Safety Tips – Antique Firearms with Glenn Gravatt

by Jim Surkamp on June 2, 2018 in Jefferson County

Watch the VIDEO: Click Here. TRT: 15:21.

Ok What I’m gonna do here is cover some of the safety principles in shooting a Civil War era, muzzle-loading percussion firearm. And before I begin, I just want to start with a disclaimer and say what I’m gonna be talking to you about is my own opinion from years of shooting. These items have not been peer-reviwed by a panel of experts or endorsed by some organization. If you decide to take on a hobby such as this, you take on the risks – of course, nothing is risk-free when shooting firearms, dealing with powder and cap and those sorts of things. So I just encourage you – verify things and be sure you are taking on the liability and responsibility whenyou do this sort of thing, but I’m trying to put these things out here, probably as an added aid for you.

I just want to start with two very basic principles in dealing with any kind of shooting of a firerm,particularly an antique firearm. That is if you purchased a firearm from a company, that is to say a production type firearm, there will be a manual and ensure that you get that manual, that you understand that manual, that you read that manual, that you follow that manual. If you have any questions, contact that company. So, that’s a very important point. In addition, especially if you’re a first-time or your not confident – whatever it might be, you should start your shooting with someone who is much more knowledgeable, someone who has expertise on the firearms that you’re shooting. Someone who can verify the gun – assuming it’s an antique – is safe to fire, someone who can monitor your loading and your shooting and be sure you’re doing everything safely.

That all being said – we’re gonna start off with the most basic principle pf firearm safety – I’m not gonna be covering every safety principle here, but the basic principle for everyone for every firearm is muzzle-control – this being the muzzle end, the barrel, the direction of this barrel being pointed – whether the gun is loaded or unloaded – is always in a safe direction. You notice I’m leaning the gun down-range as I’m talking. So a safe direction might be up, might be down at the ground, or might be down-range toward the target. Always in a safe direction, even if I have the gun in my house, showing it to people, whatever, you always treat a gun as if it is loaded and always have it pointed in a safe direction. “Muzzle control” – we call that.

So now, starting with the firearm, any type of firearm you get – the first thing you do is verify that it is unloaded. Now, with a muzzle-loader, that’s a little bit more difficult. With modern firearms we do what’s called – we open the “action,” which is this area on the gun on most firearm that loads and unloads. But for a muzzle-loader, you load it up from the top. So this area here, we don’t call it an “action,” we call it a “lock,” in this case it’s a “percussion lock,” because a hammer hits a cap to make it explode. It causes the powder to go off inside. But to ensure the gun is safe, you want to make sure there is no percussion cap – no shiny percussion cap on the end of this. The gun can be placed on half-cock to verify that – all these firearms should have a working half-cock. You’re gonna ensure at some point, you’re gonna “safety-check” that this half-cock works (though it is not a full-safety measure). Every proper, operating muzzle-loader should have an operating half-cock. You would test that by making sure that the entire weight of the gun could be laid on the trigger, which I’m not gonna right now because I’ve not verified that the gun is fully unloaded. ((Maybe for a legal state in some)) In some states, just not having a percussion cap may be a legal state of unloading, but we want to make sure there is nothing inside there to make sure it is completely unloaded. So we don’t put our finger inside the trigger yard unless we’re actually firing or unless I need to de-cock this gun for some reason.

So, no percussion cap. That’s the first part. The second part is I want to make sure there’s nothing inside here. So, how is that done? One of the old school ways it’s done and this is not necessarily a definite. You would probably drop this ramrod down in here. As you can see, muzzle control becomes more difficult with a muzzle loader because at times you have your fingers around the end of the barrel. So you want to minimize that.

But as I drop it, you might hear a clink. (sound) OK. That’s the sound of the steel hitting the base. But again, is that a surefire method? Not necessarily. I have found, over the years, kids have dumped things down there. Kid might have put a ball bearing down there – not necessarily a guarantee (that it isn’t loaded) hearing that sound. What you want to do is actually a ramrod measurement. Now someone may have put marks on the ramrod. So when you drop that ramrod down, the mark will show the gun is loaded. In other cases the properly fitted ramrod that goes with the musket will drop actually surface level when the gun is unloaded, so you know it’s unloaded.

Now all that being said, these firearms have histories. The ramrod may have not been the ramrod that originally went with this gun. They could have been changed out. So what you want to do finally is actually verify that that ramrod length from end – down there – goes right down to where that touch-hole would be, where that percussion cap would go – there’s room where a breech plug would come into – but that shows that the ramrod is going right down to the bottom.

Of course, for an antique firearm, or any firearm that you would use, that wouldn’t come straight from the manufacturer, you would want to have, with equipment, the barrel inspected inside and out, also verifying that it is unloaded.

So now that we have verified that we have an unloaded firearm. That’s kind of good, I guess if you’re showing it to friends at home and that sort of thing. But when you’re at the range, you take added steps before you begin shooting and after to verify that a percussion firearm is unloaded. That’s the first step in what we call “cap-off-the-gun.” Remember that the percussion cap – it starts the whole process. Now remember I’ve not put any powder or bullet in here. But I will fire a cap down-range just to ensure that, if there is anything in there, that it would go off and would come out.

Caps are loud. So we start with our hearing protection. They can bust. We have our eye protection. So always standard with your firearm – ear proection and eye protection. So we’re gonna shoot one cap down-range. So full-cock (ready to fire) cap (aim) down-range (fire). Bang. Secondly, we would then do a second cap, because (that one shot) doesn’t necessarily one hundred per cent guarantee the gun is clear. I’ve seen caps go and not unload. So, the second and final thing is you want to make sure everything is clear. And the way we do that, we cap one to the ground (by putting cap on here). We point the gun at a leaf or something that we want to see move. You want to see movement. So if you have the camera on the front of the barrel toward the ground. You have that cap (fire) you see movement in the grass. That verifies again that everything inside here is clear. Now I have a gun which I can safely begin to load and fire.

