View Full Version : How did they make Blackpowder Firearms Last in the old days

April 9, 2001, 09:04 PM
I wonder how did blackpowder firearms stay operational in the old days?

How often could a Revolutionary war soldier or Cowboy on the plains of Texas clean a blackpowder firearm with hot soapy water? Not that often I would guess and the metals of the day could not have been more corrosion resistant than what is used today.

The fact that there are guns dating from the 1700s in museums means that some how they made it work but how?

Joe West
April 9, 2001, 10:49 PM
The very best guns in museums and collections that look so good, were often used very little or not at all. The heavily used examples that often pass through our shop show their age. But many still have some rifling and will still function. From old accounts I read BP guns were cleaned with the left over coffee, creek water, or rain water [ cleaned mine that way too at some of the multiple day matches of yester-year]. Just like serious gun handlers of today, those folks that wanted to be able to use their gun the next day did what it takes to keep them working. My smokeless match guns get very little attention. My carry guns are checked every day. My BP guns get washed off in the field and detail stripped when home. Often grease for their guns was animal fat. Moon still sometimes uses bacon grease as a lube! He figures that way he'll never starve as long as he's got bullets. Even if he misses.
Joe West

4V50 Gary
April 10, 2001, 10:39 AM
If the gun was a soldier's musket, it all depends on whether he's on campaign or in garrison. On campaign the gun was more exposed and less cared for and could get lost or damaged during battle. After the retreat to Corruna, the rifles of the Rifle Brigade were badly rusted and in desperate need of repair. Many were exchanged or fixed by the armourers.

Once he returned to camp life, woe befalls the soldier who neglects his musket and it was common to flog a soldier for the slightest infraction (shoes didn't come in left or right side and the soldier was to reverse them daily to keep the wear even. Failure to do so resulted in lashing). So, in garrison the musket was burnished to shine and the wood equally polished.

For private individuals, since the musket or rifle represented an private purchase, it was generally well cared for. This does not mean that there was no breakage. Look at some old guns and you'll find metal strips to reinforce the stock where it had cracked (especially around the wrists and beneath the trigger guard). If you look at some of the guns the Indians had (and mountain men), you'll find rawhide which has been shrunk on to repair the broken stock. Some guns are in a remarkable state of preservation and the current issue of Muzzle Blasts talks about two brothers who were hunting on their family farm, which had been in the family for generations, and sought shelter from the rain in an old cabin they stumbled upon. Well, they found an old rifle which was wrapped in oily rags. It was in excellant condition and had belonged to one of their ancestors (papers in the cabin confirmed the prior occupant's identity).

Alex Johnson
April 10, 2001, 12:02 PM
I think people in the past were much like we are today. Well there are some among us today who are careless with their possessions (guns) and don't take care of them properly, there were also in yesteryear. People who depended on their guns for survival probably took damn good care of them when they were able. You can bet someone like Hickock or Earp probably made cleaning a their firearms almost a daily ritual, many gunfighters discharged their revolvers daily and cleaned them every evening before carefully reloading them. One of Hickock's 51's is on display at the Buffalo Bill Cody Museaum in Wyoming in it looks well cared for to this day.

Mike Irwin
April 11, 2001, 10:01 AM
During a lull in battle, or the aftermath, soldiers were know to urinate into the barrels of their guns as a quick way of dissolving fouling.

Urine contains ammonia, which helps cut powder fouling. It also contains salts, which in and of themselves will cause rusting, so it's only a temporary solution.

Two Wounds
April 12, 2001, 02:26 PM
Many blackpowder shooters from years ago would have utilized whatever was available to clean their guns. All products were, of course, found naturally. I would imagine that the cleaning agent used at least some of the time would have been plain water or human spit. Since human spit is acidic in nature, and many used it for patch lubricant, as do many today, it would make a good cleaning agent as well. I also use spit patches to wipe the bore between shots. As someone else stated in an earlier post, urine could have also been used.

Horse urine has been used in a browning process of metal parts.

Something used by a number of blackpowder enthusiasts today for cleaning is windshield washer fluid. It has the water base, a mild detergent, and some alcohol to aid in evaporation. Another nice feature of it is, it's cheap.

4V50 Gary
April 12, 2001, 06:54 PM
Old fashion hot water was probably the most common thing used to clean the gun barrel. Tow was used to scrub with. Sperm whale oil was the favorite preservative and bear oil followed closely behind.

