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Muzzleloader Safety and Usage

Rule Number One:

Any safety rule that pertains to modern type firearms pertains to muzzleloaders!!

Make sure the gun is unloaded

The first thing that has to be determined before a person can go any farther is to decide whether a particular muzzleloader is, in fact, empty or loaded. Considering there are not any convenient levers, bolts, slides etc. that can be operated to see if the barrel is clear, the ramrod becomes the checking device. Take the ramrod and insert it full length into the barrel. Mark the spot on the rod where the muzzle is, and then withdraw the rod. Lay the rod along side the barrel with the mark even with the muzzle, then look to see where the tip is positioned. If the rifle is unloaded, the tip should be about one half inch ahead of the joint of the barrel and the breechplug. If it is one to two inches ahead of that, the rifle is probably loaded. If it is further up the barrel than that, there is probably a ball stuck in the barrel that will need to be removed. More on that later.

Clear the ignition passage of oil or grease:

The first step in loading a muzzleloading rifle is to clear the ignition passage of oil or grease. After determining that the firearm is NOT loaded, wipe the bore with a clean patch. Next, go to the firing line and select a reactive surface, i.e. loose dirt, a puddle of water, or even blades of grass. Put a cap on the rifle, point the muzzle at the surface, holding it an inch or so away, then pull the trigger. You should see a reaction: the dust will scatter, the water will lightly splash, or the grass will deflect. If you do not get this reaction, try it again and again, until you do. Also, you should hear a crisp, clear report after the first cap, and not a muffled one. If this will not happen after two or three caps being fired, the ignition passage is clogged. Remove the nipple and look through it. If you cannot see a point of light, it is clogged. Run a nipple pick through the small orifice to clear the fouling from it. If it is not the nipple, then the passage from the nipple to the barrel is clogged and needs to be cleared. If you have a cleanout screw in the breech or the drum, remove it and run a small wire through the passage. If not, then the wire will have to be fed in through the nipple hole to clean the passage. Once this is accomplished, then replace the cleanout screw and the nipple, pop 2-3 more caps, and proceed to the next step.

Thoughts on Powder

Unless you are shooting a Savage Model 10 Muzzleloader, do not EVER put smokeless powder in a muzzleloader Do not tolerate smoking around open containers of black powder. Do not use black powder near open sources of flame. There are typically four granulation's for black powder:

  • 1F is used in small cannons and in large bore shotguns and rifles over 12 bore (.72 caliber).
  • 2F is used in bore sizes over .50 caliber.
  • 3F is used in rifles up to .45 cal and in cap and ball revolvers.
  • 4F is used as priming powder for flintlocks.

Other granulations you may see:

  • " Cannon" for cannons.
  • " Goex Cartridge" and "Swiss 1 ½ F" usually used in Black Powder cartridges.
  • " Wano 5F" a talcum like powder for flintlock priming.
  • " Pyrodex" This synthetic powder has a higher flash point than black powder; hence it is more difficult to ignite. I recommend using RWS caps for best results. Synthetic powder will not work in flintlocks. Pistol grade is comparable to Fffg black powder. Rifle Shotgun grade is comparable to Ffg black powder. Select grade is Rifle Shotgun grade that is more finely sieved so granule size is more consistent. Pyrodex is meant to be measured volumetrically, not by weight. If you use a 90-grain measure for black powder, use a 90-grain measure of Pyrodex. 90 grains of Pyrodex by weight will be significantly more than 90 grains by volume. It is my experience that in guns under .62 caliber, you might have to use a little more Pyrodex to duplicate results with black powder. .62 caliber seems to be comparable. Over .62 caliber, Pyrodex seems to be more powerful.
  • Pyrodex Pellets: Pellets are mighty convenient but more expensive. Work up your most accurate load using granulated Pyrodex. If it falls on some combination of pellet size(s), you're in luck. Otherwise, stick with granulated. Accuracy is far more desirable than higher velocity. Which brings up anther thought. Just because the manufacturer has rated the gun capable of shooting 3 pellet (150 grain) loads, don't believe it will do so accurately. Develop your own load for your own gun. I repeat: Accuracy is far more desirable than higher velocity.

Charge the barrel with powder.

Powder should always be loaded into the barrel by the use of a separate powder measure. DO NOT EVER load your firearm directly from a powder container of any sort. The reason is that it is possible for a spark to be lingering in the fouling and when the powder charge is dropped down the barrel, it could ignite. If the charge just were poured from a measure, it wouldn't be too bad. But if one was holding a full powder horn or powder flask to the muzzle of the rifle, it could ruin your whole day. HINT: Think shrapnel grenade. There are a couple of ways to alleviate this from happening. One is to blow down the barrel; the other is to wipe the bore with a damp cleaning patch, which is the best choice. Blowing down the barrel is illegal in many shooting clubs. Besides the fact that it really looks unsafe to put the muzzle into your mouth, it is unsafe. There is a case of a hang fire going off about the time the muzzle got to the fellow's mouth. It did not kill him, but it took him a long time to get back to normal. Anyway, we have dropped a measured charge of powder down the barrel. Then tap the rifle on the side to settle the powder, and get out a projectile.

