A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance | Deer & Deer Hunting

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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.

A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
1. The Traditions NitroFire is machined with a “chamber” area that is larger in diameter than the rifle bore, necessitating the use of a special nylon bore brush. Solvent is also used to clean this portion of the barrel.

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.

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2. After allowing the solvent to loosen the fouling, run a dry patch down the bore to remove the initial excess. This rifle had already been cleaned six months prior, but some measure of copper fouling remained in the bore. You can’t remove it all, and it’s not necessary that you do. As you can see here, it’s a difficult substance to remove and thus requires an aggressive approach. Repeat the process of solvent and bore scrubbing until you are satisfied that the bore is as clean as you can get it.

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.

A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
3. Once the fouling has been removed to your satisfaction, remove all solvent with dry patches (cotton flannel works best). Finish by running a seasoning patch down the bore. Here, we are using a Traditions EZ Clean 2 patch. You can also use a plain cotton patch saturated with conventional bore lubricant. Either one will provide a protective coat in the bore to help prevent rust and make loading easier when it’s time to hit the range or the field.

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.

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4. This portion of the receiver serves as the breech face of the Traditions NitroFire and should also be cleaned thoroughly with a brush and solvent to remove damaging powder residue. If you have a conventional in-line muzzleloader, you will want to clean the breech plug in similar fashion, making sure to remove all fouling from the fire hole with a specialty brush or pipe cleaner saturated in solvent. Once cleaned and dry, lightly lubricate the plug with gun oil, mineral oil or bore lubricant, and be sure to apply grease to the breech plug threads before reinstalling into the back of the barrel.

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.

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1. While it is not necessary to remove the triggerguard for this procedure, we’ll do so here so we can check the condition of the screws.

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.

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A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
2. The lock assembly is secured in the stock with two lock plate screws. Remove both of these.
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3. With the lock plate screws removed, the lock can be lifted out of the inlet.
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4. The tang screw passes through the tang, through the stock, and into the trigger assembly, securing both the tang and the trigger to the stock.
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5. Remove the tang screw and remove the trigger assembly from the stock.

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.

A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
6. If your rifle is a percussion cap, use a nipple wrench to unscrew the nipple from the bolster.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
7. The bolster screw can sometimes be a tough one to get out if you don’t clean and lubricate it each time you clean the barrel. If yours is on tight and possibly corroded in the threads, apply some Kroil and allow it time to seep in and loosen the screw.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
8. Kentucky-style rifles utilize tenons and tenon pins to secure the barrel to the forestock. Keep removal of these to a minimum to prevent wearing out the pins and holes. If you do remove the barrel, push the pins out from left to right with a punch. Hawken-style rifles use flat tenon pins to secure the barrel and can be removed as needed for barrel cleaning. Whichever style you have, remove the tenon pins to release the barrel from the stock.

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!]

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9. The nose cap on this rifle must be removed to separate the stock from the barrel.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
10. This style rifle has a two-piece stock. The forestock should be separated from the buttstock before removing the barrel to prevent bending the stock joining pins or damaging the wood.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
11. Yep, a bit worse than we had imagined. Although this rifle has seen a few deer seasons and its share of foul weather, the amount of rust and grime came as a surprise. This is why it is important to remove your lock and clean it at least once a year.

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.

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12. To clean the crud, we go back to Hoppe’s #9 solvent and a nylon brush. Saturate the parts with solvent and vigorously scrub to remove all the old grease, oils, powder fouling, and any other junk that has worked its way into the lock mechanism.
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13. A nipple pick is essential for cleaning out the small fire hole in the nipple.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
14. Once thoroughly scrubbed with solvent, use a degreaser to remove the slurry. Real Avid’s new Foul-Out is perfect for this. It works like denatured alcohol or brake cleaner to remove oils, but it has a pleasant odor and an adjustable straw that helps direct the spray exactly where you need it.

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.

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A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
15. Because our small parts were quite nasty, we decided to give them a sonic bath to reach any junk that we couldn’t get to with the nylon brush. A sonic cleaner, like this one from Hornady, is a good thing to have in your gun shop. It not only works for cleaning empty brass cartridges, but you can also use it on small gun parts, as well. For owners of in-line muzzleloaders, this is a great method for cleaning that breech plug.
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16. After the barrel is scrubbed clean and while the metal is still hot, run several clean cotton patches through the barrel, pausing at the breech to soak up any water at the bottom. Once the patches come out dry, allow the barrel to stand upright for a few minutes so that any residual moisture can quickly evaporate. Next, saturate a patch with bore lubricant and run this down the barrel. The lubricant will protect the bore from rust and corrosion during storage.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
17. With the barrel clean, apply a light layer of bore lube to the exterior as a rust preventative.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
18. Before reinstalling the bolster screw, use a pipe cleaner and swab the threads with bore lube to prevent rust and corrosion. Ditto for the bolster’s nipple threads and the threads on the nipple. [TIP: Replace your standard steel nipple with a stainless-steel nipple. They’re easier to keep clean and won’t rust.]
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19. With the small parts removed from the parts washer, place them in a bowl of hot, soapy water and scrub them clean with a nylon brush. Dry immediately (compressed air is best to ensure all moisture is removed from the nooks and crannies) and lightly lubricate all metal surfaces. For the metal-on-metal moving parts, apply a coat of grease, such as Brownells Action Lube.
A Deep Dive Into Muzzleloader Maintenance
20. Assembly of the rifle is the reverse of disassembly. Be sure to check your trigger function to ensure it is safe and working properly. Sidelocks can bind up and screws that are torqued too tight can interfere with trigger and hammer operation.

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