Black powder skirmishing in the North-South Skirmishing Association is a wonderful sport, and/or hobby regardless of how you view it or participate. As with any new field of endeavor that someone embarks upon, there are several key, but unnegotiable principles you should be fully aware of:
– This sport can become a “way of life”, not a bad thing, but be sure to keep all of the other important facets of your life in BALANCE!
- Skirmishing will take as much time, attention, energy and money as you want to devote towards it.
- “Art vs. Science”, frequently repeated phrase used in this blog! Initially what you learn, see, and do is based on “science”, i.e. the mechanics of marksmanship fundamentals, firearm maintenance etc. Over time, after muscle memory has taken over, you may/should start to feel your way around and explore many of the “ins and outs” of skirmishing. You’ll find that the “art” aspect of this sport dwarfs the “science” portion. Bottom-line, YOU need to do what works for YOU (and your respective arms).
- Finally, good equipment costs money. That being said, you don’t need a full stable of top of the line, finely tuned pieces to have fun, or compete! But if being an active competitor is something you’re leaning towards, then to be really proficient in black powder skirmishing – you have to devote TIME on the firing line, period. In short: practice, practice, and when that is all done, practice some more!
Given all that, my hope and intent for this article is to help to educate the newcomer to this unique shooting sport in putting together a reasonable “range kit” that will be first – cost effective, and secondly serve as a solid foundation in which to safely compete, and enhance to meet the demands and wishes of the individual shooter.
About myself, I’ve been skirmishing since the early ‘80’s. I enjoy shooting, and skirmishing through and through. In the Marine Corps I’m a Rifle Expert (4th Award) and Pistol Expert (6th Award). I started shooting with BB and Pellet rifles in my formative years, and went on to shooting smokeless and black powder arms well before I was a teenager. My grandfather and father both served in the military and were also avid black powder skirmishers. As of last year my son competed in his first regional and national matches. So – with that background I admit that I benefited from having family members ahead of me, who learned many hard lessons in skirmishing from the early days of the N-SSA. As much of an advantage as that may seem, each and every shooter has to acknowledge and work through their own personal “learning curve” when it comes to skirmishing. Those with a background in competitive shooting already (should) have a firm understanding of the basic principles of marksmanship – a topic that is best served in a separate blog! Bottom line, for the “crusty veteran” or shiny new “green horn”, competing in a N-SSA sanctioned match is unique with its own set of challenges.
So, what does someone, in my example, fresh off the street need in order to compete safely in the North South Skirmish Association? I will try my best to keep my recommendations on the low end of the “cost spectrum”, there always other options, and if anyone is willing to pay more (yes you typically get what you pay for), they are more than welcome to do so. First and foremost, safety is paramount. If someone can’t practice or compete safely, they’re of no use especially to their team mates and fellow competitors and are a flat out liability to the organization as a whole. Hearing and eye protection are a must. Foam ear plugs are cheap, light weight, re-usable and don’t get in the way when using a stocked firearm. Eye protection can be easily and cheaply acquired via Home Depot of Lowes. In addition, some skirmishers (myself included) wear a pair of gloves while shooting, or a single glove on their “loading hand”. Again – art vs. science – I and many prefer gloves/glove to help in handling their arm, or to simply protect their loading hand should they experience a “cook off” when pouring their charge of black powder down the bore. IF you choose to wear a glove(s) be sure they are made of leather and/or fire retardant material (ex. Nomex)!! Wearing “shooting gloves” made of nylon will cause more injury to your hand/fingers should your piece cook off.
