I was honored to be an invited reenacator at the Northwoods Rendezvous and Wild Rice Festival on the Mole Lake Reservation. I was able to teach many kids a bit of muzzle loader history and how to load and shoot a caplock and flintlock muzzle loader. I also ran a rifle match and a smooth bore match.
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.
These targets are from a session with a used .45 cal Ohio style rifle I won in a raffle. The results tell me there is much work to be done before this rifle is ready to hunt. The odd hole in the grain target is from a 270. The guy shooting next to me at the range shot the wrong target
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.
A bench rest is critical equipment when developing a load. It does not matter if it is a commercially made model or a home made rest. The bench rest allows the shooter to minimize human error as much as possible so the results are from the load not the shooter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To keep the solvent in the barrel while cleaning, plug the touch hole with a tooth pick or cover the nipple with a patch.
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.
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.
The 2019 Great Forts Folle Avione Rendezvous is over. So sad. A great time was had by all. I ran shooting events on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and participated in the Camp Champ competition in on Sunday. Shooters shot the following matches, Hunters, Mike Fink, Novelty, Pistol, and Trade Gun. At night it got so quiet and still, the silence was amazing. My good friends Leny and Dave gave a some amazing musical performances in front of the camp fire at night. Too bad the storms chased us out early on Sunday.
More camps up top at the Rendezvous
Some of the action at the novelty shoot
Shooting a flint lock takes tremendous concentration
A shooter demonstrating how to load a muzzle loader to some visitors
My neighborhood at the Rondyvoo donw in the bottoms by the river
The Wisconsin DNR has proposed, and the Natural Resources Board has adopted a new bear hunting management plan. The current plan was adopted in 1980 so it was a bit out of date. In the thirty-nine years since the last plan was adopted, many factors in bear management have changed. The two factors with the largest change are an expanding bear range and an expanding bear population. In 1980, the bear population was limited to the northern third of Wisconsin i.e. most of the bear lived roughly north or near U.S. Highway 8. The bear population has also greatly increased in the same time frame. A study that occurred in the last 6 years determined there were roughly three times as many bears in Wisconsin as previously thought.
The new Plan has many interesting new features. One on the most innovative features is that the new plan will not use numerical quotas to set harvest total but use a number of metrics to determine harvest total. The metrics that will be used to determine bear population goals and subsequently annual harvest quotas include agricultural damage, nuisance complaints, hunter crowding, success, and satisfaction, bear disease and health issues, and maintaining bears’ ecological role. The bear advisory committee will study the data on a yearly basis and help to set the harvest quotas. Most species are managed with a specific population goal that is maintained by increasing or decreasing the harvest quotas. By managing with a variety of metrics, the DNR will be working on a different approach to game management. It will be vital for the DNR to gather sound scientific data on the bear population since black bears are vulnerable to over hunting. Part of the plan calls for extensive scientific research on the number of bears in the woods and periodic reviews of the estimates to ensure that an accurate population count is established and maintained.
Dealing with nuisance bears and agricultural damage from bears is also written into the plan. One feature of the damage abatement portion of the plan will allow the DNR to issue ag damage kill permits to landowners who have a history of bears damaging the crops before the crops are damaged, so the landowner can respond quickly when further damage occurs. Bears really like corn that is in the “milk phase” and this proactive approach may help limit the damage done to corn crops.
There are two types of way to measure the potential for a wildlife population-biological and cultural carrying capacity. Biological carrying capacity is the number of animals that can survive in an area given the amount of food and the amount of space the critters need. The cultural carrying capacity is how many critters people will tolerate in a given area. This plan is designed to manage the bear population based on the social carrying capacity.
The other major change in this plan is the redrawing of the bear hunting zones. Under the old plan there were four zones. Zones A, B and D covered the northern third of the state and Zone C covered the remainder of the state including Dunn County. Under the new plan, there will be five zones. Zone A, B, and D will still be in northern Wisconsin. However, the boundary of Zone D will shift southward from highway 8 to highways 64, 128, 170 and 40. So Southern Barron County and Northern Dunn County will now be in Zone D. This also means that norther Dunn County will go from being a bait only hunting area to an area that hunting with hounds and bait will be allowed. Zone C will shrink to primarily cover the central portion of the state. A new zone E will cover most of the western part of Wisconsin including the southern two-thirds of Dunn County. And a new Zone F will cover much of eastern, southern, and a portion of central Wisconsin.
The DNR plan states that they will manage zone A, B, C, D, and E for the cultural carrying capacity of the Zone and that they will provide liberal harvest opportunities in Zone F. Liberal harvest opportunities translates as keeping bears out of zone F as much as possible. Zone F has the least suitable bear habitat and the densest human population, hence the potential for bad human-bear interactions is the greatest there.
Besides changing the zones, it was also proposed that the new Zone C be opened to hunting bears with hounds. This change proved to the most controversial provision in the new plan. Many hunters in the new zone C were opposed to allowing hunting with dogs in the Zone for a variety of reasons which included lack of public land in some areas of the Zone, trespassing issues, bear hunter overcrowding, disruptions to bait hunters who have hunted this area in previous season, and conflicts with bow deer hunters. The hound hunters contend that hound hunting is a more efficient method of hunting so nuisance bears would be more likely to be harvested. They also noted that training bear dogs is currently permitted in this area. At the end of the debate, the Natural Resources Board decided to remove the hound hunting in Zone C from the new plan.
The issue of the use of chocolate in bear bait was also discussed by the Natural Resources Board. Chocolate contains theobromine which is toxic to some animals. Dogs are particularly vulnerable. Documented deaths of bears from theobromine poisoning have occurred in New Hampshire, and Michigan. As a result, Michigan has banned chocolate in bear baits, and New Hampshire has a near total ban on chocolate in bear baits. In Wisconsin, 3 cubs found dead in 2011 were necropsied and presumed to have died from theobromine poisoning. In 2013, the DNR issued an advisory about use of chocolate in baits. Since then there have been no documented bear deaths from theobromine in the state. This is an issue that will get more scientific study under the new plan.
Now that the plan has been adopted, the long process begins to write the rules needed to implement the plan. The rules writing process usually takes a fair amount of time. The earliest the new rules will go into effect will be for the 2020 hunting season.