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“Of all our national pastimes, this is one which should be pursued for the sake only of the honourable distinction to be obtained, in excelling in an art, where both mental and physical gifts are developed.”

Anonymous author on match rifle shooting (1866)

Research Press

Cleaning Between Shots

Since consistency and uniformity are the basis for accurate shooting, it is best to layout your loading equipment and material on the loading bench the same way each time you shoot. This avoids unnecessary motions and lost time searching for misplaced items.

The first step is to attach the sights to the rifle. After the sights are in place and set for the intended range, the shooter should step up to the firing line, and snap a couple of caps on the nipple while pointing the muzzle down range. The object of doing this is to blow oil and grease from the unfired rifle breech passage into the bore. The bore should then be wiped with a dry patch. Step up to the firing line and snap a cap to help assure that material pushed to the breech is blown out. Place the hammer in the half-cock position.

Next, the brass drop tube is inserted into the bore, a weighed or measured powder charge is poured into the funnel, and the drop tube raised an inch or so and rapped against the muzzle to assure no powder sticks to the inside of the tube. The drop tube is removed, and a wad (if used) is placed in the muzzle and run home with the loading rod. A wad also can be placed in the muzzle and run home with the bullet if this method works better for a particular rifle. The bullet is placed in the muzzle and pressed down flush with the muzzle using the fingers. The loading rod is then used to seat the bullet. A uniform pressure, shot to shot, must be used to seat the bullet. Variation in seating pressure causes vertical stringing of the bullet impact points.

The shooter moves to the firing line and gets into position. When the muzzle is down range and preferably in a nearly horizontal plane (not highly elevated), the shooter caps the rifle, full-cocks the hammer, and is ready to shoot.

All the aforementioned process is fine, BUT the bullet will not strike in the same location as those subsequently fired. The first or second shot from a greased/oiled clean bore will strike either high or low. In the old matches, the first one or two shots were fired into the pit. Ball shooters call these fouling shots.

Returning to the loading bench, the shooter then runs a very slightly moistened cleaning patch down the bore. The object is to remove the large deposit of residue left immediately in front of the powder charge. A dry patch is then run down and out. Then the shooter steps to the firing line and snaps a cap, with the muzzle pointed down range and towards the ground, to help blow residue from the breech plug passage. He is then ready to load as previously, starting with insertion of the drop tube. With this next shot, the shooter is ready to begin some serious target work.

The preceding loading procedure is required, in most cases, when using paper-patch bullets. Bore cleaning between shots prevents damage to the paper patch from abrasion by powder residue in the bore, or worse, stripping the paper from the bullet. With some rifles, however, components (possibly the use of a grease groove bullet) and the shooter's procedure permit shooting without performing the cleaning steps.

Loading Without Cleaning Between Shots

There are three basic ways to do this, one of which might be best described as a 'sort-of' method of shooting without cleaning.

Why would someone want to shoot a muzzle loader without cleaning? For one reason alone: no matter how careful the shooter might be in cleaning, there is always the probability of leaving more or less moist residue in the breech area of the barrel. The more or less, as applied to dampness, may be translated on the range as follows: more equals low, and lessequals high as the bullet approaches and strikes the target.

The first method is primarily used with lubricated grease groove bullets and is relatively simple. A supply of card wads is cut or purchased. The cardboard backing from ordinary legal pads works just fine as wad material. A small quantity of the same lubricant that is to be used in the grooves of the bullet is melted in a double-boiler arrangement over a low heat source such as a kitchen range. Once the lubricant has melted, half of the cut wads are placed in the lubricant and allowed to remain until they have absorbed enough lubricant to sink to the bottom of the container. They are then removed from the liquid lubricant with tweezers and placed upon a flat surface until the lubricant cools and hardens.

During loading, the powder is loaded first. Then, a lubricated wad is placed into the bore, followed by a plain, dry wad. Both are seated at the same time on the powder charge with the loading rod before the bullet is loaded in a separate operation.

The entire purpose of this exercise is to provide a source of lubricant to soften the fouling that normally builds up at the point where the bullet is seated on the powder. This allows the lubricated bullet to seat firmly on the next charge without deformation. The greased bullet itself scrapes the bore moderately clean as it is loaded.

The second method is normally applied to paper-patched bullets, which can be difficult to load in a fouled bore. This is due to the fact that the fouling in the bore tends to tear the protective paper patch and render the paper useless for its intended purpose of protecting the bullet from contact with the barrel.

A non-lubricated felt wad is cut or purchased. Before use, the wad is saturated in natural sperm oil. Using an ordinary glass eyedropper as a measure, three to four drops per felt wad is just about right. The oil-soaked wad is then seated directly onto the powder, followed by the paper-patched bullet, which has been wiped with a small cloth saturated with the same sperm oil before loading.

What are we doing here? We are simply swabbing the bore with the oiled felt wad and providing a source of lubricant to keep the fouling soft in anticipation of the next loading. Within reasonable limits, the application of the oiled felt wad directly to the powder charge seemingly has no apparent effect upon accuracy.

The third method, previously described as the sort-of-method, consists of loading the powder and a standard wad in the normal manner, and then swabbing the bore with a damp patch before loading the bullet. This keeps any dampness away from the critical breech area of the barrel and provides a relatively clean bore, ready for the loading of the bullet.

Powder

The near-standard load for original British target rifles was 86 grains of Curtis and Harvey No.6 powder. This clean burning powder is not available today. Goex and Elephant brand powders currently are the most readily available to the shooter. Good accuracy has been attained using either brand. German powder is available in some areas and is identified as WANO powder. When shooting a match, the same production lot of powder should be used.

Granulation sizes 1F, 2F, or 3F may be used. The 1F is normally too slow burning for most rifles. Care must be exercised when using 3F powder not to exceed a safe load. Powder charges using 2F vary from 70 grains to 100 grains using a 508-grain to 530-grain bullet.

Only experimentation on target will tell you what the best load is for your rifle. Extensive time may have to be spent finding the load, but it is worth the effort.


Footnote

Since this article was written (in 1999) Elephant powder is no longer available. However, popular with long range muzzle loaders is Swiss Black Powder. For those that travel, especially if competing internationally, Swiss Black Powder is that most commonly available to competitors. Even if not your powder of choice when home, it is good to have worked with Swiss Powders too, so that you have a good working load as it may be the only powder available to you when travelling. Granulation sizes of this powder as marketed in Europe are designated by a numbering system, with No. 1 being the finest and No. 5 the coarsest. European and American 'F' grading equivalents are:

Swiss No. 1 FFFFg
Swiss No. 2 FFFg
Swiss No. 3 FFg
Swiss No. 4 1½Fg
Swiss No. 5 Fg