How to Clean Your Muzzleloader
January 12, 2015
There was a time in my life when every range session or hunt was followed by time at the bench, painstakingly cleaning and oiling my firearm. These days, I shoot too many guns and other responsibilities to devote that kind of time to maintenance (unless you have three kids in diapers, spare me your comments). With most guns, this is not an issue and a quick wipe-down before they go back in safe is enough to get me by. When we're talking muzzleloaders, however, you simply must take care of them before storing them for any period of time. Blackpowder, and even substitutes such as Pyrodex are very corrosive — you put your muzzleloader away for the season without cleaning it and you'll have a sewer pipe for a bore by Spring. Let's take a look at how we should prepare blackpowder guns for storage without fear of hearing them rust on a quiet night.
My muzzleloader is as modern as it gets: a .50 caliber CVA Accura Mountain Rifle in Black Nitride, nonetheless, it is not immune to the laws of chemistry. Black Nitriding is an incredibly good surface treatment for firearms, but I wouldn't trust it to totally resist the corrosive effects of blackpowder over time. Whether your gun is a Buck Rogers muzzleloader like mine, or a flintlock — the principles of taking care of it remain the same. Your buck is hanging and your tag is cut, it's time to retire the muzzleloader until further notice. First thing's first:
Clean the Bore
Even a single shot produces tons of powder fouling and this must be totally removed both physically and chemically. If your rifle has a removable breech plug, now is the time to remove it so that we can clean the bore from the breech end. My favorite method of flushing a fouled bore is still one of the oldest — using a teapot, pour boiling water down the barrel and patch out the black mess. I've never found a better way to remove more blackpowder fouling faster than with this method. Hunting has become horribly uncivilized, though, and not all of us have access to teapots full of boiling water afield these days — sigh. A bore solvent designed to be used with blackpowder firearms will do just fine for breaking down the burnt powder. Many very experienced shooters swear by diluted solutions of vinegar and Windex but store-bought solvents are available for those timid souls among us — CVA makes a foam product that works well.
The good news is that we always have a rod and jag on hand for cleaning the bore — the ramrod attached to our rifle's barrel. Run 2-3 patches soaked in solvent through the bore and let it sit for a few minutes or more. Scrub the bore with a brush and let it sit a bit longer. Drive another soaked patch through and begin to alternate wet and dry patches until they come out white. Just like going #2, don't quit until the brown streaks give way to clean patches.
Clean the Bore Some More
So we've addressed the powder fouling, that doesn't mean that our bore is totally clean. If you're firing copper bullets, there's probably some copper fouling still in the bore, which won't ruin your gun but can affect accuracy when it gets excessive. A regular copper solvent used for centerfire rifles will do just fine to remove it and the chemicals will probably help neutralize any remaining corrosive powder fouling.
If you were able to remove the breech plug before cleaning the bore, this next job is pretty straightforward: remove every trace of powder fouling from the inside and outside of the plug. Soaking the plug in a suitable solvent (that Windex solution would be ideal here) is a great way to ensure that you've neutralized the powder in every nook and cranny. As the point of ignition, fouling can be particularly thick on the plug and mechanical scrubbing or scraping is often necessary to get things totally clean. A toothbrush and a toothpick can usually get the job done though I sometimes use a dental pick to get into the corners. A thin pipe cleaner is a good tool for ensuring that the flash hole is clean and free of debris; if it's clogged, your gun may not go bang next year when you want it to.
If your muzzleloader has a fixed breech plug, life just got harder. The principle is the same — get all of the fouling off — but you don't have the luxury of seeing what you're doing. This is where chemicals are your friend, let a solution or solvent do the work for you and don't be afraid to let this soak for a while.
Breech Face, Firing Pin
Hot gasses leak out around the primer or percussion cap upon ignition so it is important to clean every surface that may have come into contact with the burning powder. My Accura has a removable firing pin bushing that allows access to the internals of the breech face for proper cleaning — check the manual of your gun for specifics.
Lube it Up
Now that we've effectively removed every trace of powder fouling and residue, it's time to protect the metal work against ordinary environmental corrosion. Resist the temptation to bathe the parts in oil the way you might do your favorite rifle or shotgun: those firearms use sealed cartridges to protect their propellant powder from oil, your muzzleloader doesn't have that luxury. We need to use rust preventatives that won't cause ignition problems with our powder and primers. CVA Rust Prevent patches, or equivalent products from other manufacturers, are a good solution to this problem and should be used inside and out. Finally, we must grease the breech plug to ensure that the heat of firing the rifle doesn't seize the plug in-place. Specially made products are available, but I've always found success with lithium wheel bearing grease. It's cheap and a tub will last you a lifetime.
Once you put your muzzleloader away, it's not a bad idea to take it out a week or two later to look for signs of corrosion. It's far better to notice the first signs of rust than it is to discover a ruined gun months down the road.
Blackpowder firearms require more time and maintenance that their more modern counterparts — there's a reason that game departments categorize them as "primitive weapons." That said, you don't have to be a curator at the Smithsonian to properly care for a blackpowder rifle. If you follow these steps and take care of your gun, it will work for you year after year.