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My Percussion Rifle & Equipage

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Jul 26, 2014
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Southern Illinois
Hello, everyone! I am an enthusiast of black powder muzzle-loading rifles, specifically those of civilian American design and especially those of the 19th century. Half of the fun of this hobby is researching all the different tools and accouterments used with these beautiful weapons. It offers a glimpse into everyday early American ingenuity and craftiness. The muzzle-loading rifle, by nature, requires a number of components and tools so that it may be loaded and cleaned properly.

What follows is a description of my current favorite muzzle-loader as well as all of the trappings I’ve accumulated or built over the last year or so. The rifle itself and all the accesories are based as closely as possible on historically correct examples. I have very meticulously built up this kit with a great deal of research and discussion with contemporary exports on the topic. I hope you enjoy! :)

Here is my rifle and kit:

This rifle was made by gunsmith Mike Compton out of Iowa, and follows closely the mid-19th century Ohio-style school of half-stock caplock, or percussion, rifle popular as hunting rifles. It takes 76 balls to the pound (.40 caliber) and features a Douglas barrel with slow 1-66” twist square groove rifling for best use with the lead round ball projectile.

I have “coned” this barrel, which involves the use of a special tapered tool and abrasives to relieve the rifling at the muzzle to form a long cone. This allows a patched round ball to be started with thumb pressure and seated with the rammer or wiping stick alone, dispensing with the necessity of using a bullet starter for this task. A number of original rifles of the period show such relief methods.

The gun is stocked in curly maple and exhibits brass mountings and a quality butternut browned finish on barrel and lock. The front sight is of German silver with a copper bass. The lock is made by the L&R company and as stated uses the percussion system of ignition. A small copper cup is filled with a minute amount of explosive compound and placed on the cone, or nipple, of the rifle. When the rifle is fired the hammer strikes the percussion cap, where much like a modern central-fire primer, sends a hot jet of fire into the barrel which then ignites the main charge.

The percussion lock system first became available in this country by the 1820s and by the early 1840s has almost completely overtaken the earlier flintlock system in military and civilian use. Compared to the old flintlock, the percussion system held advantages in its waterproofness and reliability in unfavorable conditions, offered an instantaneous ignition and firing of the weapon, and the lock itself was less complex and cheaper to produce. This was the dominant form of firearm ignition until the widespread adoption of breach-loading arms in the 1870s.

As we all know, the muzzle-loading rifle is fired with separate components and has its own myriad of equipment. Below is a picture of the most common form of carrying these items by the hunters and sport shooters of the middle to later half of the 1800s in the United States of America. This being what is known as the “possibles bag”, or “shooting pouch”, or any number of names. We shall now take a look at the contents of the shooting pouch as well as items carried alongside it. I have lettered each item in this picture and they will be discussed individually

It is important to note that the variety of different designs, shapes, materials, and forms of these items can vary tremendously. Originals were often handmade from locally available things, game or domestic animal resources, repurposed and recycled items, and just about anything. A person’s rifle and trappings were as individual and varied as the persons themselves.

Here are mine:

A) Powder Horn. This familiar object carries loose black powder. It is made from the outer covering of a cow’s horn with the tip drilled through to form a spout. A wooden stopper and base plug secures both ends of the horn, and a leather strap is lashed to it for carrying across the body. This is an original antique powder horn that I restored. When made, it was scraped thin and this allows the level of powder in the horn to be viewed by holding it up to strong sunlight.

B) Shooting Pouch. Goes by any number or names but is a leather bag used for carrying small components of the kit. Originals pouches came in an endless variety of shapes and sizes. This pouch was made by craftsman T.C. Albert who has written several books on the subject of pouches and powder horns. It has a knife sheath built into the carry strap and an adjustable antique buckle.

C) Bullet Bag. This small leather pouch is but one method of carrying the lead round ball projectiles. Fashioned of wood and leather, it is suspended over the opposite shoulder across the body. A stopper keeps the lead balls from spilling out when not needed. Some old time hunters had a preference to carrying the balls in this type of separate pouch vs loose in the shooting bag. If the hunter were to fall, the balls might spill all over and become lost, which is mostly prevented with the bullet pouch.

D) Tin with Percussion Caps. The percussion caps necessary for firing the gun were (and are still sold today) sold in small metal tins carrying normally between 100-250 caps. These tins once empty were often repurposed for all sorts of uses, such as carrying grease for lubricating the gun’s parts or the patching material for shooting. This cap tin is a replica of an original. Eley brand percussion caps were renowned for quality in the 19th century and that company continues today manufacturing top rimfire ammunition.

