Flintlock: At the beginning of the 17th Century, the flintlock, which uses a knapped flint stone striking a steel face to generate sparks for ignition was firmly established.
This was an improvement on the more primitive ignition types mainly using smouldering cord (matchlock). The early flintlock shotguns tended to have very long barrels and were often used for shooting wildfowl sitting on the water. These guns were sometimes fired from rests such as a fork stick and were referred to as ‘Bank Guns’. As time went on shooting flying birds became popular on the continent and this idea was brought to Great Britain by visiting sportsmen.
These long barrelled guns, with their slow ignition, were unwieldy for shooting flying birds. The new fashion of shooting flying birds brought about the gradual shortening of barrel length to assist the handling of the gun. At this time the first double barrel guns appeared and the Holy Grail of the gun makers was to produce a gun lock with a very fast ignition time. At the end of the flintlock era, around 1820, the use of patent breeches, roller frizzens and rain proof pans provided the ultimate in flintlock design. It is these later examples of flintlock guns that are much sought after by the modern muzzle loader.
Percussion: A Scottish clergyman, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth, invented a detonating system in the early 1800’s. He used a compound of fulminate of mercury (originally, dangerously as a propellant), which would explode instantly upon being struck. The final stage of development was a small copper cap containing this compound. A hollow nipple was screwed into the breech end of the gun and the cap would be placed on top of the nipple. The barrel, loaded with a charge of powder, wad and shot would be ignited by the fall of the cock onto the percussion cap. The speed of ignition, even on poor quality guns, was far superior to even the best flintlocks. Given that this ignition system dates back to the early 1800’s, the speed of ignition is only slightly less than that of a modern nitro powder shotgun as anyone who has shot a percussion gun will confirm. It is the percussion sporting gun, either original or replica, that is the most practical type for shooting clay pigeons. Military type smooth bore muskets are generally unsuitable for shooting clays due to their poor handling characteristics.
Black Powder: Black powder is believed to have been around in India and the Far East by the 11th century. It appeared in Europe in the 13th century and was not used in firearms until the 14th century. Black powder is made up of a compound of charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre. Black powder is readily available in different grades to suit all types of muzzle loading guns.
Choosing A Gun
For the beginner the best choice of muzzle loading shotgun is the percussion gun, either single or double barrel, because of its simplicity and reliability. Most muzzle loading shooters prefer to shoot original guns as there is a plentiful supply of good shooting guns in this country and they tend to handle much better than most reproduction guns.
In addition to this there is the pleasure of owning and shooting an antique gun and researching the history of your gun gives an added interest to the sport. For those wishing to shoot flintlock guns, the reproduction muzzle loading shotgun is a good choice. An excellent example is the ‘Pedersoli Mortimer’ which is reasonably priced and with a little fettling should prove to be both fast on ignition and reliable. Original flintlock guns suitable for shooting clay pigeons are now hard to come by, command a very high price and need lots of love and attention to keep them working reliably. The best calibre of muzzle loading shotgun is between 15 and 11 bore. The larger bore guns (8 bore plus) are mainly used for wildfowling and tend to be heavy, have long barrels and are difficult to shoot at clay pigeons. Guns of 12 bore have the advantage that wads and cards are readily available precut from suppliers for those not wishing to make their own. The condition of the gun is of far more importance than the quality i.e. the maker, so when looking at muzzle loading guns particularly at originals, go for one that has reasonable wall thickness of the barrel at the muzzle.
A useful tool is the bore light. These small lights may be placed down the barrel and will show the condition of the bore. Very few bores are perfect and a small degree of pitting can be tolerated. The barrel should be free from dents and other obvious defects. Check for a positive lock action and that the half cock position is working, as this is a safety feature. It is of utmost importance that the nipple is screwed into the breech plug correctly. Replacement nipples can be obtained from antique gun suppliers. The woodwork should be free from major cracks, especially around the wrist area. It is common for slight cracks to be found behind the lock plate, to the lock retaining screw hole and at the back of the tang. These cracks are mostly insignificant. It is a good idea, before purchasing your muzzle loading gun to seek advice from an experienced muzzle loading shotgunner.
