The Cherrytree Family
by Chuck Dixon
A muzzleloading firearm, either rifled or smooth-bored, can be compared to a combustion engine. The barrel is the cylinder, the ball or shot column is the piston, and the powder is the fuel. The patching or wads serve the same purpose as the rings. The ring in a combustion engine provides a seal, giving compression, which enhances the combustion of fuel. In a muzzleloading firearm, this seal serves two purposes. First, good fuel combustion, which gives increased velocity, and second, improved accuracy by prohibiting gas leakage. In addition, in a rifled gun this seal imparts a twist or spin to the ball from the rifling.
The confusion between a muzzleloading firearm and a breech-loading firearm has spawned many questionable and even unsafe procedures. The problem is primarily the seal required for effective performance of the patch and ball combination. Whether the firearm is rifled or smooth bored, one must be able to force the patched ball down the barrel. In a breech loading firearm, the seal is guaranteed by forcing the projectile through a forcing cone as it enters the rifling.
There is much confusion concerning black powder. Black powder by itself, or residue from combustion, is not responsible for rusting or corrosion of metal; moisture is required. Black powder residue must absorb moisture from the air, or be wet with water, before becoming active enough to rust the barrel. As long as the powder or the residue from shooting remains dry, no oxidizing or rusting will occur. In the past, a rusted barrel was caused primarily by the percussion caps, which contained corrosive compounds of potassium or mercury. The residue from these early percussion caps would set up a rusting condition without water being present.
After the Civil War, an effort was made to find a less fouling fuel that would lessen loading problems and improve accuracy. Today’s black powder substitutes were developed in the post-Civil War era. The attempts to correct the problems were of no real improvement; they managed to reduce the residue or smoke, but introduced a highly corrosive environment similar to that caused by the percussion caps. All were inconsistent in ignition and pressure from load to load, thus causing accuracy problems. A fuel was developed that solved the fouling and smoke problems, but the pressures that developed were too high for firearms manufactured at the time. This fuel is known today as smokeless powder. Black powder substitutes are saleable because they are not recognized as a propellant and thus not regulated, allowing them to be readily available.
The powder charge: how much should I use? Once more, let’s compare muzzleloading to the automobile engine. This time, consider the carburetor. The carburetor may be adjusted to a lean mixture, offering the best performance with the best economy. Adjusting to a flooded condition will create an overall poor performance. The same holds true for the muzzleloader. For a lean mixture, that is, the minimum amount of powder giving the maximum velocity with minimum residue and/or unburned fuel, the charge will be approximately one grain of powder per caliber. This may not hold out to be a straight-line relationship. For example, thirty grains in a thirty-two caliber rifle is more than enough while fifty-four grains in a fifty-four caliber rifle may be a bit short. The fifty-eight caliber musket used sixty grains of powder, which was a charge developed through research.
Hunters who believe that a few extra foot-pounds of energy are important may increase the powder charge. A rich mixture is achieved by increasing the load as much as fifty percent. The result will be an excessively dirty bore with a little increase in velocity. Any thing more than this becomes a flooded condition. In this flooded condition, the fouling will severely handicap the performance of the rifle, and in many cases, make it impossible to reload without first removing the excessive fouling. How to increase the velocity while at the same time prevent excessive fouling will be addressed later in Part 4 under the title Gas Seal or Patching.
A grain per caliber is recommended for off-hand target shooting. For hunting purposes, the charge may be increased by thirty to fifty percent. A poorly placed shot however, will not be improved by adding a few foot-pounds of energy.
A muzzleloader must, by definition, by loaded from the muzzle. Under these conditions, the round ball becomes the optimum projectile. If loading occurred at the breech end, a conical projectile would be preferred. A conical projectile, loaded from the muzzle, couples the problem of obtaining a sufficient gas seal with the difficulty in starting and pushing the conical down the bore. Conical projectiles, with or without sabots, have not been found to surmount these problems. The problems were somewhat solved in 1852 by Captain C. E. Minee of the French army. Minee perfected a muzzleloading firearm using a bullet shaped projectile that did out-perform the round ball. The technology perfected in this firearm, requiring a bullet that matches a precisely rifled bore, has been totally ignored to this date.
Under ideal conditions, a conical projectile, with or without a sabot, may perform as well as a round ball. But loading a conical projectile through the muzzle to perform as well as a correctly patched round ball is seldom achieved. The foremost problem is acquiring a gas seal. This problem has been addressed by using a plastic sabot with limited success. The plastic sabot does not always seal the bore. The result is excessive fouling and a destabilized projectile. The plastic sticks to the bore, creating reloading problems. It should also be understood that with a low-velocity firearm, a light weight round ball is superior to the heavy mass of a conical projectile.
