Load Development for Muzzle Loading Rifles

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A 30 3X target is no accident. It takes time and effort to work up accurate loads that allow the shooter to shoot consistently good targets.

The first question everyone has when they get their first muzzle loader is “What is a good load to use?” The simple answer to that question is, “Whatever the gun shoots well.” Obviously, that is not really a simple answer to the question.
The best method for answering this question is to “Shoot it out.” This will require many trips to the shooting range so developing a good load is a lot of fun.
A gun being shot is a practical application of the science of ballistics. Which means that when a load is being developed for a muzzle loader, or any gun, it is a scientific experiment. As we all learned in high school science, only one component of the experiment, the variable, should be changed at a time. So when developing a load for a muzzle loader, only one component of the load chain should be changed with each three shot group. I.e. powder or ball or patch. If more than one component is changed, what caused something to happen is not known. If the results are bad, it is much more difficult to fix the problem when dealing with multiple variable changes. Finally, the experiment needs to be repeated to ensure the results are valid; i.e. compensate for human error. Hence, shooting three shot groups with each change is a good idea. The process for developing a load is meticulous but having an accurate target load or balanced effective hunting load makes the work worth the effort.
Before developing a load, it is important to determine what kind of load is being worked up. If it is a target load, maximum accuracy is important. If it is a hunting load, a balance between power and accuracy must be achieved. It is possible and even desirable to have multiple loads for a gun. Most of the rifles I regularly shoot have both a hunting load and target load.
The components in a traditional muzzle loader load are powder: charge, granulation, brand; patching: material, thickness; ball: diameter, weight, and design; cap, or priming. If a shooter wants to use saboted or conical bullets, the process is the same. Sabots and cloth patches do the same job. With conicals, various weights and designs will perform differently so several types of conicals should be tried to optimize performance.
Since only one variable can be changed at a time, the shooter must decide which variable to work on first. The most common starting point is the powder charge. When I got my first muzzle loading rifle, a Traditions .50 Cal Woodsman’s Hawkins, I started with a 30-grain load, measured by volume, and worked my way up by 10 grain increments. A 30-grain load of 2fg Goex powder was measured out and paired with a .015 patch and a .490 round ball. Three shots were fired using a bench rest at a bull target posted twenty fire yards away, and the barrel was swabbed in between each shot. After the target was shot, load data was written on the target and a fresh target was again posted at 25 yards. The powder charge was increased to 40 grains and the three shots were again fired. This procedure was followed until loads of 100 grains of 2 fg powder were being shot. Then the entire process was repeated on two subsequent trips to the range. A 60-grain load was most accurate, and groups started to open up above the 90-grain mark.

The next step in the process was to reshoot the loads with pillow ticking rather than cotton patches. During this testing phase, only the most promising powder charges were tested, the 90-grain load tightened up considerably, and the groups for both the 50 and 60 grain loads were nearly identical. The 50-grain load became my target/match shooting load and the 90-grain load became my hunting load.
The target load soon proved its worth in shooting matches at rendezvous and club shoots. The hunting load enabled me to harvest a buck and a doe before 9:00 AM on a hunt in southeastern Minnesota.
After working up a load for one rifle, I figured I had it all figured out when I began to work up a load on a Lyman’s Great Plains Rifle in .54 caliber. I started with loads using pillow ticking since that’s what the Traditions shot the best. But the Lyman didn’t like that tight patching. After many frustrating rounds of shooting, I switched to .015 cotton and when the smoke cleared there were some one hole-three shot groups.

