I am asked about loads for muzzle loading shotguns quite often – in fact about as often as I ask other people about loads for muzzle loading rifles!
The answer is that within reasonable limits there is variation in what people use, and I’m sure whatever I say those limits are, someone will pop up and contradict me! This is strictly my own version of what to use and how to load, modified slightly for beginners – you may cut corners when you have a bit more experience;-
- You need to be able to measure out powder and shot in reasonably accurate quantities ( say to within 5%), either by weight ( not very usual) or by volume – you can either pre-load phials with powder and shot in sufficient quantities for a day’s shooting, or use traditional powder and shot flasks. There is one pattern of powder flask used in the UK, but a couple of types of shot flask – the English rocker type with sprung rocking shutters that cut off a measured amount of shot, and then dispense it directly down the barrel, or the Irish sugar scoop style where you take a scoop filled with shot from the flask, which closes behind the scoop, which you can the pour down the barrel. I use both, but marginally prefer the Irish pattern as you get to see the amount of shot you are putting in the barrel and its not possible to overcharge the gun. With the English style it is possible for the run out while the shutters are in the half way position and it not be noticed. It has to be said that most of my friends use preloaded phials.
- Powder;- We normally use Czech powder for percussion guns, and Swiss No 2 for flintlock shotguns. The best load for a gun is ideally determined by firing the gun at a test plate at 25 or 30 yards and observing the pattern but very few people do that. Failing that you might fall back on a load of 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 drams of powder for a 16 to 14 bore and 2 3/4 to 3 drams for a 13 to 11 bore. The shot load is usually more closely controlled – 1 oz of No. 7 1/2 or 8 shot for clays (28 grams in a breech loader), possibly 7/8 oz in the smaller bore sizes. Occasionally I shoot 1 1/4 oz in a 16 or 14 bore particularly if I’m using No 6 shot for game as the patterning of old muzzle loading guns with cylinder bore is not as tight as improved cylinder breech loaders. For my 6 1/2 bore I’d use 3 drams and 1 1/2 oz for clays. The recoil with black powder is quite soft as the burning is slow compared to a nitro cartridge
- You need wads and cards (or semolina, see paragraph 6 )- you can buy these or make your own – I do both from time to time but usually buy lubricated wads from Kranks ( see links) and make cards with a punch. Some larger bore guns have to have home made wads and cards as none are available – that is the case with my 6 1/2 bore Gasquoine and Dyson live pigeon gun. Home made wads can be lubricated by briefly dipping in a hot mix of vegetable oil and candle wax. Some people make up composite wads with a card glued to each side of the wad – looks very impressive – maybe I’m just too lazy..
- Loading rod – you can’t really use the ramrod that may be fitted to your gun as its not very easy to handle! You need a piece of plastic rod a bit smaller than the bore but not too bendy, ( on Ebay in Acetal, PET or various other materials – nylon is too flexible in smaller sizes) and you will need to fix a knob on the top to spare your hand. When you get your rod, put it right into the empty barrel and put a piece of tape round the rod just above the muzzle. This will then tell you if you are loded or have misloaded at any time.
- Procedure;- first, are you sure it isn’t already loaded in either barrel? Use your loading rod to check if there is ANY doubt. If you are a beginner, or are sensible then DON’T reload when one barrel is still loaded – go and shoot it off and load both barrels together.Put the cocks on half cock and remove the dead caps – if any. I always place the butt of the gun on my left foot with the triggers pointing right, holding the gun with my left hand. I have powder flask, shot flask, wads and cards where I can get at them without letting go of the gun. ( If you use the Irish flask the left hand has to hold the gun and the flask while the right hand withdraws the scoop. However you plan to go through the action of loading, ALWAYS do it in the same way so that it becomes a habit. I always put the powder etc in the far ( left) barrel first, then the right, near barrel. Put powder in both barrels, then a cards ( I omit these cards if I’m shooting within a few minutes but others think this is lazy and wrong), then the wads. If you can push the wads down with your thumb you can put a card on top before ramming them down onto the powder. Now put shot in both barrels – Left first then right – and put in the overshot card and seat it fairly gently on the shot – now is a good time to observe the position of the tape on your loading rod! DO NOT put caps on the nipples until you are in the ‘cage’ or are otherwise in a position to shoot.
