Musket Care and Cleaningby Jim Daniel

To start out with, it makes no difference what make or model musket you have. The problems and cures are all the same. At heart, a musket is a piece of wood with a mild steel tube for a barrel, a steel lock containing a few springs and moving parts, and some hardware.

Wood can burn, rot, splinter, stain, and break. Steel can get dinged, scratched, and it can rust. . .boy can it rust. Brass tarnishes. Some of these maladies are made more serious by the effects of firing your musket.

Let’s delve for a minute into the world of chemistry. The black powder we recommend (2F, nothing else) is a simple chemical mixture of Potassium Nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur, and charcoal. It’s relatively easy to make, but fortunately you have no need to, as the regiment provides your cartridge already made.

When it’s ignited and burned, black powder does two things that aggravate your problem. First, the flash burns off any protective coat of oil on the steel parts of your musket, particularly the area around the flash pan on the lock and barrel. Second, it leaves a residue of sulfur salts in direct contact with the metal. Sulfur salts are hydroscopic; they take in moisture from the air, and when they do, the moisture plus sulfur salts form sulfuric acid! That acid immediately begins to work on your now unprotected barrel. In actuality, the amount of acid present isn’t sufficient for you to be burned by it; but, it’ll sure cause rusting and, if left alone long enough, severe pitting will ensue. Further, the newly exposed steel is subject to rusting from any other moisture, such as Brattonsville showers or dew.

Our initial hurdle, then, is to deal with this residue and the removal of the protective oil coating. Simply said, the sooner you remove the powder fouling and re-oil the steel surfaces, the better. That’s as in “right now”!

Fortunately, there’s no better powder solvent than water. Powder residue is hydroscopic, remember. So, as soon as you can after firing, wipe off any fouling on the exterior with a rag. A wet rag is better. Then, immediately wipe the newly exposed, and now wet, surfaces with an oily rag. I keep a small oily rag in my cartridge box for just that purpose. You should too. Don’t forget to wipe your bayonet if it has powder fouling from being fixed while you fired.

But what about that powder fouling behind the lock and down the barrel? Hold on, we’ll get there. When you get back to camp, you most likely be pleasantly surprised to find that the ladies have hot water on the fire. That’s not for tea. That’s to clean your musket. Remember to thank the ladies.

Find a small twig and plug your touch hole. Now pour about a cup down the barrel. Put a rag over the muzzle and hold it with your thumb, but remember the water’s hot! Shake the barrel back and forth to allow the water to dissolve the fouling. Now pour out some of the blackest water you’ve ever seen. Don’t do this in the kitchen. Don’t do it in a motel room. The water stinks of sulfur. Repeat the above process until the water runs clean, usually about 3 times. Use the wet rag to remove any fouling that you may have missed in your field cleaning. (Remember to oil any exterior surfaces after cleaning the fouling off). If you have a cleaning jag, run a dry cloth down the barrel, followed by an oily one.

If you have a “musket pump” you’ll find that it’s just a big plug for the end of your ramrod. The idea is too pour that hot water down the barrel, then to insert the ramrod with “pump” affixed and flush the dirty water out the touch hole. This works. It also tends to spray dirty water on your leg. The stains are hard to get out of regimental whites. I don’t think it works any better than the pour and shake method, so I don’t use my “pump” anymore.

Next, place the musket with the muzzle down to dry. The barrel, having been heated by the hot water, will dry quickly. If it’s muzzle down, any dribbling will be down the bore and not out the touch hole onto the stock. Powder residue dribbling from the touch hole will stain your stock.

How about behind the lock? If your lock is loose enough for this to be a problem, you can remove the lock and wash it with hot water. Dry it thoroughly, then oil it. I fill the entire lock mortise with Rig, which is a gun grease. Rig not only lubricates the lock, it fills up all the space, so there’s no room for fouling. Some don’t like this procedure as it’s messy. Ok. You don’t have to do it. However, I also fill the barrel channel beneath the barrel and smear the butt end of the stock beneath the butt plate to seal off these areas from water accumulation.

I remove both barrel and butt plate once a year to see if there’s any cleaning that needs to be done. Usually there isn’t.

If you’ve done all this you should have a fouling-free musket. The most important thing for you to remember about all of this is this: the sooner you start to work removing the effects of fouling, the less work you’ll have to do. That should be incentive enough.

But, you say, you musket was clean but the dew left some rusty spots. Often an oily cloth will take care of them. If not, you can use a mixture of cold camp fire ashes and vinegar (or spit) as a mild abrasive to clean the spots. (This will also polish your brass in a period manner!) Remember to use your rag to oil any newly exposed steel afterwards. Plain old camp straw is also abrasive. A bit in the hand can be rubbed over a rusty spot.

There are other ways beyond those above. And, of course, there’s nothing in the world wrong with modern cleaners such as WD-40. Just don’t ever use them in front of the public.