Now your “kit” itself can be as Spartan, or as elaborate as you and your wallet can bear. As a carrier, I suggest a good Flambeau Dry box (pictured). They’re lightweight, water proof and will easily hold every item of what you’ll need on the line for years to come. I got mine from Walmart in 2006 for less than $23 and she’s still holding up as well as the day I bought it. So with your new box, what sorts of “goodies” should go inside? Below are good basic items any skirmisher would regularly need/use while at the range:
- Needle nose pliers (Home Depot/Lowes)
- Musket nipple wrench (Suttlers)
- Patch puller (worm) (Suttlers)
- Small notebook and pen/pencil (Staples)
- Sharpee Marker(Walmart, Staples)
- Small Phillips & flat head screw drivers (Home Depot/Lowes)
- Heavy duty Staple Gun and staples (Home Depot/Lowes)
- Zip lock bag with cleaning patches
- Small roll of electrical tape (Home Depot/Lowes)
- Rag or two for wiping down (left over/hand me down towels)
- Extra can or two of musket caps
From the above list of “bare minimum” items you can always add other items, your Flambeau will have plenty of room to accommodate. Other additional items that will make your skirmishing experience more “comfortable” can include:
- Digital stop watch
- Can of sight paint: black, orange, etc.
- Small can of Ballistol
- Dental or ice pick
- Bore brush
- 2x small “tupper ware” containers, one with dry patches, the other with wet patches
- Misc “few” items nice to have: band aids, tooth picks, pipe cleaners, rubber bands
- Small flashlight/bore light
- Small file
- Wire cutters
In addition to your shooting box, a scope and tripod is necessary especially if you plan to sight in your arms, or compete in individual matches. Note – scopes can vary in quality, capabilities and COST. For a new shooter, you may have the benefit of being able to shoot with other fellow members who have range scopes. If that’s the case take your time, shop around and get some direct feedback from shooters who use a particular scope that your plan to buy. One thing to consider when choosing a scope, ensure its “weather” or “water proof”. You’ll also need a decent tripod; Walmart can typically meet this need. Some skirmishers use binoculars. In my opinion and from my experiences, binos are difficult to use when shooting in individual matches. BUT binos are VERY handy to take up to the line for team events where they may be needed to spot for challenging events (team mates can’t spot or call shots from behind the firing line!).
The more you compete in skirmishes, the more opportunities you have to observe what your team mates and other skirmishers use and take with them on the line. Some like to use range carts to move all of their arms and equipment, of which there are a wide number to choose from (from modified Radio Fliers, or carpenter made wooden hand carts), all with corresponding costs and capabilities. Other shooters simply prefer to carry everything on their person: their piece in one hand, range box in the other, ammo in their haversack and folding camp chair under their arm. AGAIN, you need to learn what works for YOU.
At this point, if you’re still reading this blog you now have a solid basis for what is needed ON the line. Below I’ll touch on what is needed to get to the line as well as after you come back from a practice session or skirmish. Again, this is written for someone starting out cold, competing in musket (and carbine) competitions. As you, as a competitive skirmisher branch out into other competitive arms, esp. revolver, additional items, and material will be needed.
Getting to the range – first things first!
Being new to the sport of competitive black powder skirmishing, you hopefully have someone who can “take you under their wing” when it comes to making your ammunition. One of the unique aspects of this shooting sport is that our arms fire rounds that are all hand made. Again art vs. science, what is determined to be your arm’s “optimal” load may not work for another piece. Likewise, the “art” of working up a load for your piece is a topic best reserved for another blog or two. Assuming you already know what your rifle likes, what then is needed to work up a batch of ammo for some well-earned trigger time? Due to all that’s involved with ammo production, having an experienced skirmisher to get you “on your feet” is crucial.
Muzzle loading ammo typically consists of: lead projectile, lube, black powder – all contained in a plastic tube. Lube can be purchased or obtained fairly easily at little cost. Powder likewise is purchased fairly easily (but I and many others wish that like lube, it was at little cost!!!). So, what about the lead projectile (bullet)? Bullets are typically cast by hand. You can buy them from some vendors, but having zero experience on doing so, and not knowing anyone personally who buys their bullets; I can’t honestly vouch for their overall cost, use, or accuracy. Like many facets of this sport, lead casting/bullet making would be best addressed in a separate blog (blog series). Again – art vs. science, you’ll hear and read a myriad of techniques used to cast good bullets. Learn what works best for you and your piece!