Our forefathers discovered that the highest velocity and flattest trajectory was achieved with a bore diameter between forty and forty-five caliber. Rifles built during the flintlock period show the evolution of bore reduction, which reached the forty caliber range during the rifle’s Golden Age. It should be recognized that at the same time, the quality of black powder improved considerably, thus providing higher and consistent velocities based on a given load. In Franklin W. Mann’s book, The Bullet’s Flight, on page 242, it states, “the bullet has fourteen motions that may occur during flight”. These motions, when out of control, cause poor grouping. Although it has several of the same motions, the correctly patched round ball is easier to stabilize and remains so in flight. For the round ball the lack of sectional density, defined as the mass of the bullet in proportion to its cross-section, or mass behind the bullet nose, this weakness is translated into wind drift. This sectional density is what drives the bullet on its long-range path, but at the same time, brings in those extra motions. The round ball, without these extra motions, is, in fact, a perfect projectile. Stated again, the best performing projectile for a muzzle-loaded rifle is a properly patched, soft lead round ball, fired in a rifled barrel with appropriate grooves and twist, fueled by a balanced charge of black powder.
A combustion engine will not function without a seal between the piston and the cylinder walls. This seal is what allows the pressure to rise, in turn, completing the combustion and raising the energy level to drive the piston. Within proper limits, the quantity or quality of the fuel available is not as important as the proficiency of the combustion. This proficiency, allowing the fuel to burn to completion, will deliver more energy than excessive fuel. Excessive fuel, only partly burned, leaves behind residues that will foul the cylinder or, in the case of the rifle, the bore.
The tighter the seal, the more fuel will be consumed, thus raising the pressure or energy level. In the case of the muzzleloader, the more complete the burning of the powder, the higher the velocity of the projectile. To increase the velocity, one needs only to increase the resistance. Utilizing either a larger diameter ball or thicker patching material can increase the friction between the bore and the projectile. Target shooters who have the advantage of a loading bench, may use a bore size ball with thick patching, the cleaning is complete and the ball is usually started with a mallet. A more advanced method of target shooting utilizes a false-muzzled barrel. This removable first two inches of the barrel is internally funnel-shaped to allow a ball even larger than the bore to be loaded with the same thick patch. This increased resistance increases the burning efficiency of the powder utilizing more fuel and increasing the pressure - in turn increasing velocity. The reason a bench shooter wants increased velocity is to resist wind drift in order to obtain the best possible grouping. Under hunting conditions, one will have to load without the advantage of a bench or a false muzzle and with a barrel that may be fouled from a previous shot. It is a preferred practice to reduce the ball diameter by approximately ten-thousandths of an inch under bore diameter, but maintaining the thick patch, usually about twenty-thousandths of an inch thick.
Normally, the patch material is a tightly woven cotton or linen cloth. Thickness will vary from ten-thousandths up to and in excess of thirty-thousandths of an inch thick. Beware of cloth that may contain synthetic fibers woven with the fabric. These fibers will melt, allowing gas to by-pass the ball, causing the pressure to drop. This drop in pressure will, of course, affect the velocity and accuracy of the ball. Patch fabric may have to be washed to remove any starch or sizing. Washing softens the material so it will better fold itself into the rifling grooves.
What is a blown patch? What causes a blown patch? What is the end result of a blown patch? A patch that has allowed gas to escape around the ball is called a blown patch. This blow-by will cause burning or shredding of the patch. Too thin a patch or a seal coupled with insufficient lubrication causes the blow-by. The end result of gas escaping around the ball decreases velocity and increases fouling.
In summary, find the best patch/ball combination for your rifle. For any given bore diameter, a hunter may use a ball ten-thousandths under bore size, an off-hand target shooter utilizing a bench for loading may uses a bore size ball, and a false-muzzled rifle bench competitor may use a ball up to ten-thousandths over bore diameter. In most cases, use a patch approximately twenty-thousandths of an inch thick. There are exceptions. A rifle may use a fifteen-thousandth patch due to very shallow rifling. Any less than fifteen thousandths usually will result in a loss of velocity and accuracy due to a blown patch. An undersized combination will be evident as excessive fouling, making reloading difficult.
