Home Blowing Down the Barrel Living History Traditional Guns Gun Cleaning ML Hunting Ethics ML Safety TRADITIONAL MUZLELOADING HUNTING SEASON

It’s A Libertarian Thing

The bedrock rule of firearms safety that we all follow is - ‘Always treat a gun as being loaded’.  I am a buckskinner and re-enactor with the ‘persona’ of a revolutionary war farmer and, although I like to shoot and hunt, ‘paper punching’ at a match has always been viewed more as a duty to support my club than as a fun activity in its own right.  I recently moved to a new town and, not having been involved with organized muzzle loading for years, I decided to join a local muzzle loading club.  On my first shoot day, after laying out all my shooting gear and loading up my rifle, I approached the firing line with just a little anxiety.  Happily, all went well and, after my rifle fired, with only the usual little delay of an out-of-practice flint lock, standing on the firing line I blew down the barrel.  I was immediately startled by a bellowed “Never do that again!” from a by-stander.  A little annoyed at the forwardness of the individual, but not wanting to make a scene at my first match, I thanked him for his concern and went to the bench to reload.  It was then that I learned that this club has a safety rule forbidding blowing down the gun barrel and a range officer whose job it is to enforce it.  

Ok, reloading and returning to the firing line again, I was frustrated that my rifle, a good flint lock and usually very reliable, could not be induced to discharge.  After multiple attempts, I finally noticed a little wisp of cloth coming from the touch hole at my breech.  My vent was plugged solidly by a fragment of patching.  As I left the firing line to pull the ball, I recalled that on blowing down the barrel I had noticed increased resistance to my effort.  Distracted by the range officer’s outburst, this had gone right by me, and as a result, I now had some unnecessary and potentially hazardous work to do - removing a charged ball, that I feel could have been easily avoided.

Gun safety with me is very important.  Is muzzleloading shooting unsafe?  Potentially, yes. Among many other things, it only takes someone carelessly pointing the muzzle of their gun after a misfire or a hang fire, or a yahoo firing a ‘duplex load’ of black and smokeless powder, or someone firing with the ball stuck half-way down the barrel, to immediately generate extremely unsafe conditions for nearby shooters and, frequently, themselves.  I simply do not participate in an activity where I feel unsafe, and yet I regularly blow down the barrel of my gun.  

I define blowing down the barrel as, immediately after discharging a muzzle loading firearm firing black powder and while still at the firing position, blowing down the barrel to initiate the process of reloading the gun.  Is this an exception to our bedrock rule of always treating a gun as if it’s loaded?  You betcha.  I just fired the gun, I know it’s unloaded.  Furthermore, after experiencing the heat and pressures of discharge, it’s utterly impossible that it still could be loaded - and ‘impossible’ is a word that I use very, very rarely.  Could there be a spark, a glowing ember, still burning down there in the gook of black powder residue?  Well, yes, that’s exactly why I do it, but the ember can’t hurt the blower as long as there is no added powder thrown down the bore.  

The cardinal rule of safe gun handling is - “Always treat a gun as if it is loaded”, but every rule has exceptions or we couldn’t clean our guns.  A blanket policy forbidding the blowing down of a gun’s barrel immediately after discharge, raises this otherwise essential rule of shooting to the level of a fetish.  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, …”  

Blowing down the barrel is not, as some say, a mindless ritual.  While blowing, watch the plume of powder smoke coming from the touch hole or nipple.  It should blossom and then disappear while you continue to blow.  If it persists, you have a problem.  If there is no plume, as happened with me at that range, then your vent or nipple is plugged, or even your breech and, again, you have a problem.

Blowing down the barrel of a firearm before loading has been practiced for hundreds of years.  Audubon in 1805 describes a coon hunter loading his rifle, preparing to set out on a night’s hunt.

“He blows through his rifle to clear it, ….”

We can only speculate where this practice originated, but several hundred years ago, black powder was not the uniform, cleanly burning product with which we are familiar now.  Reportedly, E. I. DuPont got into the black powder business because he saw that the quality of the available powders was so poor.  Additionally, wet or poorly stored black powder cakes and the clumps must then be broken up before firing.  It is reasonable to me that blowing down the barrel was a natural and effective response to this problem of inconsistent black powder; the blast furnace-like effect of the oxygen forced down the barrel extinguishing any last lingering embers in the clumps of partially burned powder residue while simultaneously clearing any remaining debris from the touch hole and softening the black powder residue.  

