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Shooting Boxes for Muzzleloading Shotguns

posted Feb 22, 2011, 2:27 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Aug 1, 2011, 12:32 PM ]
muzzleloading shotgun requires shot, powder, various wads, and an assortment of  loading implements, tools and accessories.  All of these items need to be available when ever you shoot the gun.  Most shooters use a "shooting box" for the purpose of keeping the muzzle loading paraphernalia in a single location.   The most common shooting boxes are fishing boxes or tool boxes which have been adapted to the purpose.  In addition, some shooters have made or purchased wooden boxes made with the needs of a muzzle loading shotgun in mind.  

    New shooters frequently seek advice about the "ideal" size and configuration for a shooting box.  There is no single correct answer for what constitutes the ideal shooting box.  Shooting boxes tend to be highly individualized to the type of shooting which is being done, the type of loading equipment being used and the tastes of the particular shooter.  While there is no "ideal" shooting box, here are some ideas to think about when designing your own shooting box.

Historic References

       Books from the pre-1860 time frame provide an excellent source of information regarding muzzleloading shotguns and related accessories.  The sportsman of the period used muzzleloading weapons on a daily basis and frequently the period literature provides many useful ideas which have been otherwise lost to time. 
Surprisingly, there are few descriptions of purpose built "shooting boxes" in use during the muzzle loading era.   In his classic work "Instructions to Young Sportsmen" Peter Hawker states that it is convenient to carry "ammunition" in a "gunning box" while hunting waterfowl in a punt or other small boat.  However, the primary purpose of the gunning box was to keep the "ammunition" (which was comprised of paper or cloth cartridges) dry while hunting in the small open boats.

      While the purpose built "shooting box" was not in wide spread use during the muzzleloading era, the gun cases of the time preformed a very similar function. There are many examples of gun cases which are wooden box or leather case which was designed to house the gun and a variety of shooting accessories.  The accessories contained the vintage gun cases are in many cases virtually identical to the items which would be found in a shooting box found on the range today.

    A vintage description of the accessories carried in a muzzle loading shotgun is contained in the Manual of British Rural Sports, by "Stonehenge."  Stonehenge is the pen name for an early American sports writer by the name of John Henry Walsh (See biography in side bar.)  Stonehenge recommended that the following items to be carried with the muzzleloading shotgun:

John Henry Walsh (Stonehenge)

John Henry Walsh  (October 21, 1810 - February 12, 1888), Mr. Walsh was trained as a surgeon.  Gradually abandoned he abandoned the practice of medicine and devoted his full time attention to writing.  In 1850 he published the First Edition of his Manual of British Rural Sports , which enjoyed many editions. During the same year he joined the staff of a sporting magazine known as The Field, and became its editor at the close of 1857. Among his numerous books published under the name of "Stonehenge" are: The Shot-Gun and Sporting Rifle (1859); The Dog in Health and Disease (1859); The Horse in the Stable and in the Field (1861); Dogs of the British Isles (1867); The Modern Sportsman's Gun and Rifle (1882-1884).

  Gun-cases And Their Contents.—All the additamenta should be contained in every gun-case, which Is made either of wood or leather; the latter being, I think, the most convenient on account of its greater portability. The appurtenances to the gun are comprehended under three heads—1st, the shooting materials, including powder flask, shot-belt or pouch, cap-holder, and waddlng-punch, with wadding; 2nd, the cleaning materials, including cleaning-rod, complete with tow, cloth, linen, oil, Ac; nipple-wrench and turn-screw; 3rd, spare articles, a spare ramrod, nippers, a Macintosh cover, spare powder, shot, and caps, with patent wadding when used; also, Eley's cartridges.

Manual of British Rural Sports, by Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh) Fourth Edition (1859). 

    Another description of the items to be carried with the muzzleloading shotgun is contained a book titled The Gun and Dog by R. B. Fellows:

Having described the guns I recommend for various sports I shall proceed at once to name what I consider necessary for the gun-case containing the first-mentioned gun—viz. the gun for general shooting. The case itself should be made of well-seasoned oak covered with a waterproof cover, and should contain the following articles : —powder flask, shot pouch (both filled), caps, wadding, cleaning and loading rods, four spare nipples, screw driver, nipple wrench (which should always be carried in the pocket when shooting), wadding punch, olive oil, small brush, plenty of rags, piece of sponge, and a Paget knife (the most useful knife I have seen). These then are necessaries, and must be taken with the sportsman whenever on the march as it were. He should also take with him (as the soldier does his " quad bag") an oak box, two feet square and lined with zinc, to carry the extra powder and shot, sheets of wadding, caps, tow for cleaning gun, plenty of oil and rag, and a Bath brick, which will be found very useful in cleaning a gun ; mix it, when powdered, with a little oil for application to the bright parts; for getting off the crust at the bottom of the barrels, called leading, put it, when powdered, on wet tow and rub the gun up and down as if commonly cleaning it.

The Gun and Dog by R. B. Fellows (Groombridge and Sons, 1857).

Items to be Included in the Shooting Box

    Turning to the present, the fist step in designing your own shooting box is to consider which items will be housed in box. Making this list is not as easy as it may first appear.  It is very easy to be over-inclusive in certain items and under-inclusive in other items.  The list of items which Stonehenge included in his Manual of British Sports remains a good starting place for the items to be included by a modern muzzleloaring shooter. 

    Here is my list of the Items to be stored in the Shooting Box.