The lubricant, of which there are many types, serves more than one purpose. Just as the rings in an automobile engine must be lubricated, so must the patch. Compression, created by a tight seal, is a must for good combustion; however, the surface between the patch and barrel wall must be lubricated to a degree that friction will not damage the seal itself. Many elements contribute to the amount of friction generated including ball diameter, bore diameter, and patch material, condition of the bore, rifling type and residue in the bore. As noted in the last section, velocity is improved by increasing resistance, yet the patch must be lubricated to prevent damage.
The proper lubricant should accomplish many tasks. It should soften the fibers of the cloth so the material will better form itself to the ball and rifling and it should reduce friction enough so the patch will not be damaged. Cleaning between shots will put less demand on the lubricant. When target shooting, use spit, water, or a lightweight lubricant. The cleaner the barrel, the less friction; thus lighter lubricants are required. For hunting, when the load might remain in the bore over an extended period of time, a heavier lubricant will be required. The heavier lubricant mixes with residue in the bore leaving a softer residual fouling, thus making it easier for reloading successive shots in a less that perfectly clean barrel. This heavy lubricant might be called a barrel release agent. A lightweight lubricant will be water-like in consistency, while a heavier lubricant will have a paste-like consistency.
A wide variety of lubricants are available, all of which will perform well under certain conditions. A bench rest national record for twenty-five years still stands in which the lubricant used was spit. It cannot be stressed enough that cleaning the barrel between shots considerably reduces the demand on the lubricant, makes for ease of loading, and improves accuracy.
The proper technique for loading a muzzleloader varies dependent upon the type of firearm and its intended purpose. There is an extreme range of loading procedures between the loading of a hunting rifle and the loading of a heavy false-muzzled target rifle. As mentioned previously, if ease of loading or great accuracy is desired, a cleaning procedure must follow each shot. First let’s investigate the procedure for hunting loads or for casual shooting.
The first consideration is always SAFETY. Drop the ramrod down the unloaded barrel; mark a line on the ramrod with a felt tip pen at the muzzle. This is your line to indicate an empty barrel; you may use this line many times in the field to quickly determine if the barrel is unloaded. A second mark may be added to show when the rifle is loaded. Maintain a safe distance away from other shooters when loading; sparks have been known to fly from one firearm to another, and of course, NO SMOKING! Use only powder containers that have been designed for black powder usage. The container, if tin, copper, or brass, should be constructed of thin material that has been soft-soldered together. All original flasks were manufactured in this manner. Avoid heavy brass flasks with screwed-on end caps. Powder horns must have their end plugs held in place with very small wood or wire mails. The reason powder containers are constructed in this manner is so that if a spark should get to the flask or horn, the flask walls or horn plug will separate without an explosion. NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, CHARGE THE GUN DIRECTLY FROM A FLASK OR HORN; USE A POWDER MEASURE.
Before loading, make sure the touchhole or nipple is open. With the hammer on half-cock or safe position, run a lightly-oiled patch down the bore while listening for a rush of air out of the touchhole or nipple. If no air – clean. Check for excessive oil. See the section on cleaning for procedure.
Volume measurement is sufficient for all muzzleloading shooting; the only important consideration is consistency. Good shooting requires consistency in every respect relative to the loading procedure. For example, if you tap the measure during the filling procedure, that practice should be the same for every load. With the barrel in an upright position, empty the powder measure into the barrel, and then tap the side of the barrel or stock to settle the powder into the breech where ignition will take place. Next, having applied the lube to the patch, center the lubed pre-cut patch over the end of the barrel, lube side down. An alternate method is to cut up the cloth to be used for patching into one-foot-square sections. Lubricate that section of the one-foot-square cloth where patching will bear against the walls of the bore, starting at one corner and working in rows to insure consistency. Place the ball on the patch, set the short end of your bullet starter over the ball, and hit the starter squarely and sharply to seat the ball just below the end of the muzzle. Gather up the cloth and, using the end of the barrel as a cutting surface, cut off the excess cloth with a patch knife. Of course, if the first method used was with a pre-cut patch, cutting the excess cloth is unnecessary. Target shooters normally prefer the second method. It should be noted that patches cut at the muzzle will not be exactly round, but will, in fact, have two major and two minor sides. The sides will be slightly rounded.
The ball should now be seated even further down the bore using the longer end of the bullet starter. Using the ramrod, push the ball down the bore to the powder charge. Seat the ball onto the powder charge with consistent pressure, always the same for every shot. Ball seating variations will cause fuel-burning variations that will, in turn, create unwanted velocity variations.
Another safety factor must be mentioned. If the ball is not seated on the powder charge, or if any other object is in the barrel between the muzzle and the powder charge, that object becomes a barrel obstruction. When fired, a bulge will appear in the barrel where the obstruction occurred; however, a split barrel could also occur.
