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Cleaning the Muzzleloading Rifle

Cleaning a black powder rifle or other firearm is an essential part of owning one. Here's everything you need to know and the best products to buy.

Black powder is just one more area of the shooting world to conquer, and we’re going to help you do it.

Some of you may have been intrigued by my last article and found someone at the local range to walk you through the basics of muzzleloader rifle shooting.  Or maybe you’re looking to expand your hunting opportunities and now have a muzzleloader in the safe for an upcoming hunt.  

Regardless, proper maintenance is critical to get the most out of your muzzleloader and to insure when you squeeze that trigger you get a big puff of white smoke and a big lead bullet heading downrange.

Man shooting muzzleloading rifle and producing a cloud of white smoke
A clean muzzleloader makes a statement every time the trigger is pulled.

Let’s take a look at one of the most important aspects of black powder shooting…how to clean a black powder firearm.

No Petroleum Products Allowed

If I asked 100 Pew Pew Tactical readers the best way to clean your centerfire rifle, I’ll get 100 different ways to get the job done.  Very likely, the same kind of opinion would surface with regards to the cleaning and maintenance of the black powder rifle.

So, don’t go off half-cocked with the following tutorial.  This is what I was taught many years ago.  It has worked for me, and I’ve never had a failure to fire in my personal rifles.

Black powder and Pyrodex are both corrosive and hygroscopic.  This means the fouling produced when these products are ignited attract and hold water molecules.  If allowed to sit crusted in your bore or around the nipple you will be rewarded with pitting, rust and corrosion, even on stainless steel guns.  Remember, it’s stain-LESS, not stain-FREE.

If solvents and lubricants that are petroleum based are used on black powder rifles you create a problem for you and your rifle.  In an article written by my friend William Clunie many years ago he quotes the president of Ox Yoke regarding petroleum products and fouling.

When you lube a muzzleloader with a petroleum product and fire it, you are heating up that petroleum. Heat and pressure, plus petroleum equals tar, just like the asphalt used in paving roads. Black, sticky tar (fouling) creates all sorts of trouble in the bore of a muzzleloader.”

Dirty nipple and breech on muzzleloader
This is what the nipple and breech looked like after about 20 shots and letting the rifle sit overnight.

So, to avoid this tar-like fouling we are going to turn to “natural” products like hot soapy water, 100 percent cotton patches ($9), and #13 Bore Cleaner($8) and Natural Lube 1000 Plus ($10), aka: Bore Butter. 

thompson center bore cleaner and lubricant
These are effective, but affordable options for keeping your muzzleloader clean.

The use of natural cleaning products allows us to season the bore and the metal surfaces of our muzzleloader, much like grandma seasoned her cast iron skillets and dutch ovens.  By impregnating the pores in the metal we create a surface more resistant to corrosion, a surface that is easier to clean, and we are able to shoot more between cleanings or swabbing the barrel.

The mountain men of the 1800’s did not have any whizz bang cleaners at their disposal.  They kept their rifles firing and protected from the weather by swabbing with water and seasoning the bore and exterior with fat rendered from the animals they hunted.  Luckily, we have the modern convenience of getting our natural lubricant from a tube!

Let’s Clean Our Muzzleloader

The first step for me actually starts at the range.  If I have been shooting sabots with pistol bullets as I did last weekend, I will always fire a couple shots with patched round balls lubed with Bore Butter before I finish my range session.  

This is a simple practice to help keep your muzzleloader clean and maintained.

Thompson/Center also makes pre-lubricated patches ($16 for 100).  You can always use them if you want to make these steps even easier.

thompson/center prelubricated patches
These are great if you want to make cleaning your muzzleloader as easy as possible.

This does a couple of things for us.  First, we scrub out some fouling by pushing a tightly patched ball down the bore.  Second, we heat the barrel when we shoot and allow a bit of that Bore Butter to lube the hot barrel.

I will then saturate a patch with #13 Bore Cleaner and swab out the barrel.   Thompson/Center has pre-saturated patches with #13 Bore Cleaner ($8 for 100) as well. 

