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Ramrods for Muzzleloading Shotguns

posted Oct 23, 2010, 10:22 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Jan 18, 2012, 10:09 AM ]
   The lowly ramrod is one of the most overlooked parts of a muzzle loading shotgun.  The ramrod is frequently little more than an inexpensive wooden stick with two crudely attached ramrod ends. 
This has not always been the case.   Ramrods for fine British and other European muzzleloading shotguns were frequently made from exotic woods.  Many of the surviving examples of fine British Side by Side muzzleloaders have black ebony ramrods with tips of made from water buffalo horn. These ebony and horn ramrods were an elegant part of a fine muzzle loading shotgun.
      Over the last couple of years, I purchased two 12 gauge used Pedersoli SxS shotguns.  Both guns are well built and have nice walnut stocks with hand cut checkering.  However, the ramrods which came with both guns were just plain ugly.  Last year, I decided that I would dress up my Pedersolis with the addition of more elegant ramrods.  As discussed below, I have tried a number of different options for shaft and tip material for my new ramrod.  None of the options are perfect, but they are certainly better than ugly sticks which came with guns.
The Ramrod Shaft. 
    The first step in the process of building a suitable ramrod was to decide on the material for the shaft.  Initially, I wanted to use one of the exotic woods which had traditionally used on fine SxS shotguns.  These included ebony, rosewood, snakewood, beefwood, purpleheart,  and padauk. This list was compiled from several books from the muzzleloading era and is certainly not complete.  However, it gave me a good list potential woods from which to choose.
    Here is a summary of the characteristics and availability of the exotic ramrod woods:

Ebony: There are several different species of ebony most of which vary in color varies from non-uniform black to uniform jet black. The specific species of ebony which was used for the ramrods of fine guns was Diospyros crassiflora and is commonly referred to as "Gabon" ebony.  Gabon Ebony native to native to western Africa. and is the benchmark for black color in lumber. It is a very dense wood, has a tight grain and will finish to a high luster.  Gabon Ebony is fairly rare and very expensive.  I know of no sources of ebony ramrods long enough for a shotgun.  However, Dixie Gun Works sells an ebony ramrod dueling or target pistols. This ebony rod is 9 ¾”  in length and approximately ½” in diameter.  The current cost for the ebony pistol ramrod is approximately $61.
    Rosewood:  There are also several different species of wood which are referred to as rosewood.  The preeminent rosewood is the wood of Dalbergia nigra which is now a listed endangered species. It is best known as Brazilian Rosewood, but also as "Rio Rosewood" or "Bahia Rosewood."  Another classic rosewood is that yielded by Dalbergia latifolia known as East Indian Rosewood or Sonokeling.  Rosewood is dense and stable, and boasts a high resin content that yields a gleaming polish.  Of the exotic woods, only rosewood ramrods are commercially available.  Dixie Gun Works currently sells rosewood ramrods which are 36" long and 3/8" diameter for approximately $19 each.
Snake wood/Letter wood.  (Brosimum Aubletii.)  This species is native to Coastal regions of northeast South America, and its wood is both very dense and highly elastic.  The lumber is often called "letter wood"  due to the black spots in it which bear some resemblance to hieroglyphics.   Lumber from Brosimum Aubletii is still available and is used for violin bows and other musical instruments.  However, this species is one of the most exotic woods in the world and finding a piece of wood which would be suitable for a ramrod would be both difficult and expensive.
Beefwood.  Beefwood is dark reddish brown with prominent figure when radial sawn. Medium hard and heavy. Used for craftwork including inlays and marquetry. Beefwood has an extremely limited availability due to limited number of trees (found in desert regions) and restrictions on harvesting.
Also known as amaranth and violetwood. Includes species in tropical regions of Central America and South America. Generally straight grained, sometimes interlocked, with a fine even texture. Creamy white sapwood and vibrant purple heartwood that turns to dark-purplish brown with exposure to light. Very heavy, hard, strong, and stiff with good decay resistance and stability in service.  Uses include outdoor construction, chemical vats (very acid resistant).  Purpleheart continues to be available and is frequently used in pool cues. Purpleheart lumber is fairly reasonably priced, as exotic woods go.  However, no source of ramrods shafts or 3/8 inch dowels could be located.
Padauk.  Also known as barwood and yomo. Grows in central and West Africa.  Straight to interlocked grain with a moderately coarse texture and large pores. Rich red to purple red heartwood and pale-beige sapwood.  Hard, heavy, and strong with exceptional decay resistance and dimensional stability.  Finishes to a beautiful sheen without the need for stain.  Padauk is also available at a fairly reasonable price when compared to the other exotic woods.  However, no source of ramrod shafts or 3/8 dowels could be located.
    As noted above the only pre-made exotic ramrod shaft which I was able to locate was made of rosewood (most likely East Indian Rosewood).   However, the rosewood ramrods Dixie Gun Works are pretty expensive for a ramrod which I intended to use in the field.  Moreover, I really had my heart set on a black ebony ramrod. 
    While it is theoretically possible to acquire a piece of one of the exotic woods and fashion your own ramrod shaft, it will be expensive. 
In addition to the high cost, 
it is necessary to obtain a piece of wood which is specifically selected use as a ramrod. In order to have a serviceable ramrod, you must being with piece of wood which has the grain running straight down its length. When the grain does not run down length of the ramrod shaft, the grain is said to "run-out."  A ramrod with any significant amount of run out is likely to break under stress, usually at the most inopportune moment.   Traditionally, ramrods where split out of a large piece of wood or log with the grain to insure that grain ran straight over the entire length of the shaft.