Three choices here, a patched round ball, a conical bullet or a sabot.

  • Patched round ball. Center a lubricated, pre-cut patch on the muzzle and set a round ball on top of it. Using the short leg of the starting tool, start the ball down the barrel, then set deeper with the long leg of the tool.
  • Conical Bullets: With the nose of the bullet pointing up, engrave the rifling onto the bullet by starting it into the muzzle using the long leg of the starting tool.
  • Sabots: Making sure the bullet is securely down in the sabot, start it into the barrel with the short starter. Do not attempt to load a saboted bullet in two pieces. It will not work.
  • Then taking the ramrod, push the projectile down the barrel until it seats upon the powder charge. I recommend using shorter strokes with the rod, instead of trying to push it down in one fell swoop. This is a safety measure, as it is possible to break a wooden rod when pushing the bullet down all the way at one time. The rod should have about 35 pounds of pressure placed on it when seating the bullet. Do not bounce the rod, as all that does is further deform the ball and creates uneven pressure on the powder charge from loading to loading. After the rifle has been loaded, the rifle may be pointed in a safe direction (down range) and capped or primed. A few other thoughts on loading the rifle:
  • If at all possible, the undergun ramrod should be used only for hunting purposes. I recommend the use of a brass range rod for all target work and for cleaning and maintenance purposes. The reasons are obvious, but the range rod is a heavier, sturdier item more suited to its job. It will not break, and when loading a dirty barrel, it will work, where an undergun rod will not have the leverage to successfully seat the ball. For cleaning, the brass rod is impervious to solvents and oils, where a wooden rod can be adversely effected.
  • The short starter should be suitable for the projectiles being loaded. For round ball, use a starter closest in size as possible to the ball. For example, a 5/16" starter should be used with .32 and .36 caliber; a 3/8" starter with .45 caliber; a 7/16" with .50 caliber and a ½" starter with .54 and larger. The brass tip should have a plain, concave surface. For sabots and conical bullets, starters are made that have a conical recess in the tip to keep from deforming the bullet nose. For hollow point bullets, starters are made with tips that fit into the hollow point. The less you deform the face of the projectile, the better the accuracy will be.
  • When shooting patched round ball, better accuracy will be achieved by cutting the patch material at the muzzle than by using pre-cut patches. I realize that most experienced shooters have their own procedure already. I get the best results from my .54 caliber Green Mountain barrel with .530 Hornady ball, .020 cotton patching lubed with Blue Thunder Bore Solvent and Patch Lube. I cut the patches at the muzzle by starting the ball into a wet portion of the patching, then slicing the patch material with a patch knife cutting away from myself (Continue to think safety in everything you do. Blood is not good patch lube) How much lube should you put on the patch? Well, I pour lube onto the patch until it is thoroughly wet, then squeeze out the excess, and proceed as above outlined. It works for me.
  • If you should load a ball without powder (don't laugh, it WILL happen to you, if it already hasn't), or if you didn't clear the ignition passage before loading, or if it just won't go off, there are three ways to rectify the problem:
  1. Remove the nipple, pour a little bit of fine (ffffg) powder into the ignition passage, replace the nipple, cap and fire.
  2. Using a CO2 device, expel the ball (and charge). Note, the ball must be all the way down on the powder or against the breech plug, and the firearm must be pointed in a safe direction. The ball will be expelled with some force. This is the safest procedure for removing a stuck ball.
  3. Using a ball puller on a ramrod, pull the ball out the barrel. See the Cleaning Section for more thought on technique.

A few other safety rules for muzzleloaders that should be followed.

  • Do not load while smoking or around any open fire source.
  • Keep the powder container closed except when dispensing powder.
  • Having the stopper tied onto the powder horn strap will keep from loosing it, promotes not putting the stopper back into the horn after pouring powder.
  • Do not mix granulations of powder.
  • Conical bullets can migrate part way down the barrel when carrying the rifle in the field, especially when the muzzle is carried down. Periodically check the position of the bullet. A bullet that has moved becomes a bore obstruction.
  • By all means, any gun sport does not mix with alcohol or drugs. Shooting and hunting with a muzzleloader can be a fun outing, don't spoil it with a moment's carelessness.