The Muzzle Loading Shotgun

It's Care and Use


V. M. Starr
The Muzzle Gunsmith
Eden, S. Dak.


This book is written in the hopes that it will be the means by which many good fellows may be lead into the clan of the front feeders and to the joys thereof and by making the knowledge that I have been able to gather in the past 50 years experience with muzzle loading shotguns available to as many as possible to help get them started off on the right path without having to learn the hard way with little or no outside help.

I have tried to set forth in the foollowing pages all the things that the beginner needs to know to successfully use and care for a Muzzle loading well I have succeeded I will leave up to those of you who take the time to read and digest their contents.

I hereby dedicate this book to those hardy souls who have given so much of their time, effort and substance to the cause of the charcoal burners and to my many friends and customers who have made serving you such a pleasure these many years. May you all live long and prosper.

More power to your powder and may your tribe increase.

Yours sincerely,


During the past years since the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association has been doing such a good job of reviving the use of the old front feeders there has been a great flood of information on the care and use of muzzle loading rifles and pistols but not much on old Meat in the pot that old stand by of both fur and feathers the Muzzle Loading shot gun.

Much of the meat that went to tighten the belts of the old boys and their families from about 1840 through 1880 and even much later got there with the help of that old cap lock front feed scatter gun.

Now through the efforts of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association and the high cost of ready made fodder and just for the great thrill that we get from their use a whole lot of us are turning back to the guns that served our forebearers so well, and are finding that Grandpappy really had more than most present day shooters gave him credit for. Especially after someone with the know how and a heart for the old guns has put them back in good shooting order and has choked the barrels to shoot the proper patterns for the work at hand.

No matter if you want to bust a bunny or a quail in the brush or reach up into the top of that tall hickory in the bottom after a bushy tail or reach out after a high duck or a smart old crow the old gun can be choked to do the job and do it well at a cost far below the cost of modern fodder, and besides it is a lot more fun that way.

I was infected with black powder virus at a tender age and it must have been a heavy dose because I have never shown the slightest sign of recovery and me with more than three score years behind me.

I well remember the first muzzle loading shot gun that was really mine. I must have been about 12 years old when I talked one of my cousins into parting with a 14 ga. Belgian double M-L shot gun for the princely sum of $1.25. It was no beauty from any angle and was completely innocent of finish on either wood or metal but she was sound and solid and everything worked, and of course it was without a sign of choke and like most likely shot lousy patterns, but who cared? It shot, didn't it, and it made a delicious report and a fine cloud of smoke and things died that I shot at with great regularity and if it kicked I never knew it. What more could a boy want or need?

Ammo was cheap and plentiful and even my feeble budget could be stretched over a lot of shooting. I had a good single barrel Daventort and was allowed to use Dad's fine Ithica double but they sat in the chimney corner gathering dust while the old Belgian and I did our best to keep meat in the pot in season and many a cotton tail quail, woodcock, ducks and doves found their way to the table as a result of our combined efforts.

All that took place nearly 50 years ago and many guns have come and gone since that time but my breech loaders are still gathering dust in the gun rack most of the time while I do my hunting wiht Sue Betsy a 11 bore Wm. Moore that I have used to hunt most all shotgun game with for the last 20 years.

I have choked the old gun to shoot 80 per cent patterns in either barrel to reach up after passing ducks, wide flushing pheasants and wise old crows that come to the call high where they think they are safe but seldom are.

Few men have had the priviledge to enjoy the fine shooting that has come my way in the past twenty years and Sue Betsy and I have really taken advantage of it and few were the times that the breech loaders were able to bring home a heavier bag than mine and never did they have as much fun.

Just to prove that a man with a good muzzle loader is not too badly handicapped, I will tell you about the six week crow shoot that the local gun club put on here in 1948. There were 100 guns in the contest divided up into two teams. I used M-L shot guns during the whole contest and when the shoot was over and the scores added up I had a score of 410 crows against 182 by the runner-up.

The following year when the contest was organized, Sue Betsy and I were barred--no one wanted to shoot against us. That gave me more satisfaction than winning the contest in the first place as I felt that no higher praise of the old guns ability could be offered than that.

That should be plenty about me, now let's talk about guns and their care.

Most of the guns that are to be had in this country today were imported from England with Belgium running a close second. Most of the English guns were of good quality but some of the Belgian were pretty poor, but one good point with the Belgians, no one ever saw a pair of Belgian barrels come apart no matter how cheap the gun or how poorly made. I have never seen a pair of barrels bearing the Belgian proof mark that was not brazed together and the devil himself can't get them apart without heating them red hot.

