PART V: SHOOTING A TRADITIONAL FIREARM
“Traditional” applies as well to how I use the stuff. I would like to be able to carry my rifle, load it, shoot it and clean it in a way that simply wouldn’t cause anyone to do a double take back in the19th century. Of course, since I don’t own a time machine, all I can do is speculate. But I can also read every primary source I find, handle and shoot as many original guns as possible and try things out in the field to see what really works. Having done that for nearly forty years, I’d like to offer some observations about traditional firearms shooting.
Some serious misconceptions turn people off to black powder shooting. They think the loading process is dangerous and complicated. They don’t believe patched round ball loads are accurate or effective enough for hunting. They think that the clean-up process is messy and time consuming. Andy and I started the Ruxton palaver precisely to dispel some of these misconceptions.
Let’s start with a few facts and tips about historical loads.
A patched round ball was the projectile of the American long rifle. That includes the plains rifle. There are accounts of a New Mexico hunter loading his “St. Louis Rifle” with a long, conical bullet, but his contemporaries viewed that as an oddity. Bullets existed, but they were used mostly in late 19th century target shooting. Frontier rifles had slow twist rifling designed to stabilize a round ball.
Patching was a personal choice. My own belief is that frontiersmen used whatever scrap cloth material they had on hand, lubricated with saliva or some kind of natural grease. Primary sources talk a lot about the number of “balls to the pound” rifles “threw”. They even occasionally mention powder charges. But I have never read a period reference to patch thickness or composition. Later commentators wrote at length on the subject, but the old timers never really mentioned it. Nor have I ever seen bottles of patch lube or packages of pre-cut, pre-sized lubricated patches listed in the ledger books of any period fur company.
Rifles had to be easy to load. Frontiersmen relied upon them for survival so it is logical to assume that balls were patched loosely enough for smooth, quick loading. Does loading a tightly patched ball with a short starter give a shooter better accuracy? Absolutely. But just how much better, compared to the time it takes to load such a tight ball and the risk that the ball might jam halfway down a dirty bore?
Andy loads much tighter than I do. Years ago he purchased a quantity of pre-cut, .015” thick, round lubed patches which he has since been trying to use up. Occasionally, due to variations in ball size, he is forced to load with a short starter. I on the other hand, tear off a rough square of worn out linen dish towel of unknown thickness, wet it in my mouth, thumb press it with the ball into my rifle’s bore and push it down easily with my ramrod. I shoot a pretty loose load.
There is no question that Andy shoots tighter groups on paper than I do. But Andy is also a much better shot! When we go out in the field and experiment taking practical shots at life sized targets, I am able to “make meat” just as often as he does. Further, I have cut the playing card, put out the candle flame, done the “axe split” and hit the long range gong with my loose loads. Actually, there is very little difference between how well I shoot my loosely patched round balls through a muzzle loader and how accurately I can shoot a modern cartridge rifle. If I miss, I chalk it up to my poor shooting skill, not my loose load. My style of loading seems to work even better in original rifles with deep, slow rifling. So I have concluded that frontiersmen didn’t fuss a lot over patching. They loaded looser than shooters tend to load today because it was easy, convenient and accurate for most practical situations.
Priming powder works great but simply isn’t necessary. Madison Grant’s book The Kentucky Rifle Hunting Pouch illustrates around 35 shooting outfits attributed to the flintlock period, six of which have two powder horns. We assume one horn in each set was a priming horn.
Period black powder was coarser than it is today so a shooter would have needed to grind his own priming powder. This could have been done, but I don’t believe it was done very often. The increased ignition speed priming powder gives you simply isn’t worth the effort of grinding it. Our experience has shown that a flintlock fusee loaded with shot and primed with FF powder ignites fast enough to reliably break clay birds in the air. In fact, just last weekend Andy did a flintlock demonstration with his trade gun which ignited instantaneously primed with FG cannon powder! Musket shooters using paper cartridges prime with coarse powder all the time. Bottom line, you don’t really need to carry a priming horn to shoot a flintlock. You can if you want to, but it really isn’t necessary.
Powder charges. A traditional formula is to start with your rifle’s caliber in grains of FFG powder. (45 grains of powder for a .45 caliber rifle) Increase the charge by about 2/3 for hunting and fine tune on the range for best results.
It’s much easier to load a longrifle than to describe the procedure in writing. The process is actually no more complicated than handloading a modern cartridge and definitely more forgiving. Andy told me he once found a website that described over a dozen loading steps. I can believe that. But imagine how many steps you’d need to describe riding a bicycle. Let’s see if I can shave off a few steps and still explain how the old timers did it.
- Clear the ignition Pick the vent, blow down the barrel, and perform whatever ritual you do to make sure your main charge will ignite.
- Unplug your horn, take out your powder measure and measure a standard charge of powder.
- Pour the powder down the barrel and re-plug your horn.
- Place a lubricated patch over the muzzle. This may involve taking a pre-cut, pre-lubed patch from your rifle’s patchbox or your shooting bag OR cutting a piece of patch cloth and lubricating it with grease or saliva.
- Take a ball out of your shooting bag and thumb press it into the patch and into the muzzle.
- Withdraw your ramrod.
- Holding your ramrod very short, seat the ball an inch or two into the barrel, then push it down to the powder with a series of short strokes.
- Replace your ramrod.
- Half cock. Prime the pan – after checking that your flint is still tight and sharp. I wipe off the frizzen with my thumb, but that may not really matter. It’s just part of my ritual. Be sure to re-plug your horn. OR, cap your percussion rifle.
- If you have set triggers, now’s the time.
- Full cock. Present. Aim and fire. For me, those steps constitute a single, flowing motion.
Well, that comes pretty close to a dozen steps. A couple less for a caplock. More important, with just a bit of practice those steps can be comfortably executed in between forty seconds and a minute. Give some thought to speeding it up if you’re under fire or being charged by a wounded buffalo.