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.

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