All the barrels that bear the English proof marks that I ever saw were soldered together with soft solder and in the course of my work I have had to resolder many pairs of them.

I would say that most of the M-L shot guns made in this country used either English or Belgian barrels.

The best of the English guns were made by Wm. Greener, W.C. Scott & Sons, Purdy, Wesley Richards, The Manton Bros. John & Joe, and maybe some others that I have never heard of. There were also some good makers in Ireland, one of my shooting pals has an 8 ga. made in Belfast that any gun nut would be proud to own.

Wm. Moore made lots of M-L guns that were shipped to this country and I have yet to see a genuine Moore that had not at one time been a good one. Altho I have seen some very fine Moores, most of them that come to my shop are rather plain guns made to sell at a moderate price and give good service over a long period of time, which they surely have done. My Sue Betsy is such a gun and has seen 20 years of hard service since I have had it and how much before there is no way of telling. All that I have done in the way of repairs is to rebore the barrels and put in new nipples. I wxpect to use it as long as I need a gun and then pass it on to the next generation.

Another one of the good old work horse type was the Mortimers, all of them that I have seen so far have been well made and built for service. I used one, one afternoon on a crow shoot, it was a heavy 12 ga. I loaded with 4 drams Fg and 1 1/2-oz. No. 6 and it was sure bad news for the crows.

As a whole, all of the English guns were good serviceable guns and well made of good material, as also a lot of Belgians, except the very cheapest kind. You can tell if your gun is Belgian made by taking the barrels off and looking at the proof marks on the under-side of the barrels near the breech, the Belgian proof mark is an oval with the letters ELG inside the oval.

Most English guns have the words London Twist or London Fine Twist on the rib near the breech and almost without exception the barrels are soldered together.

It is easy to tell how the barrels are put together by turning them bottom side up and running the point of a knife along one side of the bottom rib, if the scratch show yellow it is brazed and the gun is almost sure to be Belgian, if it showes brite like silver the chances are that it is English.

There comes along now and then a German made gun but not very often, seems that not too many of them were ever brought to this country, at least they don't show up in my shop in great numbers and those that do are usually rather showey pieces with cheek piece stocks and lots of fancy carving and shaped just right to give me a good sound smack right under the cheek bone.

I guess that the guys who used them either had no cheek bones or enjoyed a good swift kick in the puss every time they fired them. Outside of all the useless ginger bread and face busting stocks they were well made of good material.

Once in a blue moon a French gun will show up in the shop and a few of American make, but they are few and far between, but to date they have all been good ones.

In case you get bit by the black powder bug and decide you want a M-L shotgun, try and find one with sound stock and barrels of good weight that don't show too much abuse and mis-use, and of course it should have good locks or at least locks that can be repaired and if you can't do the job yourself be sure to take or send them to a man who knows about M-L locks because a gun is no better than its locks, especially from the standpoint of safety. Poor locks are a decided menace to shooters and spectators as well.

Chances are that unless you are one of the lucky ones that the bores will be rusty and pitted and will need some work. If you can get along with cylinder bore patterns all that will have to be done will be to give them a good cleaning with something to take out the rust and smooth them up a bit and they will shoot as well as ever. A piece of screen wire or a wad of coarse steel wool on a cleaning rod soaked in kerosene or your favorite brand of gun cleaner will get most of it out provided you supply enough elbow grease to go with it.

You can follow that with a hunk of emery paper on a stick and either turn it with a hand or power drill or just push it back and forth by hand, that will help a lot but of course will not do much for the pits. To remove the pits calls for a rebore job and that calls for an expert with special tools made for the job. The man who has the tools and the know-how can remove the breech plugs and remove all but the deepest pits and at the same time work in the right amount of choke to give you the patterns you need for the kind of shooting you will use the gun for. He will also polish the bores so that they load easy and clean easy and will not foul too bad.

The same fellow will be the one to fix those locks so they will work their best and be safe to use.

If you feel that you just have to get those breech plugs out yourself, you will have to have some special equipment first; a pair of hard wood blocks shaped to fit the barrels at the breech and then a good stout machinist's vise to grip them in, then a piece of emery cloth to put between the blocks and the barrels, with the emery side to the barrels to keep them from turning, if one barrel turns a fraction against the other if they are soldered together you will have two single barrels instead of one double. Now lay one block down barrel side up and lay the emery cloth on it, lay the barrels bottom side down on the cloth then lay the other piece of emery cloth on top of the barrels and the other block on that.

