National Safety Rules and Procedures
For Shooting Muzzleloading Artillery
The following safe shooting procedure presumes the crew is firing
blank charges or projectiles with a muzzleloading artillery piece
made (or altered) to modem safety standards. (If firing blanks skip
Step VII and see Safety Rule 10.) The bore should be lined with
seamless steel tubing with a minimum 3/8-inch wall thickness and
a yield strength of 85,000 p.s.i. or greater. The breechplug should
be threaded and pinned; welded and pinned breechplugs can be equally
strong but require expert installation by competent manufacturers.
Sand-cored bores are not recommended for shooting. The vent should
be drilled in a threaded copper bolt similar to original cannon
vent liners of the 1840-1865 period in order to provide an unbroken
passage through the casting and the liner, into the bore.
Establish a 50-foot wide safety zone between the spectators and
the gun. No one is to be forward of the muzzle at any time. Only
crew members or authorized personnel are to be in this zone.
Two men minimum. Ammunition box with self-closing lid restricted
to opening at no greater than 80-degree angle. Vent brush or cleaning
device. Vent pick. Thumbstall. Heavy leather welder's gloves. Leather
haversack for use as ammunition pass box and another for priming
materials. Rammer. Wet sponge. Dry sponge. Worm. Water bucket. Primers.
Priming power device (if used). Linstock and slowmatch or lanyard.
Stopwatch. Gimlet. Individual safety containers for powder charges,
high intensity flashlight.
I: Clean The Vent
Clean the vent as the first step in each cleaning, loading, firing
sequence. Use a .22 caliber or appropriately sized bronze cleaning
brush on a suitable rod and brush the entire vent twice. If no
brush is available, the alternative method is to run the priming
pick or gimlet up and down the vent twice, twisting it to make
sure the vent is completely free of powder bag remnants.
II: Stop The Vent
Seal the vent with thumb pressure during the entire cleaning
and loading procedure. This means no air should escape the vent
from the time the worm enters the muzzle until the rammer is removed
after the projectile has been seated. Use a leather thumbstall
or heavy leather glove to protect your thumb and make a tight
III: Worm The Bore
Using a tool with two sharp steel points which replicates an
original cannon cleaning worm, worm the bore twice. Give two complete
turns of the worm at the breech each time to pick up any powder
container remnants and to loosen any powder residue. The worm
should fit closely so the points will pick up debris easily.
IV: Wet Sponge the Bore
- Sponge with a wet (but not sopping) tight-fitting sponge with
a head of lambs wool or wool carpeting over a wooden cylinder
affixed to a shaft at least one foot longer than the bore. The
end of the sponge head should conform to the shape of the breechplug
(hemispherical or flat).
- Seat the sponge against the breech with hand pressure and give
two full rotations of the shaft. Withdraw the sponge half-length,
twist, then reseat against the breech and give another two full
- Remove the sponge. If any powder container remnants or unburned
powder comes out with the sponge, repeat the entire process, starting
with Step III: Worm.
V: Dry Sponge The Bore
After wet sponging, the same procedure is used with the dry sponge.
The dry sponge is cleaned and dried off periodically with an absorbent
towel-type rag. (The purpose of the dry sponge is to remove excess
moisture from the bore; if water is left in the bore it may cause
incomplete burning of the next powder charge, leaving dangerously
VI: Load Powder
- Use a plain wooden pole without a head, or with a smoothly
tapered head, so that it might force the hand open should a premature
ignition occur. Staffs should be dense hard wood (ash or maple).
Painted cardboard tube rammers are safer than wood and can be
obtained in heavy-duty long lengths which are durable but will
disintegrate into less dangerous pieces.
- Mark the rammer in advance in two places, one to show the amount
of shaft which should be left sticking out the muzzle when the
charge is fully seated and the other to show when the rammer is
fully seated at the breech.
- The ammunition chest should be located 25 feet behind the gun.
Powder charges should be prepared in advance as specified in Safety
Rules 1 and 2 below, wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Each
charge should be kept in an individual safety container within
the chest to prevent them from breaking open during transport
or accidental upset of the chest. (Fiberboard military shell cases
or fuse cans or similar tightly sealed containers are recommended.)
- Open the chest only long enough to remove one safety container
and transfer it to a leather haversack. (Do not open chest following
warning that a gun is about to fire until 10 seconds after that
gun has been discharged. This is to prevent hot vent debris from
falling into chest).
