September 1, 2022
By Seth Isaacson
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Cleaning your firearms after use is always recommended, but it’s especially important when you are using black powder. Corrosive and hygroscopic, black powder fouling will pull moisture from the air and promote oxidation. If you neglect a black powder firearm for a while after use, you could end up with a rusty, pitted barrel and significantly impaired accuracy and/or a rusty lock that won’t perform. Given this, you want to clean black powder guns as soon as possible after use.
There are many ways to undertake the task of muzzleloader cleaning, so you don’t have to stick to my recommendations in order to get good results. If you asked ten muzzleloader shooters how they clean their guns, you may well get ten different answers. However, because black powder is water soluble, most will use good old tap water to do most of the work.
2) Ramrod, cleaning rod, or range rod.
3) An appropriate sized jag for your gun.
4) A stack of patches.
5) A rag or two.
6) Cleaning brush.
7) Ballistol, WD40, Penetrating Oil/Liquid Wrench, or your preferred rust prevention oil.
Optional: Patch lube cleaner made of equal parts Murphy’s Oil Soap, rubbing alcohol, and water; Hoppes No. 9 Black Powder Cleaner & Patch Lubricant, or similar black powder solvent along with a brass/bronze bore brush, fouling scraper, undersized brush for guns with smaller powder chambers, pipe cleaners, and/or bore mops.
I start by taking my lock off and setting it aside. Then, if I am cleaning a muzzleloader with a barrel secured by wedges (aka keys), I dismount the barrel. If I am cleaning a firearm with a pinned barrel, I leave it mounted and then plug the nipple if it’s a percussion firearm or the vent if it’s a flintlock. Many people find a simple toothpick works well. You can also get fancy and use a high power magnet or use flush tubes, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s the route you want to go; I haven’t found them necessary.
Disassembled and ready to clean.
Once you have your gun disassembled and/or plugged, the next step in muzzleloader cleaning is getting some water through the pipe. Some people are adamant that hot water is best, others insist cold is what you need, and many say just use whatever water is on hand. It does seem from my experience that hot water works a little better and evaporates better, but I haven’t noticed a big difference.
Use a bucket, utility sink or something else your significant other won't kill you for getting dirty.
If the barrel is dismounted, put the breech end into a bucket of water. Then get your rod with an appropriately sized jag for your muzzleloading firearm and a wet cleaning patch. Run the patch up and down the bore.
If you have a good tight fit, it will suck water up into the barrel through the vent/nipple and into the barrel and then get pushed back out on the down stroke. This quickly cleans out both the bore and the flash channel. Do this several times. Depending on how dirty the bore is, the water may turn black or light gray. Dump the water and refill the bucket and repeat the process until the water and patches come out clean.
If the barrel is still mounted on the gun, use a pitcher or other receptacle to pour some water in the barrel without getting the whole gun wet. Let it sit for a few minutes and then dump it out.
Clean water coming back out of the barrel is a good sign your bore is getting clean.
Do that a couple of times, and maybe shake the water in the barrel each time to slosh it around in the barrel. Once the initial fouling is flushed out, get your rod and a patch. Put a little water in the bore and run a wet patch up and down the bore. Repeat that process until the patches and water come back out clean.
I often run a few Murphy’s Oil Soap, alcohol, and water solution soaked patches down the barrel as part of my cleaning process.
With just water, you can usually get the bore basically completely clean, especially if you have been using a tight patch and ball combo that doesn’t allow fouling to build up. If water isn’t cutting it, you can run some patches with a black powder solvent like Hoppes No. 9 Black Powder Cleaner & Patch Lubricant or the Murphy’s Oil Soap, alcohol, and water blend I like to use and run some patches. If you are still having grime come out, you may need to use a bronze/brass brush on your rod to scrub the bore or a fouling scraper to clean the breech face. Some firearms such as antique guns with patent breeches or many of Pedersoli’s reproduction muzzleloading firearms have an antechamber in the breech that is smaller than the bore. To clean these guns, you’ll need appropriately sized smaller brush and mop attachments to scrub this chamber out and make sure crud isn’t building up.
Once things are nice and clean, you need to make sure the bore is properly dried using your rod and some patches. Using a patch soaked in rubbing alcohol after the bulk of the moisture is out is an option. Then, grab your rust preventative of choice and run some oiled patches to lubricate the bore and prevent rust and also wipe down the exterior of the barrel.