When my oldest daughter took up hunting, I wanted to develop a load with a lighter recoil than the 90-grain load in the Traditions Hawkins rifle. I started with a 70-grain charge of 2fg Goex and then tried several patch thicknesses until the gun produced good groups. That load ended up being 70 grains 2fg Goex, a .015 patch and a .490 round ball. Using Pillow ticking produced a slightly tighter group, but it was hard to load so we went with the cotton patch. Good thing we used the easy to load patch. My daughter missed a shot at a deer, but fortunately, the deer got confused and didn’t run away, so she quickly reloaded and made a nice double lung shot for her first deer.
I have used both round commercially cut patches, square home cut patches, and muzzle cut patches when working up loads. I have found that generally the round and square patches perform equally well in guns that are .45 caliber and larger. Smaller bore guns seem to prefer round patches or even better yet like cut at the muzzle patches. That is particularly true of my .36 Pedersoli Frontier Rifle. Its favorite load is .20 gr 3gf, cut at the muzzle pillow ticking patch, and a .350 round ball.
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Essential tools for working up a load include range rod with muzzle protector and jag, cleaning solution, cleaning patches, short starter, different types of patches, ball, cap or primer.

The key to working up a load is to be meticulous in the process. Never change more than one component in the load change at a time. Keep very thorough records of the shooting sessions and the results. Having a shooting notebook is a must. Yes, even in the day and age of the computer and cell phone. Notebooks are much handier at the range. Don’t be afraid to try new loads, just put the results up against other experiments and loads. Developing a custom load for a muzzle loader is worth all the effort because there will be more trophies won at shooting matches and more meat made with the smoke pole.

Stuffed Pork Chops

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Normally, we grill, fry or broil pork chops. And once in a while I will toss them in a Dutch oven with some kraut and other fixings and bake it. I wanted to do something different with the chops so I came up with the a recipe for making stuffed pork chops. The stuffed chops proved to be pretty simple to make and were super yummy.

Ingredients
Two extra thick pork chops butterfly sliced to the bone
1 small onion finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons butter
Bread crumbs
½ teaspoon celery seed
1 small apple cored and chopped
1 egg
½ teaspoon basil
½ teaspoon oregano
3/4 cup chicken bullion
1/4 cup white wine.

Brown both sides of pork chop in butter in a cast iron skillet. Remove from pan. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is translucent. In medium bowl, mix bread crumbs, celery seed, apple, basil, and oregano. Stir in onions and garlic. Slightly beat egg and stir into stuffing mix. Place pork chops back into cast iron skillet and put stuffing in pocket made in chops pork. Add bouillon/wine mix. Cover and bake at 350° for about 45 minutes. Remove chops from pan and serve

Buttermilk Pie

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Buttermilk Pie has a tangy flavor and is a fairly simple to make.

My daughter, Marissa, posted on Facebook that she had the best pie ever in a restaurant in Alabama and it was Buttermilk Pie. After that emphatic statement, I definitely had to track down a buttermilk pie recipe and try it out. Buttermilk pie is southern staple. Buttermilk pie is supposed to be even more popular than pumpkin pie in Texas. That seems strange but it is Texas. The pie originated in England and was carried across the ocean by immigrants who ended up in the South. Buttermilk pie is a custard pie-so it is similar to pumpkin pie in texture, but has a tangy tart flavor.

Ingredients
3 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter melted and cooled
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 9-inch pie crust unbaked

Directions
Whisk together eggs, and sugar in a large bowl
Whisk in remaining ingredients until smooth
Pour into prepared pie crust
Bake at 400° oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° continue to bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Tooth pick stuck in the middle should come out clean.

Back Country Adventure on the Chippewa

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Lower Chippewa River is a beautiful and wild spot in Western Wisconsin