Now speaking of loading, we’re gonna put black powder in here. Now there’s different types of powder. One thing you should never, ever do is use smokeless powder, the modern type of powder in an antique or in any type of muzzle-loading firearm. It could cause a catastrophic type of failure. You want to use the type of powder that’s for your gun. There are black powder substitutes that might be useable in some of the reproductions you might get. Certainly you would read the manual and determine what types of powders you could use in that gun. What we can say is blackpowder is the common denominator and you can use black powder in all your guns, but again you would want to consult to determine what would be the correct powder loads for that paticular firearm. Generally we load significantly less than what they shot in the Civil War. I am shooting forty-eight grains of a powder here, “double-F” type powder is the more proper powder for these. Some people use a “triple-F” faster burning powder, which is really designed for pistols. But we’ll just say the “double F” is the common denominator powder that you could use for these types of muzzle-loaders.

So now we’re gonna do the loading process. So what I’m gonna do is pull out one round here and I have pre-measured powder and bullet in here. You’ll see all sorts of things on People with an open can of caps. My caps are in this covered pouch. There might be an open can of caps on their shooting table. They might have a can of powder on their shooting table. These are all things you don’t want to do. If you ever saw one of these things fired in the dark, you’d see sparks going everywhere, coming out of the barrel, rapping back. So you want to have all your shooting items protected. You also don’t want to load directly in the barrel from any type of powder horn, for instance. You might look like Daniel Boone, but that is not cool, not safe. Certainly not from the can. One individually-measured container. Why? Because it’s just possible – and I’ve actually seen it happen in my lifetime and I’ve known other shooters that have seen it happen. That you could a burning ember, still down at the bottom of this from having capped. It could be an old piece of patch burning, or a piece of carbon. It could be some lubricant from some previous bullet. So, when I would pour the powder down here, it would get what we would call a “cook-off.” The powder would ignite. And you would just see a puff of smoke and flame and you might even burn your hand maybe some times your face. These things are possible when you’re loading these firearms. So that’s why we use just an individually measured container of black powder. “Uncontained” would burn off very quickly. It’s not like that slow-burn that you see on the old TV shows. It burns instantly fast. So that’s why we load from individual containers.

So I’m going to pull the bullet out. Here goes the powder,(rather rapidly) just so I can get it in; and now I start with the bullet. One thing we don’t do is put our thumb over the top of the bullet and shove it in there. My bullet’s rather loose. It’s gonna sink in. Some times your bullet might just stick on the top there. And you really don’t want to basically try to – what is called – “thumb the bullet.” Anything over the top of it other than the ramrod. Now I want to ensure that the bullet goes down there and sinks down there – a couple of taps. You really don’t want to have any air space between the bullet and the powder, but you really don’t need to slam and smash the bullet.

OK. So out comes the ramrod. You have powder and bullet now in the gun. All that really remains now is for me to fire the round. So, again from a safety standpoint, my finger does not go in here, until I’m ready to fire. So, when I cock and put on a cap – in any kind of shooting range situation. You might be at a competitive event, you might be told toload and come to the ready. You wait with your finger outside the trigger guard. And, when you aim, you don’t point your finger way up to the sky and drop it down, because you want the gun pointed in a safe direction now that it’s loaded. We’re gonna try one shot here and see where it comes out. 12:17 at fifty yards

Now we’re done shooting and before I leave the line, I want to again verify to the range officer or to whomever I’m shooting with and certainly to my self, that this gun is one hundred per cent unloaded. You say: “Well I just saw it go off.” Or I’ve seen in the midst of shooting, people thought their gun going off, but it didn’t go off or it didn’t fully discharge. So before I actually talk about making sure this gun is unloaded, I’ll mention one more thing: it’s possible with a firearm, I could have pulled the trigger and nothing could have happened. OK? So, a mis-fire. In that situation you’ve got to keep the gun pointed down range – some people say thirty seconds. Some will say two minutes. In either case, you have to be prepared – for that gun could possibly go off at any time because there could be a slow burn going on in here. But at some point, if the gun mis-fired, you gonna re-cap and try again, re-cap and try again. Eventually it’s gonna go off. If it doesn’t, this is why you will have someone who is more experienced with you. You may need to be doing things – possibly putting more powder in there, cleaning out the cone hole; hopefully if your range has a CO2 discharge mechanism – worst case scenario – you might be soaking it, using a bullet pourer – all things you don’t to really want to get into unless you have someone with expertise whose working on it. Odds are, if you have a clean gun – you’ve done everything, you’ve done your pre-capping – this gun’s gonna off every single time. So, we’ve just done that. Now, before leaving the line with this firearm, we want to doubly be sure, this gun is safe. So, we’re gonna go ahead and cap one more down-range. So it’s a double cap process again. So cap down-range (fire cap) Again, just the cap. And lastly, we’re gonna ensure that the gun barrel is clear. We’re gonna go to the ground here. We’re gonna look at the ground here and here we go (fire). Watch that ground (grass) move. So now this gun is fired safe. I can depart from the line with it. But the last thing, of course, is we’re always going to continue to maintain that muzzle-control. Keep that gun pointed up in the air in a safe direction and not toward any people. So those are the basic safety principles. Again verify and double-check with other people on what procedures that you might use with your particular firearm. Know your firearm well and have some safe shooting.