As a final word on gun choice and the condition of any prospective gun, the Muzzle Loaders would always advocate that you seek expert opinion on any firearm prior to purchase and firing.
Muzzle Loading Law
The Law: The following legal requirements may seem a little complex, but in reality they are generally straightforward. In our experience the Firearms Licensing sections of local police forces and the HSE are helpful and efficient.
The Guns: To own an original muzzle loading gun requires no licence as it is classed as an antique. However, should you wish to shoot your original muzzle loading shotgun, it will require to be held on a shotgun certificate. Applications for shotgun certificates may be obtained through your local police force. Many police forces now hold their application forms on line. It should be noted that replica muzzle loading shotguns may only be owned when held on a shotgun certificate whether they are used or not. A condition of the shotgun licence is that guns are stored securely.This generally means that they are stored in an approved gun safe.
Black Powder: Surprisingly black powder, unlike modern nitro powders, is classed as an explosive and as such requires an explosive certificate (form COER 3). This is obtainable free of charge from your local police force and requires an application form to be filled in. There is a limit on the amount of black powder that may be stored by an individual, but this is sufficient for the muzzle loading shooter. Recently there has been a requirement to store black powder in plastic containers within a lockable partitioned wooden box – these wooden boxes are easily obtained from
black powder suppliers. Alternatively they may be manufactured to design specifications obtainable from the firearms section of your local police force.
HSE: There is also an additional requirement of the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) to have a Recipient Competent Authority Transfer Document (RCA) to allow transport of black powder. This is obtainable free of charge from the HSE on receipt of a valid copy of the explosive licence.
Insurance: Although not a legal requirement, it is responsible and sensible to join a shooting association that offers both personal and third party liability insurance against accidents from shooting sports. Associations such as the MLAGB, CPSA and BASC all offer this type of cover as part of the membership package.
These notes are our perception on Muzzle loading and the UK firearms law in general. The Muzzle Loaders would always advocate and strongly advise that you seek advice and confirmation of the firearms law from your area firearms officer prior to any purchase or attempted purchase of a muzzle loader, any loading powder and the loading component parts.
Black Powder: Commercially made black powder for firearms is readily available from gun shops and other specialist suppliers. It is sold in a variety of grades to suit all black powder firearms from pistols to cannons. For muzzle loading shotguns of less than 11 bore, the medium grade shooting powder is best. Our favourite is TS2 or Swiss 2.
Caution! Swiss powders are significantly more powerful than other powders and therefore less is required. It should also be noted that Swiss powders appear to be denser than other powders and should be measured by weight rather than by volume i.e. using a powder flask or scoop.
For shotguns of around 12 bore, a charge of powder in the range 2 1/2 to 3 drams is ideal. It is always best to start with a low charge and work the charge up to obtain optimum performance. This is very important when using a gun for the first time, whether it be original or reproduction.
For shooting flintlock shotguns, priming powder is required. This should be a fast burning fine powder and Swiss No 1 or Swiss ‘dust’ is ideal.
Over Powder and Over Wad Cards: Cards may be cut from card of approximately 1/16″ to 1/8″ in thickness using a suitable wad punch or other cutter. We find that beer mats are ideal. Commercially available hard nitro cards should be avoided. There is an opinion that these may cause damage to original twist barrels.
Wads: Wads used for muzzle loading shotguns should be made from either felt or a compressed fibre material. Plastic wads should not be used as they are likely to melt. Fibre wads are available commercially in standard sizes such as the Eley Kleena wad. Pre-lubricated fibre wads are available from Henry Krank Ltd. Many muzzle loading shotgunners cut their own wads using either wad punches or rotary cutters that are fixed in a drill and stand. Materials for making wads are sheet felt (very expensive), soft decorative fibre wall board or Flexcell concrete expansion jointing (bitumen impregnated fibre board). All unlubricated wads need to be lubricated. The lubricant can be a mixture of cooking oil and bees wax / candle wax. The mixture is heated until molten and the wads are just dipped in order to wet the surface. Heavy soaking of the wad is undesirable. Wads should be a tight fit in the bore but not such that they become difficult to ram down.
