View Full Version : Check that muzzle loader!

James K
September 14, 2002, 08:17 PM
I would like to use a separate thread to emphasize something I said in another thread.

When dealing with old muzzle loading firearms, ALWAYS assume that the gun is loaded unless you have checked it. This can be done by running a cleaning rod down the barrel and measuring whether it reaches bottom, or by the sound of the rod striking metal. If there is any doubt, remove the breech plug(s) if possible, or use a worm or ball screw to try to remove whatever is in there.

Most often, it will just be junk that kids put in the gun while playing cowboys, but it can be a full charge load just waiting for a spark to set it off. Black powder does not deteriorate with age.

There are no hard and fast rules, and the caution applies to ALL muzzle loaders. But, in general, rifles were used for hunting and were shot off and cleaned when the hunter came home. Duelling pistols and the like usually were shot off or emptied.

But pocket pistols were often left loaded, so that only a cap or a charge of priming powder was needed before putting the pistol in a coat pocket and venturing into the street.

In the old farms, shotguns were routinely left loaded by the kitchen door, with the caps placed on top of a cupboard (out of reach of the kids). The gun then needed only capping when a fox was heard raiding the hen house, or some other 2 or 4 legged intruder was heard.

Or a loaded rifle-musket was picked up by a civilian on a Civil War battlefield and hidden away.

In all those cases, the end result was the same. The gun's original owner or finder died, the gun passed on to son and grandson as an heirloom. No one thought to check to see if it was loaded.

Then one day, a child decides to play cowboys, puts a toy cap on the nipple, and fires, with a tragic result.



Johnny Guest
September 16, 2002, 10:08 AM
- - -And some excellent advice. Your statement,
Black powder does not deteriorate with age. may raise eyebrows with some, so it bears stressing. Yes, black powder does tend to attract moisture from the very air, and damp powder DOES sometimes just fizzle and smoke. What is largely unknown is that, when black powder dries out, it is at very nearly full strength.

And, yet another reason to empty such guns - - - In case of a fire, black powder will heat up and burn before smokeless powders would. he load down in a wall decorator gun will fire just as surely as if the arm had been cocked and capped and the trigger pulled.

And yet still one more caveat: Some old front-loaders were left loaded with powder and wad only, so that the owner had an instant choice of loads - - -bird shot, or ball, or blank, for fright value or for New Year's salutes. Even a blank charge can be lethal, and you've already mentioned kids poking miscellaneous garbage down the barrels while at play. So, if the cleaning rod doesn't get within a half inch of the nipple, one should assume there is a charge down!

For safety,

September 16, 2002, 03:11 PM
It does happen. I never did hear what the exact cause was. Double charge, smokeless powder, rusted out ??? Old Turner Kirkland of Dixie Gun Works recommended firing a double proof load by remote control in any muzzleloader before trusting it


Woman loses arm after antique rifle explodes as she holds it

PUBLICATION: The Toronto Star
DATE: 2002.01.03
BYLINE: Liz Monteiro
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- ----
Woman loses arm after antique rifle explodes as she holds it; 150-year-old
gun hadn't been fired in years
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A 36-year-old Cambridge woman had her left arm amputated just below the
elbow after an antique rifle she was holding exploded in her hand on Tuesday
The woman, whose name has not been released by police, was holding the
black-powder rifle when it ignited and metal fragments went flying in all
When Waterloo regional police arrived at the home east of Kitchener after 9
p.m., part of the woman's fingers were lying on the back porch.
Gun fragments were found imbedded in the ceiling of the back porch.
Paramedics bandaged her hand and she was taken to Grand River Hospital. She
was later transferred to St. Joseph's London Health Centre, but doctors
could not save her arm with reconstructive surgery.
Police removed about 20 rifles and ammunition from the home, owned by a
46-year-old man.
Some of the <firearms> included a 22-calibre hunting rifle, handguns and an
AR-15 semi-automatic military-style rifle.
The black powder rifle, which was 150 years old, was valued at about $3,000.

The man, who was also hurt but did not go to hospital, had purchased the
rifle about five years ago and had never fired it.
Police said the man had all the proper paperwork for the <firearms> and had
them stored in cases. But because of the accident, officers removed the guns
from the home.
The woman remains in hospital and has not yet been interviewed by police.
"I would describe this guy as a responsible owner," said Waterloo Staff
Sergeant Al Cassidy.
He said the man is in shock and doesn't know how the firearm went off.
His name was also not released by police.
Waterloo Sergeant Rudy Smith said the woman was visiting the man for dinner
when the pair began talking about three antique rifles on the fireplace
mantle. The man took one of the rifles from the mantelpiece and they both
went outside on the back porch of the home.
The woman, who wore protective goggles, took the 4.5 kilogram rifle and held
it while the man put some gunpowder in it.
"He was going to show her how it worked. She had never held a gun before,"
said Smith.
Smith added the man is unsure whether the woman pulled the trigger or
whether the gunpowder caused a spark that led to the explosion

James K
September 17, 2002, 02:24 PM
I am sure that the police will figure out a good reason for not returning the guns to their owner. Mainly that they want them for themselves.

But my posting was partly the result of a tragic situation that happened in this county about 30 years ago. An old muzzle-loading double barrel shotgun had been brought in by one of the boys to be a "Pilgrim blunderbuss" in a Thanksgiving play. Someone decided to place a toy cap on a nipple and "fire" the gun. The gun really did fire, and a 9 year old girl was killed.

As in the other case, the family said the gun had not been fired for over 60 years and they had no idea it was loaded.


Mike Irwin
September 17, 2002, 10:02 PM
"Black powder does not deteriorate with age."

