Muzzleloader Basics: Loading and Shooting a Percussion Rifle

Overall, loading and shooting a muzzleloader is not particularly complicated once you know the basics, but you must understand them and take them seriously to be safe. Below you will find information on how to load a traditional percussion muzzleloading firearm and the equipment required to do so. If possible, I highly advise you to find an experienced shooter familiar with muzzleloading to walk you through the process and teach you the ropes, but this will get you on the right track.

Seth-shooting-2-1The author shoots an antique muzzleloading rifle.

Safety First

Throughout the entire process of handling, loading, and shooting any firearm, make sure to follow all of the standard rules of firearms safety. You are responsible for the safety of yourself and everyone and everything around you. With muzzleloaders in particular, you need to pay attention to what you are doing and make sure you keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times. Unless out hunting, you should wait until you’re at the firing line before you prime/cap a muzzleloader. Remember, never smoke while shooting a muzzleloader or when near your powder, horn, or flask and stay away from fire.

The first step to preparing any traditional muzzleloading firearm for firing is making sure the gun is unloaded and safe to shoot. First ensure there is no percussion cap on the nipple. Then check the barrel by using a rod to ensure the barrel is clear. If unloaded, the rod should reach all the way to the bottom of the barrel. It’s a good idea to mark unloaded and/or loaded lines on your ramrods. It’s also a good idea to run a couple of patches to make sure the bore is free from oil, grease, or other residues. This is also a good time to check and make sure all of the components are properly fitted and working correctly before proceeding, including making sure your nipples are tightly fit. Once outside and with the gun still unloaded, fire a percussion cap or two with the muzzle pointed down range or into soft ground to make sure the flash channel is clear.

Checking-the-muzzleUse a rod to ensure the barrel is clear. Put an unloaded line on your ramrod like is shown here (photo left). This Thompson/Center rifle came into Rock Island Auction Company with a lubricated conical bullet and a full powder charge inthe barrel before it was safely unloaded. Note the rod stopped well ahead of the breech plug (photo right).

If this is your first time shooting an antique or used muzzleloader, you should have it inspected by a professional. All firearms sold by Rock Island Auction Company are sold as collectibles and are not warranted safe to shoot, so be sure to have them examined by a competent gunsmith familiar with muzzle loading firearms if you are uncertain they are safe for use. By featuring examples in this article, we are not implying they should be taken out and shot. Extra caution should certainly be taken with antique muzzle loaders both for safety and preservation sake; while some are safe to shoot, many are not suited to being shot or may need some work to be safe.

Percussion Muzzleloader Equipment

muzzleloading-gearPowder, patch, and ball are the basic ammunition of muzzleloading (photo left). Some of the author’s shooting bag contents (photo right).

In order to load your traditional muzzleloader you will need the basic components: powder, patch, and ball. In addition, for percussion firearms, you’ll need percussion caps. Most rifles and pistols use #11 caps, but military style pistols and long guns often use larger “musket caps.” See fellow describer Brian Beck’s past article on loading flintlocks for more information on loading a flintlock firearm which involves some differences mainly in priming. This article will focus on loading percussion/caplock rifles and pistols.

Some muzzleloading rifles are designed for conical bullets or Minie balls rather than patched round balls. What works in those rifles will vary from the procedures here in terms of projectiles. Instead of lubricated patches, the bullets themselves may be lubricated, and a wad may be suggested between the powder and bullet depending on the projectile. If you own one of these muzzleloading firearms, you’ll want to read up on the specifics for that type. Something like a Whitworth has different requirements than a Civil War rifle-musket.

Rare-Civil-War-confederate-musketThis carbine has no visible markings on the outside besides “PRO/F.C.H” visible at the breech end of the barrel which stands for “proved” above the inspection initials of Captain F. C. Humphreys, the officer in command of the Confederate Ordnance Department and Arsenal at Columbus, Georgia. “GRAY” marked on the inside of the lock. John D. Gray, an English immigrant, started in the construction business before settling in Columbus, Georgia where he operated a furniture factory, mill, lime kiln, and a wheat farm prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In Spring of 1861, John D. Gray would begin conducting business under the name “Columbus Armory.” Features a tulip head iron ramrod, brass blade front sight, notch rear sight, three-groove rifling, brass barrel bands, iron triggerguard, sling swivels mounted on the front the front of the trigger guard bow and underneath the front barrel band, and a plain stock.

In addition to the ammunition, you will also need a ramrod or range rod, generally a short starter aka ball starter, a powder measure (either fixed or adjustable), and something to hold your powder such as a powder flask or powder horn.

NEVER load smokeless gunpowder into a traditional muzzleloading firearm. Smokeless powder in a muzzleloader is a recipe for disaster. Many of the reports of failed muzzleloader barrels have been traced back to someone purposely or accidentally loading smokeless powder. The results can be catastrophic for the firearm, the shooter, and bystanders.

warningHeed this advice!

I always recommend you use real black powder in any traditional muzzleloading firearm. Generally, 3f is used in smaller caliber rifles and pistols up to around .50 caliber, and 2f is recommended for larger caliber pistols and rifles. There are also black powder substitute products. Some of these will work in traditional percussion cap muzzleloaders, particularly Pyrodex, but others will not work as reliably and are more meant for modern muzzleloaders using hotter primers. Pyrodex is generally easier to find in stores than real black powder, but you may need to use “magnum” percussion caps to ensure ignition. With any propellant, you will want to ensure your muzzleloader is thoroughly cleaned after shooting, or the corrosive residue can ruin your gun.