- Carry container within leather haversack to the gun. Do not
proceed to load unless 3 minutes has elapsed since the gun was
last fired (even though cleaning procedure has been completed).
Use a stopwatch.
- Open safety container. Remove foil-wrapped charge and place
it in muzzle with one hand while wearing heavy leather welding
gloves, hot stove or foundry worker's gloves.
- Wearing the heavy gloves, stand to the side of barrel with
as much of your body as possible behind the plane of the muzzle.
Grasp rammer underhand, with one hand, thumb-to-the-side.
Seat the charge lightly with smooth, short strokes. Do not
pound the rammer against the charge.
- Immediately upon feeling the charge reach the breech, drop
your hand away, releasing the rammer. After 10 seconds and after
ascertaining the charge is fully home (according to the rammer
marks) remove the rammer, one hand, underhand, thumb-to-the-side.
This may require grasping and releasing the shaft a few times.
At no time should more of the body than absolutely necessary be
forward of the muzzle face and never in front of it Never have
two hands on the rammer.
VII: Load Projectile
- The projectile loading procedure is the same as that for powder.
The rammer is operated with short strokes, one hand, underhand,
thumb to the side, until the mark shows the projectile has
been fully seated.
- As with all muzzleloaders, to avoid bursting the barrel it
is essential there is no air gap between powder charge and projectile
when the gun is fired.
- When the rammer is removed, after the projectile is seated,
the vent may be released.
VIII: Pick The Charge
- To insure ignition, pick the powder charge wrapper through
the vent with a pick or gimlet held by the shaft, between glove
- The pick should not be so long that it reaches the bottom of
the bore when fully inserted so as to avoid making pits under
Priming the vent depends on the type of ignition to be used.
Typical systems are: linstock and priming powder, fuse, priming
quills, friction primers, .22 blank, and percussion cap.
X: Fire The Gun
The man designated to ignite the charge (the No. 4 man in Civil
War period drill) calls out "Ready to Fire" in a loud
voice to alert other crews on the line that his gun is about to
fire and to notify the gun captain that the piece is primed. At
this call, any open ammunition chests are immediately closed.
The gun captain makes a quick visual inspection of the range forward
of the muzzle to make sure no one (photographers, children, pets,
etc.) is in danger and then commands "Fire". The primer
is then ignited.
Priming powder, fuse and priming quills are ignited with a linstock
which is long enough to allow the cannoneer to stand outside the
wheels. The linstock holds the burning slow match made of cotton
rope impregnated with potassium nitrate or lead acetate to make
If a lanyard is used to ignite friction primers, or to activate
a lock using percussion caps or blank cartridge, it also should
be long enough to allow the cannoneer to stand outside the wheels
and out of the way of recoil.
Start your stopwatch to be sure at least 3 minutes elapses before
powder is reloaded.
If the primer ignites, but the gun fails to fire:
- Command: "Do not advance, the primer has failed."
Start stopwatch. Wait 3 minutes.
- When 3 minutes has elapsed, step inside wheel from the front
of the axle so you will be out of recoil path should the gun discharge
unexpectedly. Do not get in front of muzzle at any time.
If gun is less than full-size or barrel under 5 ft. this position
might put you in danger of muzzle flash so you will have to work
behind the axle. Use good judgment. Estimate recoil distance and
stand well back from axle.
- Wearing gloves, use a gimlet to clear the vent. Grasp by shaft
only. Keep head away from vent. When vent is clear, reprime and
- If three attempts fail to fire the gun, use a C02 fire extinguisher
(with horn removed) to blow down vent and force powder (and projectile)
from the barrel. If C02 is unavailable, flood bore and vent with
water and worm after thorough soaking.
BASIC SAFETY REGULATIONS
1. Maximum blank powder charges for properly constructed guns
of 3-inch bore or larger should not exceed 2 oz. of Fg grade or
3 oz. of Cannon Grade GOEX black powder per inch of bore diameter.
Maximum powder charge for bore of more than 2 inches and less than
3 inches should not exceed a total of 3 oz. Fg or 4 oz. Cannon Grade.
Use reduced loads with projectiles. (See North-South Skirmish Association
regulations for a guide to projectile weights and powder charges.)
2. Prepare powder charges in advance using light-weight plastic
baggies with end twisted closed. Leave 2 inches of twist; cut off
excess plastic. Fold twist to bag. Enclose bag in a triple layer
of double-thickness heavy-duty aluminum foil (six layers total).