To cast bullets – again safety first. Eye protection is a must. A decent lead pot can be purchased from Midway or other reputable shooting supply vendors. Talk to team mates on what they recommend. Some shooters have two, to several lead pots, dedicated to the type of lead (hardness) used to cast various bullets. Depending on the type of pot (bottom pour) or open mouth, you may need a ladle to pour the lead into your bullet mould(s). From there a mallet (I recommend a small rubber mallet) to help open your sprew. Harbor Freight is a GREAT source for low cost mallets (and other misc. tools). Lastly, an old towel and shallow walled cardboard box serves as a great spot to drop your freshly cast bullets into.
From there, your bullets need to be sized, so as to properly fit your bore. A punch or push press is the most cost effective set up for sizing your rounds. Lubricating your rounds can be one of two ways. Lube first then size, scrapping off the excess lube OR size then lube (typically using pliers to dip the bullet’s base/skirt into melted lube).
The proper amount of black powder is then dispensed into your plastic loading tubes. Again, powder dispensing equipment varies widely in ease, functionality and COST. As such there is a wide variety of opinions on what “works best”. In any case your charged tubes are then married up with your lubed rounds and that process is complete. There are many ways to store and transport loaded rounds, ex. plastic carry boxes specifically designed for this purpose, cigar boxes, zip lock sandwich bags, and even small peanut cans. Find what works best for you and your ammo – crushed or soaked ammo doesn’t work very well, and can be expensive as it is frustrating, so taking precautions with ensuring that your ammo is dry and safe isn’t an overly unwise investment.
After the final event & cease fire – now what?
Coming off the line, many skirmishers either want to grab a bite, enjoy a shower, or simply relax in the company of friends and family and go over the day’s events. Personally, from my early experiences in the Marines, my drill instructors patiently and gently nurtured myself and my other platoon mates in the philosophy that weapons’ maintenance ALWAYS comes before “sleep and hygiene”!! Granted, the N-SSA isn’t the Marine Corps. But firearms are firearms, and metal left untreated against the corrosive effects of black powder and primer caps will not fare well in the long run. That being the case, during skirmish weekends I’ll only swab the bores of my pieces, and spray/wipe down the exteriors. I do disassemble them and give them a thorough cleaning within 24 hours of returning home.
Cleaning black powder firearms, in this case a muzzle loader, is fairly simple and doesn’t take much time or effort. Below are the needed basics for this task:
- Cleaning rod
- 2x med/small buckets (plastic coffee can work great!)
- Dawn detergent
- Old toothbrush
- Teflon tape
- Furniture polish and paper towels
- Pipe cleaners and Q-Tips
As I’ve noted before in this blog, cleaning your black powder arm is another aspect that falls prey to the art vs. science argument. Cleaning/maintaining your piece is best done without kids or pets running around your work space! Breaking down (field stripping) your smoke pot is again best addressed in a separate blog. But keeping your arm(s) clean and oiled not only directly contributes to their longevity, but also plays a MAJOR role in their accuracy and effectiveness. “Fouled” pieces that won’t go BANG on the firing line are in virtually all cases the result of negligent, shoddy or non-existent cleaning.
In conclusion, you’ve have chosen a wonderful sport to become involved with! Hopefully this brief “primer” will help guide you in making somewhat informed decisions, or prompt you to ask pertinent questions in selecting gear, before parting with your hard earned money. There are many good sources for procuring equipment. Personally, I found Ebay to be extremely helpful in finding and acquiring many of my reloading tools (ex. lubrisizers). Being a savvy consumer only takes a little time, and with some additional luck you’ll save yourself some real money along the way. As a final note of caution, any deals you come across on the internet, the newspaper, or in perusing local establishments – if something seems too good to be true, unless you’re knowledgeable about what your considering for a purchase – it usually is! So, as the Roman’s would say, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware!). Good luck, and if you have any questions – ask!
Robert Freeman is a 3rd generation skirmisher and has been a member of 2 teams in the N-SSA and has served as the PIO for the Potomac Region as well as the team historian for the WBR. He also has been active in producing many of the printed marketing materials for the N-SSA such as brochures, maps, and fliers. He is also a commissioned officer and a veteran of the US Marine Corp. The N-SSA has always been like a second family to him but he recently had the opportunity to skirmish alongside his son who joined the Blues in 2014. When he is not skirmishing, he enjoys lifting weights, running, reading, music, and movies.