by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10

This is the continuing fictional saga and guest report of a man teaching a woman to shoot. Today Jack will start teaching Jamell, how to shoot a muzzle loading rifle.

Our guest writer is reader, Jack Cooper. Take it away, Jack.

Teach me to shoot

by Jack Cooper

This report covers:

  • The mountain men
  • Black powder
  • Characteristics of black powder
  • Safety first
  • Possibles bag
  • Charging the rifle — step one
  • Charging the rifle — step two
  • Black powder grain sizes
  • Loading the ball
  • Ramming the ball home
  • Cap the rifle
  • Clean the bore
  • Finishing

Things have certainly taken a turn since I started teaching Jill to shoot. Now I’m teaching her friend, Jamell, how to shoot a muzzleloading rifle, to prepare her for the custom rifle she is having built. At least I thought it was going to be a rifle. Let me stop for a moment and bring you all up to speed on what it is that Jamell wants to do.

I didn’t have time to take pictures while I was teaching Jamell, so I asked B.B. if he would insert some photos for you of the things I am describing. Thanks, B.B.

As you know, Jamell is a sculptor. Among the subjects she sculpts, animals are very prominent. Several years ago she began researching wild animals to learn more about how they look in their natural state. She discovered that sportsmen know more about animals in the wild that anyone — because they spend more time observing them. So Jamell started reading modern hunting magazines, as well as books from the classic period of hunting — by authors like Bell, Donaldson, Keith, Whelen and so on.

The mountain men

One thing lead to another and before long Jamell became seriously interested in the lives of the North American fur trappers of the mid-nineteenth century. We call them mountain men. What she wants to do is experience as much of what they experienced, and a flintlock was part of that. But upon further research and talking to the gun maker, she found out that what she wants is not a flintlock rifle. Very few early mountain men owned rifles. They needed a weapon they could hunt everything from birds to bears with, as well as defend themselves — and that’s not a rifle. It’s really a smoothbore gun that can shoot shot for birds, buck and ball (a large-bore-sized lead ball with several large buckshot on top of it) for deer and antelope and a ball alone for elk and bear. It’s an all-purpose gun that really has no equivalent today. That is what she decided to have built,and today I’m going to start her out with black powder and loading a gun through the muzzle.

Black powder

First we talked about black powder. It was just called gunpowder for the first 600 years of firearms history, and it was not always the same thing. Over the centuries men learned how to make powder better, which means more powerful, cleaner burning, and more specialized to match the type of gun in which is is being used. It wasn’t always black, either. There was beige powder that substituted other chemicals for the charcoal that gives black powder its characteristic color. But what we know today as black powder was by far the most common type of powder used over the centuries, and it is definitely the powder used by the mountain men.

Characteristics of black powder

Modern smokeless gunpowder is not explosive. It only burns very fast when it is contained tight enough to allow the pressure to build. Black powder, by comparison, is actually an explosive. It has a burn rate of 11,000 f.p.s. under the right circumstances, which you can compare to TNT that burns at 24,000 f.p.s. We characterize black powder as a low to medium explosive, where TNT burns fo fast it is a high explosive.

I demonstrated this for Jamell by burning both smokeless powder and black powder outdoors. The smokeless powder burned very hot but relatively slow. When the fire got to the black powder, though, it went up in an instant with a pop! Jamell said she has seen old western movies where a trail of powder was lit to burn up to the powder keg, and it went slow. I told her that was Hollywood at work and never to try it herself.

[EDITOR’S Note: When I was in my teens a friend said the same thing to me. He poured a tablespoon-sized pile of black powder on the sidewalk and proceeded to try to light it with a lighter. I backed up 20 feet while warning him to stop, but he succeeded in lighting the pile. He lost the tip of his right thumb in the small explosion that didn’t make much noise, but removed the flesh from the tip of his thumb in an instant. DO NOT EXPERIMENT WITH BLACK POWDER!

When she saw how black powder burns Jamell was impressed. I told her that everything she did when handling it had to be done with safety in mind. She could use nothing that sparked, for even static electricity can set it off. People who used it all the time knew this as well as we know how dangerous gasoline is today. And still there are “accidents.”

Now it was time to learn how to load a muzzleloader. I have a Tennessee Po Boy percussion rifle. It’s not a flintlock, but many of the steps are the same, so we can start with it. When Jamell gets her flintlock we can transition to it, and she will already know a lot.

Safety first

The first thing to learn about loading a muzzleloader is safety. You are loading the gun at the end the bullet comes out. if anything goes wrong during loading, you will be at the worst possible place! So rule one is never stand in front of the muzzle. Only put things in front of the muzzle that you don’t mind losing! That sounds like a joke, but it’s serious. Load a muzzle loader from the side — never from in front of the muzzle.

