Maybe you got the itch and had to scratch it. Maybe its been collecting dust in a closet for a long time. Or maybe a friend gave you a gun they had but had never shot. However the muzzle loader was acquired, you now have a gun to shoot but are not sure how to proceed. I’ll try to provide a bit of help in getting started in muzzle loader shooting.
First you need some stuff to load and shoot that gun. The most obvious being ball and powder. I prefer real black powder, but it can be difficult to find so shooting one of the modern versions of black powder is fine since its easier to purchase. What type of projectile you shoot will be determined by the rate of twist of the rifle. Rifles with a slower rate of twist will shoot round balls and rifles with a faster rate of twist will shoot conical bullets. Twist is measured by the distance it takes for the bullet to complete one full rotation. Thus, a rifle with a 1 in 48 twist would cause the projectile to fully rotate once every 48 inches. Rifles with 1 in 48 is kind of the dividing line between round ball rifles and conical rifles with 1 in 48 twist shooting both types of projectile relatively well.
Getting the powder and ball in the barrel safely and effectively requires some more stuff. The basic support gear for a muzzle loader includes a ball starter, powder measure, primer for flint locks or a capper for cap locks, powder flask or horn, a pick for the nipple or touch hole, and a bag to hold everything. The right sized cleaning jag and a bore brush are also needed. There are lots of other gadgets that make life simpler for the muzzle loading shooting, but these are the essentials.
There is one more really important step that needs to be done before the rifle is ready for that first trip to the range-a through cleaning. A new gun will have grease and oil in it and a used gun may have grease, oil and who-knows-what in the barrel. The best method for a heavy-duty cleaning is with really hot water and a bit of dish soap. Pull the barrel off the stock and remove the clean out screw and nipple or if a flinter the touch hole liner. Heat water to almost boiling. I fill a baked bean can almost to the top with hot water. Put the barrel in the water and add a teaspoon of dish soap. Wet a cleaning patch and begin to run it up and down the barrel. The wet patch and jag on the ram rod will act like a pump and begin to pump the hot soapy water it and out of the barrel. The grease, oil and crud will be flushed out. After the water gets dark, dump it out and flush again with clean water. Next, remove the barrel from the water and swab the barrel with a couple of dry patches and wipe off any water on the outside. Finally, apply a light coat of muzzle loading lube/rust preventer like Wonder Lube or Balistol. Avoid using petroleum base products like the plague.
Now the gun is ready for a trip to the range. Before heading out, triple check to make sure you have everything you need to shoot. Muzzle loading is about details and its really easy to miss a few. I’ve been in the sport for 30 years and still get to the range without important stuff once in a while.
Before loading and shooting, snap a couple of caps to make sure the barrel is free of obstructions. To do this, first drop the ramrod down the barrel to ensure that is its empty, then place a cap on the nipple and hold the muzzle close to a leaf. If the leave moves vigorously when the cap is touched off, the gun is good to go. If the leaf doesn’t move or only moves a little try snapping second cap.
If shooting a flint lock, run a patch soaked in denatured alcohol down the barrel, followed by a dry patch to make sure all is ready.
Now load the gun and shoot. Remember PGIF (Powder Goes In First). 30 to 50 grains of powder will be plenty to make some smoke and boom. Don’t be too concerned about accuracy the first time out. That will come later. Only make minor adjustment to the sight if it is necessary to punch holes in the paper. The first time out, it’s best to adjust the aim point rather than the sights. The first time out the goal is to get to know the gun, avoid misfires, and have fun. If you are new to muzzle loading, you will quickly discover that burning black powder makes a mess. Be sure to swab the barrel every few shots with a damp patch followed by a dry patch to make it easier to load the gun.
After the shooting session is over, it is imperative to clean the thoroughly clean the rifle. Black powder residue is full of salt compounds which attract water and that leads to rust in the barrel. How to clean a muzzle loader is another blog post.
Welcome to the fascinating world of muzzle loading.