Being able to have a grand outdoor adventure in your backyard is one of the major benefits of living in Western Wisconsin. The Lower Chippewa River is a great place for a semi-wilderness river camping trip. On the Friday before Labor Day, I loaded up the square stern canoe with camping gear, fishing tackle, an outboard motor, extra gas, and launched the water craft at Ella and headed down stream. I motored downstream a few miles and after a bit of searching found an island with a nice place to land on the downstream end. Just above the landing on higher ground was a level spot perfect for pitching my tent and digging a small fire pit. I was home for the weekend. After my camp was set up, I christened the island “Ben Gunn Island” after the character in Treasure Island. Unfortunately, I did not have a map for hidden treasure or any rations of rum.
I set out to explore the island which I estimated was a quarter mile long and 50 yards wide. It had some silver maple and river birch on it I also found an eagle’s nest at the upstream end of the island and several fox snakes. I also spotted a few very wary squirrels.
With camp established and the island explored, it was time to fish. While traveling down river, I had spotted a promising looking eddy. I slowly motored back to the eddy. It is generally wise to take your time when boating on the Chippewa River. This constantly shifting river is full of trees, sand bars and the occasional rock. Their primary purpose is to remain hidden below the surface of the river in order to bust up props on boats. The motor on the square stern is especially vulnerable since it is mounted on a canoe and rides deeper in the water than the props on john boats which have a taller transom. So, it’s slow I go. Reading the water on the river to avoid obstacles and to follow the deeper channels is as critical when in a motor boat as it is when running white water in a canoe.
I reached the eddy and was soon anchored in the eddy and had a jig working the eddy line. At first there were no strikes. Then I got a snag and lost my jig, so I switched jig colors. I dropped the jig just downstream of where I lost the jig on a snag. My reasoning was that there may be a tree there that would provide structure for the fish to hide in. My reasoning was correct because I soon felt a “tap tap” on the line and after a nice fight I netted a 17-inch walleye. After landing the walleye, the bass started to hit the jig and I caught several nice fish. I decided to vary the diet a bit and keep a bass to go along with the walleye.
With Supper in hand, I headed back to my island. I boiled up some wild rice while I grilled the fish in their scales over the fire. I had a mighty fine meal. After supper, I tended the fire while watching the stars.
The next morning, I ventured downstream all the way to the confluence with the Mississippi. I saw several eagles, deer, seagulls and lots of waterfowl. Being on a river early in the morning is a great way to see wildlife. The bluffs on the west side of the river below Ella proved a scenic backdrop to the river and its wildlife.

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Eagles are abundant along the Chippewa. Seeing a half dozen in a day is not unusual

I stopped to fish many eddies and other promising spots on the river. I caught a variety of fish including walleye, bass, mooneye, and sheepshead. I hooked a northern, but it was smarter than I. It ran down stream and turned sideways in the current and used the current to rid its self of the spoon. I did land one keeper walleye and cooked it up for lunch on a sandbar near the confluence of the Mississippi. I decided to not venture out into the Mississippi due to the heavy volume of holiday boat traffic.
When traveling back upstream to camp, I stowed the fishing gear and looked for critters and navigating hazards. I was happy that I missed all the trees in the river. That night several owls had a hooting contest while I was watching the campfire. I also left the remains of my fish fry on the beach for the eagles and it was quickly consumed by them.
Sunday morning, I ventured back upstream toward Ella to fish. The fishing wasn’t as good this day, so I landed on the east bank of the river and explored some open areas of the Tiffany Bottoms Wildlife Area. The area is a mixture of open meadows, oak savanna and river bottom hard woods. On my short hike, I saw silver maple, oak, river birch, ash, basswood, and maple trees. There was abundant evidence of deer, turkeys and squirrels although the deer and turkeys were shy, and I didn’t see any. I flushed several wood ducks out of a slough. It was a great hike.
After hiking, I motored back to Ben Gunn island and packed up camp and traveled back to the landing at Ella. I had a lot of memories and some fish stories to tell.

Effortless Pickled Beets

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If you don’t beet around the bush, you can be productive with beets the in the kitchen. The Pickled Beets in the recipe are shown in the quart jar.

The Cook Shack was busy with beets this week. The crop was ready to harvest. I canned 14 pints of beets, made some roasted beets, and even have some left over for more roasted beets or a batch of Borscht. While I was canning the beets, I also made a quick batch of pickled beets. This pickled beet recipe uses canned beets so I used two pint jars of beets left over from last year. It takes less than twenty minutes to make the pickled beets, and then they should flavor in the fridge for a few days before eating.
Ingredients
2 pints home canned beets
1 teaspoon salt
½ cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon pickling spices
Directions
Pour sugar, vinegar, liquid from one of the jars of beets and salt in sauce pan and bring to boil. Place spices in spice bag, or I use a tea ball. Place in sauce pan. When mixture boils, add beets and return to boil. Place beets and spices in a one-quart jar and pour liquid over top. Let sit in fridge for a few days to flavor through. Remove spices before serving.