The final step in the loading of a flintlock rifle is to prime the pan. Fill the pan just below the vent or touchhole; less powder is better. The heat from the flash passing over the vent or touchhole will provide faster and more consistent ignition. With the percussion rifle, the final loading step is simply placing the percussion cap on the nipple.
Again I must stress that consistency is important in every step of the loading, cleaning and shooting procedure. The ball moving down the bore will react to each and every change that has occurred with resultant changes in velocity and target groupings.
Ignition for a flintlock firearm is caused by pieces of hot steel igniting the priming powder.
The priming powder is of fine grain, 4F, to catch a spark and burn at a fast rate in the open flash pan. If used in the barrel for a charge, the fine grain powder will not burn as well as the larger grained 3F or 2F granulations.
Fill the pan less than one-half full of the 4F powder. A fast ignition is accomplished by having a flame flashing over the vent rather than having to burn down to the vent as a fuse.
Warning: in a loaded muzzleloader, a spark from the frizzen is sufficient to set off the charge without any powder in the pan!
The priming powder may be protected with a wax seal or a lock cover (do NOT cover with plastic). A drying powder may be added to the priming powder. This fine powder is of siliceous material, sand, which absorbs moisture more readily than black powder, but sand does not burn and is not recommended.
A flint is described as a fine-grained, very hard, siliceous rock. This hard stone striking a very hard frizzen cuts off pieces of steel which burn at very high temperature, igniting the priming powder.
Installing the flint. The flint is held between the jaws of the hammer using soft leather for gripping. The thickness of leather will change the position of flint and thus the striking angle. For a sporting lock, the leather should be very flexible and approximately one-sixteenth inch thickness. The top jaw should be set firmly.
Positioning the flint. The flint should fit tightly in the hammer jaws. With the hammer on half-cock and the frizzen closed, position the flint so that it clears the frizzen. Set the flint so that the maximum amount of sparks strikes the center of the pan. This position will vary depending on the shape and size of the flint, the thickness of the leather, and the relationship of the hammer to the frizzen.
Flint knapping is a simple process of chipping back the beveled edge of the flint. Since the flint literally scrapes steel (sparks) from the frizzen, the beveled edge becomes dull and/or filled with steel. A flint may be knapped many times to extend its usage.
One never thinks of knapping the flint until the gun misfires; that is, the powder in the pan fails to flash. When this happens, you have the choice of either knapping the flint or changing it. Remember, the rifle is loaded and a spark from knapping could bounce into the touchhole and thus set off the charge. For a right-handed person with a right hand lock, hold the rifle so the left hand wraps around the lock in a position so that the index finger is placed against the touchhole. With the next two fingers, support the hammer, especially if it is on full-cock. On some locks, the hammer may go back for enough on half-cock to allow knapping in this position. With the back of the patch knife or a knapping hammer, lightly strike at a slight downward angle. This knapping process will break off very small pieces of flint and any small pieces of steel that were causing the flint to ride over the frizzen.
Proper cleaning procedures vary depending upon shooting conditions, type of firearm being used, and frequency of use.
The correct cleaning solvent to use is water. Solvent is not the best terminology, since portions of black powder residue, carbon and sulfur, are not soluble in any solution used in the cleaning of firearms. These insoluble residues can only be removed by flushing or wiping with a wet patch.
Hunters may not always have the opportunity to wipe the bore or clean the rifle after every shot. When this is the case, they will notice that weather conditions tend to influence the reloading procedure. If humidity is high, the residue left in the barrel will be greasy or wet in appearance, black in color, and soft. When humidity is low, that residue will be dry, gray in color, and crusty, causing reloading problems. If a heavy lubricant was used, the residue in the bore may remain softened. In the flintlock rifle the residue in the pan will react in similar fashion to changes in humidity.
Consistency is important for success in muzzle loading shooting. Residue will build up from shot to shot causing erratic pressures; the result will be poor accuracy. Loading an unclean rifle can be difficult or even impossible. Cleaning after every shot is very important.
After each shot, dampen a soft cotton or flannel cleaning patch, square or round, two or two and one-half inches in diameter, with spit or water. Using a jag sized properly to the bore and patch thickness, push the cleaning patch down the bore to the breech and back out to the muzzle. Normally, one pass is sufficient. The cleaning procedure may be repeated, but whatever the number of passes you use, be consistent. Consistency is paramount. Follow the identical procedure for each and every shot.
