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Getting Started with a Muzzleloader Shotgun

posted Feb 22, 2011, 12:36 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 9:37 AM ]

Thinking about giving a muzzle-loading shotgun a try?

Muzzle-loading shotguns are fun to load and more fun to shoot.  Whether you are shooting clay birds, upland game or waterfowl, a muzzle-loading shotgun brings a new twist to the game.

Here is some basic information about how to get started.

    This website was conceived as a way to promote muzzle-loading shotguns and to attract more shooters to muzzle-loading shotgun events.  Until now, this sited lacked information about muzzle-loading shotguns written at very basic level for the new shooter.  This Article is intended an introduction to muzzle-loading shotguns and resource for finding additional information about their loading and use.

   If you have any interest in muzzle-loading shotguns, the best thing which you can do is find a tournament or shoot being conducted near you and attend the tournament as a spectator. This will give you an opportunity to observe what goes on and talk to the participants. You will see a variety of equipment and accessories being used.   Virtually every muzzle-loading shotgunner has is own ideas about muzzleloader shotguns and most all of them enjoy sharing their own opinions.   Also, you may have an opportunity to actually shoot one or more types of shotguns that will help you decide which seems best for you.  I have yet to attend a major shot where a new shooter is not given the opportunity to fire a couple of shots through a borrowed gun.  I have posted an Article about my first NMLRA event

Some Muzzle Loader Shotgun Terminology.

    Most of the terminology used in connection with muzzle loading rifles and guns in general also applies to muzzle loading shotguns.  However, there are a few terms which are unique to muzzle loading shotguns which can be the source of some confusion for the new shooter. 

    The loading and shooting of a muzzle loading shotgun is not very much different from shooting any other gun, even modern guns. The basic round fired from a muzzle loading shotgun is very similar to the round fired from a modern shotguns.  The difference is that modern round is contained in a self contained hull or case, while the muzzle loading shotgun round is loaded one competent at a time into the barrel of the gun.

Shotgun Wads

Nitro Cards

Over Powder or Mini-Nitro
cushion wads
Felt Wads

   The muzzle loading shotgun round starts with a powder charge of either true black powder or a modern black powder  substitute There are two Articles on this website describing the characteristics of true black powder and the black powder substitutes.  My personal preference is to use true black powder because it is easier to ignite.  However, because of its explosive natures, true black powder is harder to locate at the local sporting goods store.  If you have trouble fining real black powder locally, the best option is order it from a on line retailer such as Powder Inc.  However, do to the shipping and Hazmat fees, this makes sense only if you are willing to purchase a lot of 25 or 50 pounds at a time.

    The next component to the muzzle loading round is the "over the powder wad".  This is where things can get a little confusing for the new shooter. Over the powder wads generically refer to the wad or wads which separate the powder charge from the shot charge.  The term "over the powder wad" can also refer to a specific type of wad; namely a thick cardboard wad which is used over the powder.  However, there are many types of "wads" which can be used for this purposes; including: nitrio cards, other cardboard wads, felt wads and cushion wads.

     The most common "over the powder wad" is a combination of one 1/8 inch nitro card and one 1/2 inch cushion wad.  The "nitro card" is a stiff cardboard wad which creates a tight seal in the bore of the gun.  The cushion wad is fibrous wad which can serve two purposes: (1) to cushion the shot charge, and (2) provide some lubricant to the bore of the gun.  (More on cushion wads latter).   While this is the most common combination for "over the powder wads" the list of materials which can be used as over the powder wads is virtually endless.  Any material which creates a tight seal in the bore can be used as an over the powder wad.   Modern plastic wads, felt wads, hornets nests, newspaper, and cardboard box material can all make serviceable over the powder wads. 

    The shot charge is a measured amount of lead shot.  The shot charge is poured down the bore and sits directly on top of the over the powder wads.   The shot charge is held in place by the "over the shot wads."  Again "over the shot wads" refers more to a position of wads than a specific type of wads.  Far and way, the most common type of over shot wad is the thin cardboard wad.  However, felt wads can also be used as over the shot wads.

    Whether you are using true black powder or one of the substitutes, you will have to deal with the accumulation of crude or fowling which is left in the bore of the gun when the powder burns. True black powder is a very inefficient propellent; meaning that a relatively small proportion of the solid matter is converted in gas when compared to modern smokeless powders. The remaining solids (ie fowling) either adhere to the bore of the gun, or are expelled out the muzzle in the form of smoke and other bits of unburned powder.

    If the black powder residue is allowed to accumulate, the gun becomes increasingly difficult to load.  At some point sufficient fowling will accumulate such that you are not able to ram the wads down the bore.  Short of swabbing the bore out periodically, there are two basic ways of keeping the amount of fowling to a manageable level. The first method uses lubricated cushion wads.  You can buy pre-lubed wads or you can soak the lubricated cushion wads in cooking oil or soapy water.   The lubricant on the cushion wad will keep the fowling soft enough that it will not build up a thick lawyer of crude inside the bore of the.  The other method is to spray a small amount of soapy water down the bore of the gun after the over the powder wads are rammed home.  A small amount of soapy water will also keep the fowling from accumulating in the bore. I have shot several hundred rounds using  this method without needing to clean the bores in order to continue shooting.  However, it is always necessary to thoroughly clean the gun when you are finished shooting. .