Munro Williams
April 13, 2001, 08:01 AM
I used to use hot soapy water also, and to avoid rust I'd put the barrel in the oven to quickly evaporate all the water before I oiled it down inside and out. Worked OK: no rust in the breechblock. But I've heard tell of LOTS of rusted out breechblocks, also.

I imagine the old timers would do something similar.

October 6, 2001, 10:47 PM

Not much talking so I bring this subject of how old guns were really kept in service back to life.

4V50 Gary
October 7, 2001, 06:16 PM
Well, during intervals of peace, soldiers were required to shine to a high gloss their muskets. Some did it so well that they wore out the barrel and upon firing, the gun would burst.

October 7, 2001, 10:55 PM
Fella's I'm whats called an Experimental Archeologist.
My time period in research is the 18th century frontier of Pennsylvania/Virginia. (The Northwest Territory)
What all this means is that I spend upwards of a weekend to two weeks at a time doing research on what a frontiersman would have had with him on the frontier. I have helped build forts, log cabins, and lean-to's dressed in funny cloths using hand tools that most people havn't used for a hundred years.
But what is really great is that when you start doing this you build your kit from historical refference. (Diaries, journals, and written accounts.)
My flinter is a 1760's style Marshall log rifle. It's one of the first Pennsylvania type rifles built in the tradition of the Jeager rifle, but with a longer barrel and smaller caliber. (54 cal. as comparedt to a 62 cal.)
The first thing I'll tell ya is that gun is always loaded. They never cleaned much and when they did clean well it was for hunting or a shooting match. When I clean in the field I use tow. This is comed flax that has an oil in it. I use a tow worm that looks like a cork screw and wrap this around it till its a little bigger than a 54 cal ball. Usually one or two passes and then I load again. I rely on knowing where my gun shoots when it has a little fowling and how it shoots clean. To speed load I use a thinner patch and can accuratly hit a large target that way at 100 yards.
The only time you really have to worry is when it gets really damp out. that is when you gotta clean well. Water introduced to the black powder is what will pitt steal.
The tendancey on the frontier was to shoot and load right away. If you wanted to clean well you pulled the ball and re-cast it. Remember an empty gun is a club and that was very true on the frontier. By the 1770's two barreled guns start showing up and many of these are documented. Simon Kenton, Tim Murphy, and Jacob Wetzel all had one. There is one on display at the Jason Humbrick Museam at Rosco Village in Ohio. But most of the frontier guns didn't last. They were taken in raids by Indians and just plain wore out. The guns we see in museams were stuck in corners or passed on after the introduction of percussion guns and cartrige guns. After the Indian threat was over, some of those guns never saw use again.
Within the last two years, friends of mine have found two flinters stuck in between the walls of a log cabin. Now I ask you guys, do you not no where all your guns are?
So when you see all these really nice guns in museams remember that they still shoot as well as they did back then. They were just put away and forgot about. If you guys are interested Tennessee University is starting coarses in Experimental Archeology.

Cap n ball
October 8, 2001, 09:38 AM
I grew up here in Missouri in one of the counties that borders on Kansas (Vernon). Heard all the stories about the War of Northern Aggression and about Jayhawkers, Redleggers and Bushwackers as a kid. It was never considered fit discussion for around the dinner table but it was talked about in the evenings when we would sit out in the cool of the garden and it was just the boys and the old men. My Great-grandfather had four brothers. Two of them and himself joined up with the Union. Of those three only my Great grandfather survived the war. The other two joined up with Dave Poole and became bushwackers. One survived, (my grand uncle, William) he went to Montana and married into an Indian tribe, the other went with Gen. Jo Shelby's men and disappeared somewhere in Mexico.
My grandpa told me he had an old 'six-shooter' that he believed belonged to one of his uncles who rode with Dave Poole. I never saw it and was in the service many years later when he died and never had a chance to ask him about it again. About ten years ago I was down at the old farmstead and was poking around up in the attic where there were some beautiful old walnut planks that had been put up there when the house was built in the 1880s for a walkway. I was going to use a few for some bookshelves I was making. When I pulled three of them out I saw something stuck between the rafters and after I pried it out from the mud dauber nests I saw that it was an old tobacco tin and it was HEAVY! I was thinking about all sorts of treasures but didn't even imagine that when I opened it that inside would be a beautifully preserved 1858 Remington all broken down and carefully wrapped up in cloth that judging from the print and bits of embroidery may have been the remnants of what was called a 'battle shirt'. Carved into one of the grips was the name 'Willy'. Then I remembered my grandpa telling me about his uncle's gun. It's one of my most prized possessions...I have it and the old tin box in my gun vault. I have fired it once.

