Trapper's of Starved Rock
St. Charles, Missouri
|sighting in your Muzzle loader
Sighting in your new muzzleloader
You have a, new to you, muzzleloader and you want to know how it shoots. This is what I recommend for you to do.
First, put the ramrod down the muzzle all the way to the bottom. If it is a used, second hand gun, it might still be loaded. With a pencil or just
your thumb, mark the ramrod at the muzzle, and withdraw the ramrod. Lay the ramrod along the top of the barrel to see how deep it went. If
the ramrod does not reach to within one inch of the end of the barrel (the line of the breech plug), it may be loaded. Actually, you should
have done this before you bought the gun.
If you are sure the ramrod reaches all the way down to the breech plug, its not loaded. Now with a pen or marker, draw a ring around the
ramrod at the top of the barrel. That’s your “empty” mark you can use whenever you are in doubt about “did I load it or not”? Don’t laugh, it
If you think your new gun might be loaded, stand the gun muzzle-up in a corner and pour about a half cup of very soapy water down the
barrel. Let it sit there at least overnight. This is to hopefully seep past the patch, loosen it and dampen the powder in the barrel. The next
day or whenever, pour out the water and pour in a spoonful of light oil, vegetable oil would work. This is to lubricate the patch. You probably
should store the gun barrel-up in the corner until tomorrow to let the oil seep into the patch.
If you are smart you will have a “ball puller” screw attachment for your ramrod or loading rod. ( Let me tell you that even us old-timers
occasionally – very, very, very seldom, almost never, but rarely “dry ball” a load ( forget to put in the black stuff first) and have to pull a ball.
Put the screw on the ramrod and holding the gun vertical, drop the ramrod straight down the barrel. Push down and twist the ramrod to
screw it into the ball/projectile until you can’t turn it any more. Next you pull the ramrod out with the ball attached-easier said than done. If
you are using your ramrod you probably don’t have much rod sticking out of the barrel. This is one good reason for having a separate
loading/cleaning rod that’s longer and has a handle on the end. But if you have only the ramrod you can hold it in your vice on your
workbench. Place a soft (pine) board in the vice on either side of the ramrod to avoid harming the rod. Tighten the vice, put one foot on the
vice or workbench and PULL. If this doesn’t work, call a friend who has a loading rod and can pull on one end while you pull on the other.
You can also tie the loading rod, which has a handle, to a tree/ post and PULL. Once the ball is out you must clean the gun.
It’s not easy to tell if a muzzleloader is loaded or not. You should treat all muzzleloaders as LOADED and DANGEROUS until you have
proven otherwise. The barrel check with your ramrod is the safest way. Once the barrel is loaded treat the firearm as LOADED.
NEVER allow the muzzle of any firearm to point at anything in which you don’t want to put a big HOLE.
Percussion firearms are probably safe unless they are capped. I have never heard of an uncapped, cold cap gun going off. BUT, please
don’t take chances. If there is a load in the barrel treat it as loaded. The only safety for a loaded and capped cap gun is the half cock
hammer position. Make sure the half cock of your lock works. Start with an unloaded gun, and put the hammer on half cock. Put your finger
on the trigger and hold the gun up in the air with your finger-all the weight of the gun on the trigger. If nothing happens, hold the gun at the
balance point in your left hand and try to wiggle the hammer left and right. If the hammer does not fall it’s safe. If the hammer does fall in
either of these tests, you have an unsafe gun. Don’t load it. Take it to a muzzle loading gunsmith or one of us old timers who says he knows
everything and have it examined and fixed. The half cock notch on the tumbler may be worn or broken and you may need a new tumbler.
Flintlocks that are not primed (powder in the pan) ARE DANGEROUS. Tests have shown that there is an about 20% chance that a spark
from the flint striking the frizzen will bounce into the touch hole and ignite the powder charge. A flintlock gun can be safed by opening the
frizzen and lowering the cock. You should test the half cock just as described for the percussion guns above. If you carry a loaded and
primed flintlock in hunting, you should have it on half cock and you should have a leather stall or mitten on the frizzen to prevent the flint
from striking a spark. This is required when you are on a woods walk.
Don’t blow down the barrel to clear out the smoke.
Don’t cap or prime until it’s your turn to shoot and you step to the firing line.
Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
No smoking anywhere close to anyone with a powder horn or flask or loaded gun.
Don’t drink and drive or shoot.
Don’t spit into the wind or on superman’s cape.
Black Powder is an explosive. Treat it as such.
OK, now that’s over, sighting in can begin. To do this properly for the first time plan on spending a day at the range. You could do it during
one of our monthly shoots- where you would get lots of help and “advice”, or you could call up Bob and Lois and ask them if you could come
out and use the range on Saturday or Sunday or your “sick”day off work. If you are a brand new black powder shooter, I recommend the
The first thing we are going to do is “work up your load”= find the combination of ball, powder charge, patch material and lube that results in
the best accuracy for your gun. We will use the “scientific method”. We will conduct experiments and systematically change each of the
variables one at a time until we find the combination that results in the best accuracy e.g. the smallest five shot group size.
