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Gun Handling and Safety

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Gun Handling and Safety
Phil Jose
(With a few interjections by yours truly – jp)

In the other articles I've written, I've tried to keep things light and use some humor wherever I could. You're going to find that markedly lacking here, because good gun handling and good gun safety practices are serious matters.

There's two main reasons why. The first should be obvious: To protect the shooter and those in his proximity from injury and possibly even death. While this is true for all guns, it goes doubly for black powder firearms, where the explosive gunpowder is not contained in a brass cartridge. The second reason may not be as obvious to someone brand new to shooting: There are plenty of anti-gun nuts in this world who would not hesitate to use shooting accidents as another excuse to compromise the Second Amendment and take away more of our liberties. Speaking as an experienced shooter as well as an American citizen, I can't abide the thought of ten percent of the Bill of Rights being abolished "for my own good."

Another thing that I want to emphasize at the outset is that this article is not meant to be a "how-to" article. Use it only to get an idea of what shooting a black powder firearm entails. You should no more try to learn gun handling from an article like this then you would try to learn to drive a car from a book. There is no substitute for going with an experienced shooter and learning hands on, one-on-one.

Before you're ready to go to the range for the first time, there are some primary rules you must learn and take to heart:

1. The gun is loaded. Until you have positively confirmed to the contrary, always assume that there's a load in the barrel, ready to be fired. This is not only the primary rule, but the voice of experience speaking. When I was a boy, I came close to being shot by an "unloaded" gun, handled by an experienced gunowner. All it takes is one instance of inattention and someone can wind up hurt or killed.

The best way to find out for sure is with your ramrod. Look at the breech end of your barrel. You'll see a line running the circumference of the barrel where it and the breechplug meet. Lay one end of your ramrod there. Now mark with your thumbnail where the ramrod crosses the muzzle. Without moving your thumb, put your ramrod all the way down the barrel. If your thumb is on the muzzle, you know there's nothing in there. To save time, if you're using a wooden ramrod, when you're measuring, mark a light notch where it crosses the muzzle.

2. Never point a gun where you don't want to shoot. (Remember, it's loaded.) Even if you've just confirmed that the gun's unloaded, never point it at another human being, or anything else that is not a target. The more times you safely handle even unloaded weapons, the faster good safety habits become ingrained in you.

3. No smoking. Remember, black powder is an explosive. You should no more think of smoking with a powder horn around your neck than you would if you were in a dynamite shack. Smokers, do whatever it takes to remind you not to take your smokes with you to the firing line.

4. Obey all range officer's commands. The range officer is an experienced gun handler. He knows what it is takes to keep shooting safe as well as fun. When he says "Hold your fire," do so. He's making sure that everything's secure to go down on the range and check out the targets, that everyone's off the range before shooting recommences, etc. You won't find yourself in a gun club too long if you don't do what he says.

Once on the range and on the firing line, your first step is to get rid of the oil that is in the barrel of the weapon. This helps to help insure proper ignition of your first round. What you're going to do is is fire a priming charge without having a main charge in the barrel. The fire from the primer will burn the oil out. Remember, even though you've confirmed that there's no charge down the barrel, keep the muzzle pointed downrange. The first step, whether you're shooting flintlock or percussion, is to bring the hammer to "halfcock." When you pull back the hammer, there are two disticnt stopping spots that you'll feel, and hear two distinct "clicks." The first is the "halfcock" position. It is your safety, the place where the hammer should be on fully loaded muzzleloaders before you're ready to fire.

(Remember THE GUN IS ALWAYS LOADED! If you can't keep the barrel pointed down range, get a friend with a large stick to whack you every time you point it somewhere else – jp)

If you're shooting a flintlock, open the frizzen and pour in a small amount of priming powder into the pan. Close the frizzen securely over the pan.

If you're shooting percussion, take a priming cap and put it on the nipple.

Point your muzzle downrange. Bring the hammer back to the second click. That's "full cock" position; the gun will now fire. Go ahead and take a practice aim. (More on this later.) Squeeze the trigger. The powder in the pan should have flashed and smoked. The percussion cap should have made a hollow "thunk" sound. Now you're ready to shoot.

(I have heard a couple theories on this. The most extreme was to shoot a half load without ball to "foul" the barrel and melt/blow out the oils/lube. The other end was to never flash a flintlock. I don't shoot a flash charge, but I think it is a shooter option – depends on what the rifle likes – jp)

The first step in loading a round is to measure the powder.

There are only two kinds of powder that ever go into muzzleloaders: black powder and a special modern powder designed for them called Pyrodex. Any modern powder designed to reload brass cartridges generates too much pressure for muzzleloaders and can blow up the gun. This can get you killed. The friend that tells you, "Well, you can put a little modern stuff in with the black powder, to help keep the bore clean," is lying to you. The only correct amount of modern powder in a muzzleloader is none at all. I cannot overemphasize this.

