How To Avoid Muzzle Loading Problems
Rick Kindig, Log Cabin Shop
Rick shares the answers to some of the common problems you might experience with you Muzzleloading firearms.
Each year the primitive weapons hunting season reactivates many muzzleloading shooters who have given little thought to the sport or to their equipment since last season. This creates a busy, challenging time for black powder dealers across the country trying to repair abused and neglected firearms as well as re-equipping hunters for the current hunting season.
After having gone through this process many times, we see certain situations occur year after year, usually relating to lack of preparation and maintenance on the shooters part. Each year also brings a series of new recurring problems as we all learn to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the latest round of muzzleloading hardware released on the market.
Before we ruffle too many feathers, let me say that we see many shooters each year who plan ahead. They are familiar with their equipment, take the time to learn about new hardware, faithfully pull proper maintenance and are keenly aware of safety measures. The small minority of black powder shooters not so well prepared are the source of most service calls and might face any of the following problems:
-- Each year we see a number of shooters who attempt to replace worn nipples in their percussion rifles, but fail to realize that there are several different size nipples currently being used by the major firearms manufacturers. One individual I know personally stopped at the local lawn and garden store who had put in a line of black powder supplies to boost business during the winter season. He was sold metric thread nipples to fit his two Thompson Center rifles and promptly blew them out one after the other. One departing nipple left a scratch across the shooters cheek showing how close he came to a real disaster. It seems both the dealer and shooter should have been more aware of what they were dealing with. For your own protection, be certain that replacement parts are proper for your gun before you use them.
There are three thread sizes widely used in commercial black powder firearms today. There are exceptions, but in most cases American made firearms such as Thompson Center and Knight use a 1/4 x 28 thread nipple. Most Spanish made rifles such as CVA and Traditions have a 6-.1mm metric thread; Italian-made rifles such as Lyman accept a 6-.75mm metric thread. In the case mentioned above, the metric nipple went into the nipple seat of the American rifle and seemed to tighten down. The undersized nipple could not withstand the pressure developed by the exploding powder charge. Not only did this person risk harm to his person, the blown nipple damaged the threads in the barrel and he missed the hunting season because repairs to his barrel could not be finished in time. Be sure you know what nipple thread your rifle requires . . . write it down so you can remember. Read the nipple packaging carefully to be sure you have the proper nipple.
-- Probably the most common seasonal problem we see involves the rifle that was used last season, left dirty (or even loaded), until this season when the owner suddenly realizes that the bore has more pits than 40 miles of bad road. Of course leaving any gun loaded around the house, even a muzzleloader, is a dangerous situation and may invite disaster. Leaving a rifle just fired with black powder (or even worse Pyrodex), uncleaned for any length of time almost guarantees that the bore will be pitted. Always unload, clean completely and lube with a good moisture displacing oil at the end of each days use. Once a bore is pitted, there is not much that can be done for it. The loose scale can be removed with a swab of steel wool on a cleaning jag. A bronze bristle bore brush and an aggressive cleaner such as Shooters Choice or Ox-Yoke Accuracy Restorer may be of help. A paste of scouring powder and water applied to the steel wool may help polish the bore, however the pits are permanent. A pitted bore may still be useable and may even shoot fairly well, but it will be hard to load and hard to clean. In general, as the pitting becomes more pronounced, the performance is compromised.
-- A chronic malfunction experienced by even the most meticulous shooter using any of the new in-line rifles is caused by cold weather. With the rapidly increasing number of in-lines in the field, the frozen bolt syndrome is becoming ever more common. In this situation, excessive lubrication becomes thick enough in cold weather to slow or stop the movement of the bolt; which of course, prevents ignition. If the bolt picks up water from melting snow or rain, it then freezes. The results are the same. Several of the new Remington 700ML rifles fresh out of the box with factory lubrication failed to fire on our target range this winter because grease, stiffened by low temperatures, hindered bolt movement. This condition may plague any in-line, not just the Remingtons, but if you keep the winter lube light, and protect the action from moisture, you should have no problems.
-- The newest "common problem" for 1996 was centered around a series of very inexpensive Spanish made rifles imported by several companies and designed to sell retail in the $100 range. At this price, these guns do a good job for the guy who wants an inexpensive piece that will allow him a few more days of deer hunting after the modern gun season. Usually the knowledgable dealer will have to adjust each gun to get the barrel wedge to fit. He will also have to adjust the hammer so that it hits the nipple properly, and so on. A problem often not corrected involves the ramrod and the cleaning jag provided. This year, these rifles came fitted with a ramrod featuring a loading end of near bore diameter and a smaller diameter cleaning end. Since both rod ends were tapped to accept the 10 x 32 jag, it's not surprising that many users put the jag on the loading end to clean. This situation allows the cleaning patch to bunch up around the loading tip when the rod is withdrawn from the bore, wedging the rod in the barrel so tight that it cannot be removed. If the jag is placed on the smaller diameter end of the rod, the area behind the jag is enough under bore diameter that the patch has room to bunch up and not lock the rod in the gun. In trying to remove the stuck ramrod, you usually end up with the rod end pulling off the wooden portion leaving the patch, jag and base end in the barrel. The rods that come with a rifle are notorious for having just a glued tip. Always pin your rod ends to the rod itself using a small brass nail, etc.
A similar wedging situation often occurs when beginning shooters try to save money on cleaning patches and cut their own out of old tee-shirts or bed sheets. Actually this can work if the patch size is kept to 2" square of less. For whatever reason many hunters cut a 4"-6" square patch which promptly wedges in the barrel and can be removed only by the most extreme measures. I know of two frustrated shooters who were unable to remove a rod in this situation and poured acid down the bore to dissolve the patch. The acid did eat up the patch so the rod was released, but it also attacked the barrel leaving it so heavily pitted and eroded as to be useless.
-- One other common pitfall is the dry patch in a dirty barrel. When cleaning between shots, be certain the cleaning patch is damp with solvent or even saliva. A dry patch will lodge in the bore even if the jag and patch are of proper design. If a dry patch does become lodged, pour several tablespoons of solvent down the bore, allow the patch to become saturated and you should be able to easily pull the rod free.
I saw several shooters using the 2-1/2" dia. patch treated with bore butter/wonder lube as a cleaning patch between shots. While these patches are excellent for applying a conditioning/rust preventive coating to the bore after cleaning, they have no solvent value and are not functional for cleaning between shots.
It all comes down to this . . . you need a cleaning jag of the proper diameter for your bore. Securely attached to a rod, of such design, that the portion behind the jag is smaller than the bore diameter. Longer jags have this feature designed in. You need an absorbent cotton patch of reasonable size (in a .50 cal. rifle, usually about 2" to 2-1/2") round or square. The patch needs to be treated with solvent to clean. Cleaning between shots, and at the end of the day, should be quick and easy if you have the basic tools.
Deer seasons around the country are history, the lucky ones are enjoying a savory venison stew. The black powder equipment is packed away like the Christmas decorations. Let's hope it is well cleaned and oiled.
Consider getting your rifle out this spring, spend a pleasant day at the range doing a little practice. Not happy with the group you're getting? Try a few different powder/ball combinations. The one that works in your buddy's gun is not necessarily the one best suited for your rifle. The more you use your equipment, the more effective you will be next fall.