A couple of weeks ago, I took my nephew, Jacob Barr, with me to introduce him to black powder shooting. We set up some targets and got the muzzle-loading musket out of its case.
I explained each step to Jacob as we got ready to shoot: Pour the scoop of black powder down the barrel of the musket, then place the cloth patch under the lead musket ball and ram it snugly down the barrel with the wooden ramrod. Then you place the percussion cap on the nipple, cock the hammer, aim, squeeze the trigger and wait for the huge “boom!” and cloud of smoke.
Both Jacob and I had on ear protectors to cushion our ears from the noise. Unfortunately, when the hammer fell, instead of a huge “boom!” of exploding powder, all we got was a wimpy “pop,” sort of like a cap gun. For some reason, when the percussion cap ignited it failed to set off the main powder charge.
Embarrassed, I tried a second percussion cap and got a wimpy “pop” again. The third try got the same result. Now I had a loaded musket that wouldn’t fire. Great! We carefully put the musket back in its gun case and proceeded to do some plinking with a .22. It was fun, but not nearly as exciting as the roar of the musket and the cloud of smoke.
After considerable thought, I finally figured out what went wrong. Periodically, one or more of the ammunition manufacturers will market a fancy tin box with a hinged lid that’s filled with .22 ammo. After you’ve used the ammo, you still have a really cool decorated box to store stuff in. I thought to myself, “What a great storage box for black powder!” While it seemed like a good idea at the time, the box wasn’t airtight, and the powder inside absorbed enough moisture from the humidity of the air to render the powder useless. Dang.
Upon arriving home, I was faced with the problem of how to extract the .54 caliber musket ball from the musket barrel. I bought a special screw attachment that affixes to the end of your ramrod. Then you just screw the attachment into the musket ball and pull the ball out of the gun. Great idea, but it didn’t work.
One of my buddies suggested removing the nipple with a wrench and blowing compressed air into the nipple hole to force the ball out the barrel. That didn’t work either.
I consulted the guys at my friendly gunshop, and they suggested I disassemble the whole gun and then unscrew the barrel from the rest of the action. Another great idea, until the steel barrel plug began to strip as I applied pressure with the wrench!
This was beginning to get frustrating. Back I went to the gunshop to seek more ideas. One of the customers at the shop suggested heating the gun barrel with a torch to expand the metal and free the breech plug. I figured heating a gun full of gunpowder and a musket ball might cause an explosion, so I rejected that idea.
Finally, Old Larry suggested I soak the stuck barrel and breech plug with one of the penetrating oils, like Liquid Wrench, for a week or 10 days so that it could really soak in and break the metal free. As we speak, the parts are soaking, and hopefully I can salvage the gun. Otherwise, I’ll just have to hang it on the wall as a reminder of why the old-timers would regularly remind each other to “keep your powder dry.”
Yes, black powder shooting can be a lot of fun. It can remind us of our pioneer past and how lucky we are to have modern guns and ammo that will fire reliably under almost any conditions. It can remind us of how incredibly brave our ancestors were to face a charging grizzly with a single-shot black powder gun that might or might not shoot when they pulled the trigger. It can also remind me to never store my gunpowder in a container that’s not airtight. Henceforth I too will take great care to keep my powder dry.
Until next week, keep your powder dry!
Don Moyer, outdoors columnist for the Tracy Press, has been writing Tight Lines for more than 30 years and is the author of “Tight Lines: Observations of an Outdoor Philosopher.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.