Muzzle Loading Rifles Pt 1: The Kit
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- Last updated: 01/07/2019
A check through manufacturers web sites and printed catalogues will bring up a multitude of muzzleloading long guns, ranging from the most basic reproductions, to modern examples designed for serious target shooters and hunters. While the average club shooter will probably see no more than a few of these guns in use, the sheer number on offer would suggest there is a fairly large market for this ‘old-fashioned’ technology.
In today’s high tech world of multi-shot magazines and long-range firearms, the perceived simplicity of muzzle-loaders may be written off as something a bit quirky, or an old man’s sport if you will, that should not be taken too seriously. To do so would do the challenge and satisfaction of this branch of the sport a great injustice. You may well find that, with all the gizmos and add-ons available to help you get your modern rifle to perform, it might just take you a little longer to wring the best from one of these simple, uncomplicated reminders of a bygone age.
So, let’s assume that you have never even held one of these guns previously, where do you begin? Are you planning on taking the sport seriously or merely wanting to add a ‘fun gun’ to your battery? Starting with the latter, you may end up as the former! Perhaps you are a re-enactor looking to add to your historic impression? There are models out there to suit every period of history, which in some areas have been the roots of the various disciplines. There are also those who own and shoot original examples too, which are to be cherished as examples of the marque.
Whichever direction you are headed, do a little research before you spend your hard-earned cash. If you are fortunate enough to belong to a club that counts muzzle-loading shooters among its members, then you will likely be able to have a go before making any decisions, as it is a rare shooter that will not allow others to try their guns. Plus, there is no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to choosing the right tool for the job. For example, some who fancy muzzle-loading, could well be put off by the process, whereas others could be easily hooked by the challenge and novelty of the ignition system’s requirements.
An early port of call should be the web site of the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain (MLAGB)(www.mlagb.com) which is the governing body for this branch of shooting in the UK. There is an enormous amount of information on here and an active forum where many of your questions will already have been answered. Next take a trip to the internet and visit YouTube where you will find many videos on the pursuit of muzzle-loading rifle shooting, but bear in mind that some on this channel, are posted for entertainment and may not necessarily show the best practices to follow!
Your budget will obviously be a major factor in your choice of gun, but there is an enormous selection on offer from under £300 to upwards of £3,500 and more, so there should be something suitable. When you factor in the ancillaries needed you could find that, starting from scratch, the overall cost is quite competitive compared to cartridge firearms. A firearm certificate and suitable storage is of course necessary, but there are no loading presses, dies or brass cases to buy, merely the necessary powder, projectiles and method of ignition. Should you choose to use real black powder, rather than modern substitutes (and why wouldn’t you?) extra certificates are needed for this, along with a mandatory and specialised storage box. They can be bought off the shelf or easily constructed reasonably cheaply if you are of the DIY mind set.
Even if you start with the substitute propellants, I’d suggest you get the black powder certificate and RCA document anyway. They are free from your firearms licensing department and you will surely come to use the ‘holy black’ eventually. Put together a few tools that are needed and I see no reason why, if the firearms certificate and security are already in place, you can be shooting a budget muzzle-loading long gun for well under five hundred pounds.
As stated above, hands-on experience is the best way to find out what does and does not fit your requirements. Rushing out to buy a gun without the proper research can prove to be an expensive mistake, so handle and shoot as many as you can before making the trip to the gun shop. If you have a particular period of history that interests you, then that could well influence your choice, and could offer you the choice of flintlock or percussion ignition. Should you plan on shooting competitively, then make sure that the gun you choose is suitable for the discipline.
However, if you are certain that this is just going to be a fun gun, do you really need that .69” calibre monster that is more expensive to feed than a .45 calibre model? If ease of cleaning and maintenance is a high priority, then you might want to consider one of the in-line models, which are configured more line modern rifles. You really will be spoilt for choice, as the Henry Krank catalogue lists almost 100 models, some in more than one calibre, but take your time and get it right first time. Don’t forget the second-hand market. Many shooters have taken the plunge, only to find that living with a muzzle loader is not quite as much fun and pleasure they thought it would be! With guns and equipment often disposed of at very keen prices and still in excellent condition.