I make my own practice targets from sheets of typing paper. I draw a cross in the center of the paper with a black wide magic marker. The
vertical and horizontal lines are both a half-inch wide so they are easily visible. At longer range, say 75 to 100 yards you may want wider
lines. Make a bunch of these cheap targets – two dozen or so. At the range I staple the target to a pizza box. I place the horizontal wire of a
coat hanger inside the pizza box and close the lid. I can hang the target on a tree limb or bush at any range. Always place your targets
down low within 3 feet of the ground against a hillside or earthen berm that will stop the bullet. That ball is lethal wherever it lands.
You need a stable bench rest from which to shoot. We want to find out where the gun shoots when we hold the sights dead on the center of
the cross. You also want a seat at the bench. A picnic table works. You need to place the gun fore stock on a stable rest at a height that is
comfortable for you when you’re looking along the sights at the target. I made a box out of 2” by 6”’s and some small 4”X 6” x 3” sandbags
that I can build up to the right height.
As said before there are many variables in determining muzzleloader accuracy and muzzleloaders are funny things. For example some 50
caliber rifle guns achieve their best accuracy with a 0.495 diameter ball and a 0.010 patch and others prefer a 0.490 ball and a 0.020
patch. You must experiment with your gun to see what combination of ball patch, powder charge and patch lube works best. This “working
up a load” is part of the fun. I suggest you begin your search with a ball diameter 0.010 less than the gun’s stated caliber – 0.490 for a 50
cal. Unfortunately not all “50 caliber” guns have a bore diameter of exactly 0.500 inches. Obviously you don’t want to rush out and buy a
0.490 mold until you know what is best for your gun. Buy some ready-made balls till you know. Hornady makes swaged balls that have no
sprue. If the 0.010 smaller ball gives you great accuracy then buy a mold that size, but if not try another ball size.
I mold my own balls and I weigh each one with a powder scale. I can get pretty good tolerances on the balls I mold at one sitting. Any ball
that is not within plus or minus one grain from the mean weight, I throw back in the melting pot. That’s less than one half percent for my
0.530 balls that weigh 221.5 grains. Yeah, I go overboard sometimes. But with practice you won’t throw many balls back.
I don’t use ready-made commercial patches. I buy the material and make my own. For your sighting in you may want to try a couple different
patch thickness’. In general you want the thickest patch that allows you to load relatively easy. Craig Hart had a fine 54 cal. Hawken rifle that
was an excellent shooter when he used a very thick patch. He used a big hammer to drive the ball into the barrel. Buy a third of a yard of
thin pillow ticking, another third yard of thick ticking and another of a thicker denim. Always use organic materials, usually cotton or linen,
not man-made fabric. Wash the material to remove any starch, etc, cut them in strips about 3 times your ball diameter wide and bring them
all to the range.
There are as many recipes for patch lubes as there are old shooters. The lube helps the patched ball go down easy and helps keep the
bore clean. There are lots of commercial lubes on the market. You can buy one or make your own. Guess what: I make my own. It’s a secret
formula: four parts windshield washer fluid, one part Dawn dish washing soap, and one part water soluble oil and probably something else I
can’t remember. Shake well before applying. If you are in a primitive shooting match you can put the lube in a small old bottle; otherwise a
small plastic squirt bottle works best.
The patch should be damp enough to allow the ball to glide smoothly down the barrel and clean the barrel, but not wet enough to soak the
top of the powder charge. Lay your patching strip on your loading bench and squirt the lube on a square the same length as the strip width.
Rub it in. Then take another strip of the patching and press it down on the wet spot to blot it. Turn the patch material over and blot that side.
Now it’s damp and just right.
Spit works as a patch lube and it’s cheap. But it causes a powder residue ring to build up down where the ball sits. After several shots you
will notice that the ball doesn’t go down as far. That ring could cause ignition problems. If you use spit, I suggest you clean your bore after
every 3 shots.
I’m going into a lot of detail to get you started right. Once you have been out shooting a couple times, you will figure out what works for you.
Cleaning Patches and Solution.
The best cleaning patches are the GI Gun Cleaning Patches sold by Ox Yoke Originals Milo Maine 04463. They come in two sizes: 2”
square for 45 cal. and under, and 2.5” square for above 45 cal. They Cost $30.00 for 1000 patches. I buy ‘em. Surprised?
There are many cleaning solutions on the market. I make my own. Surprised? My secret formula is: 4 parts windshield washing fluid, 2 parts
Lysol, 2 parts Dawn Dish washing soap, and 2 parts Hydrogen Peroxide 3% solution. You must keep it in an opaque container because
sunlight destroys the HP.