I have positive proof of that...

The first 4 pounds of FFFg that I ran though my TC Renegade was well over 100 years old, made by Laughlin & Rand and DuPont.

Cap n ball
September 18, 2002, 10:49 AM
There have been several instances where old pistols and rifles were found to still be capped and upon being disturbed the deteriorated cap allowed the clorate or mercuric mixture in the cap to ignite the propellant. NEVER pick up an old gun that has been left capped. I suspect that is what happened to the poor woman in the above story. Black powder has a very long life as long as it's dry and of reasonably good quality to begin with. Smokeless powder becomes extremely unstable as it deteriorates into it's more explosive forms. Old souvieniers such as artillary shells and grenades have been known to survive for decades on bookshelves and as doorstops and the people who owned them had no idea that they were still capable of going off. The explosive or propellant may be gone but often the firing cap is still there. My own father had a bandolier of 30.06 armor piercing ammo from WWII that had hung in the den since I was a boy. I looked at one of the clips and found the casings to be green with verdigris and badly pitted, the detonator caps were so badly corroded that they would almost fall out. I kept the bandolier but had the cartridges destroyed by the police department. Had it fallen to the floor it's very likely that one or more of the clips would have gone off with possible ill effects to anyone nearby.

This is a very good thread on a subject we should all keep in mind whenever we handle old guns or souvieniers.

James K
September 18, 2002, 10:55 PM
FWIW, it is extremely unlikely that modern center fire ammo (and WWII is modern) will go off from being dropped, even if the primer were to hit something small enough. It is even less likely (I might say impossible) that rounds in a clip would be set off by dropping. Still, if your concern was removed, you may have done the best thing for your own peace of mind.

Let me add one more caution in regard to cap and ball revolvers. During the Civil War, many cavalrymen and officers carried loaded and capped spare cylinders for faster reloading. That was justified in wartime. But I have seen people on ranges doing this because they have read about it or think that it is the way to reload.

But a loaded and capped cylinder is really a short barrel pistol. If it rolls off the bench (as one almost did) and drops on a cap, that chamber can fire with possibly lethal effect.

FWIW, I always load cap and ball revolvers and rifle muskets with cartridges to avoid having any black powder in open containers or even in a flask where guns are being fired.


September 19, 2002, 01:19 AM
Note that the owner loaded the gun.

"The woman, who wore protective goggles, took the 4.5 kilogram rifle and held it while the man put some gunpowder in it."

It's quite possible the gun was double loaded. A friend double loaded his modern in-line. IIRC, the first ball was 6'' from the beech, indicating that the second charge ignited at that point and stopped the first ball. The striker was blown back and the bottom of the scope was singled. I hate to think what the pressure got to.


Alex Johnson
September 21, 2002, 10:24 PM
It doesn't say what the powder was they dumped down the barrel. I doubt a normal charge of black powder would shatter the gun even if it was in terrible condition (of course the media might have been playing with words on the description). That does sound more like a case of somebody dumping a charge of smokeless down the barrel. I remember seeing a single barrel percussion shotgun in the back of the Dixie catalog that somebody had loaded by tearing apart a .410 shotgun shell and using the components in the gun. That gun looked like it was shattered. Who knows what really happend, but people who are stupid enough to do stuff like that probably shouldn't own guns.

James K
September 21, 2002, 11:30 PM
In spite of what some anglophile "experts" say, Damascus barrels (yes even English made ones) are not only inherently weak, but over time can be eaten away from the inside by a combination of primer corrosion, poor cleaning, and plain old rust. They then look more like metal lace than a gun barrel and are ready to let go with even a moderate load of black powder, a load that would have been easily contained when the barrel was new. A barrel nearly dissolved on the inside can look good on the outside where it was kept oiled. While breechloaders can be examined for internal damage (though it can go unnoticed unless the examiner knows what to look for), muzzle loaders are more difficult to check and severe damage can exist without any outward sign.

Those who say that proof marks guarantee that the barrel is sound are living in some sort of dream world where time is suspended.


Johnny Guest
September 24, 2002, 02:48 PM
Another good post, Jim. Glad to see this "arcane" knowledge is spreading widely. I become weary of trying to convince people that great-great-grandaddy's old "twist steel" gun is not safe to fire!

About once a year, someone shows with some old shotgun, inherited or bought too high at an auction, and want to be told how terrifically valuable it is. Naturally, most are next to worthless except as wall hangers. A couple of the proud heirs tell me that they "know better" than to shoot 'em with heavy loads, and so use only light trap loads.

Even the more knowledgeable ones sometimes want me to handload them some black powder shells so they can go shoot the gun. I respond that, (1) I couldn't even if I would, and (2) I wouldn't, even if I could, because I have no way of knowing the condition of the bore(s.)

Most of these people are disappointed, of course. I tell 'em that this is a family treasure, too valuable to shoot, and should be cherished as a relic of a bygone day. (Probably bought from Montgomery-Ward's for $12.50 in 1902.)

I've been accused of underrating a gun so I could buy it cheaper. (I am VERY SELDOM in the market for ANY old shotgun, I promise.) Once - - ONLY once - - I erred and told a guy I wouldn't want his ancestor's gun if it were for sale for twenty dollars. A week later, I hear that I "tried to gyp" him out of the gun by offering that amount. Now I just try to explain the dangers and leave it there.

Even if I had a video bore scope, I couldn't tell if a rough bore interior indicated fatal flaws in the tube. Seems as if I never get to examine the fine old guns which were promptly cleaned and lovingly stored in some estate. I see the ones which set inside the farm house back door, in the moist air, not cleaned since last fired in 1926.

Keep up the good fight, friends!