E) Nipple pick. The nipple pick, or prick, is a small looped piece of wire used in clearing out the small orifice of the nipple. These were often homemade and could be produced from music wire from a piano or other instrument. Similar picks could be used as an awl for making holes in leather for repairing or modifying the shooting pouch or other objects.

F) Gun worm. The gun worm is a forged corkscrew-shaped accessory designed to be threaded onto the ramrod, or wiping stick, and is used in swabbing out the fouling that accumulates in the bore of the rifle and for greasing it after cleaning. The fluffy material is called “tow” and is simply the coarse unspun byproduct of making flax or linen cloth. The tow is wrapped around the worm making a facsimile of a modern bore brush.

G) Patches. In order to provide a snug fit for the lead round ball, it is loaded with patching. This serves as a gas seal around the ball. Strong, tightly-woven cloth is best for this purpose. Pillow ticking with its striped appearance was a top choice and is still available today. The patching could be used in a number of ways, and pre-cut round patches (which I prefer) could be made at home using a simple patch cutter. When using these pre-made patches, gunpowder is first poured down the barrel, a patch laid atop the muzzle moistened with the mouth or greased, and a ball placed on top of the patch is driven down the barrel onto the powder with the ramrod.

H) Nipple Wrench. Used for removing the nipple from the rifle for cleaning. In the event of a “dry ball”, where the shooter forgets to first put powder down the bore before driving home a ball, the nipple wrench is of extreme importance. It allows the removal of the nipple and a small quantity of gunpowder to be poured and tamped into the nipple seat and flash channel of the rifle. The nipple replaced and the gun capped and fired, the ball can be shot out the bore minus the main charge and the gun can be reloaded as normal.

I) Patch Knife. A small knife for trimming patching and other uses. It is carried in a sheath on the strap of the shooting pouch. One method for loading the rifle used by some is to first pour powder in the muzzle, then instead of using a pre-cut patch a strip or piece of patch material is laid across the muzzle and the lead ball is pressed flush or just below the muzzle. The patch knife is then used to trim away the excess patching and the now patched ball driven home. Both methods of loading are historically accurate.

J) Bullet Board. Called a “loading block” or “bullet block”, or various names of the sort, this ingenious little item is suspended from the shooting pouch strap. It is a “speed-loader” of sorts. Several holes are drilled into a piece of wood and each hole nestles a greased patched round ball. After charging the gun with powder, the bullet board is placed on the muzzle and the ramrod pushes out the patch and ball together where it can be sent home to the powder. These were often used for a fast reload whilst hunting.

K) Cap Magazine. The cap magazine (called a capper by some) is a brass device designed to dispense percussion caps. A small lever is pressed on the side of capper which allows a percussion cap to drop into the opening at the front of the device where it can then be pushed onto the nipple. These are especially handy in cold weather when the fingers become numb making handling the tiny cap by other means a challenge.

L) Tow Bag. A tiny leather bag with drawstring closure for carrying extra tow for cleaning and lubricating the gun. Tow may be reused a number of times after it is cleaned and dried.

M) Powder Measure (Charger). The powder measure is used to measure a specific known quantity of gunpowder from the powder horn where it is then poured into the rifle bore. These could be made from all sorts of things, horn and bone being common examples. Rifle makers often furnished there rifles with a measure made of tin (as this one is), designed to throw the proper charge of powder for best accuracy in the rifle. As a note, it is important to never pour powder directly from the powder horn into the rifle barrel. If any embers remain in the bore, they can cause the entire powder horn to explode. The powder measure ensures this cannot happen and allows a repeatable charge to be thrown each time for the sake of consistency and accuracy.

Again, these are just my own individual tools and really the sky’s the limit as to what the old timers used with their guns and what crafty people nowadays use. Thank you all so much for reading this thread. I hope you learned something new about traditional muzzle-loading rifles! If you would like to know more about this subject, I can recommend the work of author Ned Robert’s book The Muzzle Loading Cap Lock Rifle which is available on Amazon.

Hope everyone is staying safe. Take care gang! :)

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Very nice rifle and accoutrements. I can really appreciate your attention to the details in your gear. Nicely written essay. You should be proud. I wonder what the original owner of that horn would think about his powder horn being used well more than a century after he was gone. I'm sure he'd be pleased you keep it in good condition. Good job!