Proper Cleaning Means Better Muzzle Loader Shooting

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All that smoke means a dirty gun. To maintain the gun’s accuracy and to keep it functioning well, it must be thoroughly cleaned every time it is shot.

As the smoke of the last shot drifts down range, the realization hits you that the smoke pole must be thoroughly cleaned. Since cleaning a muzzle loader is not nearly as much fun as shooting one, the task of cleaning is usually not approached with the same enthusiasm as shooting, but cleaning is as important or even more important than proper loading technique when it comes to reliability and accuracy. A good cleaning is also necessary to extend the life of the gun.
I see the difference a thorough cleaning makes in my own shooting and in running dozens of muzzle loader shoots over the years. As I became better at cleaning, accuracy improved, and the number of misfires and hang fires decreased. When I run a shoot, its pretty easy to see who cleans their gun well and who does not. Again, it’s hang fires, misfires, and missed shots for the shooters that show up to the range with dirty guns. To make cleaning more fun and relaxing, and hence to do a better job of cleaning, its strongly advised to pop the top on a bottle of your favorite beverage before cleaning and then sip it while cleaning.
The best time to clean a gun is immediately after shooting. If that’s not possible, a good rule to follow is to never let the sun come up on a dirty gun. I like to hunt from “can’t see to can’t see,” but if I have fired the shot gun or rifle while hunting from a backwoods camp, I knock off a bit early, so I have day light to clean my smoke poles. When I get back to camp, the gun is cleaned, game is processed, and then camp chores are tended to.
The nipple in a cap lock should not be removed for cleaning. The threads in the drum can get worn down and then smoke and flash will leak out with each shot. In extreme cases, the nipple can be blown out and go whizzing (hopefully) past your ear. If this situation occurs, the drum needs replacing. So, leave the nipple in place and clean it with a pipe cleaner, and use the clean out screw at the end of the drum or snail to clean under the nipple.

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A muzzle guard is necessary to keep the ramrod from damaging the muzzle and destroying the accuracy of the rifle. The brass ramrod and the gunk that accumulates on it can wear down the muzzle if a muzzle guard is not used.

Pipe cleaners and Cotton Swabs (Q-Tips) are really handy items for cleaning in the nooks and crannies. Cut the pipe cleaners into 4 pieces to get full use of them.
Below are instructions for the two basic methods of cleaning a muzzle loader-hot water and solvent.
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The stuff necessary to clean with hot water

Hot Water
Hot water cleaning is probably the most in-depth method for cleaning a muzzle loader. Hot water is cheap and plentiful. The heat from the water helps to dry out any moisture in the gun so it’s a good way to clean a gun that’s been out in the field hunting on a damp day. The draw backs are that it is messy so it should be done outside. It takes time to heat the water almost to the boiling point and to disassemble the gun so it can be cleaned. Some shooters think hot water can cause rust issues in the barrel.
To clean with hot water, you will need a cleaning rod, jag, muzzle guard, cleaning patches, pipe cleaners and cotton swabs, almost point boiling water, and a can to set the gun in, (I used a large baked bean can) I also use an insulated rubber glove to keep my hands cool.
Steps in hot water cleaning
• Heat a pot of water to almost boiling
• Remove barrel from stock and remove clean out screw or touch hole liner
• Place barrel in can and pour hot water into barrel allowing it to drain into can. Add a bit of dish soap
• Soak touch hole liner or cleaner out screw in small container with water
• Wet patch and place patch on jag patch and begin to run up and down barrel with cleaning rod.
• When water is black dump out and add fresh water and using a clean patch continue to flush barrel, if water stays clear it’s time to dry the barrel, if it turns black dump out and add more clean hot water. Repeat until water stays clear.
• Dry barrel inside and out with clean patches
• Run a patch lightly coated with a muzzle loader rust preventer like Bore Butter or Ballistol.
• Wipe touch hole liner or clean out screw off and lube lightly and replace into gun, put barrel back into stock and you are done.