Shot: Original muzzle loading guns with twist barrels should only be shot with lead shot. Lead shot is commercially available from gun shops or specialist suppliers. As muzzle loading shotguns do not have choked barrels, it is important to optimise pattern density. This generally means using a shot size smaller than would be used in a modern breech loading nitro gun. For clay pigeons with a muzzle loader shot size 8 is ideal. Typical shot loads for 16 bore to 11 bore guns are between 1 and 1 1/4; oz. The maximum load permitted in MLAGB competitions is 1 1/4; oz.. Shot may be dispensed from a shot flask, scoop or pre measured phial.
Warning: Under no circumstances should steel shot be fired through twist barrels as damage to the barrel is likely to occur along with possible permanent injury to the shooter and persons in the immediate vicinity. Over Shot Cards: Over shot cards are used to stop the shot from rolling out of the barrel and also to ensure correct load column stacking. Over shot cards are made from thin card of about 1/32″ to 1/16″ thick. They may be bought cheaply from specialist muzzle loading suppliers or may be cut using a suitable wad punch or rotary cutter.
Percussion Caps: Percussion caps are readily available from gun shops and specialist suppliers. They come in two sizes, No.11, which is the most common and winged musket caps, commonly referred to as top hat caps. The latter are generally used for muskets and large bore shotguns. Modern caps have the important advantage of being non corrosive unlike earlier caps which were extremely corrosive.
Flints: Gun flints are available from specialist suppliers and come in various sizes. Flints are knapped from quarried flint stone. Some continental flintlock shooters use machined agate ‘flints’ which do work but as you would expect, are not deemed to be as good as English flints or French flints. The MLAGB would always advocate and strongly recommend that you seek professional advice and confirmation of all the component parts by the component manufacturer prior to loading and and firing any muzzle loading gun.
Ramrods: The ramrods fitted to most sporting muzzle loading shotguns are unsuitable for general loading use for clay pigeon shooting. A stouter, more robust ramrod is required. These may be easily made from either hard wood dowel or a rigid plastic rod, such as nylon. The ramrod should have a ball like feature at the end for comfortable loading and safety. We have found that wooden drawer knobs or snooker balls serve this purpose best. The wooden ramrods should be fitted with a brass tip.
Drawing Rods: If during loading a mistake is made e.g. no powder put in, or worse, double loaded, the load must be withdrawn for safety reasons. Under no circumstances should you take a chance and fire the gun. Incorrect loading can easily occur particularly if distracted during the loading process. Conventional screwed cleaning rods can be fitted with a screw or worm attachment. This is then placed in the barrel and progressively screwed into the load column and withdrawn. The contents may then be emptied out. It is advisable to cap off to clear any residual powder before reloading.
Powder Flasks: Powder flasks whether original or reproductions, are mainly made from copper or brass and are fitted with an adjustable measuring spout. Before use the measures should be checked against a set of powder scales to give the user an idea of its accuracy.
Shot Flasks: Similarly to powder flasks, shot flasks mostly have an adjustable measuring spout normally giving two options of shot load. The shot load dispensed from a flask should be checked against a set of scales before use to check their accuracy. The body of a shot flask is usually made of rigid or soft leather.
Priming Flasks: The flintlock shooter will require a priming flask. These flasks are of a small capacity and are used to hold the very fine powder used for priming the pan. They are easily and cheaply available from specialist muzzle loading suppliers.
Powder – Shot Phials: Glass or preferably plastic phials are commercially available cheaply from medical/pharmaceutical suppliers. A measured amount of shot or powder is placed in the phial. The measuring may be by means of flask dispensing, or shot/powder scoops. For the inexperienced muzzle loader phials, when set out in equal numbers of shot and powder are a useful aid to correct loading as there is a visual indication that the corresponding numbers of powder and shot phials have been used. Also there is an important safety aspect to using phials in that only a small amount of powder is exposed at any time.