Shooting Necessities:
  • Percussion Caps
  • Capper
  • Powder/Shot Measures
  • Over Powder Wads
  • Over Shot Wads
  • Powder
  • Shot
  • Spray Bottle/Lubricant for wads
  • Ear Plugs
  • Shooting Glasses
  • Short Starter
  • pliers (or other implement for removing stuck caps)
Cleaning Items:
  • Cleaning Rod
  • Cleaning Jag
  • Worn
  • Cleaning Patches
  • Black Powder Solvent
  • Bore Butter
  • Nipple Wrench
  • Extra Nipples
  • Choke Tube Wrench
  • Extra Choke Tubes.
  • CO2 Ball Discharger and CO2 Cartridges
  • Screw Drivers
  • Allen Wrenches
  • Knife
  Once you know which items will be stored in the Shooting Box,  you can make an informed judgment about exactly how big the box needs to be.  The minimum dimensions of the box needs to be sufficient to accommodate the bulkiest items.  The typical can of black powder is approximately 7 inches tall.  I prefer not to lay cans of powder on their sides and as a result, my shooting box needs be at least that deep.  In addition,  I like to carry a three piece cleaning rod in my shooting box.  Each section of the cleaning rod is approximately 14 inches long.  As the longest item, the cleaning rod defines the minimum length of my shooting box as 14 inches.

    One final word about the size of the shooting box.  Most shooters which I talk to indicate that if they had to do it again, they would probably built a slightly smaller box than they are currently using.  If your shooting box is bigger than it absolutely needs to be, you fill the space with a number of necessary items. Try to live by the adage which was contained in The Gun and Dog by R. B. Fellows (Groombridge and Sons, 1857): the gun case should contain everything you need, but nothing more.

Other Considerations when designing a Shooting Box
    After you have a rough idea about the size of the box, you need to consider the layout of the box.  For example: will the box have drawers or trays?, how will they be accessed?, where will the loading supplies be stored?, will there be a place for holding the gun and loading rod while the box is in use?   Give consideration to the following when deciding on the layout of your shooting box:

    First, the shooting box must be designed for efficient loading of the gun. The biggest draw back to simply using an old fishing tackle box or tool box is that they do not provide a working space which is designed for loading a gun.  As a result, you either need to layout your loading implements on the loading bench or you are constantly fishing for items in the bottom of the box.  A well designed loading box should have an area which gives quick access to the powder, shot, wads, caps, short starter and loading rod.  All remaining items should be stored away so that they do not interfere with the loading process.

    Second, the shooting box must be portable.  You will be carrying the loading box to the range or the field.  Try to make sure that the box is a manageable size. 

    Third, the shooting box should have a means for organizing its contents.  Shooting boxes become the repository for the specialized items associated with muzzleloaders.  Items in this category include shot and powder flasks (or a Davis Loader), powder and shot measures, short starters, nipple wrenches, spare nipples, CO2 Ball Dischargers, cleaning jags, worms, and a cleaning rod/emergency ramrod.  It does not do any good to have these items with you if you can not find them.

    Fourth, the shooting box must sometimes double as a loading bench. A prior article describes "loading benches" which are simply benches or tables used for loading muzzleloading shotguns while at the range.  As you go to different muzzleloading events, you will find that sometimes loading bench are available at the range, while at other times you will have to supply your own loading bench.  In a perfect world, the shooting box should have ability (with the addition of legs or other folding support) to double as your loading bench.    

Modern Examples

Now you know what needs to be included in your shooting box and have the basic design considerations for the lay out of the box.  The next place to look for ideas regarding the size and shape of your shooting box is to look at the boxes of the other shooters.   If you look around at a muzzleloading event, you will quickly find that shooting boxes come in all shapes and sizes.  At any given muzzle loading event, you are unlikely to see two shooting boxes which are exactly alike.  Here are a a collection of shooting boxes from the 2011 NMLRA Western National Shoot and various other shoots.

Note the number of "Davis Loaders" in use by the competitors. 

My Shooting Boxes.

    The picture to the left is a Google SketchUp rendering of my "full size" shooting box. I refer to this box as the "full sized" box since it is designed to carry the shooting supplies, cleaning supplies, parts, tools and implements in a single box.  This design is my attempt reconcile the various competing factors in designing a shooting box which can also double as a shooting bench when necessary.  Plans for the "full sized shooting" box in Google SketchUp are appended to this article.

    This box is constructed using stile and rail panels around 1/4" thick walnut plywood inserts.  This use of 1/4 plywood helps keep the overall weight of the box down.  Fully loaded with every thing you need for a day's shooting this box weighs approximately 17 pounds.  This weigh includes my Davis Loader and one MEC loading tube of powder and one MEC loading tube of Shot.  This is enough shot and powder for about 100 shots.  To the extent that I anticipate shooting more than 100 rounds, I carry additional shot and powder in a separate storage box.

    This design is easy to set up and makes for efficient loading of the gun.  The six drawers help keep everything organized while still providing ample storage area the various loading implements.  I use this box anytime I am planning on shooting more than one round of birds at the trap or skeet range.

    While I like having the full size shooting box with me, there are many times which it is simply over kill.  For quick trips to the patterning board or hunting trips, I would like a smaller, more portable shooting box.  The picture to the left is a Google SketchUp rendering of my "mid-size" shooting box. Plans for the "mid-sized shooting" box in Google SketchUp are appended to this article.  I have not completed any prototypes of the mid-size box. When completed, I will post some pictures. 
Peter Lucas,
Apr 6, 2011, 9:15 AM
Peter Lucas,
Apr 6, 2011, 9:15 AM