Make sure that the powder you buy is the proper sized granulation for the calibre you're shooting. Black powder comes in four different granulations:

Fg ("single F"). This is the coarsest, and is for very large calibre weapons, 75 calibre and above.

FFg ("double F"). This is finer than single F, and the grade for about 50 to 75 calibre.

FFFg ("triple F"). The finest of powders used for main charges, it's used for up to about 50 calibre.

FFFFg ("four F"). Four F is used to prime flintlocks.

If you bought your gun new, there were probably manufacturer's specs packed in the box. Check them for which powder they recommend.

How much powder do you use? Again, if you have them, check the manufacturer's specs. If not, there's a rule of thumb that when starting out, use one grain of powder for every hundredth inch of calibre. For a 50 calibre, use 50 grains FFFg, 62 calibre, use 62 grains of FFg, etc. Have your experienced shooting mentor help you work on your powder loads.

(A note on measure – Black Powder is generally measured by volume, not weight. Get a measure – don't guess! –jp)

Pour your powder from your powder horn into your measure. (When you start out, get the adjustable brass kind.) Put the butt of your gun on the toes of one of your shoes-- it saves the wear and tear you'd inflict if it rested on the ground. Now pour the measured charge of powder down the barrel.

Just after you open the frizzen and put the hammer on half cock, or clear the nipple and going to half cock for percussion.
The gun should always be in a safe condition when messing with it. You really don't want to have it go off while you're holding your hands over it. -jp

The next step is to load the ball on top of the powder charge.

You begin by taking a piece of patch material (either plain white cotton material or pillow ticking) that has been greased on one side. (It's a good idea to have some cut into proper sized squares and already greased.) I use a 100% vegetable shortening to grease my patches. Place the patch material greasy side down, centered over the muzzle.

(I recommend a beginner pick up a pack of the prelubed, precut patches to learn with. Making patches is just another step that you can leave for later. – jp)

Take a lead ball of the proper diameter and place it over the material. The lead ball is somewhat smaller than the calibre of the weapon by somewhere around .01 to .015 inch. Again, if you have manufacturer's specs, use them, and if not, have your shooting mentor help figure out what you need. Use your thumb to press the ball as far as you can into the muzzle.

Take your ball starter and use a flat side of it to hammer the top of the ball flush with the muzzle. Don't worry-- a few light raps with the wood or antler of the ball starter will not hurt your gun. (However, under no circumstances would you use a metal hammer.) Use your patch knife to cut off the excess patch material sticking out. To start the ball down those first few inches of barrel, you place the end of the dowel section of the ball starter on top of the ball and start pounding on the handle portion.

Next, use your ramrod to send the ball down the rest of the way. It's important that there's no airspace between the powder charge and the ball-- when there's space between them, it allows pressure to build up when the powder ignites. The ball becomes an obstruction, and you can blow up the barrel. (It has happened.) If you're using a metal ramrod, you'll be able to tell when the ball is seated all the way when the ramrod starts "singing" to you. The air forced out of the barrel by the ramming action will come out in shorter, higher pitched wheezes, and then stop when the ball is fully seated. Have your shooting mentor double check your work through your first few rounds.

(Don't try to push the ball all the way down the barrel in one push. If the ramrod bends and breaks, you get a pointed stick rammed through your hand. Move the ball down the barrel in short 8 to 10 inch strokes. – jp)

You'll notice the loading process getting a little harder after each round fired. That's because black powder leaves an enormous amount of residue from each shot. You're going to need to run a cleaning patch down your barrel at least every few rounds.

Once the ball is seated, you're ready to prime the weapon. With the exception on not yet squeezing the trigger, proceed as you did when you cleared the barrel of oil. Once primed, the weapon is fully loaded. Keep the muzzle downrange from here on out. You're now ready to shoot.

(Remember the friend with the stick? Have him/her change to a baseball bat. This is not a rule to be half learned. You will be banned from the range in a real hurry if you have a problem with this. -–jp)

I'm not going to go too deeply into proper stance; your shooting mentor will be able to show you faster than it would take for me to describe. Just remember that if your gun has a crescent-shaped butt, make sure you feel that entire curve hugging your shoulder. (If you're just resting the two points on either end, on your shoulder, believe me, the recoil is going to hurt.) Lean your cheek into the stock and pull back the hammer to full cock. THE WEAPON IS NOW LEATHAL.

It's time to take aim. Put the top of the front sight on the top of the "V" notch of the rear sight. If you don't have a rear sight, put the front sight on the slot of the screw you'll see behind the breech of the barrel. With your sights aligned, hold the top of the front sight at a "6 o'clock" hold with the center of your target.