Powder – Shot Scoops: These are adjustable scoops with graduated settings for both powder and shot measurements. Before use they should be checked against a scale for accuracy.
Muzzle Loaders Group would always advocate and strongly recommend that you seek professional advice and confirmation of the powder and shot loads prior to loading any gun and firing it.
Capping off – Flashing off: Like modern breech loading guns, muzzle loading shotguns are best stored in the gun cabinet barrel down. This ensures that any excess oil is kept from entering the wood by way of leakage through the nipple on a percussion gun or touch hole on a flint gun. Before loading it is advisable to check that the nipples are clear of oil by firing a couple of percussion caps off just to clear the nipple. Many flintlock shooters likewise flash some priming powder off in the pan.
Loading: When shooting clay pigeons, loading is best done using a table. Stand the gun upright with the muzzle always pointed away from your face. Ensure that the gun is at half cock and for flintlock guns a ‘pricker’ is pushed into the touch hole and the frizzen closed. Remember, when the gun is on half cock do not assume that the gun is safe. This is where the expression “going off at half cock” comes from, so remember to be muzzle aware and keep the gun angled away from your body during loading. Either using a powder flask or pre-measured phial, pour the measured quantity of black powder into the gun muzzle. Then place an over powder card in the gun muzzle, followed by a fibre wad followed by another over wad card. Ram the wad smartly down the barrel so that the wad column is firmly seated over the powder. A measured amount of shot is then poured down the barrel from a shot flask, measuring scoop or pre measured phial. An over shot card is then placed in the muzzle of the gun. Gently push the over shot card down on top of the shot using the ramrod. Remember the old adage -:
“Ram the powder, not the shot – hit a lot!”
A useful safety tip to guard against misloading is that with the gun correctly loaded as above, mark the ramrod depth in line with the end of the muzzle when the ramrod is resting on the shot column. The ramrod may subsequently be used as a depth gauge to verify that the gun has not been double loaded with either powder / shot or indeed if any components have been omitted. The gun is now fully loaded and it is essential to keep the muzzle pointing upwards for obvious safety reasons. It is not recommended that the original ramrod be used in loading as they are often flimsy or brittle and thus prone to breaking AND small enough to be left in the barrel without being noticed. Remember muzzle loading guns cannot be broken to demonstrate good safety practice like breech loading guns.
Taking the Shot: The muzzle loading shotgun should only be capped or primed when in the shooting cage or stand. When in the stand, place a cap on the nipple of the percussion gun whilst still at half cock. Fully cock the gun and the gun is ready to fire. The shot is then taken and the gun placed at half cock. The remnants of the percussion cap may then be removed. Keeping the muzzle upright return to the loading table. When shooting a flintlock, open the frizzen when in the shooting stand, remove the touch hole pricker and dispense a small amount of priming powder from the priming flask into the pan and close the fizzen. Experienced flintlock shooters often pile the priming powder in the centre of the pan as it is believed a faster ignition may be obtained by the flash of the flame as opposed to over filling the pan with powder which causes a slightly slower ignition. The gun is then fully cocked and is ready to fire. After taking the shot, open the frizzen, place the pricker in the touch hole and close the frizzen. Keeping the muzzle upright, return to the loading table where the frizzen is opened and the pricker removed. Clean the burnt powder residue from the frizzen and pan using a rag. Check the condition of the flint and if necessary knap the flint by tapping the front striking edge gently with a piece of brass round bar. This will produce a new edge to the flint. Replace the flint when required. Insert the pricker and close the frizzen and repeat the loading sequence.
Misfires: If a gun fails to fire when shooting from the stand take the following actions:
Keep the gun pointing down the range for approximately 30 seconds. Check the nipple to see if there are any visible blockages and if none are apparent re-cap the gun and attempt to discharge down the range. If this fails, ensure there is no cap on the nipple and place at half cock. Keeping the muzzle upright draw the charge with the drawing rod.
Keep the gun pointing down the range for approximately 30 seconds. Re-prime the gun and attempt to discharge down the range. If this fails, open the frizzen and blow the priming powder from the pan. Keeping the muzzle upright draw the charge with the drawing rod.