Cleaning patch thickness will vary. Select the proper thickness for your rifle then always attempt to use that same thickness of patch. The jag should be sized so that the patch being used will remain on the jag and return to the muzzle, but not so tight as to push the residue down the bore to the breech.
If the rifle will not be shot for a few hours, or perhaps not until the next day, then cleaning with several damp patches, followed by a lightly oiled patch may be sufficient, depending on the moisture present.
For storage, several days or more, a thorough cleaning is necessary. The best method is to remove the barrel from the stock and place its breech end into a bucket of tap water, leaving the vent or nipple in the barrel. Hot or soapy water is not necessary. Let set for a few minutes in order to soften any caking of reside that may be deposited in the breech. For cleaning purposes, always use a soft flannel cleaning patch. NEVER USE TEE SHIRT MATERIAL. Material containing synthetic fibers will tend to stretch at the breech end when you are trying to reverse the jag. The harder you pull, the tighter the hold, as the synthetic patching stretches. You will find that most material used for clothing will have synthetic fibers woven into the material.
Place a wet cleaning patch over the bore, insert the ramrod with the jag attached, and carefully push the patch down the bore. Reverse direction if resistance is greater than normal. In a caked or excessively dirty bore, several reverses may be necessary before reaching the breech of the barrel. After reaching the breech with the patched jag, pump back and forth drawing water into the bore. After several pumping motions, water will by-pass the patched jag and will be exiting out the muzzle. By this time, the water will be black; use a second bucket of clean water to ensure that all traces of residue have been removed. If the patch comes off the jag, retrieve it with a patch worm.
Under extremely fouled conditions, water may have to be poured down the barrel prior to the initial insertion of the patched jag. A bristle or wire brush may be necessary to break up fouling or rust, but be cautious, as a brush may not return; use short strokes. Clear the fouling as you progress down the bore.
The last step in the cleaning procedure is drying and protecting the barrel. Hold onto the barrel by a thimble or by wrapping some cloth around the barrel near the muzzle. Pour at least two cups of hot water down the barrel, allowing the water to drain through the vent or nipple. The barrel should be too hot to hold at this point, but not too hot to handle. Drain off any remaining water, wipe dry, and pass two dry cleaning patches down the bore. The hot barrel will complete the drying process. Wipe the bore while hot with a lightly oiled patch, inside and outside. The cleaning procedure is complete. Use oil sparingly; excessive oil will drain to the breech if the gun is allowed to stand upright, resulting in a hang fire or a misfire. It is wise, after oiling the barrel, to set the gun on its muzzle over night to drain any excess oil from the bore.
If more than two dry cleaning patches are used in the cleaning process, they may drag against the bore and jam. In the event this happens, pour a small amount of water past the rod and allow it to set for a short time. The softened patch will now allow the rod to move. Dry the barrel and wipe with a lightly oiled patch.
The problems which occur when pulling a ball will depend on the conditions that caused the need for extraction. Extraction will be easy if the bore is relatively clean. If excessive charges have been used, causing a fouled bore, or the bore was not wiped between shots, the ball extraction can be a problem. The ramrod will be sufficient under ideal conditions, but in a fouled bore, a heavier rod will be necessary. Pour a small amount of water down the bore. This will soften the fouling and patch; let set for several minutes. Pour the water out while rotating the barrel to wet the bore. Screw the ball puller into the ball until firmly seated. If puller should fail to extract the ball, clean the screw before trying again. If this should fail, a heavier rod will be necessary. Tapping the rod in either direction to move the ball slightly may help. Do not use a fiberglass ramrod. Fiberglass is very abrasive and will damage the muzzle of the bore, causing poor shooting performance. Do not confuse a fiberglass rod with a flexible plastic rod.
SHOOTING LOW – Raise rear sight or lower front sight.
SHOOTING HIGH – Lower rear sight or raise front sight.
SHOOTING TO THE RIGHT – Move rear sight to left or front sight to right.
SHOOTING TO THE LEFT – Move rear sight to right or front sight to left.
One last suggestion if you are target shooting using a bench rest. Sighting in and bench rest shooting your muzzleloader is different from a high-powered cartridge rifle. If a bench or rest position is being used for target shooting, it is of prime importance that you always rest a muzzleloader at the muzzle end of the barrel. This ensures minimum movement at the time the bullet exits the barrel. This movement is created by the heavy impact the flint or percussion hammer causes upon striking the frizzen or nipple. For a hunting rifle, final testing for group placement should be in the off-hand or some preferred hunting position.
Information provided by:
Dixon's Muzzleloading Shop, Inc.
9952 Kunkels Mill Rd.
Kempton, PA 19529