Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


The muzzle-loading rifles of the mountain men shot round, soft-lead balls, using black powder as the propellant.  I have not seen lead balls listed in any of the inventories of goods taken to the mountains for rendezvous.  (However, a trading camp inventory of goods sent out from Fort Jackson does list balls.) Rather bar lead was supplied, and the trapper was responsible for casting his own balls.  When his supply of lead balls ran low,
he would cast additional balls using a cast iron pot, or even his fry pan, to melt the lead, a small ladle and a ball mold.  (For a description of making lead shot and balls, and a novel method of melting lead see Making Shot & Ball in (Everyday Life) In the hands
of a skilled hunter, a gun or rifle shooting lead balls was lethal even to the largest game, including buffalo and grizzly bear.  The mountain men were well aware that their short barreled, slow-twist rifles shot practically flat up to 150 yards, and even at 200 yards with an allowance for drop, were very accurate.  Modern ballistics tests of Hawken type rifles show that these guns could consistently handle powder charges of up to 155 grains, and without too much loss in accuracy could fire a charge of over 200 grains.  Conical bullets (unknown to the mountain men) were found to be consistently accurate in these guns at ranges up to 500 yards (David F Butler, U.S. Firearms, 1971).