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View Full Version : American Civil War Era: Unloading a muzzleloader without firing



Chris P
03-16-2011, 09:52 PM
I'm batting around an idea for a short set in the American Civil War. The resolution of the story, unless it's not realistic, relies on the MC discovering that a muzzleloading rifle has never been fired. But, unless there is a way to unload a muzzleloader in the field or camp without firing it, that would also mean the gun had never been loaded (or it had been loaded but never fired for several years). Is that taking suspension of disbelief too far? Or should I move this story to 1918 or 1943?

Follow-up question: I'm sure there were people whose job it was to collect salvageable weapons from battlefields to issue to new recruits or to replace damaged ones. What would such a person be called? Arms master? What rank would they normally have? Would they have done this in WWI or WWII, if I need to change the story line?

Drachen Jager
03-16-2011, 10:03 PM
I am sure it's possible to unload it... I don't think it's possible to do it safely. I can't think of any reason why you would want to take that kind of risk, when unloading it by pulling the trigger is such an easy option.

Nobody would leave a civil war-era rifle loaded for years. It would almost certainly misfire and could damage the weapon.

Sarpedon
03-16-2011, 10:29 PM
I believe the standard rifles of the time came with tools that allowed this. I think the reverse end of the ramrod had something to snag the cloth bullet wadding and extract the bullet. This was reportedly a tedious process

I recall reading that the southern army as Shiloh, after sneaking perfectly stealthily up to the camped Union army, gave away its position because certain soldiers, having got their rifles damp, tested to see if their powder was still dry by pulling the trigger, rather than going through the tedious process of unloading.

WriteKnight
03-16-2011, 11:01 PM
There was a tool called a 'worm' or 'screw' - that attached to the end of the ramrod. It would be used to extract a ball - even a 'mini-ball' which was bullet shaped. The idea was to 'screw' the worm into the soft lead, and pull it out.

NOT easy to do. Much easier to fire the gun to discharge the bullet.

IF a gun had been left loaded for a long time. Perhaps abandoned or found on a battle field, then yes... the powder could have gotten damp and would not fire. To restore the gun to a usable state, the bullet would need to be extracted - the old powder scoured out, the touch hole cleaned (in the case of a flintlock) the nipple cleaned or replaced (in the case of a percussion cap rifle.)

There are records of guns being recovered on the battle field, where multiple loads and bullets were loaded one on top of the other. The assumption is that in their fear and panic - the soldier did not understand his first load 'misfired' (Remember, the percussion cap still makes a sharp 'crack' sound) And then proceeded to load powder and ball on top of the other load.

I should think the quarter master would be in charge of managing salvage operations.

Chris P
03-16-2011, 11:10 PM
There are records of guns being recovered on the battle field, where multiple loads and bullets were loaded one on top of the other. The assumption is that in their fear and panic - the soldier did not understand his first load 'misfired' (Remember, the percussion cap still makes a sharp 'crack' sound) And then proceeded to load powder and ball on top of the other load.

I've done this myself, actually, while squirrel hunting with my little .32 caliber varmint gun. Fortunately I noticed the ramrod wasn't going in far enough and used my little tool of compressed CO2 the thuum out the charges and balls. Obviously the Blue and Grey didn't have such things.

I thought maybe quartermaster, but I wasn't sure.

Chase
03-16-2011, 11:23 PM
Chris,
According to NRAís Basics of Muzzleloading, several devices screw into the threaded end of the ramrod. "A 'worm' is a corkscrew item used to entangle and retrieve patches stuck in the bore. A 'ball screw' is a handy item used to remove a ball when the barrel must be cleared without firing."

http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/circ500.pdf (http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/circ500.pdf)

In my own possibles bag, the worm attachment is two sharpr wires curved up like helix. Itís to snag patches which have fallen off the cleaning jag. It wonít remove a ball. The ball screw is a sharpened screw about half and inch long. It is screwed into the lead ball stuck down the barrel. After lots of lubrication goes down, the ball can be slowly pulled out with the ramrod. Both devices are in constant use in the course of shooting muzzleloaders.

