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Muzzle Loading Ignition Problems

Dan Kindig, Log Cabin Sports Shop

An Ounce Of Prevention

The vision of the frustrated golfer smashing his putter against a tree can well be understood by a black powder hunter who takes a shot at a trophy buck only to have his rifle misfire. Ignition problems are commonly experienced by hunters, but most are preventable through proper maintenance. Once we determine that the rifle in question is well made and in good working condition, and we have proved its dependability during a day of practice on the rifle range; then, remaining ignition problems can be attributed to improper maintenance or failure to protect the firearm in bad weather.

In a percussion firearm, there are two ignition failure situations; each calling for its own separate solution.

In the first case, the cap fails to fire, so obviously the rifle doesn't fire. Check the nipple . . . a worn nipple sometimes develops a flair (or ridge) around the top which prevents the cap from seating properly to its full depth. In this situation, a second or third fall of the hammer may finally seat the cap enough and it will eventually fire. Replacing the nipple and being certain the cap fits properly will solve this problem. If a replacement is not available the ridge can be removed with an emery cloth or on a buffing wheel.

Another nipple related problem concerns the shape of the top of the nipple shaft. The top of the nipple should show a fairly sharp edge which is a result of a pronounced counter sink cut into the top. A nipple with a broad flat surface may not fire a cap as it seems the blow is spread over too much surface area.

Shooters often blame the cap for their ignition problems; however, RWS and CCI caps, two of the best brands on the market today, are nearly 100% dependable. They are sealed, water proof and extremely dependable, and thus are rarely the cause of the problem.

In the second category of ignition problems, the cap fires but the rifle does not. In this situation, there is some sort of blockage preventing the fire from reaching the powder. This blockage is usually powder residue or oil left from previous use or storage. It is absolutely essential that the flash channel be completely free of dirt and oil before loading.

A detailed cleaning is the first step in preventing misfires during your next outing. In order to prevent rust during storage, a film of grease or oil in the bore is needed; however, this material must be removed before loading. A dry patch, on a jag, run down the bore will pick up most oil. On the morning of an important hunt when a misfire could cause a severe disappointment, you may want to pour several tablespoons of denatured alcohol down the bore. A jag with a dry patch pushed down the bore will force this alcohol out the nipple, dissolving and removing dirt and oil in the flash channel. Another dry patch pumped through the bore will quickly evaporate any remaining alcohol. Note: Never put a dry patch down a dirty bore as it will very likely stick and be very difficult to remove.

As always, fire a cap before loading to be double sure there is no obstruction in the nipple.

Moisture finding its way into the bore from rain, condensation, etc. can cause even a perfectly clean firearm to misfire. Many things can be done to prevent moisture from entering the firearm. Of course, loading in a dry condition is an important first step. A toy balloon stretched over the muzzle will provide an effective seal.

A bullet left part way down the barrel, mud, snow or other foreign material in the bore creates a dangerous situation. The balloon, however, will be blown away by the shot and doesn't pose any danger.

After the cap has been placed on the nipple, a quick coat of clear nail polish, or similar material, around the cap will provide a seal.

Protect the rifle as much as possible during rain or snow conditions. The flap of a raincoat over the lock area, a sheet of plastic wrap around the lock or a leather cover over the lock will all provide some protection from the elements. Be careful and make sure that these items can be removed quickly and safely when needed. It is important that you don't create any danger of accidental discharge while carrying the firearm.

Earlier, we mentioned the potential danger of leaving a rifle loaded overnight in order to avoid the problems of cleaning and reloading for the next days hunt. If you choose to leave the gun loaded, be certain that it is safely stored. Do not take it into a warm, humid hunting lodge as the moisture will condense in, and on, the rifle and possibly create a misfire the next morning.

Much of what we've said about a percussion rifle applies to a flintlock, as well. Again, we have two misfire situations.

  1. the pan powder fails to ignite and,
  2. the pan ignites but the main charge does not.

When the pan does not ignite, it is usually because there were insufficient sparks produced when the flint strikes the frizzen. A lack of sparks may be due to a worn flint or a worn frizzen. A flint can be reshaped by lightly tapping the cutting edge with a non-sparking tool, such as a brass knapping hammer. A steel tool should not be used because striking a steel tool against the flint could produce a spark and possibly ignite the rifle. A worn frizzen can be replaced, or usually, it can be heat treated. Sparks from a flint lock are caused when the flint scrapes tiny particles of steel off the face of the frizzen. If the surface of the frizzen is not hard enough, or the flint not sharp enough, then no sparks will be produced.

If the pan ignites, but the gun doesn't fire then there is usually an obstruction in the flash channel. As in the percussion, this is often the result of incomplete cleaning. Flashing powder in the pan has no beneficial effect like snapping a cap on a percussion does, so your best bet with a flint is to be careful when you clean and use the alcohol if you wish. One additional step is to run a pick into the touch hole after loading to be certain the touch hole is open.

Protecting the rifle, particularly the lock area, from rain is doubly important in a flint lock. Wet priming powder doesn't do a good job of firing the rifle. Check the pan often during hunting, wipe the pan and recharge if necessary. If you suspect the main charge has picked up moisture, you may want to pull the ball and charge or blow it out with a CO2 Ball Discharger then dry and reload. If you pull a bullet with a ball puller on the ramrod, be certain the prime has been removed from the pan, the frizzen is open and the hammer is down.

In the case of a percussion, remove the cap, be certain there is no priming residue remaining and let the hammer down before pulling a ball. An accidental discharge while working with a rod down the bore could obviously be disastrous. Safety is of prime importance. We all want our hunt to be successful, but we want it to be safe as well.

If you are having ignition problems with your rifle, please feel free to contact any of the knowledgeable people at the Log Cabin Shop. Call for customer service at (330) 948-1082. We will do our best to help you with any problems you might be having.

The Log Cabin Shop specializes in historical firearms, accessories and accouterments of the pre-1840's era. We maintain a retail/wholesale location as well as a mail-order business serving the entire United States and over a dozen foreign countries.