Period Firelock Cleaning

In the Light Company, we try to encourage people to maintain their firelock with period techniques and materials.

Careful application of the following method can keep your firelock as clean, (if not cleaner) than any modern method. Here's what we'll cover in this section:

policy & inspection
materials
where to get stuff
how it's done
things not to do
what's wrong with modern cleaning?

Note on terminology: All gun types are referred to as firelocks. When referring to an army-issued firelock, it's a musket. This does not count privately owned hunting arms such as rifles, fowlers, blunderbusses etc.

POLICY & INSPECTION
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Why are we doing this?

In 1777, the Lights were an elite, specially trained company. The quality of these troops was reflected not only in their training but also in how they carried themselves and took care of their equipment.

"A filthy musket besmirches the whole company" (Sandford, Lieut. June 18, 2001). Contemporary accounts about light infantry speak of how they were always ready for action. And, one can't be ready with a dysfunctional musket.

Likewise, a dirty musket is an unsafe musket. A build-up of dirt and rust can wear down a firelock's moving parts. A good cleaning job can help a musket last a lifetime and continue to grow in value. A deteriorating musket can slip a spring, cause injury, be permanently damaged and bring on the Apocalypse.

Light company firelocks must have the following attributes:

All metal parts on firelocks to be, clean, and oiled. All metal parts on a musket are to be 'bright' (not browned)
all wood to be finished and clean
all brass to be clean and free of tarnish
Inside of lock to be oiled and free of grit and rust
Inside of barrel to be lightly oiled and free of grit and rust
all firelocks must have a hammer cap
all firelocks must have a BAR regulation flash guard
all light bobs must be able to produce a turn key
all muskets slings to be of black leather
all muskets must have a bayonet
Any firelock that will not take a military bayonet must have a sidearm (preferably a plug bayonet)

In the Lights, there is a company inspection in the morning of every day at every event. This inspection is run by the sergeants and records (particularly of defaulters) are kept for the officers.

Each and every man is expected to have an oiled, clean, and serviceable firelock. This does not mean the firelock has to be parade-square sparkling. If there is a little grit due to weather or action, that's okay. However, it must be clear that a concerted effort has been put into keeping the firelock workable and relatively clean.

If a sergeant deems a firelock neglected or unsafe, the owner of that firelock will have failed inspection. If a soldier fails an inspection, he will have his name recorded, he will lose his day's grog ration, he will be on pot- cleaning duty during evening mess and he will be made to clean his musket under supervision of an NCO.

The thought of losing grog alone should be enough to put the fear of God into any Light Bob worth his salt.

Why such an emphasis upon the bayonet?

Note that two of the points in policy touch upon having a bayonet. This is important. All Sir John's soldiers are obliged to have a bayonet. This is especially pertinent for the flank companies. The bayonet is the soldier's sword and it is a minor dishonour to us all when you are unable to fix one during ceremony or action.

Some folks don't carry army muskets and therefore have a piece that will not take a regular socket bayonet. Despite this problem, these folks should have some sort of side arm to replace the bayonet. We'd prefer if you used a plug bayonet. Talk to your officers about what is appropriate.

 

MATERIALS
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At the very least, a soldier should have a rag and "turn key" as part of his kit. These items allow a soldier to keep his firelock minimally serviceable for field use. However, a rag and turn key is not enough for serious firelock maintenance.

In order to give your firelock the attention it deserves, soldiers are encouraged to build/acquire a firelock cleaning kit. Click here for more information on what kind of tools make up a cleaning kit.

Keep your amazing firelock cleaning kit in your haversack for easy access AND to impress the girls (they lo-ove those ramrod worms)! Other items you can add to your kit are things like a muzzle stopper and lock cover.

 

WHERE TO GET STUFF
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There are a number of interesting reproduction items that go into firelock maintenance.

Use this chart for quick reference:

What is it? Where do I get it?
Brick Dust Brick dust is just what it sounds like. You can't buy brick dust from anywhere so it's sort of a do-it-yourself job. Old red bricks are the best. You can usually get these by the ton at demolition sites. Some antique bricks are so brittle you can crumble them with your hands. If not, take a hammer to it. When you have smaller pieces throw them into a cloth bag, (one you don't mind wrecking) and smash it to a pulp. Le voila! Brick dust!
Hardware This includes, turn key, worm, lock vice, your oil bottle or any piece of equipment that makes up your kit. Sutlers can cover most of your needs. Roy Najecki is the best.
Tow Tow is a cheap linen byproduct. Most sutlers will sell you a big bag of tow for only a few bucks. Keep this in the freezer during the winter as your wool moths love to burrow in it. Also doubles as excellent insulation and stuffing in moccasins.
Extra firelock parts It's a good idea to determine where you can get lock parts ahead of time. Check with the firelock manufacturer first. Track of the Wolf is also a good place.
Cleaning Oil Foot oil (reduced cows' hooves) is still made -- it's called "Neat's Foot Oil". Sweet oil is easy, as it's just olive oil. Palm oil can purchased from a West Indian grocer and is very similar to the popular modern gun oil "Barrel Butter". For more info on oils, see the musket cleaning kit page.
Flints Alex Lawrence of the grenadiers is our current flint pusher.