I follow with a dry patch, then a cleaning patch saturated with Bore Butter.  Now I have removed moisture attracting fouling.  By thoroughly lubing the bore any remaining fouling stays soft and easy to remove during final cleaning at home.

Disassemble The Rifle

Following the manufacturer’s instructions for your rifle, remove the barrel from the stock.   Be sure to remove the ramrod first!  

Remove the breech plug if applicable and the nipple.  If you shoot an inline you’ll have the cocking mechanism and spring as well that will likely be removed at this point.

disassembled muzzleloading rifle
Disassembling Your Muzzleloader

Mix Your Cleaning Solvent

Fill a coffee can or bucket with hot, soapy water.  A few drops of dishwashing soap is just fine.  The hotter the water, the better.  As we swab the barrel we want to heat the metal so we can season the bore.

plastic coffee container full of soapy water
This is a great way to use those old coffee containers we all seem to have sitting around.

Drop your breech plug, nipple, and any other parts into the water to soak.

Swab and Heat the Barrel

Using your ramrod, attach a patch jag on the end and if you have one a T-handle extension to give you a little extra length and to make it easier to hold onto.

I highly recommend a range-rod or working rod for cleaning.  They are longer and you don’t risk damaging your ramrod which is a critical tool in the field.

With an inline, place the muzzle in the bucket of water.  With a traditional rifle you’ll place the breech end in the water.

Very Simple

Soak a patch in the water and wrap it around the jag and begin swabbing the bore.  As you push the patch all the way through and then pull the rod back up, you will begin to siphon the hot water up into the barrel.  Do this several times.  Change patches and repeat the process.  

You will feel the barrel heating up.  You want this to happen.  If you are shooting patched round balls or sabots a couple of patches is all it takes to clean the barrel.  You will not have any bullet residue unless you are shooting full diameter cast bullets.

Season Your Barrel

Now run a dry patch down the bore to dry it.  The hot water helps to dry the bore as it evaporates quickly.  Again, hotter is better.  You may need some heavy duty rubber gloves if you have access to really hot water.

While the barrel is still warm, run a patch saturated with Bore Butter up and down the barrel a few times.  The bore is now cleaned and lubed and ready to store.  Use the patch to wipe down all the exterior metal with Bore Butter as well to protect the exterior of your rifle.

Clean and Season the Small Parts

Retrieve your breech plug and nipple and if necessary scrub thoroughly with an old toothbrush.  Dry thoroughly and wipe down with Bore Butter.  Before you thread the nipple into the breech plug, coat the threads with an anti-seize compound.  I use Gorilla Grease ($6).  

Thompson/Center Gorilla Grease
Thompson/Center Gorilla Grease

Again, use a non-petroleum based lubricant that allows easy removal for cleaning and, if necessary, tear-down in the field if you have an issue.  Likewise, coat the threads of the breech plug before you thread it back into the barrel.  Tighten the breech plug and nipple just snug.  No reason to go overboard.

Putting It All Together

Clean and dry the remaining parts of your cocking and firing mechanism and wipe down with Bore Butter.  Reassemble and check function.

Do a final wipe down of all the metal and if you’re shooting a wood-stocked rifle give the wood a light coat of Bore Butter as well.  

Final Thoughts

The whole process may seem a little overwhelming and counter intuitive.  But rest assured, you can clean and prepare your muzzleloader for storage in about 20 minutes.  And next time you’re headed to the range you can be certain your rifle will fire each and every time.

Hopefully I’ve been able to open your eyes to some new horizons in the shooting sports.

Muzzleloading is a fun past-time and may even lead to new hunting opportunities and learning a bit about the mountain man and fur-trading era of our great country.

Historical mountain man portrait
Mountain man

Until next time, aim small!


Got any questions about shooting, cleaning, or hunting with black powder guns? Let us know in the comments below!

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1 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Henry Tyler

    I have a Lyman Deer Stalker. There is no breech plug to remove. How the hell do I clean inside the breech area that is smaller than the barrel bore ?? Brass brush won't work because of the metal tip that sticks ahead of the brass brush portion. I have a slotted brass fitting but it also will now go inside the smaller area.

    January 9, 2022 7:21 pm
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