Possibles bag

What I do is rest the butt of the gun on top of my foot (boots are good things to wear when doing this) and hold the gun with my left hand. If I need both hands at any time, neither one of them is in front of the muzzle. And never allow the muzzle to point at your body! This all sounds scary and dangerous when you read it, but in actual practice, it is very easy to do. You will notice that people who shoot muzzle loading guns usually wear a small purse-like pouch. That is called a “possibles” bag that holds all their reloading supplies. Many people wear a powder horn on a long thong, and if they shoot a flintlock they have two horns — a big one for the main powder charge and a small one for the priming powder. My Po Boy is a cap lock, so I have a percussion cap loader in my possibles bag.

At the range I laid all of these things out on a shooting bench so Jamell could see them. But once she starts shooting, almost everything goes into the possibles bag. You don’t need to work this way when you have a convenient table but it’s good practice to learn to load from the bag because in the field it’s all you have.

Charging the rifle — step one

The first step with a caplock is to fire a percussion cap without a charge of powder. This blows away any obstructions, so there is a clear path for the fire from the cap to get to the powder. We cleaned the gun thoroughly after the last use and then oiled it lightly to prevent rust. This first step makes sure the pathway is clear for the fire from the percussion cap. This also gave me the chance to tell Jamell that percussion caps are also dangerous and they ignite when crushed.

Charging the rifle — step two

Next we measure some powder and pour it down the barrel. My Po Boy is small enough that I insert a small funnel in the muzzle to pour the powder into. Black powder is measured by volume — not by weight. This is especially important for muzzle loaders because it frees you from the need to use a conventional powder measure. That saves a lot of time. In the 19th century mountain men had the tips of antlers they hollowed out to contain the powder charge. I use an adjustable brass (non-sparking!) powder measure for my Po Boy, but Jamell will want to buy or make a traditional measure for her gun.

The rule of thumb in the old days was to place a ball in the palm of your hand and then cover it with powder. This is very ambiguous because it depends on how large your hands are and how much you cup them when pouring the powder. I advised Jamell to ask the maker what charge of powder she should use with her gun. he will know better than anyone. Then make a measure to throw that charge.

Black powder grain sizes

Black powder comes in different sizes of grains. The most common sizes are FFFFG (4F), FFFG (3F), FFG (2F) and FG (1F). The more Fs the smaller the gains, and the faster the powder burns.

There are other things to consider, like the black powder substitutes that have pistol powders and rifle powders, but I advised Jamell to use black powder only with her flintlock. Black powder also varies in quality from the cheap brands to the premium brands. It sounds a lot like airgun pellets, doesn’t it? Starting in the early 19th century England made the finest black powder and people paid a premium for it when they could get it. Today the Swiss are making some of the finest black powder, and that is what I use in my Po Boy. It costs about double what the cheap brands cost, but I don’t shoot enough to make that a consideration.

My Po Boy is .45 caliber and I load it with FFG Swiss powder. I showed her how to “throw a charge” of powder into the measure and then run a knife blade across the top of the measure — called “striking the charge.” Then dump the powder into the muzzle/funnel.

Nelson Lewis combination gun powder in measure
Pour the black powder into a measure like this. This is FFG powder.

Nelson Lewis combination gun powder funnel
A funnel in the muzzle makes it easier to pour in the powder.

Loading the ball

The next step will differ with each type of gun being loaded. I shoot a patched ball, so what we do is lay a patch on the muzzle then place a ball on top of the patch. The ball is a few thousandths of an inch smaller than the bore of the rifle, and the patch takes up the difference. My patches are about 0.015-inches thick and my ball is sized 0.010-inches smaller than the bore. The patch material fills in the grooves and even compresses a little, making a tight fit to seal the bore.

Nelson lewis combination gun patched ball
This patch fits the ball well and does not have to be trimmed. The gun is B.B.’s Nelson Lewis double barreled combination gun.

Nelson lewis combination gun ball in muzzle
This patch is oversized and needs to be trimmed with a patch knife.

The patch material is very important. You are concerned with the type of material (I use pillow ticking), what is made of (cotton), the thickness of the material, and in my case, the patches are pre-cut to size to need no trimming. They are also pre-oiled. Each muzzleloading shooter will have one particular type of patch for each rifle he shoots.

The patch is the invention that made the “Kentucky” rifle so accurate. The patch takes the rifling, leaving the ball spherical. When the rifle fires the patch spins with the ball tight in its grip. After leaving the muzzle the patch falls away from the ball, and the ball spins all the way to the target. Guns that use patched balls can be loaded in less than one minute with practice, cutting the time to load (over rifles that use a non-patched lead ball) in half or better. And they are more accurate — able to hit a man-sized target at up to 200 yards, where earlier rifles could not.

Kentucky rifle were also made in much smaller calibers (typically .40 to .50 for deer-sized game), where European rifles were much larger (.60 to .70 and greater caliber). They used less lead, less powder, shot faster and straighter, plus they loaded faster and shot cleaner. They were the state of the art for their time (starting around 1730).