    Due to the high cost of real ebony or alternative exotic wood, I decided to try alternative materials for my new ramrods. The two alternatives which I have tried are: (1) coloring hickory or walnut ramrods and (2) black synthetic ramrods.

Pedersoli SxS with a dyed Hickory ramrod and a tip made from Deer antler.  This picture was taken at the Arctic Bird Dog Club's fund raiser for the "Under Broken Wing" project. 

    Coloring Wooden Ramrods.   A number of different sources have suggested that a reasonable facsimile of a ebony ramrod can be made by staining or dying a hickory or walnut ramrod.  This statement is only partially true, at best.  The reality is that you are never going to reproduce the luster and tight grain of real ebony by coloring hickory.  In addition, through repeated use, the thimbles on your gun are going wear way the finish (and black color) on the ramrod, exposing the natural color.
    When coloring a ramrod, it is important to keep in mind the difference between "stains" and "dyes" 
Most stains leave tiny colored particles (pigments) on the surface of the wood.  Contrary to the common conception, pigments don’t actually “soak in” to the wood. They rest of the surface. Dyes, on the other hand, actually penetrate the cell structure of the wood. Because of this, dyes tend to produce more transparent and natural looking results. In addition, because dyes penetrate into the wood, dyes produce a more durable finish for ramrods.
    There are a number of water or alcohol-soluble stains which are specifically made for staining woods.  I have used wood dyes from time to time.  However, I obtained the best results with black leather dye which is intended for use on shoes.  Using shoe dye was suggested by William Brockway in his book Recreating the Muzzle Loading Shotgun.  Shoe dye is easy to apply and with a little buffing with steel wool, produces a soft luster.  The shoe dye will wear off when you use the ramrod, however, by applying a little more dye to the worn area will restore the finish. 

    Synthetic Ramrods.   While the hickory ramrods which had been dyed black provided a serviceable substitute for an exotic ebony ramrod, I was not fully satisfied with the result.  I noticed that several of the muzzleloading supply houses were selling black "super rods" which they claimed had a look similar to ebony.  While I am not sure that all "super rods" are made of the same material, at least some of them state that are made of "Delrin."  Delrin is a Dupont trade name for a plastic which is generically known as Acetal HomopolymerDelrin rods possess high tensile strength and toughness. They are also chemically resistant to hydrocarbons, solvents and most neutral chemicals. Generic Acetal rods can be purchased in various diameters and lengths at reasonable prices.   For example, a 3/8 by 36 inch Acetal rod can be ordered from for $2.28. 
    When working with Delrin or Acetal, special care must be taken to insure that ramrod tips are
securely attached.  Acetal is not an easy material to glue.  Consequently, in addition to gluing brass ramrod tips in place, I also install a cross pin through the ramrod tip and shaft.  With ramrod tips made of horn or antler, I will thread the Acetal with a standard 3/8 x 16 threading die prior to gluing the shaft in place. The Acetal plastic threads easily and the threads will give the glue and mechanical grip on the plastic shaft.
    The Acetal rods have a nice black finish and are very durable.  The only real draw back to the the Acetal rods is their flexibility. 
A 3/8 inch Acetal rod can literally be bent in a circle without breaking.  Ramming tight fitting wads home with an Acetal rod definitely presents a little bit of a challenge.   However, given that I generally only use the ramrod when I am hunting, I am willing to put up with the flexibility in order to obtain the extraordinary durability of the Acetal rods. 
Gabon Ebony