There is wide agreement, in both the period books and modern usage,
that felt makes an excellent muzzle loading shotgun wad. Several modern
muzzle loading supply companies continue to carry felt wads. Wool felt
wads are more convenient than their card board counter-parts. Felt
wads give a dense shot pattern and increased range, without the need for
wet fiber wad. They load easily in a full choke barrel and will return
to their original size and shape maintaining a proper gas seal. The
major drawback of the felt wad is cost. At present, commercial felt
wads cost approximately ten times that of their card board or fiber
counter-parts. Since three felt wads are generally used with each load,
things get expensive quickly. At today’s prices, commercially produced
felt wads are cost prohibitive to use on a regular basis.
Fortunately, felt wads are easily made from reasonably priced felt material. The use of homemade felt wads has the advantage of allowing you to decide what type of lubricant will be used. Depending on the application, homemade wads – with the proper lubricants – are superior to the commercially available felt wads.
Obtaining Felt for Making Wads
The first step is to obtain a supply of felt. It is critical that you use only pure wool felt for wads. Pure wool is very resistant to heat and flame. Synthetic felt, on the other hand readily melts and burns when exposed heat and flame. Unfortunately, synthetic felt has taken over in the U.S. and it is difficult to find the pure wool felt. When purchasing felt, also make sure that you obtain “wool felt,” as opposed to the more commonly available “felted wool.” While “wool felt” and “felted wool” have similar names, the two products are very different. Wool felt is a non-woven product which is made by compressing layer of wool together under high pressure. The result is a product which very dense and resilient. Felted wool, on the other hand is woven product which is made by boiling or shrinking woven wool material. Felted wool can be purchased by the yard at many fabric stores. However, it is general too thin to be of use for wads. In addition, the non-woven wool felt makes a superior wad due to its greater density. My current supplier of “wool felt” is Duro-Felt. To view all Duro-Felt products, visit their website at www.durofelt.com. Shipping is FREE for retail orders from U.S. customers! Order the 1/8 inch thick, "Hard F-1" material.
The Wad Punch
In order to manufacture the wads, you will need a wad punch. A ¾ inch leather punch makes an excellent 12 gauge wad punch. The standard wad size for a 12 gauge shotgun is .740 inches. Consequently a ¾ punch is only slightly oversized. Felt wads are forgiving. In fact, a snug-fitting wad is good as it will make a more effective seal against the powder’s hot gases, protecting and will scrape fouling better. Vintage wads punches can also sometimes be found. Search the internet auction sites for these items. Twelve gauge wad punches offered regularly on Ebay. Buffalo Arms also makes a 12 gauge shotgun wad punch which is used in a modern rifle reloading press. See the Buffalo Arms website at http://www.buffaloarms.com.
The Cutting out the Wads
Historically, wads were
created by punching them out with a hammer and wad punch. The preferred
base for punching out wads was a wooden block of a close-grained kind
of wood; such as beech, chestnut, lime,
or sycamore. Rather than punch out felt wads with a hammer, I prefer to
the mount the wad punch in a drill press and cut the wads out with the
drill press set at its lowest speed. I also use an inexpensive
polyethylene cutting board as the base. Using the drill press, you can
cut out several hundred felt wads in less than an hour.
Lubricating felt wads
When shooting with Pyrodex or similar other black powder alternatives, it is not absolutely necessary to lubricate the felt wads. When I am shooting the muzzle loader on the skeet range with modern cartridge shooters, I will sometimes load up a batch of muzzle loading "cartridges" which contain the powder charge, two over powder felt wads, the shot column and a felt over shot wad. The advantage of theses "cartridges" is that the entire load can be rammed home with a single ramming. As a result, I can come close to keeping up with the cartridge shooters on the skeet range. (The construction of muzzle loading "cartridges" will be the subject of a different post.) I have shot several rounds of skeet using Pyrodex and dry felt wads in my "cartridges" and had no problem with fowling accumulating during the round. While lubricating the wads with "bore butter" will make loading somewhat easier, it is questionable whether it is worth the time and effort necessary to apply the bore butter to each wad individually. Personally, if I am going to use a lubricant, I will take the time to necessary to use the Tallow/paraffin/beeswax recipe described below. Otherwise, I will simply shoot with dry felt wads.
For true black powder shooting, a proper lubricant is required. Avoid petroleum-based greases and oils. When mixed with black powder, petroleum greases and oils often create a hard, tarry fouling that affects accuracy and is more difficult to clean.