Types of Muzzle-Loading Shotguns

    Muzzle-loading shotguns come in all shapes and types.  Muzzle loading shotgunners, as a group, tend to be tinkers. As a result, you will see a wide array of guns in use at a muzzle loading shotgun event.   The classic side by side double barrel shotgun  is the most common gun at muzzle loading events, but single barrels, over and unders, side hammers and underhammers can all be seen. An Article on this website, provides pictures of the different types of underhammer and side hammer guns which I have encountered.

Where to get a Muzzle-Loading Shotgun

    Muzzle-loading shotguns have been made by a number of modern manufactures in recent years; including: Pedersoli, Thompson Center, CVA, Navy Arms and others.  Not all of these manufactures currently have muzzle-loading shotguns in production.    However, a variety of muzzle-loading shotguns are usually available on the on-line gun auction sites such as and

    The type of muzzle loading shotgun to purchase is largely a matter of personal taste and the type of shooting which you intend on doing.  If you are looking for your first muzzle loading shotgun, my personal recommendation is a Pedersoli SxS with interchangeable choke tubes.  The Pedersoli guns are well made and very serviceable.  The interchangeable choke tubes will allow even a novice shooter to develop a load which throws acceptable patterns.

Are Original Muzzle-Loading Shotguns Safe to Shoot

    Many people shoot original muzzle-loading shotguns with Damascus steel barrels .  However, prior to shooting an original gun, it should be checked out by a competent gunsmith.

Loading a Muzzle- Loading Shotgun.

     Loading a muzzle loading shotgun involves a few more steps than loading a rifle. However, the same safety precautions need to be observed. Including, making sure the gun is unprimed and pointed in a safe direction prior to loading.  Also, eye and ear protection is always recommended. The method of loading of a muzzle loading shotgun was described by Colonel Peter Hawker in his early how-to book INSTRUCTIONS To Young Sportsmen.  Colonel Hawker’s description of the loading of is equally applicable to today. 

Placing the but of the gun upon his left foot, and holding the barrels perpendicularly and well out from his person, let the young sportsman, by a rapid inversion and shake of the powder flask, with his forefinger firmly placed upon its mouth, fill the top with powder, and pour it down the barrel furthest from him-and repeat the action with the nearest barrel. Then placing a wadding in the muzzle of each, he rams both home, striking one good solid blow upon the wadding to send the powder up the nipple. Then returning the ramrod to its place, he pours in the shot, holding the pouch at an angle of 45, not perpendicularly, and then repeats the ramming down in the same manner as before, but not striking the ramrod home, and observing to hold the gun perpendicularly, and giving it a slight shake to make the shot lie level. In both instances, enter the ramrod a few inches, and then raising the right hand to its upper end, bring it home by one continued motion of the hand downwards, and not bit by bit. On finally returning the ramrod to its place, raise the gun with the left hand also by one motion, grasp it immediately behind the locks with the right hand, then in front of the locks with the left, and half-cock the locks with the right. . .  Place the caps firmly down upon the nipples, and the process of loading is over.


    It should be noted that Colonel Hawker's instructions indicated that the powder charge is poured directly from the powder flask into the barrel.  Due to safety considerations, this is no longer recommended.  Indeed, this practice is prohibited at NMLRA events.

    The time honored rule for muzzle loading shotguns is to load equal volumes of black powder and shot.  For a 12 gauge load, a good place to start is ounce of shot.  An equal volume of black powder equates to 2 ½ drams or 68 grains of black powder. More information regarding loads for muzzleloader shotguns can be found in a two part Article tiled Developing Loads for Muzzle Loading Shotguns.

As with any muzzle-loading firearm, remember to follow the manufactures instructions and safety recommendations

Loading through Choke Tubes:

    This is a problem that never existed in the muzzle loading era. Choke boring was not widely used until 1875, which was well into the breech loading era.  Most shooter who use muzzleloaders with chokes simply place the nitro card on it’s edge and force it down through the choke tube with a short starter.  One tip which I was given as to bend the nitro card into a "V" shape with a pair of pliers prior to forcing the wad through the choke tubes.  In either case, you then flip the wad over flat once you have gotten past the choke and seat it on the powder. Forcing the nitro cards through the choke or bending them into a "V" shape does not significantly damage the wad and they will still produce an adequate seal .

    Fiber wads can be undersized, for instance, using a 14 gauge fiber in a 12 gauge full choke gun, as the fiber would be destroyed ramming it through the choke. A 12 gauge overshot card is thin and flexible enough to go through a choke tube without damage.

Hunting with Muzzle-Loading Shotgun

    Muzzle-loading shotguns make effective hunting tools.  Properly loaded, a muzzle-loading shotgun can be used to hunt virtually any game where its modern counterpart is used.  Here a a couple of Articles related to using muzzle loading shotguns for hunting which might be of interest to hunters.   Taking Muzzle Loading Shot Cartridges into the Field and Upland Bird Hunting with a Muzzleloading Shotgun

Muzzle-Loading Clay Target Events

    The NMLRA and local muzzle loading clubs host many muzzle-loading shotgun events each year.  Events include trap, skeet and sporting clays.  The NMLRA National Championships are held in Friendship, IL in September.   The rules are similar to the modern games with a few modifications to accommodate the limitations of the old smoke poles.

   Remember, if you have an interest in using a muzzle loading shotgun, find a shoot or tournament being conducted near you. This will give you an opportunity to observe what goes on and talk to the shooters.  Most muzzle loading shotgun enthusiasts are more than happy to talk about the sport.