It is not recommended that you leave the stand with a loaded gun, but sometimes it is necessary if the gun malfunctions and you need to clear it in a safe environment or extract the load. If leaving a stand with a loaded gun it must be uncapped or the priming powder blown out of the pan and the gun placed at half cock with the muzzle upright.
Remember – Safe shooting is no accident, keep it safe.
Cleaning black powder firearms will at first seem a bit of a chore. However with a little experience, patience and correct cleaning facilities to hand, adequate cleaning of the gun can be achieved relatively quickly. Cleaning the gun is a messy and smelly business (rotten egg smell from the sulphur) and is best done in a shed or garage.
Use of the kitchen or bathroom for this purpose may lead to domestic disputes!
Burnt black powder leaves a salty hygroscopic residue that will cause severe corrosion in gun bores if not properly cleaned after shooting. Given that the original guns are around 150 years old, it is essential to look after these guns – it’s your turn now!
Ideally guns should be cleaned as soon as practicable after shooting, normally at the end of the day. If this is not possible the bore and other external metal parts should be thoroughly sprayed with WD40 to inhibit corrosion until proper cleaning can be carried out.
The metal work on original guns contains a lot of iron. In wet and humid conditions, the metal work can quickly develop a film of rust which for the enthusiastic muzzle loader is heart breaking to see. This can be avoided by wiping off rain with a dry towel and wiping the metal surfaces with WD40. Wet or damp guns must never be stored in this condition but should be allowed to dry before placing in the cabinet.
Cleaning the Barrel: To clean the gun remove the ramrod, place on half cock and remove the barrel. Obtain a bucket of warm water with a small amount of washing up liquid in it and place the barrel breech end into the water. Using a jug pour warm water down the bore until completely full. Using a cleaning rod and jag with either rag, or commercially available 4×2 cleaning patches, rod the jag up and down the bore. This will pump water in and out of the bore via the touch-hole or nipple. Black powder residue is readily dissolved in water. Proprietary black powder cleaning solvents are available but not really necessary. Remove the nipple from the breech plug using a nipple key and continue pumping water through the bore.
Remove the jag from the rod and fit a phosphor bronze bush. Work the brush up & down the bore to remove any stubborn fouling especially from any pitting in the bore. Flush the bore with clean water. Clean off residue from around the breech plug area using an old tooth brush or soft brass brush. Then remove the barrel from the bucket, stand upright and pour boiling water down the barrel. The barrel gets very hot and this stops any rusting and also helps dry the barrel parts. Warning! – use protective gloves & make sure barrel is secure and will not fall over – you can’t hold on to a really hot barrel. Whilst the barrel is still hot, work a cleaning patch up and down the bore to completely dry the bore and work air through the inaccessible parts of the breech plug. Spray the bore with WD40 and also the barrel externals.
Clean the nipple in the bucket of water using a brass brush or toothbrush. Dry the nipple and refit to the breech plug using plumbers PTFE thread tape. The use of PTFE thread tape stops gas cutting & stops the nipple from becoming seized in.
Warning! Do not forget to retrieve the nipple from the bucket before throwing the water away – it’s easily done!
Cleaning the rest of the Gun: Clean off powder residue from the breech face and cock with water and a soft brush. Pay particular attention to thoroughly cleaning the inside of the cock cup which contacts the percussion cap. Avoid getting water on the woodwork. Dry off metal parts and wipe over with WD40. On flintlock guns that tend to be more dirty it is a good idea to remove the lock from the stock and immerse the entire lock in water. Using a toothbrush clean off all powder residue from internal / external surfaces. Dry the lock off and spray with WD40. Wipe off residual WD40 with kitchen roll paper. Sparingly lubricate moving lock parts with gun oil. Finally refit the lock. Wipe off any excess WD40 from the barrel externals and refit barrel to stock. Refit ramrod and lower cock into the fired position. Occasionally polish the stock with a proprietary wax based furniture polish. Store gun muzzle down in the gun cabinet.
Remember – Safe shooting is no accident, keep it safe.