- UPDATE on Proceedure (2021);- following a trip by our International team to Hungary in 2017, the idea of using semolina instead of wads was introduced via the Anglia Muzzle Loaders. Several people, myself included, have been using Semolina exclusively ever since. Semolina or Cous-cous can be used, both are durum wheat with different finenesses of grind – Semolina can be had in fine or coarse grind and Cous-cous is coarser still. All would appear to work equally well. Here the loading proceedure is to put in the powder, then a volume of the chosen ground wheat at least equal to the volume of powder used, I use about 25% greater volume – I have a powder flask modified to hold the equivalent volume to 4 dr of powder. Having put the semolina or whatever in the barrel I would lift the gun an inch or so and tap it down on the ground to level the surface of the ‘wad’ and then pour in the shot and then put in the overshot card as usual. The use of semolina or cous-cous really makes the whole process much faster and less trouble – you only use the loading rod once, at the end, to seat the overshot card. You also don’t have to have different sized wads for different guns, and can get away with much thinner card for the overshot card. There a couple of videos linked on the VIDEO page of this site showing what a typical load looks like in the barrel. People who use these wheat grinds find that the guns shoot as well as when using wads, and they don’t foul up any more than with wads, they work perfectly well over a 50 bird shoot and on s game shoot – its cheaper, quicker and just as good – whats not to like?
- Shooting;- Percussion shotguns don’t as a rule have safety catches or other safety devices ( a few had grip safeties) – your first safety catch is NOT putting the cap on the nipple, so don’t ‘cap-up’ until you are ready to shoot, and don’t leave the cage without removing the caps. When capping both cocks should be at half cock. Putting the cocks to full cock is the equivalent of taking off the safety catch on a breech loader – you do it when ready to call for the clay, or when you are expecting a bird on a game shoot. Be very careful if you have to de-cap a gun that you have put on full cock as the cock may slip as you let it down – point the gun down range in a safe direction – and make sure it does enter the half cock position securely – at this point you can de-cap. On a clay shoot it may be appropriate just to fire off the loaded and capped barrels down range rather than mess about – its certainly safer.
- Misfires; – Standard proceedure is to assume that it is a long hangfire, and keep the gun pointing down range for a long interval – even breech loader in the military say wait 30 seconds. Check that the nipples are clear if you have a pricker with you, then try recapping and firing again, If that doesn’t work, fire off the other barrel so that you know where you are – if that misfires wait 30 seconds again… If you can’t get it to fire by replacing the caps once, try unscrewing the dead nipple and putting a pinch of powder down the nipple hole and refitting the nipple and see if it will fire ( from the cage!) At this point ask yourself if you did load it properly – dis someone talk to you at the vital moment so you didn’t put any powder down the barrel? – it happens more often than you would believe. If it still doesn’t fire you will have to unload it using a worm to pull out the cards and wad. (Gunpowder can be dropped on the ground – its good fertilizer). All the time the gun is in a misfire state it must be kept pointing in a safe direction with the barrel up. Make those around you aware of the situation and ask for help from more experienced muzzle loading shooters.
- Problems;- It’s important to get in a routine and stick to it when loading and shooting – in groups there will be a lot of chat and comments, and that is OK for shooters who have the actions programmed firmly in their brains ( although there are still dangers) but if you don’t follow the actions automatically you need to pay attention when loading. Its all too easy to get distracted and forget which barrel you are loading, which is where your calibrated loading rod comes into its own – if you break from concentrating for a few seconds just probe each barrel and you will be safe from either a misfire or a very nasty surprise if you double loaded. One other problem I have, and others too, is if shooting doubles on report and you get interrupted after the first shot and have to call again to restart – its very easy to cock the wrong barrel or pull the wrong trigger as your mind resets to the start position – I’m not sure how you guard against that!
