Ballistol, Brownell's & McCann

In the course of almost forty years of shooting black powder and twenty years of skirmishing, I must have tried every black powder cleaning solvent and method known-- and reported on a number of them here.

Most commercial cleaning solvents work reasonably well, and some are better for certain applications than others. For simple economy, however, the easiest way to clean a rifle musket or any other muzzle loading long gun is to remove the barrel from the stock and stick the breech in a bucket of hot or cold water spiked with dish detergent. With a wet patch wrapped around the cleaning jag of a good stout cleaning rod, pump the soapy water up and down the bore. When you withdraw the patch, water should spurt out the muzzle. After about 8 or 10 patches, one will come out pretty clean. You can do this with the nipple off or on, but the nipple should be removed at least every couple of cleanings and cleaned separately.

Take the barrel out of the bucket and use another 8 to 10 clean patches to dry it out and remove any residual fouling, wipe the moisture off the outside and then spray the barrel down inside and outside with a moisture displacing oil like WD-40 and swab the inside of the barrel with two WD-40 soaked patches.

When you're done with the barrel, clean the powder fouling off other areas of the gun with a damp patch, wipe dry and spray with WD-40. For good measure, check the gun a few days later for rust or new fouling, which invariably seems to seep out of the metal's pores. If this occurs, a brief re-cleaning with regular gun solvent or WD-40 will usually keep your gun clean and rust-free until the next time you use it. If the weather is unusually humid, check the exterior and bore for rust periodically, and oil again if necessary.

A quicker cleaning method, which is almost as cheap as the first, involves a homemade black powder solvent composed of equal parts of Murphy's oil soap, peroxide and alcohol. This formula usually takes fewer patches to do a complete job. It was once touted as the "three patch" cleaning method, but I have found it takes 6 to 8 patches to finish removing the fouling, and a similar number to dry and oil it. The major drawback to this solution is that it thoroughly removes oil as well as fouling, leaving the gun immediately susceptible to rust. If you don't oil it quickly, your musket may rust before your eyes. After oiling, check for rust and re-oil for several days, just to make sure.

Over the last month I have been experimenting with Ballistol, yet another cleaner, which, unlike the above formulas, also preserves and lubricates. Ballistol was invented in response to the turn-of-the-century German army's request for a multipurpose oil to clean, protect and lubricate metal, leather and wood. Dr. Helmut Klever fulfilled the army's requirements with his invention of Ballistol (a variant of "ballistic oil") in 1904. An unexpected military bonus of the product was its effectiveness as a wound disinfectant for the treatment of minor cuts and infections.

Ballistol is both nontoxic and biodegradable, qualities which appeal to today's environmentally conscious shooter. Ballistol's safety led to its authorization by the USDA for lubricating machinery in the meat and poultry industries. It is also widely used to oil bottling machinery in beverage factories.

Ballistol has been in continuous use by the German army since 1904, and still enjoys great popularity in Europe for both civilian and military applications. In 1993, it was adopted for use by US Navy SEAL forces, in 1996 by the US Air Force, and in recent years by law enforcement agencies across the country.

As a gun cleaner, Ballistol effectively removes smokeless and black powder fouling, brass, copper and other metal deposits, and can be used to shine brass and clean cartridge cases fired with black powder. Ballistol's low surface tension allows it to penetrate into areas not easily accessible to other oils, making it an excellent rust preventative.

Ballistol has a peculiar odor, which my wife likened to that of a sweaty athletic sock. It sort of grows on you, though. Old time black powder shooters familiar with a water based concoction known as "Miller Bedford's Gun Juice," which has been off the market for a number of years, say the smell is similar. They also say old Miller was known to travel a lot in Germany, by the way.

Shooters familiar with Ballistol advocate its use, mixed with water, as a patch lubricant for shooting patched ball rifles. A 50/50 Ballistol/water mix is also a good solvent, although straight Ballistol works a bit better. As a test, I used Ballistol for cleaning and rust prevention on both modern and muzzleloading guns exclusively for a mid-summer month.