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The tools that are used to clean a muzzle loader with solvent.

Solvent Cleaning
Cleaning a muzzle loader with a solvent is slightly less messy than with hot water, and its quicker and more convenient since water does not need to be heated and the gun disassembled. Cleaning with solvents can inhibit rust and very thoroughly clean a barrel. Solvents have to be purchased and brushes are needed as well as jags so its also more costly to clean with solvents. I have seen a wide variety of stuff used for muzzle loader cleaning solvent including many commercially made products, windshield washer fluid, home brewed stuff which usually include Murphy’s Oil Soap denatured alcohol, and something else. I use this blend and the something else in my version is Neatsfoot oil. Ballistol is used by many shooters to clean their guns.
To clean with solvent, you will need cleaning rod, jag, bristle bore brush, tooth pick, solvent, breech brush or undersized bore brush, muzzle guard, pipe cleaners, and cotton swabs.

Steps in Solvent cleaning
• Use tooth pick to plug touch hole or place a damp folded up patch over the nipple and lower hammer on patch.
• Pour 2 good glugs of solvent down the barrel, (much less for anything less than.45 cal.) and begin to scrub barrel with bristle brush
• Dump out cleaning solution and add more and scrub again. If it comes out white begin to dry out barrel with clean patches. If the solution is black add more and scrub again.
• Run a couple of wet patches down the barrel to see if its really clean and if they come out clean dry the barrel. If not run a couple more wet patches down the barrel until they come out clean. Then run two or three dry patches down barrel to get it nice and dry.
• Put breech brush on rod and wrap a clean patch over it so the tip is covered. Run down the barrel to the breech and spin it around a few times. When the patch comes out clean, run it back down the barrel and leave it in place. Use a pipe cleaner dipped in solvent to clean out the nipple and drum on a cap lock or the touch hole, pan and frizzen on a flint lock.
• Finally, lightly apply a coat of anti-rust to the barrel both inside and out.


There are as many ways to clean a muzzle loader as there are muzzle loading shooters. If the methods outlined here are different than what you may use, that is to be expected. Take what you can to improve what you do. The way I clean muzzle loaders has helped me to fill an old dresser with shooting trophies and consistently fill my freezer with venison and other wild game.

Squirrel Spaghetti

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Mid September, which means the beginning of small game and archery deer hunting is fast approaching. Here in the Cook Shack that means there will be wild food on the table. One of my favorite critters to cook is squirrel. When people hear I like to cook squirrel, they often ask, “How do you cook it?” The answer is many different ways. One of my favorite squirrel recipes is Squirrel Spaghetti. The squirrel blends in very nicely with the spaghetti sauce and is simple to make, but takes a bit of time to cook. I usually use home canned spaghetti sauce, but any favorite spaghetti sauce recipe will work. If you are making the sauce from scratch, begin making it as soon as the squirrel begins simmering.

Squirrel Spaghetti

Meat
1 squirrel per person, cleaned and quartered
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon Italian spices
1 clove garlic minced
water to cover.

Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to boil and then simmer until meat is falling off of bone. This usually takes 1 ½ to 2 hours. When meat is done, remove from pot, let cool slightly and then debone meat and add it to the sauce.

Sauce
1 large onion chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
3 16 ounce cans crushed or chopped tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon basil
½ teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups hot water

Mix all ingredients together in large pot. Bring to a biol and let simmer 1 ½ to 2 hours. Stirring often. Stop cooking the sauce when it is at the desired thickness. Or if the sauce is not thick enough when the squirrel is done add more tomato paste.

Serve over spaghetti noodles with garlic bread and olives. This recipe is so good you can serve it to your friends who do not eat wild game and they will never know unless you tell them. And don’t forget to duck when you do tell them. Even a pillow can be a surprise.