If you are right handed pick up blocks and barrels with the breech on your right with the nipples pointing towards you and place the whole works in the strongest vise you can find and really tighten up on them, I put all of my 210 pounds onto the vise handle and really heave, because if one of those barrels turns a fraction of an inch against the other you will have a very nasty soldering job on your hands that will make you sweat and maybe swear as well. The next thing to do is to take out the nipple from the right barrel, if you have not already done so as it is not likely to clear the left breech plug when you try to turn it. Now you must either have a Starr patent bung starter or some other device that will take a firm hold on the lug on the breech plug and I mean FIRM and still be small enough to allow the right plug to turn and not jam against the other lug.

With my bung starter I am able to put all the turning pressure on the wrench that the lug will stand using my left arm only this leaves my right hand free to rap the end of the starter with a hammer, this not only keeps the starter full up on the lug but helps a lot to break the grip of the rust that has been undisturbed ever since Granpa touched her off the last time.

If that don't start something you can either twist off the lug or if you have some time to spare set the breech in kerosene or penetrating oul and let her set for a few days and try again, if it still don't come try a little heat but be careful or you will be in trouble with that solder again, but if the barrels are Belgian you can use more but never use more than just enough to loosen the rust. I heat a little and give her a try, if nothing gives I cool it off and heat ant try again and keep repeating the process until something gives, all the while hoping that it will be the plug and not the solder or the lug that lets go first.

If you have been luck enough to get the plugs out without busting something now you can look through and see just what kind of a mess you will have to deal with. I have found nearly every thing in the old guns except the kitchen sink. While we are talking about things in barrels be sure that it is not an old load that is in it before you put any heat on those plugs because black powder is still potent after being loaded for at least 50 years. In the last few years I have fired quite a few 45-70 cartridges that were loaded previous to the Spanish American War.

With a wad of steel wool on a cleaning rod you can scrub out most of the rust and powder residue and get some idea what the inside is like, a little penetrating oil or a good gun cleaner on the steel wool will help. If you want to a little more than that, get a wood dowel and cut a slot in the end with a hack saw an inch or two deep and take a piece of amuminum aloxite cloth an inch wide and put one end in the slot and wrap it around the end of the dowel so that it is big enough to fit tight in the bore, then put an electric drill or a brace or us any means at hand to turn it and push it back and forth in the bore and keep it soaked in kerosene or thread cutting oil, you can keep this up as long as your ambition lasts and while it will not remove pits it will do a lot to make the gun load easier and foul less, if you want any more done than that you better send it to someone who has the tools and know how to give you a real rebore job and give you the choke you need for your type of shooting.

Now with the gun reassembled with new lnipples and the locks with good safety notches you are ready to start shooting. Unless the barrels have been badly breech burnt or otherwise badly damaged it should be safe for moderate or even heavy loads.

If your gun is a 10 bore and rather heavy you can use some good stout loads and if properly choked you can really reach out and bring down the high ones. In 10 bores that weigh as much as 10 pounds, I find that 5 drs. of Fg and 1 3/4-oz. shot either 4, 5 or 6 will do a good job on a duck pass where the shots are liable to be long and high, but it will take the average shooter quite a while to learn how to hold well enough to be able to kill ducks as far as the old gun will reach them. I once had a Belguin double that was extra stout and heavy, about 12 pounds, and had the right barrel choked to improved modified and the left to extra full and both shot very even and uniform patterns. I sold this gun to Tom Price of Aberdeen, S. D., which is near the great Sand Lake Wild Life Refuge where there is plenty of chance to use such a gun on both ducks and geese. Tom's favorite load was 6 dr. Fg and 1 1/2-oz. 6 for ducks and 4 for geese. It was the latter part of the second year that he used it before he was able to hold and judge lead well enough to take full advantage of the old gun's ability to go out and get them. Then he had great sport in bringing down birds with clean kills at ranges that left the boys with modern guns staring in open mouthed wonder.

In lighter 10 ga. guns a good load to use is 4 1/4 drs. Fg and 1 1/2 oz. shot of a suitable size for the job at hand. And you will also be agreeably surprised at how well a 10 ga. will do with even as little as 3 drs. Fg and 1 oz. shot, in fact every 10 ga. that I have ever rebored always shot light loads extremely well. I lay this to the fact that the small charges of shot in the larger bores have a much shorter shot column and this causes less crowding and less deforming in the choke and seems to give better patterns.