Yes, scavenger details always went over recent battle sites to gather arms and ammunition. Enemy arms were either destroyed or converted to use by the finders. Issued weapons were turned over to the unit armorer for re-issue. Muzzleloaders were often found loaded and needed to be unloaded without firing by use of the ball screw.

As was mentioned, some rifles were found with several loads of powder and patched ball "stacked " within the barrel. According to historians, what most likely occurred was the soldier "fired" but in the heat of battle didnít realize his rifle didnít discharge, so he loaded again on top of the misfire, perhaps "shot" again and then loaded a third and a fourth time. These incidences were recorded by unit armorers.

I hope some of this helps.

Drachen Jager
03-17-2011, 12:12 AM
I thought the extractor on the ramrod was for misfires? AFAIK as long as the rifle has not misfired you would not normally use the extractor because of the potential danger.

Sarpedon
03-17-2011, 12:20 AM
I would think the tool would be the same for either task. To avoid accidently shooting oneself, it should be sufficient to remove the percussion cap and uncock the hammer. (and not sit right next to the campfire)

Chase
03-17-2011, 12:41 AM
I thought the extractor on the ramrod was for misfires?

As Sarpedon says, it's a moot point. I see it done at rendezvous matches frequently for all sorts of reasons: Wet powder; patch or ball too tight or dirty bore preventing full seating; wrong or suspected accidental double powder load; the gun's lock breaks. Lots of reasons.

I've removed several balls via the ball screw after first making the lock safe. Yep, most of us smokepole shooters seldom strike a match to look down the barrel to see how things are working out.

Hallen
03-17-2011, 01:09 AM
As far as picking up weapons, that would fall to Joe Snuffy -- in other words, common soldiers. After a battle, my guess would be that platoons of men who were in reasonably good shape would be given "funeral detail". Part of the process of recovering bodies for burial would be to recover the weapons too. They would most likely be returned to the Quarter Master for the unit.

I'm not a historian, but from my experience in the military, that's how this type of thing gets done. There generally aren't specialized soldiers who do this kind of thing. It's an "additional duty".

GeorgeK
03-17-2011, 06:55 AM
The easiest way to tell if it's been fired is to smell it. The next easiest is to blow down the nipple and see if air comes out the muzzle. If you have a nipple wrench you could take out the nipple.

Chase
03-18-2011, 02:00 AM
The easiest way to tell if it's been fired is to smell it. The next easiest is to blow down the nipple and see if air comes out the muzzle. If you have a nipple wrench you could take out the nipple.

A good smeller is an excellent way to check whether a gun's been fired, but if other smokepoles are going off, the black power smell gets thick and overpowering.

Every possbles bag has a nipple wrench (my favorite tool to say), and blowing into the hole will not only tell if there's an obstruction, but in these modern times, it's one way to clear the bore. After lubing down the barrel, there's a CO2 cartridge device which threads into the nipple space to blow out all but the worse plugs.

Chris P
03-18-2011, 04:38 AM
How long would the smell linger after being cleaned? Weeks? Months? Seems to me scorching on the nipple and sulfur fouling at the muzzle would be evidence of firing even if the gun had been cleaned.

I think the direct question would be: could a quarter master easily tell if a gun had EVER been fired?

GeorgeK
03-18-2011, 08:10 AM
The smell of the powder will linger until properly cleaned and oiled which takes an hour or two to do properly. Fouling from the percussion caps smells and tastes very different than the powder. If you smell the fired cap, but not the charcoaly taste of the powder then you had a misfire.

As far as being able to tell if it had never ever been fired?...probably not unless the factory grease was still present, which needed to be cleaned out prior to loading it. So the lack of the grease just means it's been cleaned. If I remember the major manufacturers also test fired each weapon, as opposed to lesser manufacturers only test firing a percentage.

A quartermaster would be able to tell if it had been recently cleaned or if it's been a while. A while being different depending upon the setting, like mounted over a mantle vs being lugged around in the weather.