April 15, 2002, 01:00 PM
That is a treasure.

I wonder how many others have such antiques?

April 19, 2002, 05:44 PM
I used to wonder the same thing. Then I read an article that told about a group of traditional shooters in the western states that followed the mountain men's old ways.
As far as muzzleloaders: They shot mostly .50 cal and above with round balls and greased patches killing deer, bear, small game and elk. Plastic sabots, oil based solvents or detergents strip the seasoning form a barrel and encourage rough bores, rust and hard loading.
A new muzzle loader barrel is like a new cast iron frying pan. It must be seasoned correctly before extensive use and cleaned correctly there after.

1. These guys used animal fat for lube. Bear or hog fat being the favs.
2. They NEVER used any solvent or soap of any kind in thier barrels.
3. Most cleaning was with patches, a soft brush and hot water. Like a properly seasoned cast iron pan the bore takes on a smooth "no-stick" surface that allows for easy cleaning.

I have a T/C Renagade .50 that I replaced the barrel on after reading the article. It has never fired anything but .50 caliber balls with lard lubed patches or spit patches in a pinch. Cleanup is as easy as heating a little water and swabbing the barrel with it until clean. I have never seen rust on a patch out of this barrel and it stays loaded year round. I fire it at least every couple of months which is probably a lot less than the old timers fired thiers.

July 27, 2005, 02:02 PM
I have read that gunsmiths and gunmakers of the early 19th century would "freshen" a barrel after rust and wear had taken a toll. This involved cutting deeper rifling, and sometimes the whole barrel was rebored to a larger caliber.

September 1, 2005, 03:06 PM
I work metal. I have yet to forge a gun barrel but I do know that early smoke poles were loaded with slag which made the inside of the barrel like glass. this and proper seasoning made powder fouling much less prominent. unfortunatley it also made the barrels much weaker and unable to withstand pressures like those produced by modern powders.

September 1, 2005, 06:22 PM
I have a Remington Model 1858 44 caliber percussion revolver that I found in our garage attic in 1948 as a youngster (I was 10 at the time). It was mixed with a bunch of old chains and was a solid ball of rust that did not resemble much of anything. I beat on it with a hammer until enough of the rust fell off revealing a wooden handle at which time I started beating more carefully. I finally took it to school (Yes a firearm in school at that time was OK) and in the metal shop cleaned it up enough to make it function enough to shoot caps under the hammer. One cylinder had been loaded with something bad like maybe smokeless as it had ruptured into the next cylinder and the lump on the cylinder made it impossible to rotate. A grinder fixed that so I had a good cap shooter. I found out that it had once belonged to my Fathers father and he had purchased two as Cival War surplus and I found the inspector stamps that confirmed it. It played a lot of cowboy and indian games and later after returning from military service I decided to try to rebuild the pistol and after ordering an Italian replica cylinder and some springs and a few other parts I managed to fit the cylinder and time it and finally was able to shoot it. The accuracy was not great as the ball in a replica cylinder is too small for an original Remington so sometime in the future I may ream the cylinder to the correct diameter for the barrel. Since it was my Grandfathers and I had more interest in making it like it was when he had it, I was not concerned that I may have lost some value by re-manufacturing it. It looks almost as good as a new replica as I also reblued it. With reduced loads it is obviously very safe to shoot as the cylinder is really quite a bit better than what was on it originally and the barrel is fair to good.

September 4, 2005, 03:06 PM
Soap isnt required to clean blackpowder. It helps, but isn't required. Any water will cut black powder fouling, the hot part helps dry the metal quicker, and the soap parts cuts the fouling faster, but plain cold water works, and dried out and oiled, you are ready to go again. You can of course heat water on your camp fire.

I've cleaned a pistol with a patch dipped in a river, run through the barrel and chambers, a dry patch and was in business again to shoot.