So if you have a good stout 10 ga. you can load it for most any kind of shooting that comes to hand, and if properly choked it will get the job done for you in good shape no matter if it be going way yonder after a smart old mallard or upsetting a cotton tail at close range in the brush.

As before mentioned my favorite shotgun is my old Sue Betsy, an 11 bore Wm. Moore that weighs about 9 pounds and full choke in both barrels, choked too close, in fact for most shooting but I just don't have the heart to monkey with those fine patterns that have served me so well for so long.

For heavy work on ducks I use 4 1/2 drs. Fg and 1 1/2-oz. 4, 5 or 6 shot. I like the No. 6 the best because they will kill ducks just as far as the pattern will hit them and are better than the heavier shot when it comes to killing cripples on the water and killing cripples is very important to every hunter that is worthy of the name. I only use No. 4 when there is a good chance that a goose will wander by and give me a chance at him or when I am out of smaller shot.

From that load for heavy work I load on down as low as 3 drs. and 1 oz. of shot, depending on the kind of game I'm after and I have killed a heap of cottontails and pheasants with the old gun with 2 1/2 drs. and 1 oz. of No. 7 1/2 shot.

For most any 12 ga. a load of 3 3/4 drs. of Fg and 1 1/4 oz. of shot will not be too heavy unless the gun is very light, and so loaded, a good 12 ga. properly choked will kill its game just as well as a modern 12 ga. with long range loads.

For lighter work, 3 1/4 drs. and 1 1/8 oz. shot will do very well and of course 3 drs. and 1 oz. will also do a nice job for lighter work like cottontails and quail or for just shooting around for fun.

For a 14 ga. 3 1/4 drs. either Fg or FFg and 1 1/8 oz. shot is about right, and of course, they will do all right with 3 drs. and 1 oz. and for light work 2 1/2 drs and 1 oz. will also give good results.

I might as well go on record here as being against the use of FFFg in any shot gun larger than a 28 ga., and even in that FFg is better. My experience has taught me that FFFg is too wild for shot guns and by burning too fast runs pressures up too high and causes entirely too much abuse to both gun and shooter and will gain nothing whatever in the way of greater effectiveness, and will make the gun much more unpleasant to shoot and also has a decided tendency to blow up patterns. The old idea that is still hanging around in shooter's minds that when she kicks hard she shoots hard just ain't so. Any man shooting a gun with moderate loads that is pleasant to shoot will kill more game in a given number of shots than the same man with the same gun that is over loaded so that it is unpleasant to shoot.

For a 16 ga. 3 drs. either Fg or FFg and 1 1/8 oz. shot will be about all she can handle well and I like 3 drs. and 1 oz. better, 2 1/2 drs. and either 1 oz. or 7/8 oz. makes a fine load for light work or for the boy to start with.

For the 20 ga. a 2 1/4 drs. either Fg or FFg and 7/8 oz. is the thing, but if your gun is stout and heavy 2 3/4 drs. and 1 oz. is not too much but any more than that is just a waste of good ammunition and won't get you a thing except a bump on the snoot if you are not careful. Of course if the kids and the Mrs. want to play with it a 20 ga. will surprise you with what it will do with 2 drs. and 3/4 oz. of No. 7 1/2 shot.

I once made a 28 ga. single barrel for a 10 year old girl and we loaded it with 2 drs. of FFg and 3/4 oz. of No. 7 1/2 shot and found that it would do a nice job of work up to 30 yards or more, it gave good clean breaks on clay birds and she managed to kill 5 pheasant roosters with it the first season so I reckon that 2 dr. and 3/4 oz. is about the right dope for that size.

Now that I have told you what to load maybe it would be the right thing to tell you how to load it.

Assuming that your old gun has been checked over and found fit to shoot and the barrels are clean and free from surplus oil and grease and that the safety notches are good and deep and will not yield to any reasonable pressure we are ready to start to load.

For convenient loading you should have a powder flask with a measuring device on the top that will cut off the right charge of powder, and a shot pouch that has a measuring top to measure your shot charge.

After 50 years of practice this the way I go at it_I keep the powder flask under my coat tail in my left hand hip pocket where it rides easy and is not sticking out to catch on this and that and maybe pull out and get lost.

