I really like to spend time with my blackpowder guns. I like it when they are clean, and of course I love to shoot them. But I have to let you know a secret. I don’t like to to spend too much time cleaning. I have many reasons for this. The first is that after shooting I am not really in the mood to clean 4-5 guns in a row. It’s much better to have a cold beer in the summer sunset than cleaning the dirt from the old smoke poles.
Being a father and husband also means that my energy and time spent for cleaning must be limited to a certain level. This is why I always tried to develop practical quick methods for cleaning. I set a few rules for myself. I hope you will find them interesting as well.
First rule: Do not always clean your gun!
If I have a chance during the week to visit the range for some shooting, I usually do not clean the gun after the first session. It is not just the time saving I have in mind when I do so. Your gun needs some fouling in the barrel to be accurate. The clean, oiled barrel needs 2-5 shots to achieve this status, so you can loose some important shots if you have a competition at the weekend, and you clean your gun. If you follow this method, you have to be careful. First you have to know exactly how many shots you need for perfect accuracy. Second, you have to make sure that after practice, your barrel will not start to rust.
To fulfil the requirements of the first point you have to do some practice and make notes during shooting. For the second point you need some more knowledge also. Don’t pull out the barrel after shooting with a wet patch. If you try to use a wet patch, you will push down the dirt into the powder chamber, and the rifling will start to corrode. If you try to use a dry patch you still push down the dirt into the chamber, that will cause you trouble on the next shooting day. If you use the oiled patch, you are safe from rust, but you lose the accuracy of the first shots.
I suggest a different approach. After the last shot, use a corkwood plug to seal the muzzle, put a piece of leather on the nipple and put the hammer on it. Now you have sealed your barrel. If you oil the metal parts, you won’t have any problem until the next shooting in a few days. Only use this method if you are sure that your are going to use the gun in 2-3 days.
Second rule: Learn from the soldiers of the old times!
Cleaning the muzzle-loading military arms back in the old days was a quick and easy process for the soldiers. In fact the process had to be very-very simple so the not so qualified poor guys could do it easily without damaging the gun. All of the contemporary manuals have certain instructions for cleaning these guns without removing any parts from the gun.
If you want to use this method – cleaning the gun without removing the barrel from the stock – you have to make sure that water cannot get between the wood and metal parts. To achieve this, the best way is to cover the underside of the barrel with a thin layer of waterpump grease. Before starting to clean, put a small wooden stick into the touch hole of the nipple and fill up the barrel with boiling hot water. Leave it till it cools, and pour out half of the water. Cover the muzzle with your hand and shake the rifle a few times horizontally, then pour out all the water. If you are done, fill the barrel again with hot water to flush out all the remaining blackpowder residue. Now place the muzzle on a rag or any soft surface, and leave the the gun like this for a few minutes. The remaining drops of water will pour out from the breech. If your water was hot enough, the moisture will evaporate from the metal surfaces quickly.
Now it’s time to pull out the barrel with some dry patches and then with oiled patches. This cleaning method is not the best you can have, but it’s a good help if you are on a few days hunting trip, re-enactment or military shooting match, where you have only limited time to do the job.
Third rule: always loosen the nipple or, touch hole insert after shooting!
Never ever forget this part. Do it even if you have time only for field cleaning, or anytime when you are not sure when you will have the chance to clean your gun completely. It is much easier to unscrew the nipple when your barrel is still hot from shooting, and the black powder residue is not stiff, but still soft. If you don’t do this, you can be sure that the nipple or your nipple wrench will break one day. If your nipple is already stuck in the breech, don’t try to force it. Try a gentle approach: first put the breech in boiling hot water, or heat it from the inside with a steam cleaner. It is much easy to unscrew the nipple from a hot breech. This method works nearly every time, even if you have a rusted nipple. If you want to remove the rusted nipple of an antique gun, try immersing the breech in brake fluid for a few days. After that you can try the heating method.
If these methods don’t work, you have to get mechanical: call your gunsmith and he will drill out the stuck nipple for you. But I have tell you that I have never ever seen any case where the threads in the breech or bolster were not damaged during the drilling process, so be careful! It’s much better to spend the time unscrewing the nipple after shooting.
Before re-mounting the nipple, cover the threads with Teflon tape or copper paste (I think the Teflon tape is the best you can have).
Fourth rule: If you intend to leave your gun uncleaned for more than 2-3 days, oil it!
If you will not shoot your gun in the week, but you know that you can only clean it after a few days, pull out the bore with an oil patch, or at leafs spray some gun oil into the rifling. Loosen the nipple or touch hole insert, and wipe the entire gun with an oily rag. If your gun is clean, and you know you will not use it for a few months, it is better to use some heavy artillery to avoid unnecessary corrosion. In this case cover the entire gun with fine motor oil. This will make a thick layer of oil on all metal surfaces. It is better to store the gun horizontally, or with the muzzle pointing down, so the exes oil will not gather in the breech, but pour out of the barrel slowly.