I often take a pipe cleaner and use that to ensure the nipple is clean, and use another and/or a rag or patch to clean around the bolster of my percussion guns. Usually the water and oil pumping through the barrel does a good job flushing the flash channel out. You will want to remove the nipple sometimes and thoroughly clean it too. Flintlock vents shouldn’t need to be removed unless they need replaced which isn’t going to be very often, but make sure to clean up the exterior at the breech.
Now let’s get the lock cleaned up. I often use a toothbrush to do most of the work here. First, I take a wet patch or rag and wipe off as much of the fouling and other residue. Hopefully you do not have much residue on the inside of the lock. If there is, clean that off too. Flintlocks will have a lot more fouling than percussion firearms on the lock since they use priming and have blowout through the vent. Most of the residue will be on and around the pan and frizzen on a flintlock.
On percussion firearms, you usually won’t have much to clean on the lock except where it meets up with the drum or bolster. Make sure to clean around the cock or hammer as well, and bring it back to half and full-cock to check underneath. Now that the bulk of the residue is gone, use the brush to get into the nooks and crannies. Once the lock is nice and clean, use a good oil to lubricate and protect it. If you had to clean the interior much, you may need to reapply some grease around the moving parts to keep them running properly.
The lock off of my percussion pistol after being cleaned.
Now your lock and barrel are clean. If your furniture is iron/steel, it is a good idea to wipe them down with oil and rust preventative too. If they are brass, you can usually just leave them alone, especially if you want it to gain a nice aged patina. Before you put everything back together, wipe off your stock and look and make sure no fouling blew into the lock mortise or barrel inlet by the breech. Then, carefully put everything back together. Your muzzleloader should now be squeaky clean.
I would definitely recommend checking your guns within a few days to make sure no rust is developing and again a week later if it’s going to sit for a while before use. The last thing you want to find out is that your bore has been sitting around rusting for weeks when you go to shoot next because you missed something while cleaning. I rarely find any issues, but if I do, they can usually be solved with a few patches of Liquid Wrench.
A major part of muzzleloader cleaning is avoiding a rusty bore. If you neglected to clean your muzzleloader for several days after shooting or missed something and didn’t check on your firearms for a while, you may get some rust. If it hasn’t been a long time, usually it isn’t much of an issue. Start with the simplest solution first: plug the vent or nipple and spray or pour some Liquid Wrench or similar rust remover and let it sit on the bore for a few minutes. If it’s pretty rusty you may want to soak the bore for a while. Then, take a patch soaked in fresh oil and run it up and down the bore. You may need to repeat this a few times. If the problem is minor, this usually solves things. If the bore is still rusty and your patches are still coming out with rust, employ a bronze/brass brush and oil to scrape off the rust without damaging the bore. Then switch back to oiled patches and see if that gets things properly cleaned up.
If you are still having issues, the next step in muzzleloader cleaning I would go with is soaking the bore overnight or for 24 hours with a good penetrating oil. After that, go back to the brush and patches, and see if that will get things cleaned up. If you have a fair amount of rust to deal with and you don’t mind destroying the brush, you can put the rod into the chuck of an electric drill and scrub the bore that way. If you are still having trouble, you may need to use an undersized jag and a piece or a green scour pad or even fine steel wool to scrape the bore clean. Be careful as doing this too much will wear your bore over time. If you have been maintaining your firearms properly, you should never have to deal with this issue.
I’ve never personally dealt with a bore so dirty that the above solutions did not work, but if you’ve got a really dirty barrel and just can’t seem to get it clean, but it looks like it can be saved, you may need to turn to something a little more aggressive. Be careful, as solutions like Birchwood Casey’s Blue & Rust Remover will also remove your barrel’s exterior finish and naval jelly and other acidic cleaners can etch your bore.
No matter what you do to try to remove rust, I would recommend flushing the bore again at the end, drying it, and oiling it to make sure you didn’t leave any residue in the bore that may give you more headaches down the line.
People who don’t shoot muzzleloaders or haven’t been taught how to load and maintain them properly often complain that they are a pain to clean, but really they aren’t that complicated to care for. If you clean your muzzleloaders after you are done shooting for the day or later that day, you shouldn’t have any trouble. It’s basic, water to flush, patches and a jag to wipe clean, and then oil to prevent rust. It’s not complicated. If you follow these basics routinely, you shouldn’t have any issues keeping your guns clean and ready to shoot and enjoy for years or even generations to come.
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