I put my shot pouch in my right hand hunting coat pocket along with the wads if there is only one pocket but if there is two pockets on that side, I put the wads in one and the shot pouch in the other. The caps I put loose in my right pants pocket after carefully cleaning it out so that nothing will interfere with picking one or two out in a hurry.

I use only one kind of wads and those I cut from cardboard like display signs that are extra thick, about 3/32 is about right and use two of these on the powder and one on the shot. I have had several pretty wise gun men tell me that that is not enough wads before they saw the results but never have had one say a word further on the subject after they had seen one of my guns perform so loaded. You can put in more wads on the powder if you wish or if you enjoy cutting them but my experience tells me that you are just wasting your time and cardboard and in spite of the fact that shot gun shells have felt wads in them and always have had as far as I know I don't think they are at all necessary in a muzzle loader. Anyhow, if my guns shot any better I would not know what to do with the extra efficiency.

Now let's get one loaded. Pull both hammers to full cock and put a cap on each nipple and snap them and listen to the noise they make if they make a noise that is hollow inside the barrel you will know that the nipple is open and the fire went into the barrel where it is supposed to but if it goes off with a sharp crack on the outside only you know that the nipple is plugged. I like to point the gun at some small light object on the ground like a blade of grass and watch and see if the force of the cap will move it, then if I hear a hollow tonk inside the barrel and see the object move I know that the passage is open. It is not a bad idea to snap a couple of caps an each nipple and then blow through the barrels and watch the smoke come out of the niples. That gives you a good chance to see just how well the passage is cleaned out.

Now if you really want it to go off the first time and no fooling, pour about a half charge of powder in each barrel and bump the breech a couple of times on the ground to settle it and keeping the muzzle up put on a couple of caps and see if she shoots. If that goes off you may be quite sure that it will fire every time after that. If it don't, find out what is stopping up the passage and try again until it fires that loose powder because there is no use to load it if it ain't a-going to shoot.

Now set your hammers in the safety notches and take the gun by the muzzle and turn the hammers towards you and set the butt between your feet and grip the barrels between your knees hard enough to hold it in an upright position, this leaves both hands free to handle the gadgets. Reach around to your left hand hip pocket where I told you to put the powder flask, take out the flask and measure out a charge for each barrel and be sure that one goes in each barrel, they shoot better that way.

Now reach into that right hand coat pocket and get four of the cardboard wads that are supposed to be there and put two of them in each barrel and push them down to the powder then hit them just one good sharp rap with the ramrod to be sure they are seated firmly, but don't pound, pounding powder is a hang over from the days when Grandpa stole the old gun from the chimney corner and wadded her with hornet's nest or anything else that came to hand. Sure she shot but no one including Grandpa himself knew how well. Now grab that shot pouch and measure out a charge of shot and pour one down each barrel and be sure that there is one in each barrel or you will get one awful surprise when you touch off the one with the double load in it. You don't have to tell me I KNOW. Now do what I tell you and no fooling_pucker up and spit down each barrel after the shot charge before you put in the wads the spit will soften up the fouling from the former charge and the wad will act like a squeege and clean the barrel each time you load and you can shoot all day without fouling troubles as long as you spit each time.

Now put one cardboard wad in each barrel and push them down onto the shot as before and don't pound this time either or you will knock the shot all out of shape and they will fly every which way. Just hit the wad one sharp rap to seat it and let it alone. Next comes the caps. Shove your hand down into that right hand pants pocket and get two caps. You will be surprised to find how easy it is especially if you wear overalls like I do. Put one on each nipple and let each hammer down gently on each cap in turn and give it a little push with your thumb to seat the cap firmly on the nipple, set the hammers in the safety notches and you are ready to go. After you have fired one or both barrels make it a fixed habit to always put the hammers in the safety position as you take the gun down then there is small chance of accidental discharge. If you keep those hammers in the safety position there will be small chance that one barrel will go off while you are loading the other even if you forget to take the cap off the loaded barrel while you are loading the empty one. Of course the practice of taking the cap off the loaded barrel is the only way to be absolutely sure that it will not go off on you while you are loading the empty one and is a good rule to follow ALWAYS.

It is also good practice if it so happens that you fire one barrel several times without firing the other, to check with your ram rod and see if the shot wad is still tight in the unfired barrel, a half dozen shots or so will sometimes loosen the wad and let the shot roll out and spoil your shot right when you need it most. I have missed a few doubles on pheasants that way myself.

Conclusion in The Muzzle Loading Shotgun, Part 2

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