Fifth rule: If you clean your gun completely, give it time!
In the next part I will tell you how to clean your gun completely. This is my method. I am sure that there are some better, more precise methods, but it worked for me in the last years, and did not ruin the condition of any of my replica or original guns. I do not really like to take out the barrels of my full stock guns, so I only clean them separately in the case of hooked breech guns. For all the others, I grease the underside of the barrel, and clean them in the stock.
Cleaning hooked breech guns
Get the barrel out of the stock, unscrew the nipple and put the breech into approx. 20 cm deep hot water. Put a tight patch on your ramrod, and suck up the water into the barrel like a pump. Do this several times, this will remove the majority of the residue and you flush it out into the water. This will also soften the residue in the rifling, so it will make the job of the brushes easy. Always use a ramrod that is softer than your barrel. But even if it is made of plastic, brass or aluminum, use a plastic muzzle protector to save the muzzle and the crown.
If you use your gun with patched round balls, it is usually enough to use bristle brush. If you use conical bullets, you will need the brass or bronze brush as well every second cleaning. This will help to remove the lead from the barrel. After you are done, put a dry patch on your ramrod and suck up some water a few times again. If your water is hot enough, the moisture will evaporate after you take the barrel out of the water. Use some dry patches to get rid of the water in the powder chamber or flash hole channel, but do not be afraid if the patch is still not 100% clean. There is no point in cleaning the barrel to absolute cleanness.
Now it’s time to oil the bore. Spray some gun oil into the muzzle, then wipe it out with a clean patch. With a few strong blows into the muzzle, blow out the superfluous oil. It will leave the touch hole channel as a small cloud. Wipe the barrel again with a lightly oiled patch and you have your barrel cleaned out.
Cleaning the barrel without removing it from the stock
Many people do not like the type of guns the barrels of which are not equipped with a hooked breech. In fact, it is much easier to clean these guns than the hooked breech weapons. If your barrel is well greased on the underside, you won’t have a problem for a long time. The magic tool you will need is a silicon pipe with a brass interface that can be screwed into the place of the nipple or touch hole. Take out the lock and screw the brass into the breech and put some weight on the other end of the pipe. This will keep it under water when your are using it. Use a clothes-pin to close the pipe, and fill up the barrel with hot water, and leave it to cool for a few minutes. Take out the pin and let the dirty liquid pour into a bowl. Now put the end of the silicon pipe into some hot water again and use a tight patch and your ramrod to suck up some water into the barrel. Do this a few times until the water coming out of the barrel is clean. Now it is time to use the bristle brush. Close the pipe again and fill 1/3 of the barrel with hot water, and rub the bore with the brush. Open the pipe, let the dirty water pour out and use some clean hot water to flush the barrel again the way mentioned previously. Remove the brass interface from the barrel and with a few strong blows, remove the moisture in the barrel. Use a few dry patches to finish the job and you can oil the barrel.
Sixth rule: Horizontal is better than vertical!
There is no shooter in the world who has not experienced a misfire during the first shot with a clean gun. This problem is usually caused by the oil gathering in the powder chamber or in the touch hole channel. This can easily happen if you store your muzzle-loader muzzle up. So, if at all possible, store your gun vertically, or if you don’t have enough space, store it muzzle down. But always remember to place the muzzle on a soft surface so you don’t damage the crown.
To make sure your touch hole channel is clear, snap a few caps before shooting, or use a compressed air spray to clean the touch hole.
Alternative cleaning methods – using the steam cleaner
Nowadays we can see more and more shooters using steam cleaners on the range. It is a great help if you use it wisely. The small household steam cleaners hold only a few deciliters of water and can only generate 1-2 bar pressure. To clean a barrel completely you need a more professional approach. Choose a steam cleaner the makes at least 3 bars of pressure, can generate continuous steam for at least 5 minutes. I found the new Pedersoli turbo cleaner really useful with the 1,5 liter tank capacity and all the attachable accessories for cleaning long and short arms.
Cleaning the barrel is easy: place the gun on a table, with the muzzle pointing downward at 10-15 degrees. Let your cleaner warm up, and through the cleaning pipe start spraying steam into the breech. You will notice the black liquid flowing out of the muzzle. You need only a few minutes to clean the metal surface completely. Your barrel will get really hot – the temperature of the steam is around 130 Celsius – so watch out for your hands, always wear safety gloves. The barrel gets so hot, that any moisture evaporates immediately, so your barrel will be ready for oiling.
On replica arms you can even use it for cleaning the stock and lock. But be careful: have your barrel greased where it meets the wood, so you don’t give corrosion a chance.