 yards at this distance with most muzzleloaders 
can mean mortally wounding and losing the animal.

Because of the very slow twist that is used in properly made Forsyth barrels, there is very little fouling of the bore – hence, easy reloading and clean up. And, by virtue of those very narrow lands, loading a proper-sized ball and patch is easily accomplished with thumb pressure alone; then seated on the powder with an easy stroke of the loading rod. In my own experience, a ball that is .020" smaller than the bore diameter, wrapped in a Wonder Lubed patch of .010" - .012" and using a Wonder Wad over the powder provides the best results.

If extreme accuracy is required you can increase the ball diameter, or better yet, the patch thickness, as a thicker patch holds more lube. However, the tighter the fit of the ball and patch in the bore, the more difficulty you'll encounter in seating the ball into the muzzle. For me, I'm rather lazy and I like to keep things simple and would sacrifice an inch of accuracy at 100 yards for the convenience of loading a quick follow up shot without any extra gadgets - like a short starter. But that's just me.

The question frequently comes up as to how small a ball will still work. In my own experience in building and testing Forsyth rifles of various large calibers, I have determined that the smallest diameter ball that will still provide the advantages of Forsyth rifling is .58 calibre. At 270 grains, the round ball has just enough weight and mass to travel straight and true at high velocity with as little spin as 1 turn in 100 inches of rifling twist.

Now, some will argue that you don’t need extreme velocity - translate as “power” - for hunting most game when using a large round ball. And while that is true in many cases, it is not extreme power that we are seeking. Bullet drop is a function of time. So, the quicker we get the ball to the target, the less time gravity has to act upon it. The advantage of high velocity that we are seeking is a flat trajectory. Extreme knockdown power is just an incidental benefit.

The bullet path on the chart above illustrates that the .62 Faeton with 
Genuine Forsyth Rifling shoots very flat to 120 yards.

Many muzzleloading rifles produce such curved trajectories due to the limitations on velocity based upon their faster rifling twist that any shot much beyond 80 yards requires very accurate range estimation and proper holdover if you are going to deliver that small diameter ball into the vitals of a game animal. Not so critical with a properly loaded Forsyth rifle. With some typical muzzleloaders a miscalculation of 15 yards out there past the 75-yard mark can mean the difference between delicious venison chops and a long and grueling search for a wounded animal. 

There are those of the in-line crowd who claim that their sub-caliber high velocity bullets shoot pretty flat to 200 yards. While that may be true, remember that with each foot of distance their bullet travels from the muzzle, the more energy they are losing. That is the same energy needed for the proper expansion of their elongated bullet. Ipso facto, the further from the muzzle their bullet gets the less its potential to expand.

Not so with a big round ball. Yes, the further the round ball gets from the muzzle the more velocity it loses, too. However, the big difference is that the big round ball will always be at least its own diameter regardless of distance from the muzzle. Bottom line is that my big round ball starts out larger than their elongated bullet can even hope to expand to under ideal conditions. This is definitely a case where less in NOT more.

When hunting bigger game the greater energy that results from the higher velocity of our big round ball really puts big game down like it was struck by the hammer of Thor. If you’ve never hunted with a big round ball pushed at high velocity, you just can’t imagine the effectiveness.

It’s also important to understand that the effectiveness of that one shot is the result of shooting for bone. Many smaller-caliber hunters realize that the balls or bullets they shoot don’t have the mass and weight to break big and heavy structural bones and have been taught to shoot soft tissue instead. But, the fact is that shooting the shoulder will generally put the animal down on the spot and allow you time to reload a coup-de-grace for the final dispatch - if even needed. And, shooting the shoulder with a big round ball does not destroy a lot of meat as is believed based upon the same shot taken with a high intensity centre-fire rifle. Besides, who of you is so destitute that you can’t sacrifice a few pounds of meat for the sake of a clean and humane kill? Think about it.
The reason for such effectiveness is that the large ball not only transmits tremendous shock by virtue of its large frontal surface, but also breaks the large bones of the shoulder joint into secondary missiles which then penetrate the heart and lungs. This, by the way, is the same shot one should take at dangerous game - the idea being to immediately disable the animal rendering it less likely to get to you before you can reload.

BTW, another little known advantage of Forsyth barrels is that they will shoot hard lead balls with the same fine accuracy as dead-soft lead. That’s right. Because of that slow twist, we don’t need a hammer-tight fit of ball and patch in the bore to the point where the weave of the patch imprints into the ball.

When you are up against bigger and tougher game, balls cast of wheel weights work well in breaking big bones. I have even shot straight linotype balls with great accuracy. However, it is always better to use a temper of lead that will still allow expansion in game. After all, we want every advantage we can muster when it comes to quickly and humanely dispatching the animal.

Are you really going to eat that?