 

HOW IT'S DONE
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Once you have all your period materials, you'll find cleaning with them so effective you may never go back to a modern method. A firelock should be cleaned after fouling, or every six months if it is in storage. Yes, firelocks can and do collect dirt and moisture by just sitting in the closet or on the wall. To maintain your investment, clean regularly.

AFTER YOU HAVE FIRED...and have fouled the firelock, follow these simple instructions:

STEP 1 - field clean Wipe down external fouled areas quickly with a whisk and pick, or rag.
STEP 2 - flush lock Remove the lock, making sure you do not lose the nails or side plate in the process. Flush any fouled areas with clean water and dry with a soft cloth or tow.
STEP 3 - flush barrel With the lock off, remove the ramrod and plug the touch hole with a twig. Flush the barrel several times with clean water (preferably hot), until it stops running black. Use a worm to scour the insides of the barrel to dislodge caked powder. Repeat this step, until the flush water runs clean.
STEP 4 - Barrel swab With tow latched into the teeth of the worm, swab the barrel until dry. You may need to repeat the flushing stage after the first few swabs. Once the barrel is clean, swab it with an oil-soaked piece of tow. Lean the firelock muzzle down while you clean the lock.
STEP 5 - polish lock

WARNING - Do not disassemble the inside components of your lock. Locks should only be totally disassembled if they are so fouled inside that it is a safety concern. Even still, this should only be done by an experienced gunsmith using a lock vice. (Never use vicegrips, you'll be sorry.)

Disassemble the outside of the lock including the cock, hammer, feather spring, and flash guard. Keep all small parts in a container or area where you won't lose them and no little animals will touch them.

Take a small pinch of tow and dip it in oil. Dip it in brick dust and work this into the metal. The brick dust and oil should mix and form a soft black compound. A build-up of this compound makes an excellent metal cleaner.

Repeat, until all parts are free of rust, grit and powder residue.

STEP 6 - buff lock After the lock is polished, use clean tow to buff it bright. Use a clean soft cloth for the final buffing.
STEP 7 - polish and buff barrel Using the same technique in step 5 and 6, use tow, dust and oil to polish and buff the entire barrel and the brass parts on the stock.
STEP 8 - polish and buff bayonet You know the drill.
STEP 9 - clean and oil wood Using a piece of tow, clean any grit or powder residue from the stock wood.
STEP 10 - wax polish the wood (optional) Rub beeswax into the wood and with a soft cloth work it in and buff it until the wood shines. Note: this is a time-consuming project but fun fun fun! At the end you have shiny wood!!!!
STEP 11 - reassemble Reassemble the entire musket and store in a dry place.

 

THINGS NOT TO DO
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Besides the obvious disasters, like having no hammer cap or leaving your firelock out in the rain all night, the following are things that are ill-advised and could cause injury:

NEVER use linseed oil to clean a musket. Linseed oil dries into a gummy build-up that is highly combustible.
IF you own a British-made gun, the stock is most likely "pinned" to the barrel. Do not remove these pins in order to clean the entire barrel. You should never have to clean the underside of a barrel but if you feel you do, please consult a gunsmith.
DO NOT disassemble the inside of your lock. This should only be done when the inside of the lock has been fouled to the point of being a hazard (and it should never have had an opportunity to get this way). If you are in a position where you have to strip the lock only use the tools designed for the purpose. Never use a pair of vicegrips. Always make a sketch of how the pieces go back together.
IF you have purchased a worm, make sure it threads tightly around your ramrod. You may need an adaptor or to re-thread your ramrod for it to work.
DO NOT overload your worm with too much tow. You run the risk of getting the whole mess stuck down your barrel.
NEVER NEVER NEVER put any projectile down the barrel unless you are on a supervised gun range.
NEVER NEVER NEVER point the muzzle at another person.
NEVER NEVER NEVER assume the gun is unloaded.
NEVER NEVER NEVER roll cartridges near an open flame or spark.
ALWAYS seek the advice of an experienced gunsmith if you are taking on a job that is beyond your skill level. Colin Post of the Artillery section is the KRRNY official gunsmith. Ask him questions and trust his advice. He is experienced and knows what he's doing.
Do not overload your cartridges with powder. Sure, they make a neat big bang, but they are dangerous. 100 grains max please.

 

WHAT'S WRONG WITH MODERN CLEANING METHODS?
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There is nothing inherently wrong with cleaning your gun with modern materials. Even those who clean their firelock the period way 99.9% of the time, may do one full and thorough modern cleaning job during the off season.

The thing about modern cleaners is that if you are doing things right with period cleaners, you don't need them. Diligent maintenance with the period method is not only as effective, some argue it is more effective and preserves the piece longer.

Cleaning chemicals such as Autosol, Flitz, Brasso, and Neverdull are harsh, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly, not to mention an eyesore at an event. They also contain ingredients that may harm your piece, especially the wood. For example, many are unaware that WD-40 is a water-based lubricant and thus can actually aid in rusting your steel.

There is much merit in period cleaning methods. Once you become a convert, you may never go back.

 

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