I use patches that are precisely cut and greased (actually oiled), but the more traditional way is to use a piece of fabric that you cut off at the muzzle after the ball is loaded flush. You carry a small sharp knife for this called a patch knife. You can wet the fabric with saliva or you can use grease or oil. Believe it or not, saliva is the preferred lubricant for target shooters. A dry patch can be used, but your gun will get too dirty to load after a few shots. The way I load and manage the rifle, you can shoot 60 times and still load as easily as on the first shot.

Press the ball flush with the muzzle then cut the patch off. Then use a short starter to push the ball into the bore. The short starter pushes the ball in about an inch on the first try, then it rams the ball in about 6 inches on the second try. The reason for doing this becomes apparent when you use the long ramrod.

Nelson Lewis combination gun short starter
The second part of the short starter is a short ramrod to push the ball 6 inches into the bore.

Ramming the ball home

All muzzle loaders come with a ramrod, but don’t use the wooden ones unless you want to break them. They do break, so I use a fiberglass rod that will almost never break. Keep the wood rod for its looks and use the fiberglass rod for loading.

Before you loaded the rifle, you dropped the ramrod down the muzzle and marked where it was flush with the muzzle when it rested on the breech plug. Now, when you load the rifle, ram the ball down until it stops. This is something that you learn to do with each rifle, because they all feel different. That mark on the ramrod tells you the ball is firmly resting on the powder. If it is not — if there is an air gap of any size, the gun will be damaged!

Remember what I said about black powder being a low explosive? When the burning gasses hit the ball, they do so with great force. If the ball is tight against the powder, there is no problem. If there is a gap of two inches, the resulting sudden increase in pressure will swell the barrel where the ball is — ruining it. These swells are called walnuts and whenever you buy a black powder gun you should run your fingers along the entire length of the barrel, feeling for them.

So when you ram a patched ball you do so until the ball is clearly down tight against the powder charge. Always try to ram the ball in one stroke and always with the same force. That improves accuracy. Think of it as seating the pellet the same every time. After you ram the ball home remove the ramrod. I can’t tell you how many shooters forget to do this at least one time, but most veteran black powder shooters have done it.

Cap the rifle

Now you can place a percussion cap on the nipple. The hammer is at half-cock when you do this for safety reasons, although it isn’t entirely safe. Keep that muzzle pointed in a safe direction because your gun can always go off half-cocked.

Now pull the hammer back to full cock, align your sights, set the trigger (on a rifle that has a set trigger) and fire. Jamell shot the rifle offhand at a target at 25 yards and as she lowered the rifle she remarked on how much there was to this. I told he she was not done yet.

Clean the bore

Now we put the hammer on half-cock and blow through the nipple. Your breath has moisture that softens the powder residue in the bore. Black powder converts about 55 percent of its mass into either dirt in the bore or blue smoke. After blowing through the nipple, I set the rifle in a rest and run a wet patch all the way down the bore. This extinguishes any burning particles, making the rifle safe to load again, plus it wets the residue in the bore even more. Then I run two dry patches down the bore and the rifle is good to go for another shot.

Nelson lewis combination gun cleaning bore
Cleaning the bore after every shot. Though I am in front of the muzzle, I’d standing to the side of the bore for safety.

Not everyone does all this, and if I’m hunting I don’t do it, either. I still blow through the nipple and run a dry patch down the bore. That gives me maybe 10-12 shots before the rifle can no longer be loaded without cleaning.

Finishing

Jamell loaded and fired the gun 5 more times. When she finished we got the target and her 6-shot group at 25 yards could be covered by the palm of my hand. That’s pretty good for the first time. All the instruction plus the shooting took us 2 hours at the range. There was one more important step. We returned to her studio where she poured boiling water down the bore of the rifle with a funnel. The hammer was cocked, so the water came out the nipple, too. We stood the rifle barrel (it easily comes out of the lock and stock) in a plastic tub to catch the water.

She did that three times and wiped the bore dry with patches each time. Then she ran a patch soaked with Ballistol up and down the bore several times and spritzed some Ballistol into the nipple, too. Then I blew through the nipple to dry it. I wiped the barrel with Ballistol and assembled it to the lock and the stock and we were done.

Jamell told me this one day with the Po Boy rifle put all of her reading about how the mountain men operated into perspective. If they wanted to clean their guns with boiling water they first had to heat the water in a coffeepot resting in the fire. And they probably used bear grease rather than Ballistol. They had to cast each one of those lead balls they shot, so there wasn’t any target practice when they were a thousand miles from the nearest trading post. But I told her they carried their gunpowder in lead cans that were both non-sparking and also could be melted down when empty. They had to find clever ways to live so far from civilization and they did.