I love hunting with and shooting muzzleloaders. There is virtue to be found in the slower pace, the process of load development, and the added skills required to place a bullet on target. But I, along with most muzzleloader fans, HATE cleaning them. This is especially true of old-school percussion cap and flintlock models. That is not to imply that modern in-lines are fun and enjoyable to clean. Both platforms demand their own considerations when it comes to muzzleloader maintenance.
In this article, we want to shine the light on what it takes to deep-clean both in-line and closed-breech muzzleloaders.
We’ll begin with contemporary muzzleloaders because they are the easiest to clean and to maintain. Nearly all incorporate a removeable breech plug that simply screws into the back of the barrel. The Traditions NitroFire we’re using here does not have a breech plug due to its use of the Federal Premium FireStick technology, but the cleaning process is like that of standard in-line muzzleloaders.
The thing to keep in mind regarding in-line muzzleloaders is that nearly all are used with copper-jacketed bullets and plastic sabots. This is a big difference compared to traditional muzzleloaders that propel lead balls or slugs, because you’re not so much dealing with lead and powder fouling in the bore, but copper and plastic. Both materials cling to rifling and any surface imperfections along the barrel’s lands and grooves. This means that your average muzzleloader bore solvent and cotton patches are not going to do a great job of eliminating this fouling.
In-Line Muzzleloader Cleaning
Proper barrel cleaning of centerfire rifles and handguns demands a quality solvent and liberal application of a bore brush to remove built-up fouling that can be detrimental to barrel life and accuracy. It is no different with muzzleloaders that shoot copper-clad sabot bullets. In the minds of many shooters who may come from a traditional muzzleloader background, the idea of cleaning a barrel with a bore lubricant and a patch still lingers. Just because the in-line is a “muzzleloader” does not mean it holds to the same cleaning processes as closed-breech sidelock or flintlock muzzleloaders.
Treat your in-line muzzleloader as you would any conventional firearm. After removing the breech plug, run a patch saturated with a good solvent, such as Hoppe’s #9, down the bore to remove the gross fouling. Next, saturate a caliber-specific bore brush with the solvent and make around 10 passes back and forth in the barrel. Allow the solvent to do its work for 10-15 minutes.
Sidelock Muzzleloader Cleaning — the Deep Dive
If I were to venture a guess, I’d reckon that relatively few commercially manufactured sidelock muzzleloaders owned by the occasional muzzleloader shooter or hunter ever receive a thorough cleaning. For many, the sidelock rifle is unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. Most only receive the cursory cleaning by running a bore lubricant down the barrel a few times before calling it “done.” Fewer still, ever attempt to remove the sidelock to lubricate the mechanism and remove built-up fouling and debris.
Well, the good news is that deep cleaning a sidelock muzzleloader is a simple task. It’s not fun and it is messy, but it is not difficult.
We’re going to show you how to disassemble a sidelock for cleaning. This is a Kentucky-style rifle made from a Traditions DIY kit six or seven years ago and it has never been taken apart since it was built. High time it was, and since most percussion cap and flintlock muzzleloaders are similarly built, it is a good representation of what you’ll find in most sidelock rifles.
Everyone seems to have their own preference when it comes to cleaning a closed-breech rifle barrel. Some feel a cotton patch and bore lubricant is sufficient (it’s not). Others favor solvent and a nylon brush followed by a patch and bore lube. [NOTE: Never use a copper brush in a closed-breech muzzleloader barrel because it will get STUCK!]
My preferred method is the one used by experienced blackpowder shooters — hot, soapy water. After removing the gross fouling with a couple patches and lube, followed by a patch or two saturated with solvent, my barrel gets a bath. Near-boiling water is funneled into the barrel and allowed to drain into a bucket. The breech end of the barrel is then placed in a bucket with hot, soapy water (dish liquid works well). There needs to be enough water to cover the bolster. Next, I screw a mop onto the end of the ramrod and go to town. Raising the wet mop up and down will hydraulically lift the water up the bore. I will scrub up and down like this for several minutes, change the dirty soapy water with fresh, and repeat until the water is clear.
We mentioned earlier that it’s best not to remove the barrel from rifles that use small tenon pins. We only did this here to show you how it is done. Normally, you would keep the barrel on the rifle assembly when cleaning long rifles, such as the Kentucky- or Pennsylvania-style muzzleloaders. You can still use the hot water method, but instead of removing and placing the end of the barrel in hot water, a tube is secured over a special O-ring nipple and the opposite end placed in hot, soapy water. The tube allows the water to be sucked up into the barrel by the mop to effectively clean the barrel without having to remove it from the stock.