Bore Butter/Wonder Lube. Commercial or homemade “bore butter” makes an acceptable lubricant for the felt wads when using Pyrodex or other black powder substitute. The bore butter helps reduce fouling to some degree and makes reloading a little easier. Bore butter commercially available from at least two manufacturers. Thompson Center sells bore butter under the name "T/C Natural Lube 1000+ Bore Butter". Ox-Yoke sells a very similar product under the name "Wonder Lube." You can also make your own bore butter at home by melting beeswax in a double boiler and adding an equal part (by volume) of olive or vegetable oil. (Add more oil for a softer mixture) Add a dash of oil of wintergreen to make it smell like the real thing.
WARNING: To melt beeswax safely, place it in the top of a double boiler, or place the container of wax in a larger container of hot water. Do not melt beeswax in a microwave, as it could become hot enough to ignite. All waxes will ignite explosively when they reach their flash point temperature. Beeswax has a melting point of 143 to 148 degrees F. and should only be heated using a double boiler as it is flammable when subjected to fire and flames. Do not cover the beeswax while melting in a container of water, as steam may condense on the inside of the cover resulting in water in the wax.
Lubricating the wads with bore butter is a fairly straightforward operation. Warm the bore butter by leaving it out in the sun for an hour or so. Squeeze a small amount of the bore butter on to a plate or shallow bowl. Rub the felt wads into the bore butter so that they become saturated with the lubricant. The felt wads will absorb the bore butter like a sponge. Just try to get an even distribution of the lubricant on the wads. When loading the gun, insert one dry felt wad directly over the powder to protect the shot charge from the lubricant. Next insert one of the lubricated wad, followed by a shot charge. Finish the cartridge with one lubricated felt wad over the shot.
Crisco. Felt wads can be lubricated prior to the shoot by submerging them for a moment in melted solid Crisco shortening. When loading cartridges with lubricated wads, insert one dry felt wad directly over the powder to protect the powder charge from the lubricant. Next insert one of the lubricated wad, followed by a shot charge. Finish the cartridge with one lubricated felt wad over the shot.
Made Lubricant Recipes. There are a number of recipes for making
your own lubricate using a combination of lard or grease, canning
paraffin and beeswax. Ideally, the lubricant should be stiff with a
consistency a little softer than candle wax. The stiffness of the
lubricant helps stiffen the wad which will help scrape fouling from the
bore. A common recipe which makes an excellent batch of the lubricant is as
· Two parts tallow, Crisco or other grease
· Two parts canning paraffin
· One part of beeswax
This recipe will make a stiff lubricant, which in turn significantly stiffens the felt wads. In cold weather felt wads are slightly more difficult to load into the gun. When using true black powder, the stiffer wads help to keep the bore clean. However, when shooting with Pyrodex or other black powder substitute, a more pliable lubricant can be more convenient. In order to make the lubricant more pliable, and in turn make the wads more pliable, increase the amount of Tallow, Crisco or other grease.
I usually make up approximately one pound of lubricant at a time. The is a sufficient amount to lubricate several hundred felt wads. to make up a batch of the lubricant, place the ingredients in a wide mouth glass jar. Place the jar into a pot containing four or five inches of boiling water for a double-boiler effect. Allow the ingredients to melt, stir well and remove the mixture from the heat. When cool and hardened, cover the jar and store in a cool, dry place.
Putting the lubricant on the wads is pretty straightforward. Reheat the lubricant in a pot of boiling water until melted. Place a supply of wads in a disposable mental container, such as an empty can. Pour the melted lubricant over the wads and stir. The felt wads will absorb the melted lubricant like a sponge. It is not necessary for the wads to be saturated in the lubricant. Poor enough to lubricant over the wads to cover them and give them a stir to evenly distribute the liquid. Allow the wads to cool and store in a cool, dry place.
WARNING: To melt beeswax safely, place it in the top of a double boiler, or place the container of wax in a larger container of hot water. Do not melt beeswax in a microwave, as it could become hot enough to ignite. All waxes will ignite explosively when they reach their flash point temperature. Beeswax has a melting point of 143 to 148 degrees F. and should only be heated using a double boiler as it is flammable when subjected to fire and flames. Do not cover the beeswax while melting in a container of water, as steam may condense on the inside of the cover resulting in water in the wax.When loading, insert one dry felt wad directly over the powder to protect the powder charge from the lubricant. Next insert one of the lubricated wad, followed by a shot charge. Finish the load with one lubricated felt wad over the shot.