Do unexpected ignitions occur with today’s powders?  Danged right!  In an article in the February 2002 issue of ‘Muzzleblasts’ entitled “The Other Guy”, the author describes firing his rifle at a target. He then poured powder down the barrel, used short starter to place a patched ball in the muzzle, and then, as he pushed the ball down the muzzle with his ramrod, having the firearm discharge.  His conclusion, stated to me orally, was that there was an ember somewhere down the barrel that had ignited the powder prematurely.  Would blowing down the barrel have prevented this?  Of course I don’t know, but it surely wouldn’t have hurt and I strongly suspect that it would have prevented the unexpected discharge.  How about my own situation at that new club, where a fragment of patching somehow had remained in my barrel, actually plugging the touch hole at the second shot?  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision that cloth patching smoldering away, needing only the arrival of the next powder charge to initiate an unexpected and possibly fatal discharge of the firearm, a discharge that I feel would have been avoided if the blockage was discovered on my blowing down the barrel.  

In my opinion, far from being a safety hazard, blowing down the barrel at a range immediately after firing is actually the time-tested mandatory first step in reloading a traditional muzzle loader shooting black powder, ensuring that it is now safe to proceed with pouring powder down the bore.  Swabbing the bore with a wet patch is certainly a suitable alternative, but it takes more time and effort and, especially with patent breeches, unless a second, smaller diameter swab is used, the entire breech may not be reached. Why not just use a tube to blow down the barrel? Because it’s a clumsy solution to a nonexistent problem.

Where did this ban on blowing down the barrel originate?  In a Presidential Message written by Tom Schiffer of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) in February 1992, he described blowing down the barrel as a harmless ‘ritual’, but still a bad habit that can lead shooters to be distracted “when the shooter is concentrating on the alignment hold and release” and make some undefined hazardous mistake.  The NMLRA has never held that blowing down the barrel, as I have defined it, is dangerous in itself.  

President Schiffer made two basic arguments in supporting their position:

First, a person might be blowing down the fired barrel of a double barrel gun with the other barrel still loaded.  This argument is absurd. You never put your face in front of even a potentially loaded gun, double barrel or not.  If you are prone to being so absent minded, you also shouldn’t be permitted to go out alone or have things like a driver’s license.

The second argument was that a shooter may not notice that the gun they thought they had just fired actually had experienced only a severe hang fire, and it may then fire as the shooter blows down the barrel.  This tragedy apparently actually happened with a woman who was new to muzzleloading.  It’s hard for me to understand how anybody could fail to realize, after shooting the firearm even once, what a real discharge feels like.  The smallest muzzleloading rifle I am aware of, a .25 caliber caplock, leaves no doubt when it has fired.  I feel that if you cannot tell if a gun has discharged or not, you simply aren’t ready to be out there shooting, unsupervised.  Several years ago there was a dreadful death in the state of West Virginia when a father, thinking the gun unloaded, blew down the barrel of his son’s gun which had actually experienced only a hangfire.  A marked ramrod is always used to determine if a gun is loaded or not.  The common denominator in both these terrible incidents is that the cardinal rule, ‘Always treat a gun as being loaded’ was ignored.

Not mentioned by the NMLRA, I have also read the argument that on blowing down the barrel you may accidentally burn your lips.  I don’t know what firearm you use, but I don’t shoot a flame thrower.

It seems to me that in eliminating this time-tested method for extinguishing residual embers in a muzzleloader firing black powder, the NMLRA has, quite arbitrarily, actually inadvertently increased the hazards of firing muzzle loading firearms, not decreased them.  Handling firearms is inherently dangerous. Arbitrarily, why not have a rule requiring an ‘expert’ range officer to confirm that all balls are fully resting on the powder before that gun can be discharged? An airspace below the ball is infinitely more dangerous then blowing down the barrel of a just-discharged gun.

In summary, I feel that blowing down the barrel of a muzzle loader using black powder immediately after discharge actually INCREASES firearms safety, and the NMLRA, while agreeing that it is not a dangerous practice in itself, has arbitrarily decided that the threat of setting a dangerous example for others overrules this value. As an analogy, semi-automatic rifles mechanically all work the same way, but they can be ‘dressed up’ to look quite different. Senator Feinstein notoriously has wanted to outlaw mililtary-style semi-automatic rifles because they look scary. It appears to me that the NMLRA has actually banned blowing down the barrel immediately after discharge primarily because it looks scary.

Would I object to a NMLRA rule stating something like;

“In a firearm using black powder, blowing down the barrel of the gun immediately after discharge and before moving from the firing line is strongly discouraged as being a practice that may result in harm under certain situations, but is not actually forbidden”?

Not at all, I think that this would actually be a good idea, pointing out the possible dangers of this practice for careless, inexperienced, or ignorant people.

Until then -

Memo to the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association - Drop Dead.