It is possible that you may see a shooter turn up at the range with little more than a cartridge rifle, a box of ammunition and maybe a screwdriver or two in his box. Muzzle-loaders on the other hand will normally carry a bit more support kit, to cover any eventuality that may occur during the day; and they can and do, which all adds to the fun.
The nature of muzzle-loading firearms uses loose components (powder, ball etc.), although you can use self-contained paper cartridges, which you will have to make. All this needs transporting separately to the range. Depending on your club rules, you may or may not be allowed to dispense your powder from a flask; if not, you will have measured out the required charges into glass or plastic phials beforehand. Projectiles, either round lead balls or bullets, can be carried in their original packaging as purchased. Should you get into casting your own bullets, you will find your own containers. Likewise, the percussion caps can remain in the tin they came in, but many shooters prefer to use a pre-loaded capper. If you are going down the flintlock road, then a couple of extra flints in your box is advisable. Cloth patches, either commercial or home-made, can be carried in a bag or tin or, if your gun is so fitted, with the patch box let into the stock.
With a few exceptions, muzzle loading long guns will come with their own ramrod, which, depending on the model, will be either wood with brass tips, some composite material or all metal. Some of the wooden examples can seem a little on the flimsy side, so in those circumstances I have found it wiser to use my own brass rods. The supplied rod, securely slung under the barrel for carrying and storage, will have one end threaded or tapped to take the variety of tips that are available, and it is wise to have a selection among your gear. The one you have not bothered to buy is invariably the one you will need!
The tips are calibre-specific, and you should include at least a ball puller (sooner or later you WILL forget to put the powder in while talking to your buddy), brass jag, loop jag and a patch puller. Don’t forget the cleaning mop and bronze/ bristle brushes.
Should you be allowed to use them, there are a great range of powder flasks on the market, with either adjustable or interchangeable spouts to vary the charge volume. Two or three of the spouts (they are relatively inexpensive) will allow you to experiment with your loads and will stand you in good stead when you buy your second muzzle-loading gun! There is also a range of brass powder measures with a sliding bar that allows you to accurately measure individual charges. Some of these come with an attached funnel to make loading easier. On the subject of loading the powder, you may also wish to consider one of the long brass, drop funnels for this purpose.
A ball starter is a handy bit of kit to, well, as its name states, get the ball or bullet started in the muzzle, before the ramrod can do its job. You will sometimes see a shooter using a rubber headed mallet for this task.
Unlike muzzle loading revolvers, where percussion cap placement can be at best a bit fiddly or downright awkward if you have large fingers, the single shot rifles are much easier to cap, even with the small types. Even so, most shooters will use some form of metal capper and these come into their own if you are shooting in cold weather. These are often bought shortly after the shooter spills his first tin of caps at the range! The most commonly seen will be the straight-line versions, but there are other shapes available, and there is even a version now for the larger musket (top hat) caps.
One essential piece of kit is a nipple key; my advice would be to buy the best you can. You will wish to remove the nipple every time you clean the gun and, if you are unlucky, you may have to remove it during a shoot, so you want a hard-wearing key. Those inexpensive ones may seem like a good buy at the time, but when (not if) the tips start to wear, they will slip off the shoulders of the nipple. Not too bad in the comfort of your workshop, but a pain if you need it on the range and you are the only muzzle loading shooter there that day.
This has been, by necessity, a brief look at what will be the basics of a muzzle-loading long gun box of kit. As you go along, you may wish to add more, such as a nipple/pan primer, a nipple pick, a couple of small brushes and a driver or two, not forgetting those bits of wire, a duster or two and a small brass hammer that you will eventually find a use for. When you do get started, make sure that the kit box you have is too big for the amount of gear you have amassed, as sooner or later you will fill it!
If you need to think about it a bit more, you can do worse than get hold of the latest Henry Krank catalogue. Not only will you find most, if not all, of the equipment you will need, but there is a huge choice of guns in there too. Next time, we will look at putting your new found ‘toy’ to use.