A Muzzleloader Primer
Make sure your smokepole is ready for the Oct. 12 primitive-weapons opener.
For me, October is the most glorious month of the year. The air is bright and cool. There are football games on TV that actually matter. Restaurant patios are covered by college girls in sundresses with little stickers on their faces. There are balloons everywhere. Children are laughing, angels are crying, but mostly, I finally get to hunt deer with something that shoots bullets.
As a warranty/repair gunsmith for CVA, I spend a large portion of my days working on muzzleloaders for deer hunters around the country. Some of the ones I see come in for parts or normal wear and tear. Some of them look like they may have been used to chop firewood or discover sea mines, but most were probably just fired a few times last year and put away dirty. Unfortunately, this can render your gun useless, dangerous or even deadly.
“Real black powder and most black-powder substitutes are much more corrosive than smokeless powders,” said Dudley McGarity, CEO of BPI Outdoors (the parent company of CVA.) “That is why it is so much more important to clean your muzzleloader after firing it.”
Not only are blackpowder charges more corrosive than smokeless charges, they are also much larger in total volume. A .30-06 Springfield with a 150-grain Hornady soft-point bullet needs a smokeless powder charge of approximately 42-58 grains, depending on the brand of powder. I can load my personal muzzleloader, a .50-caliber Accura MR, with two or three IMR White Hot pellets for a total of 100-150 grains of powder. Although blackpowder and smokeless powders may perform the same general function, the two are not interchangeable.
“We need to always remember that modern smokeless powders should never be used in muzzleloaders,” said McGarity. “Doing so can essentially create a pipe bomb—and shooting a gun loaded with smokeless powder can injure you severely or even kill you.”
So let’s assume you want to hunt this season, but your muzzleloader isn’t up to par. If you sent it back to the manufacturer for repairs on Oct. 1, it’s not likely to make it back to you by the opening day of Georgia’s primitive-weapons season, which is Oct. 12. The good news is, as long as you don’t need any replacement parts, you may be able to salvage your gun with some basic hand tools and cleaning products in your garage or local sporting goods store.
Before cleaning your gun, ensure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, and that there is nothing obstructing the barrel. After ensuring your gun is unloaded, check its mechanical functions. Do not attempt to break down your gun any further than your manual instructs you to. A lot of people try to disassemble their guns by knocking the pins out of the frame and trigger assembly. Muzzleloaders are full of tiny springs under tension, and although they may be easily removed, they sometimes need to be re-installed with special factory jigs and tools that aren’t available to the public.
Start by opening and closing your gun. Check the inside of your receiver and make sure the firing pin is not protruding. Make sure you can cock the hammer all the way back until it locks. Remove and inspect your breech plug to ensure it isn’t clogged with spent powder or rust. Inspect the bore for rust and pitting. See if the trigger fires and resets. Remove all corrosion, rust and spent powder. Inspect the welds to ensure there are no cracks. After noting everything you find wrong with the way the gun operates, compare it to some of the most common fixable problems below, and you might be able to save your gun in time for the season.
Rust: Rust is like a cancer to firearms. If you catch it early enough, you can treat it. However, it isn’t just a cosmetic nuisance; it is a chemical reaction that takes place in the metal. Untreated rust will eat away pits in the rifling of your barrel, destroying accuracy. If your gun has been sitting with rust in it for a year, it may likely be past the point of no return. When cleaning rust from your muzzleloader, remember that things may get messy, and many aerosol cleaners aren’t suitable indoors, so choose your workspace wisely.
If you can get to a store that sells them, it’s worth trying some Barrel Blaster products, made especially for muzzleloaders. I use the foaming bore cleaner, the parts soaker, the quick clean patches and the rust preventative patches on every muzzleloader I touch. If you can’t get your hands on any of these, go to the auto parts store and pick up some brake cleaner, some penetrating oil like PB Blaster or CRC Freeze Off and some Ballistol, Remoil, or other multipurpose oil approved for firearms (not WD-40!).
When I get an extremely rusty gun, the first thing I do is soak every rusted part with penetrating oil and allow it to sit for 15-20 minutes. After the oil has a chance to work itself into the metal, I use a copper bore brush to scrub the inside of the barrel, and a steel brush or ultra-fine Scotch-Brite to remove rust from the outside surfaces. Be careful when scrubbing rust on the outside of a rifle, because it is very easy to scrub the bluing right off the metal. On stainless steel guns, this is not really an issue, but if you do remove the bluing from a few spots on the outside, degrease the spots thoroughly with acetone or brake cleaner, and touch them up with cold bluing solution and a Q-tip.
The Firing Pin Is Stuck: This is one of the most common and potentially dangerous problems I encounter. This almost always happens when spent powder or rust collect on the firing pin and spring. The pin is driven forward by the impact from the hammer, but the return spring on the firing pin is much lighter, and cannot drive the rusty pin back home. If you can figure out how to remove your firing pin and firing pin spring, there is a good chance you can clean it up enough to save your gun. Most of the firing pins I work with can be removed with a small slotted flathead screwdriver or hex key. Once you have the pin out, remove all of the rust and powder residue and put a light coat of oil on the pin and spring before re-installing them. I like to use Barrel Blaster parts soaker, but brake cleaner works just fine on powder buildup, and PB Blaster is great for dissolving rust and corrosion. It also helps to use a little anti-seize grease on the threads of the screw that hold the firing pin in place to make it easier to get out in the future.
