“Responsible shooters are charged withdetermining whatcleaning procedure suits a particularmuzzleloader, recognizingthat there may be anumber of paths to aclean, safe firearm…”

The secret isn’t secret. There’s no great mystery, no mystical formula, no encrypted code. However, the truth is gut-wrenching, the aftermath costly. One shot is sufficient, enough to destroy a fine muzzle loading firearm.

Each December, Michigan black powder hunters reach into a nether corner of the gun safe and expect to retrieve a field-ready muzzleloader. Unfortunately, some are confronted with a rusted hulk, the painful result of improper black powder cleaning. Many hunters, especially those new to the sport, fail to understand how corrosive black powder fouling is and how quick it can damage a prized firearm.

When handling any muzzle loading firearm, safety procedures dictate checking to make sure the firearm is unloaded and no bore obstructions are present. Range officers in the black powder shooting sports encourage newcomers to mark the ramrod when the firearm is properly loaded. The mark acts as a gauge to warn the shooter when a projectile is not seated tight on the powder charge, a very dangerous condition called “short starting.” Some inline muzzleloader manufacturers recommend marking the ramrod when the bore is empty. In either instance, the ramrod is inserted in the barrel and the muzzleloader’s condition determined by reading the respective gauge mark.

After checking, a small minority of individuals discover their favorite frontloader contains a year-old charge. The neglected charge should be removed following the gun manufacturer’s safety procedures, rather than “shot out.”

In most cases, if the gun was fired and reloaded with the forgotten charge, the destruction from the prior shot’s residue is compounded by time and the unsafe oversight. The unknowing owner becomes perplexed and confused, insulated by modern smokeless powder’s cleanliness and forgiving chemistry. “My muzzleloader isn’t as accurate as it used to be,” the gun’s owner grouses, not realizing the change occurred over a one or two shot span.

On average, modern inlines or traditional side hammer frontloaders purchased for the muzzleloader-only deer season see fewer than 100 rounds, some less than 25. Properly cared for and cleaned, the rifles are considered in “as new” condition and afford the owner a lifetime of shooting enjoyment. But unlike modern cartridge rifles and shotguns, it only takes one un-cleaned shot or a forgotten load to damage the muzzleloader’s bore and deteriorate accuracy below acceptable limits.

The number of shots fired is irrelevant; once the first shot coats the bore with corrosive fouling the deterioration process begins. It makes no difference whether the firearm is a handcrafted copy of an 18th century flintlock shooting authentic black powder or a sleek stocked, stainless-steel barreled inline burning the latest black powder substitute, the need for understanding and adhering to an appropriate cleaning regimen remains the same.

As black powder ignites, a solid residue forms called “fouling,” which can equal up to 50 percent of the powder’s volume before ignition, depending on the powder’s granulation. In an unfired bore, the explosion burns away any cleaning solvents and protective lubricants, baring the metal surface. The propellant burn generates carbon, sulfur and various salt compounds. The residue coats the bore, the flash channel and lock parts, and the resulting fouling is “hygroscopic,” meaning it absorbs moisture from the air. Thus the higher the humidity the faster the salts start to eat away at the bore.

Black powder substitutes, like HOGDON Pyrodex┬« or Triple Seven┬«, are formulated to produce less fouling and provide for easier clean up, but the trade off can be a more corrosive residue than the black powder they replace. When using black powder substitutes, it becomes imperative to immediately clean after each shooting session, following that manufacturer’s instructions.

“Muzzle loading firearm” represents a broad category embracing many different styles and types of front loading firearms, from a Revolutionary War era Pennsylvania rifle, to a reproduction English double shotgun, to the scoped, chrome-lined inline. Each muzzleloader requires a cleaning regimen that addresses the firearm’s style, type and peculiarities.

Responsible shooters are charged with determining what cleaning procedure suits a particular muzzleloader, recognizing that there may be a number of paths to a clean, safe firearm. That responsibility also includes the constant re-evaluation of each step, keeping an ever vigilant eye out for recurring trouble spots.

The best starting point is the cleaning procedure listed in the owner’s manual for a specific make and model of gun. Replacement copies of owner’s manuals are available from the manufacturer or from online sources.

Reputable gunsmiths familiar with black powder firearms are usually willing to walk regular customers through the general cleaning steps. Local sportsman’s clubs, black powder shooting clubs or experienced black powder shooters are also good sources for establishing a cleaning procedure. In order to provide sound, reliable advice, any gunsmith or mentor will want to see the firearm.

Opinions differ. Owners are urged to ask why a step needs to be performed and why one method might provide “better” results than another. For example, left unprotected, some trigger mechanisms on inline muzzleloaders are sensitive to gathering fouling and debris while the barrel is swabbed out. One manufacturer sells a “cleaning tube” that extends the barrel over the butt stock, eliminating the problem. A noted expert suggests solvent cleaning the bore with the breech plug in place, then removing the plug for final cleaning. Another simply places a cloth over the mechanism and cleans with extra care. The final choice is up to the shooter.

Once decided, the steps should be written down, in order. The written list allows the shooter to insure that all parts are cleaned and attended to, and it also provides a structured outline for committing the process to memory.

The list should include the solvents, lubricants and other supplies necessary to preserve and protect the wood, plastic and metal components. An inexpensive, plastic tool box stores all the supplies. And if the muzzleloader will not be used for an extended period of time, a note on the family calendar serves as a reminder for the next checkup date.

Perhaps the most common knock on black powder is the misconception that the cleaning process is “too rigorous and time consuming.” In the black powder shooting sports, regular shooters are the first to say it’s not an issue. The reason is constant repetition. For the shooter who discharges a smokepole two or three times a year, cleaning appears cumbersome because the cleaning regimen is infrequent. Mentors smile and suggest critics shoot more often, say once a month, knowing the complaint will disappear as the enjoyment increases.

And many competitive shooters wipe the rifle’s bore between shots using a single cotton patch moistened with saliva or solvent. The practice “dresses” the barrel and improves accuracy by maintaining the barrel in a “one shot dirty” condition. A positive side effect is a bore that requires less cleaning muscle at the end of the shooting session. After the buck is tagged, a moistened patch or two will remove fresh fouling, making final clean up easier.

Today’s obsession with “instant gratification” contributes to the problem, too. Hunting excursions get wedged in tighter and tighter time slots. “Sorry, I don’t have time,” bounces out faster than a dipperful of #6 shot dumped on a pickup tailgate.

Responsible dog owners water, feed and tend to the needs of their faithful hunting companions before seeking their own creature comforts. Muzzle loading enthusiasts must recognize they have a similar responsibility to put the cleaning and care of their trusted shooting iron first.

The secret isn’t secret. The truth is simple: understand the corrosive properties of black powder, or black powder substitutes; establish a cleaning regimen that matches the muzzleloader; write it down; learn and practice the steps in order; and accept the responsibility to make sure the firearm is cleaned at the end of the shooting session.

Give the black powder shooting sports a try, be safe, and may God bless you.