Take care not to break plastic baggie. The bag prevents escape of
powder dust and keeps granules from getting trapped under folds
of aluminum to help insure complete burning. (Aluminum foil wormed
out after firing often yields unburned powder although this may
appear impossible to those familiar with smaller caliber guns.)
3. All crew members should wear ear protection devices.
4. No one should cross in front of the muzzle at any time during
the cleaning, loading or firing procedure.
5. The ammunition box shall be located 25 feet behind gun and attended
at all times or locked. The interior shall be lined with a non-sparking
material and the box itself shall be stoutly constructed of wood
6. No smoking at any time within the safety zone.
7. No drinking alcoholic beverages for 10 hours prior to serving
on a cannon crew. Any crew member showing signs of the effects
of alcohol or other drug should be replaced.
8. Projectiles shall be constructed so that they easily pass through
a sizing gauge with finger or thumb pressure only. The sizing
gauge to be a length at least 1.5 times the length of the projectile
and in inner diameter no greater than bore diameter when the barrel
9. Projectiles should not weigh more than one half the weight of
projectiles used in original issue guns of same bore diameter.
10. When blank firing no wadding should be used nor should be
necessary for a realistic report.
KEY POINTS FOR SAFE SHOOTING
A. Always allow 3 minutes between firing and reloading next powder
charge! There is a valid reason for every rule and procedure contained
herein. Follow them and make this a safe sport.
B. Use black powder only. Inspect your gun tube regularly for signs
C. Maintain the 50-foot safety zone with a rope or string marker.
D. Walk. Do no run. Work at a smooth steady pace.
E. Train your crew. Run through a dry fire evolution at least twice
before commencing operations with live charges each day. Be sure
each crew member performs his duties smoothly and accurately.
F. Make sure each crew member has knowledge of procedures and safety
G. Have the No. 1 man (rammer) repeat the step instructions as
they are called out by the gun commander (or No. 3 man tending the
vent). This serves as a procedural check so that none of the 10
steps are omitted by error. Memorize this sequence: 1. Clean vent,
2. Stop vent, 3. Worm, 4. Sponge, 5. Dry sponge, 6. Load powder,
7. Load projectile, 8. Pick charge, 9. Prime, 10. Fire.
H. Use good common sense. If something is done wrong, STOP. Think
it through. Then act to correct it. The stop and think approach
gives more opportunity to avoid accidents than the press onward-out-of-sequence
Loading and firing antique or replica muzzleloading cannon
is a highly dangerous activity, likely to result in death, dismemberment
or serious injury. Structural integrity of the barrel, powder charge
preparation, premature discharge as a result of burning embers remaining
in the barrel from previous cannon fire, reliance on others to follow
proper procedures and other unforeseen and unanticipated conditions
may contribute to accidents, serious injury or death. The authors
and publishers of these Rules and Procedures specifically recommend
you do not engage in this activity unless you are thoroughly trained
by competent instructors, and fully aware of the potential for injury
or death. DO NOT RELY ON THE INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN TO PROTECT
YOU FROM THE DANGERS OF ENGAGING IN THE LOADING OR FIRING OF ARTILLERY.
This document is ONLY a summary of what the publishers consider the
essential safety rules and procedures they themselves follow when
engaging in this extremely hazardous activity, and which have been
adopted in part by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Dept. of Public
Safety, the North-South Skirmish Association, the American Artillery
Association, the Union and Confederate Volunteers, the National Muzzle
Loading Rifle Association and other such groups which participate
in the loading and shooting of antique artillery for recreational
and historic demonstration purposes. You should be forewarned that
SEVERAL DISMEMBERMENTS AND AT LEAST ONE DEATH HAVE OCCURRED in the
United States and Canada to persons while loading or shooting antique
artillery or replicas. In addition, gun tubes have failed, sending
fragments in all directions at high speed and causing damage and injury.
If you decide to engage in this activity, use only black powder in
Cannon Grade or Fg grade. Just because the color of the powder is
black it doesn't mean it is "Black Powder." Know your propellant
and get it from a reliable source in labeled containers.
These rules were compiled by The Artilleryman magazine and reflect
a consensus of safety procedures developed from historical records
and practical experience of many present shooting organizations. They
were written and edited by Matthew C. Switlik, author of The Complete
Cannonneer; George McDonald II, late commander Clark's Battery, N-SSA;
Bernard Kurdt, commander, 120th N.Y. Volunteers, N-SSA and Safety
Officer, Union and Confederate Volunteers; and C. Peter Jorgensen,
The Artilleryman editor and publisher.