If you can’t get your firing pin out of your receiver, the next best thing you can do is try to soak it with penetrating oil and break up the corrosion inside. Get everything you can off with brake cleaner. Then when it dries, put a few drops of PB Blaster around the firing pin, let it soak in for a while, scrub and repeat. If you can’t get your firing pin assembly to function properly, send it back to the manufacturer. You should never hunt with a gun you don’t feel safe and confident with.
“My gun misfires:” As with all guns, the components that create the bang are the firing pin, the primer and the powder. In most modern muzzleloaders, the spark must usually pass through a tiny hole in a breech plug to ignite the powder. Try firing a few primers without a powder charge. If they pop, you can rule out the firing pin. If the primers didn’t pop, check the brass side for a dent from your firing pin. If there is no dent, or a very shallow one, then the firing pin probably isn’t hitting hard enough or protruding far enough. This probably means your hammer spring needs to be replaced, or your firing pin is worn or rusty. Once you have function checked your firing pin, it’s time to move on to the breech plug and powder.
Remove your breech plug, hold it up, and see if you can see daylight through the tiny hole in the center. If not, clean it until you can. I like to use parts soaker, dental picks and an air compressor, but you can most likely get it done with some pipe cleaners or a paper clip, and some brake cleaner. Remember to use eye protection because the breech-plug hole is very small and may cause cleaner to spray back toward your face. Once your plug is clean and dry, test fire a complete charge. If you still can’t make fire, consider a different powder or primer. CVA recommends IMR White Hot pellets or Blackhorn brand loose powder.
The Breech Plug Is Stuck: Occasionally I have to replace barrels because of stuck breech plugs, but the majority of the time they can be broken free with some combination of penetrating oil, leverage or ape-like strength. I have also destroyed several tools removing breech plugs, so choose your wrenches and breaker bars carefully. If you have a vise and some soft vise jaws, remove the barrel and lock it into the vise with the muzzle to the sky. Spray penetrating oil into both ends of your barrel, and then walk away for 15 to 20 minutes.
Try to remove the plug after the oil has soaked in by turning it counterclockwise with firm, even pressure. Every time it budges a little, give it a few more drops of oil and keep going until it comes free.
Apply some anti-seize grease to your breech plug threads like PQL Mat Grease C1, before reinserting the plug into the barrel. This will prevent it from binding in the future. If you absolutely can’t get the plug out, send it back to the manufacturer or a gunsmith. A gun with a stuck breech plug should never be fired because there is no safe way to inspect the barrel prior to use.
“My gun isn’t accurate:” Accuracy is a very subjective issue. In centerfire rifles, the standard for factory guns is to shoot a 2-inch, three-shot group at 100 yards. Higher end rifles and custom guns are usually held to a standard of 1 inch or better at 100 yards.
There is no published standard for muzzleloaders, and accuracy depends on many variables. The most important factor in muzzleloader accuracy is the quality of the barrel. After that, different bullets, propellants and even primers will produce different groups. A good example of this is CVA’s top-of-the-line Accura models. These are all equipped with genuine Bergara brand barrels, which are the same barrels that many of the top rifle makers in the world use on their guns. I test customer guns at the range every week for accuracy issues. Generally speaking, I use test loads with two IMR White Hot pellets, a Powerbelt bullet and Winchester 209 primers. I am usually able to achieve a group around 3 inches when there is nothing mechanically wrong with the gun.
Another important factor to consider in accuracy is the sights or optics on the gun. Ensure that whatever sighting apparatus you are using is firmly secured to the rifle, as any amount of looseness can cause inconsistency. If you are using a scope, buy the best one you can afford. Cheaping-out on optics is like building a million-dollar race car and filling it with 87 octane to save money. It is also much easier to shoot a tight group from the bench with a scope that has high variable magnification. A guy shooting a 4x14x40 is much more likely to shoot a good group than a guy with a 3x9x40, because his sight picture is larger and so is his margin for error.
The last issue that needs to be considered with shooting muzzleloaders is ballistics. When you sight in most high-powered rifles at 100 yards, your bullet might only drop a few inches at 300 yards, depending on caliber. This is absolutely not the case for muzzleloaders. A 300-grain Powerbelt Platinum Aerotip bullet with a hundred grains of powder will drop about 6.2 inches at 150 yards if it was sighted in at 100. The same load will drop about 11.46 inches at 175 yards and 18.3 inches at 200 yards. A muzzleloader sighted in at 100 yards would have a bullet drop of more than 5 feet at 300 yards, so know your distance before you shoot.
Whether you choose to become a serious blackpowder hunter, or you just want to spend an extra week in the woods with a rifle, you owe it to yourself to give muzzleloader hunting a try. As long as they are maintained properly, they can be just as fun and effective to shoot as centerfire rifles.
For more information on muzzleloader hunting, visit www.CVA.com.
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