Your powder charge will be determined by your barrel and caliber and then can be fine-tuned for what shoots best in your rifle at various ranges and for hunting. For modern reproduction muzzleloaders, refer to the gun or barrel manufacturer’s recommendations for minimum and maximum powder charges. If shooting an older or custom muzzleloading rifle and access to this information is not available, with real black powder, you generally start with the around same amount of powder as the caliber for a rifle (50 grains in a .50 caliber) or around half or a little less in a pistol (20-25 grains in a .50 caliber) and then fine tune up and down from there to see what shoots best. Maximum loads vary from barrel to barrel and gun to gun, and pushing your muzzleloader too far can be dangerous, so consult a competent gunsmith familiar with muzzle loaders. Often around double the caliber is considered the max safe charge (100 grains in a .50 caliber rifle), but if shooting an antique rifle or pistol or a new rifle or pistol with a thinner barrel profile, the max charge may be lower. Conversely, a heavy barrel may be able to take a heavier charge. Generally speaking, excessively large loads are completely unnecessary.

kit-carson-musketHistoric Presentation German Silver Mounted David Leonard Ohio Percussion Half-Stock Rifle Inscribed to Legendary Frontier Scout and Trapper Kit Carson from His Friends in New Mexico, on July 14th, 1852, reportedly at the Conclusion of Their Final Hunt.

Your ball and patch combination is determined by your bore size, and different firearms will shoot better with different patch and ball sizes. Generally speaking, starting off with a ball .01 smaller than bore size and a .02 patch is a good place to start, but experiment with different options. In one of my .45 caliber pistols a .445 ball shoots better, and the other .45 pistol seems to prefer .440.

Engraved-silver-accented-RemingtonRare and Desirable Finely Engraved and Silver Accented S. Remington Signed Half-Stock Percussion Rifle

Your patch needs to be lubricated. There are a lot of options out there. The simplest method is to just buy pre-lubed patches. You can also use spit as a lubricant, a wide variety of commercial muzzle loading patch lubes, windshield washer fluid, water soluble oil and water, natural animal grease, or make your own blend. One option I’ve had good results with is equal parts Murphy’s Oil Soap, water, and rubbing alcohol.

Shoot that Muzzleloader!

Alright, so you’ve ensured your muzzleloader is safe, and you have all the gear you need to get it loaded up. Here are the basic steps:

loading-the-powder1) Pour an appropriate powder charge for your muzzleloader into a powder measure. Do not pour powder directly into your firearm from a flask, powder horn, or can, especially after you’ve already shot recently. If the powder ignites, you could effectively have a grenade go off in your hand (Left photo). 2) With the barrel pointed away from you, pour the powder from the measure down the barrel (right photo).

working-the-ball3) Next you center a patch over the muzzle and place your ball on the patch. If you are using a cast round ball with a flat spot from a sprue, you’ll want the sprue centered up or down. I prefer sprue down (left photo). 4) The next step will vary slightly depending on your barrel crown and how tight of a ball and patch combination you are using. Most use a nub on their starter to get the patch’s ball started into the barrel. Then use the rod on the starter to drive the ball down the first section of the bore (middle photo). 5) To drive the ball the rest of the way home, either use the main ramrod for your muzzle loader or a range rod. Don’t grasp far away from the muzzle. Grabbing far from the muzzle risks breaking or bending your rod. A broken ramrod can cause a severe wound if it jabs into your hand. Instead use short strokes and slowly work your hand up the rod each time until the ball is firmly seated on the powder charge. People’s opinions vary, but I prefer to make sure my ball is seated through even pressure rather than thumping it hard with the rod. You do not want a gap between the powder charge and ball, so make sure it’s properly seated (right photo).

prepping-the-primer6) Once the barrel is loaded, now you’ll move on to priming your firearm. Place your hammer in the half-cock position and place a cap over the nipple. Firmly press the cap in place to ensure good ignition. Thumb pressure should be plenty. Now all you need to do is bring the hammer back to full cock, take aim, and pull the trigger.

The author fires an antique muzzle loading rifle

1)    Some prefer to run a patch or two between shots to keep the bore clean. If you have a good patch, ball, and lube combination, this shouldn’t be necessary, and you can just repeat the steps above.

2)     After you are done for the day, make sure to clean your rifle. That’ll be a topic for another post.

1862-percussion-rifleRare 1862 Dated Civil War Confederate Mendenhall, Jones & Gardner Percussion Rifle

Finding a Muzzleloader

Rock Island Auction Company regularly features percussion and other muzzleloading firearms in our Premier, Sporting & Collector, and Arms & Accessories Sales each year. With auctions held every month, you are sure to have plenty to choose from. Our Arms & Accessories Sales often have affordable factory-built percussion pistols, rifles, and revolvers that are a great for learning to shoot and hunt and also feature custom built contemporary muzzleloaders.

The Sporting & Collector auctions often feature both antique muzzleloaders and really nice pieces by contemporary gunmakers. Our Premier auctions of course are stocked with some of the best antique muzzleloading firearms on the market today, including incredible historic artifacts and firearms art like the famous Napoleon Garniture and Alexander Hamilton Flintlock Pistols, but you can also find high quality antique muzzleloaders within these sales that won’t break the bank, so definitely check out the catalogs. If you are looking to sell one, we are the #1 auction house in the world for antique and collectible firearms and are happy to help you sell an individual item or an entire collections of firearms.

Rock Island Auction Company’s upcoming auctions

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