To clean my rifle musket, I plugged the gun's nipple, poured a small amount of 50/50 Ballistol/water mix down the muzzle and let it stand for fifteen minutes then dumped it out. I then used the same solution on wet patches to swab out the barrel. I have never seen such "goop" come out of a gun barrel. The first time I cleaned the musket it took about ten patches to finish the job, but on the second and successive occasions, five or six did the job. Veteran users report that the straight product works faster and that the number of patches used per cleaning declines with continued usage.

After drying the barrel, I swabbed it again with pure Ballistol soaked patches, then rubbed down the exterior metal, stock and leather sling with the substance and put the gun away. I checked periodically for rust, both inside and out. There was none. The stuff works as advertised.

If you have a computer you can access a lot of information on Ballistol just by typing the product name in the requisite space on a search engine. I bought mine from Thunder Ridge Muzzleloading, PO Box 4415, Woodland Park, CO 80866. (719-687-6510, FAX 719-687-0990, ( This company is also a Ballistol distributor, a service sutlers might want to look into.

Brownell's, ( 200 South Front St., Montezuma IA 50171 515-623-4000) is the nation's premier gunsmith supply house. The company is now shipping its new 1998- 1999 catalog #51. As usual, there are a number of products of interest to the muzzle loading shooter and gun collector.

New this year from Brownell's is -- yes, Ballistol! Also of interest is Kroil, "the oil that creeps!" Kroil is probably the best penetrating oil available for use on stubborn, rusty screws and pins in old black powder guns. It will also easily dissolve hard-dried hundred year old grease and oil with aplomb.

A lot of reenactors and shooters like to refinish their musket stocks with a better and more authentic finish than that found on the usual reproduction gun. Most collectors want to properly restore an old dried or oil soaked stock to some semblance of its past glory. Brownell's is an excellent source for a variety of stains and finishes used by professional gunsmiths for refinishing and restoration.

"Whiting" is a compound which, when combined with acetone, does a thorough job of leaching old grease and oil out of stocks, Chestnut Ridge Military Stock Stain produces a deep dark walnut stain on gun stock wood of doubtful provenance, and Pilkington's gunstock finish reproduces the red-brown classic finish often seen on Enfield rifle muskets. All are available from Brownell's, as well as a neat little "stock iron" which raises dents in wood prior to sanding and refinishing. The Brownell's catalog is a must for the serious gun hobbyist.

In early August, while on my way home from an informal muzzle loading shoot in Buck's County, PA, I stopped to see Tom McCann. I hadn't seen Tom since he left New Jersey and its asinine gun laws behind him and moved his gunmaking establishment to beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania. If you're in the market for a custom made high quality civilian style muzzle loading rifle, you might want to contact Tom, proprietor of McCann's Muzzle-Gun Works (14 Walton Drive, New Hope, PA 18938 215-862-2728. Open by appointment ). Tom has been making fine custom flintlock and percussion rifles for 30 years. His offerings include a basic Pennsylvania long rifle, available in various styles or "schools" with a starting price of $1,850. A number of extras, from custom designed patch boxes, deluxe wood, inlays, swamped Getz barrels, and carving, are available for additional cost.

Tom's Hawken, an exact reproduction of the guns turned out at the famed St. Louis gun shop of the Hawken brothers, is available in .45 to .60 caliber and is priced at $1,950. As with McCann's Pennsylvania rifle, extras are available, including premium wood, authentic period barrel stamping, rust blue finish and color case hardening for steel parts.

Tom's business is not limited to his basic models, and he will make you any muzzleloader you desire. He is also an accomplished restoration artist as well as a builder of new guns, and has worked as a conservator for a number of historical societies, museums and gun collectors. If you want to replace the modern chemical blue on your Enfield barrel with an authentic rust blue finish, you might want to talk to Tom.

These days it's hard to find a good gunsmith. I find myself more and more reluctant to trust a valuable antique or reproduction gun to the average run- of-the-mill local smith, who may be quite competent when it comes to mounting a 'scope on your Remington Model 700, but who thinks the only muzzleloader worth owning is an in-line bolt action!

I can recommend Tom without hesitation, for any gunsmithing job. He has a feel for fine old guns second to none.

See you at the Nationals in Virginia!

1998 by Joe Bilby

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