(It's the same as any iron sighted rifle or front beaded shotgun. After a few million shots, it will come naturally – jp)

Lightly touch your finger to the trigger. Take a deep breath and let it go. Take another and let it half out. Make sure of your aim and squeeze the trigger. If you're shooting a flintlock, remember that it's going to look like a couple of firecrackers are going off six inches in front of your nose. That's what's supposed to happen. (You should invest in a small brass cuplike device called a "flashguard." It fits around the pan of the lock and helps keep the flash from spreading out in the wrong direction. In some shoots, they're mandatory.)

(Here again, just like any other rifle or shotgun – except for the panflash. There is a reason why they are called flinch-locks! –jp)

If the gun fires, congratulations. Take just a moment to savor that first shot. Get a whiff of the smoke you've just made. In a few more shots, it's not going to smell so awful at all. (Just ask your shooting mentor.)

(In fact, it will become to smell good, just like woodsmoke and frying bacon. The Wife calls it Man Perfume! -jp)

If you're shooting percussion, bring the hammer to halfcock and take off the spent cap. Now for either flintlock or percussion, blow down the muzzle of the barrel. This will blow out any live embers that might still be in the barrel.

(Here we will have to take a short break.
The "blowing down the barrel" is a time honored step for the black powder crowd, beginning back in the olden days. Many of the greybeards still do it, but it is fallen from favor. The NMLRA has decided that it does no good that a few seconds wait won't equal. A swab of the barrel with a damp patch both extinguishes any embers and cleans out much of the gunk that fouls the barrel. The argument is that either of the above removes your head from the line of flight during an accidental discharge. Remember the admonishment to always believe the gun is loaded? Then you stick it in your mouth?
So….is Phil right? Depends on where and what you are doing. At a reenactment, maybe. At an NMLRA shoot, no. Do I blow down the barrel? Sometimes. –jp)

If the gun did not fire, think and freeze. Keep the weapon sighted on the target. Count to sixty. You don't want to do anything for that first minute, because you may have a "hangfire," where the main charge doesn't ignite instantaneously, but does after a while. You want to give the gun a good long margin of safety to see if this is the case.

If the gun hasn't fired by now, ask yourself whether or not the primer ignited. Did you see the flash of the priming powder or hear the pop of the percussion cap? If not, while keeping the muzzle downrange, (it may still hangfire on you,) bring your flintlock to halfcock and check your flint. It should be firmly in the jaws of the hammer, with no wobble. Close your frizzen and try again. If you're shooting percussion, try a different percussion cap.

On the the hand, if the priming did ignite and the gun hasn't fired in that first minute, take your time and carefully bring the gun down, keeping the muzzle downrange. Reprime and try again. When the main charge doesn't ignite at all, the gun has "misfired."

Remember that when you're dealing with a hangfire or misfire, you no longer control whether or not that gun in your hands is going to fire. Proceed with all due caution.

There's a couple of tricks that can lessen the chance of a hangfire or misfire. If you're shooting a flintlock, you can put just a little bit more priming powder piled up near the touchhole end of the pan. If you're shooting percussion, after setting the ball but before priming, lean the gun at a forty five degree angle with the hammer underneath. Give the underside of the stock a couple of light taps with the heel of your hand where the lock sits. That will tap a little more powder closer to the nipple.

(A couple more tips would include the use of a pick in the touchhole/nipple to maintain that clear channel for the flame front to travel after loading, but before priming/capping, using less priming powder, more priming powder, checking the flint to make sure it is sharp, and keeping the fouling cleaned off the frizzen and flint. –jp)

When you're finished shooting and are ready to head home, first run an oiled swab down the barrel and wipe down all your metal with gun oil. When you get home, be prepared for the long, grubby process of cleaning all black powder residue from the gun. This is important-- one of the ingredients of black powder is sulphur, which is corrosive. If you allow corrosion in the bore of your barrel, it's going to leave pits. If the pitting is severe enough, you have a weakened spot in the barrel. This can make your gun unshootable.

I realize that I've given a lot of confusing information in this article. Don't be discouraged. You'll find the first time on the range that getting the hang of black powder shooting isn't as tough as a written overview might have you think. The hands-on approach with your shooting mentor insures this.

I also know that at every turn I've emphasized safety. Do all these safety rules detract from the enjoyment of muzzzleloading? Absolutely not. When you first learned to drive, I'll bet the rule about driving on the right side of the road didn't detract from the thrill of being behind the wheel.

Let me again say that this article is meant only as an overview to muzzle loading. Do not for a minute think you can take a copy of it to the range and use it to start shooting. What I hope I've done here is to pique your interest and get you motivated to find your shooting mentor. I hope one day that you consider yourself part of that long and time-honored line of folks who enjoy the sport of shooting, and takes seriously the responsibility that comes with owning a firearm.

May this be the start of a lifelong enjoyment.

(Just remember: First the powder and THEN the ball! –jp)

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.


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