The idea of that one shot kill - dead in its tracks - is very important if you plan to serve that animal at the table. There is nothing worse (in my humble opinion) than adrenaline-soaked meat. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found any German venison gravy or French sauce recipe that will effectively mask a seriously funked piece of venison.

When I was a boy I had the good fortune of growing up on my grandparent’s cattle ranch.  At an early age I learned that when you are getting a steer or hog ready for butchering, you don’t run it around the corral and get it all heated up before plugging it. If it did get spooked and panicky, you walked away and came back later when it was calm again and then did the deed.  

The same applies to game. If you don’t use enough force to put the animal down dead with that first shot, and it takes off into the next zip code, you won’t want to eat it - if you manage to recover it.

Hal Sharon - Pioneer of modern Forsyth rifling

My first introduction to Forsyth rifling was from that grand old man of muzzleloading, Mr. Hal Sharon. Some of you old timers will remember Sharon Rifle Barrel Company of Kalispell, Montana. I met Hal and his lovely bride, Annie, at an NRA Show back in the mid 1980s.  He became my mentor in this muzzleloading game and I miss him greatly.

He shared then with me the fact that he had been experimenting over the past 20 years with a forgotten type of rifling that made muzzleloading rifles safely shoot like a magnum. He didn’t explain it in detail until 10 years later in 1995 when I told him that I was starting Pacific Rifle Company to build custom underhammer rifles.

Hal asked what calibers I would offer and I told him that I wanted to provide “big-bore” hunting calibres, such as .50 and .54 to my customers. He then told me to find a copy of Forsyth’s book, The Sporting Rifle and Its Projectiles and to study it before I made my decision about calibres. Hall suggested that I start with .62 calibre and go up from there!

After reading the book I was both stunned and excited at what I had learned! It violated all the conformant wisdom that I had acquired up to that point about muzzleloading rifles. Could it really be so?  I mean, seriously, if this was such a good idea, how come the mainstream gun manufacturers and muzzleloading barrel makers weren’t offering guns and barrels that would provide such amazing performance?

Hall insisted that Forsyth rifling really did work and he had proven it himself many times. So, based upon his assurance, I decided that my prototype rifle would have a Forsyth barrel. Problem was, Hal was no longer making barrels and the barrel makers that I contacted responded as though I was totally whacked.

One prominent barrel maker of the time told me flat out that he knew such a concept was nonsense and he wouldn’t waste his time making barrels that he knew wouldn’t work. While another well-known maker claimed that he was aware of Forsyth rifling; however he railed at me saying, “you don’t need 200 grains of powder to kill game with a .62 calibre rifle”, adding that “80 grains of powder in a .62 will kill anything on this continent.”

He wouldn’t fill my order, either.

Thankfully, I was informed about a new barrel maker in Missouri who might be willing to work with me.  I called Bill Moody and explained the concept and after a bit of thought he immediately tracked down a copy of Forsyth’s book and started studying this seemingly crazy notion.

I told him that I wanted a .620" bore, .630" across the grooves, 8 lands at 1:5 ratio with a twist of 144 inches.
After a bit of collaboration on the specs, he agreed to make a prototype barrel for me. My resulting Zephyr performed EXACTLY as Forsyth and Hal said it would – flat shooting, hard hitting, yet mild of recoil, easy loading, easy cleaning, and accurate!

Due to the very slow twist of a properly made Forsyth barrel, there is very little fouling of the bore – hence, easy clean up. And because of the very narrow lands, loading a proper-size ball and patch is easily accomplished with thumb pressure alone; then seated on the powder with an easy stroke of the loading rod. No short starter or any other gadgets needed.

No magic, just simple science and good engineering. Eventually we quickened the twist to 1:104" to accommodate less than full power loads with greater accuracy and went on to successfully make underhammer Forsyth rifles of .58, (24-bore), .62, (20-bore), .72 (12-bore) and .82 (8-bore) which covered the full spectrum of hunting needs for anything on the planet. The rest, as they say, is history.

 The Zephyr was the first production rifle in history to offer Genuine Forsyth Rifling as a standard feature.
Today, there are more Forsyth rifles in the form of the Zephyr, and now, the new Faeton, 
than any other rifles in the world.

How about a Forsyth shot gun?

As a little side line, another handy feature of Forsyth rifled barrels is that you CAN shoot shot from them. The extremely slow twist does not seem to adversely affect the pattern too much and delivers about cylinder-bore patterns out to 20-25 yards. However, load that shot into a turkey ranger wad with a tuned droge as made by Stuart Emery and you can deliver a pretty tight pattern waaay beyond what anyone would believe possible from a rifled bore.

 Yes, it does look somewhat obscene, but it works like a charm!