- Cleaning;- The black powder residues are corrosive, particularly in damp conditions, so in an ideal world clean your gun/s as soon as possible after use, or failing that put them in a dry place. There are lots of special solvents for black powder guns but most people I know rely on water, which dissolves the residues just fine. Some people swear by starting with cold water – its a common myth applied in lots of areas that cold water is a better solvent, but that is contrary to the laws of chemistry. ( The only situation where that is true is when protein is involved – in my youth we always washed the milking utensils in cold water to avoid setting the protein in milk which made it harder to wash off). I use hot water, a little detergent, Parker .303 cleaner (mostly because I like the smell and out of nostalgia) & Napier cleaner because it has VP90 phase inhibitor in it. I have 2 rods, one with a jagg and one with a bronze wire brush. On the jagg I use polyester wadding (mine comes from multilayer roof insulation scraps) as it is easy to fit to the barrel and makes a perfect piston when wet, and doesn’t come unwound in use. I also use paper towel on the jagg to dry and oil and an old kitchen dish brush.
- First boil a kettle and take off the barrel and fix a piece of cord to the top ramrod pipe as a handle, and a piece of old towel to protect our hands. I have a large plastic pot ( ex rat poison) to stand the barrel in, put a drop of detergent in each and fill both barrels with boiling water. I then scour them with the bronze brush, in the process forcing water in and out through the nipples with some force to flush them – you should see that both are working well. The brush should shift most of the residue and the water will be pretty black – drain the barrel and tip away the water. Remove the nipples. return the barrels to the pot and put a 1 1/2 inch strip of polyester wadding ( I use about 250mm) tightly round the jagg. Fill with the hot water, add a squirt of .303 cleaner and pump with the jagg, again forcing water in and out of the nipple holes to flush out the secondary combustion chambers. The jagg should be moving fairly smoothly up and down the barrels, and the wadding should be pretty black, but the water will not be as dirty as before. Use the kitchen brush to scrub the outside of the breech thoroughly up to about 8 inches from the breech. Put the barrels to drain and dry with the nipple holes at the lowest point – they should be pretty warm still.
- Put kitchen roll on the jagg – a single sheet folded in 4 should do for 14 or 16 bore guns and run it through the barrels a couple of times – it will come out pretty dark grey, and probably a bit damp. Change it for a new sheet and spray Napier gun cleaner down both barrels and run the jagg through a few times. If it is an old barrel it will still come out pretty grey, but that is the lead in the (hopefully small) rust pits and you are not going to get rid of that in a month of Sundays! A prisine or re-lapped barrel will hopefully come out clean and shiny and you will probably be able to get to the stage of getting more or less clean paper through it. Give the barrel a light spray of gun oil from the muzzle and into the nipple openings and wipe the outside.
- Clean the outsides of the nipples and make sure the holes are clear. wind a 5 mm x 40 mm strip of ptfe pipe tape round the thread and replace the nipples.
- Clean the flash guards and cock recesses on the stock carefully with cloth and gun cleaner and wipe off any dirt and residue – I keep an old brass suede brush to scrub the front faces of the flash guards – lightly wipe a very light trace of gun oil on the metalwork.
- Stick it all back together and wipe down the woodwork with a little linseed oil or whatever takes your fancy, and make sure all the metalwork is clean, particularly the butt plate if you have been game shooting! If it has been out in the wet, put it in a dry and warm but not hot place.
- Store a muzzle loader you are using in your gun cabinet with the muzzle down, but make sure it has a soft pad to rest on – that way any surplus oil won’t gather in the breech and impede you shooting next time
If you are cleaning a flintlock its best to take out the locks and remove the flints, then wash the locks in hot water with a little Youngs 303 cleaner and scrub the pans etc with a toothbrush ( preferably not the one you clean your teeth with). Wipe off surplus water – teh youngs should ensure that the lock still has a slightly oily surface. Put in a very warm place to dry. Flintlocks with a recessed breech often need the locks removed BEFORE the barrel can be removed. When cased, later flintlocks had the locks stored out of the gun.