Muzzleloaders and I have a tangled relationship. Some know me for my love of revolvers and vintage military firearms, but muzzleloaders are a first love in many ways. As with many loves, it’s complicated. When I was fourteen, I built my very first rifle — from an unassembled parts kit — with the help of my mother. We did some wood inlaying, staining of the wood, and finishing of the metal parts together. I have built quite a few muzzleloaders over the years—mostly from scratch and every time I see a well-made front stuffer, a fire lights in my belly—in a good way. That first build, done mostly in the open out of the back of a truck, will always be with me.
As time went on, it became apparent I wasn’t alone in my interest. Some want a good project for those short, winter weekends. Others, like me as I started out, wanted an effective shooting iron without spending a lot of money. While you can build a muzzleloader—whether a shotgun, rifle, or pistol—with relatively little coin there are a few tools that you will need to get started. Clearly, muzzleloaders have nostalgic appeal, but why should you bother with one to begin with?
Why Own A Muzzleloader?
I know what you are thinking. When you think of muzzleloaders, you’re thinking about guns that are painful to load and a bore to maintain. Don’t those things have to be cleaned with every shot? Well, none of that is true. What is true is that you do need a few accessories handy to run the gun. Items like a ball puller, cleaning jag, ect. should be in every muzzleloader shooter’s kit. You also need separate powder, bullet, and priming to contend with. But all are laughably inexpensive compared to magazines and ammunition for today’s firearms. As far as guns go, muzzleloaders are deceptively simple.
On a practical level, muzzleloaders do instill a challenge for a hunter bored of shooting game with that .300 Win Mag and you get to extend your hunting seasons with special muzzleloading seasons. There are also places that are off limits to rifle hunters that muzzleloader hunting is permitted. As a range gun, the muzzleloader has benefits. Loaded lightly, it will teach a child to respect firearms with belching smoke and shooting flame. Load lightly for smaller shooters and small game. Load the rifle with a moderate charge for big game.
There is also another reason you might be tempted to get into muzzleloading. The firearms—and unassembled kits—are relatively inexpensive. In this scope, mostly factory produced rifles, kits, and a few custom guns may be compared.
The focus here is on the factory kit gun—a number of parts which are fitted together to form a working gun. Final finishing and fitting are up to you and available at a cost savings over a factory rifle. You also get the chance to impart your own touch that will make the gun more useable for you.
While working from a block of lumber and making your own parts might be tempting, I recommend starting out with a kit gun. They require a minimum investment of tools and teach technique and relationships between parts. So what do you need to get started? It starts as simple as your workspace.
You don’t need a full-service shop far from the house or apartment to build a muzzleloader. In my opinion, the best pieces I have made were in the corner of a room in a small apartment. Having a dedicated shop is great, but it isn’t on the checklist. What you will need, without a doubt, is a stable work bench of some kind. What it needs to be, above all else, is sturdy. You also want to have decent lighting at your space. A few electric floor lamps will do the job very well, especially with the shades removed. With that set up, it is time to pick up a few tools.
In the virgin American landscape of the 18th century, crafty gunsmiths spent their lives making these sorts of firearms for real use—not just for show. Many had few tools to work with. Hand drills, chisels, files, rasps, and C-clamps were common. Often times, the only power tool in my shop is a store-bought drill. If they can do it with such primitive tools, so can you.
The first tool I got for dedicated gun use is a drill and assorted bits. You can find most drills and drill bits to fit your needs right at any home improvement warehouse. The exact drill bits you need will usually be stated on the instructions of the kit or standardized amongst custom builds. In a factory kit, you will likely need a slightly oversized drill bit compared to bolts used in construction so that the bolts may pass through material to the pre-threaded holes for assembly.
There are two other absolute essentials that will carry you through every build you will ever do: chisels and files. No matter how advanced a build you will be doing, you will need these. Small, fine chisels for precise flaking and large, general purpose chisels for removing copious amounts of wood should cover all your bases but if I had to recommend only two, an 8mm gouge and straight chisel. These covered me for a long time in everything except the finest decorative carvings. File work, mostly on the metal parts will be the largest part of assembling a factory kit and it gets even more progressive with advanced builds. You can find a round, triangular, and straight bastard file at any hardware store along with a wire brush to clean them. These standard files will get you through both steel and minor wood shaping and fitting needs, but to take off more wood you will need a rasp.
Though it may not be 100 percent necessary for your first build, a rasp of some kind will take down wood more quickly than a file, saving you time. These are excellent for shaping wood up the way you want before going to sandpaper for final finishing. While I use a basic half-round Japanese made rasp for aggressive, yet controlled shaping, the Stanley Surfoam tool available at most home improvement stores is my favorite for making things take shape in a hurry.
While I have a clear favorite for wood shaping, the same can’t be said about saws. I jog between a handsaw made for wood cutting and the hacksaw, which serves well for metal cutting. If you have a bandsaw, feel free to take advantage of it, but a handsaw will get you through serious material removal. Chances are, however, in a new kit build there won’t be much you can’t solve with a rasp. The hacksaw is handy though, for cutting through the thickest metal and can be made to cut wood too, especially with wood cutting blades.
I am a huge advocate for C-clamps. I like to get mine in a range of 3-5 inches of clearance. These will hold barrels into stocks for working, press fit objects for inletting into the wood, and they can even be used to hold down wood or metal onto the bench in lieu of a woodworker’s vise. A vise isn’t necessary, but it is helpful. In any case, C-clamps are a must have.
An overlooked must-have is unique to gunsmithing and that is inletting black. It is a greasy substance applied to metal and is used for inletting and checking parts for interference against other metal or wood. A gunsmithing outlet like Dixie Gun Works or Track of the Wolf sell small bottles of this and a bottle will last for a long time with the aid of Q-tips for application.
You will need a few other tools to start your adventure and they include a square, a tape measure, pencils, and a good flathead screwdriver. I also recommend a pair of calipers, which are especially useful for measuring depth.
A Word On Kits
With these tools assembled, you are ready to get started. But before we can build a gun, I think it is important to talk about the options out there. Not all kit guns are created equally and each brand has their own unique difficulties that are relatively easy to conquer with the tools you assembled.
While no kit gun has disappointed me, I found the options from Traditions and Pedersoli to be the easiest to assemble and work on with a minimal investment in tools. Though the stock design might leave something to be desired, this can be modified by the end user. These kits usually fit together with a bit of filing on the metal parts and some shaving of wood. Other firms, like Track of the Wolf, Sitting Fix, MBS, and others, will allow for a more period feel and style of rifle. However, they require more work. Polishing, drilling, and tapping those drilled holes for screws with considerably more wood shaping. While not working from a piece of lumber, those kits are the next step up from a readily available factory kit. No matter what you ultimately go with, you can save much by doing it yourself over simply buying a finished—and perhaps imperfect for you—product.
Stay tuned to guns.com for the build process—where we take parts and make a shooting rifle and just in time for hunting season.