Of course you’re not going to use your Forsyth rifle as your primary shotgun – unless, of course, you do set it up for turkey hunting with the turkey ranger wads and the droge. But, while on the hunt it will put a fool hen into the camp stewpot while you’re out after bigger game. (see my PS below for more info on the wads.)

Now back to the story…

Unfortunately, after 12 years of supplying me, one day Mr. Moody just locked the door of his shop and went fishing never to make barrels again. I was in a real pickle.

Since then I have worked with another company who has produced several Forsyth barrels to my specs for my new Faetons. Unfortunately, they are too busy making normal barrels and don’t have time to fuss with a few Forsyth barrels for cantankerous old crackpots like me.

Rice Barrel Company to the rescue!

A bit over a year ago I was discussing my dilemma with Jason Schneider of Rice Barrel Company, www.ricebarrels.com, and sent him a copy of Forsyth’s book. While he was interested and intrigued by the concept, he explained his production schedule did not allow him time to venture off in a new direction. However, he did continue thinking about it.

In a recent conversation with Jason, he informed me that Rice Barrel Company will soon be producing a limited run of Forsyth barrels. The new tube will be .62 calibre with the following specs:


Bore:……………...... .621"
Groove to groove...... ..631" - .633"
8 grooves @ 5:1 ratio
Twist 1:104”


Swamped barrel:

31" long
Breech ................1 1/8"
waist.................... .890”

Tapered barrel

Length ................32"  - 34"
Breech ...............1 1/8"

The cost of these high quality barrels is estimated at $250.00 - $275.00 plus an additional $20 or so for shipping and handling. Believe me, that's a bargain.

If you are considering building a true Forsyth rifle, I know you won’t go wrong with a Rice Forsyth Barrel. While the Forsyth tube is not yet listed on their website you can place your order directly with Jason by calling him at: (336) 492-2614  or e-mailing him at:  blackpowder@ricebarrels.com.

This will be a one-time run for now and the expected delivery is sometime in January of 2012, so don’t wait and think about it too long before you get in line.

BTW, tell Jason that you learned about it from The Underhammer Society.


PS: Turkey Ranger Wads - Since first publishing this post I have had several inquiries regarding the turkey ranger wads mentioned above and where they can be purchased. The technical name is: DST-20 wad and they are available from Ballistic Products - www.ballisticproducts.com/CSD-20ga-Steel-wad-UNslit-250_bag/productinfo/0207020/     

Ballistic Products also offers several shotgun slugs that should also work well with Forsyth rifled barrels. I put the bug in their ear to send me some and I'll report back to you my results if their PTB agree to the scheme.

If you contact Ballistic Products be sure to tell them that you read about it on The Underhammer Society site.

Additional information on Genuine Forsyth Rifling can be found at: http://rjrenner.blogspot.com/p/forsyth-rifling.html.



Brent Gurtek said...


Brent Gurtek here. Regarding the turkey wads and black powder weapons: many knowledgeabe folks claim that the nylon-based wads are chemically incompatible with black powder. Supposedly, the wads either burn or melt.
This does not happen wih nitro powder, for some reason.
Have you heard anything about nylon-based wads having unfortunate issues when used with black powder?
I would love to try the Ballistics Products wads in my black powder smoothbores, but have been cautioned away from it.
Ballistics Products, if I understand them correctly, has not tested their wads with black powder & therefore cannot comment on this, one way or the other.
I was thinking of attempting a black powder load with a nylon-based wad but separating the powder and wad with a nitro card. Track of the Wolf told me that a nitro card would help, but not eliminate the problem.
Maybe two nitro cards?


Roger Renner said...

Hello Brent,

That may be true about nylon and black powder. However, I have not experienced it because I never put plastic of any kind over black powder. The plastic can melt into a terrible mess before it exits the muzzle.

The card wads will prevent that as will a thick layer (about 1/2-inch) of corn meal over the black powder. Granted the wads are a lot easier, but not having some at hand doesn't mean you can't play the game till you get some.

Personally I like the 1/2-inch Pre-lubicated Fiber Cushion Wads available from Clear Creek Trading Company - www.electrol.net/catalog/shotgunwads.htm. Due to their thicker construction they go into the bore straight and stay aligned all the way down to the powder.

And did I mention that they're cheap? Only $3 and some change for 100 wads which, at my rate of shooting shot from my Forsyth rifles, will last about 2 lifetimes.

Hope that's helpful.


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About Me

Roger Renner

Hi. I've been a student, admirer, and designer/builder of underhammer guns for over 30 years. In that span I've built over 200 semi-custom underhammers exploring the possibilities from the ordinary to the exotic. In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company to explore the market's interest in a high-quality underhammer rifle. Thankfully, that interest was, and still is, there. I sold PRC in 2006 but continue to craft high-end underhammers as I am truly afflicted with underhammeritis - which can be contagious!