Shooting Muzzleloading Artillery

National Safety Rules and Procedures
for Shooting Muzzleloading Artillery, as adapted by the American Artillery Association

These rules adapted by the American Artillery Association, March, 2000, from rules which 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 III, Clark's Battery, N-SSA; Bernard Kurdt, 120th NYVI, N-SSA, Union and Confederate Volunteers, and American Artillery Association; and C.Peter Jorgenson, Artilleryman editor and publisher. The original version of the rules is now available on the Civil War News website Copies are available from The Artilleryman, 234 Monarch Hill Rd., Tunbridge, VT 05077

Note: If you are studying for the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts Certificate of Competency for Mortar/Cannon, 527 CMR does not agree with the National Rules in more than one place. My suggestion: study 527 CMR, but you will also need to know the Ten Step Standard Procedure (see below). For more information, contact the Office of the State Fire Marshal (978) 567-3700.

This information presented by the American Artillery Association. For comments to the AAA, email Comments on the page to


Cannon Regulations  |  Mortar Regulations


General Information

The following safe shooting procedure presumes the crew is firing projectiles with a muzzleloading artillery piece made (or altered) to modern safety standards. (If firing blanks skip Step VII and see Safety Rule 9.) The bore should be lined with seamless steel tubing with a minimum 3/8-inch wall thickness and a yield strength of 85,000 psi 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.

Safety Zone

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 Association members are to be in this zone unless escorted by an Association member. All pieces shall be brought into battery so that muzzles are in alignment. No muzzle shall be forward of others regardless of the size of the piece. Axel hubs of pieces shall be at least five feet from one another, allowing for free movement around each piece. Changes will be determined by the Safety Officer in charge. No person under the age of 16 shall handle powder. The Safety Officer shall wear some type of distinguishing clothing so that competitors may easily identify him or her.

Equipment Required

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 welders or fireproof gloves. Haversack for use as ammunition pass box and another for priming materials. Straight or tapered single piece rammer with no head. Wet sponge. Dry Sponge. Worm. Water bucket. Primers. Priming power device (if used). Linstock and slowmatch or lanyard. Gimlet. Individual safety containers for powder charges.


Ten Step Standard Procedure

I Clean the Vent

Clean the vent as the first step in each cleaning, loading and firing sequence. Proceed as follows:

  1. Use a .22 caliber or appropriately sized bronze cleaning brush on a suitable rod and brush the entire vent twice.
  2. If no brush is available, the alternative method is to run the priming pick or gimlet up and down the vent twice, twisting 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 process. 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 glove to protect your thumb to protect your thumb and make a tight seal.

III Worm the Bore

Using a tool with two sharp steel points which replicates an original cannon cleaning worm, worm the bore until all debris is removed. Turn the worm at the breech 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

  1. Sponge with a wet (but not sopping) tight-fitting sponge with a head of lambswool 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.
  2. 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 rotations.
  3. 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 glowing residue.)

VI Load Powder

  1. Use a crooked shaft U-shaped rammer if available. If not, use a plain wooden pole without a head, or with a smoothly tapered head (made like a U.S. Model 1841 "Mississippi Rifle" ramrod), so that it might force the hand open should premature ignition occur.
  2. Mark the rammer in advance in two places, one to show the amount of shaft which should be sticking out the muzzle when the charge is seated and the other to show when the projectile is seated.
  3. The ammunition chest should be located 25 feet behind the gun and 25 feet forward of the spectator line. Powder charges should be prepared in advance as specified in Safety Rules 1 and 2 below, wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
  4. Open the chest only long enough to remove one charge in its safety container. (Do not open chest following warning that a gun is about to fire until 10 seconds after that gun has fired to prevent hot vent debris from falling into the chest.)
  5. Carry charge to gun in fireproof safety container. Do not proceed to load unless 3 minutes has elapsed since the gun was last fired. Check your watch.
  6. Open safety container. Remove foil-wrapped charge and place it in the muzzle with one hand while wearing heavy leather gloves (see above).
  7. Wearing 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 strokes. Do not pound the rammer against the charge.
  8. 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. Never two hands on the rammer.

VII Load Projectile

  1. 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.
  2. No projectile should fit the bore so tightly as to be difficult to seat. All projectiles should pass wasily through a bore sized ring gauge.
  3. Be sure the projectile is seated fully against the powder charge.
  4. Upon completion of loading, person ramming shall indicate to the person holding the vent that the gun is fully loaded. The vent may then be released.

VIII Pick the Charge

  1. To insure ignition, pick the powder charge wrapper through the vent with a pick or gimlet held by the shaft, between glove protected fingers.
  2. The pick shall be constructedof a non-sparking material.

IX Prime

  1. Priming the vent depends on the type of ignition used. Typical systems are: linstock and priming powder, fuse, priming quills, friction primers, .22 blank, and percussion cap.
  2. If priming powder is used, prime from an open topped container constructed to hold just enough 4F or 3F powder to fill the vent. The priming device should have a handle so that the hand is never over the vent when pouring the loose powder. Priming is not done directly from powder horns or flasks.
  3. Hot debris is apt to be blown out the vent on discharge. Crew members should wear hats for protection, spectators kept at a safe distance, and all ammunition chests closed whenever any gun is firing.

X Fire the Gun

  1. The person designated to ignite the charge calls out "Ready to fire" in a loud voice to alert other crews on the line that a 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 is in danger and then commands "Fire". The time between "Ready to Fire" and "Fire" should be at least five seconds. The primer is then ignited.
  2. 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 it burn.
  3. If a lanyard is used to ignite friction primers, or to activate a lock using percussion caps or blank cartridge, it should be long enough to allow the cannoneer to stand outside the wheels and out of the way of recoil.


If the primer ignites, but the gun fails to fire:

  1. Command: "Do not advance, the primer has failed." Check your watch. Wait 3 minutes.
  2. 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.
  3. Do not get in front of the muzzle at any time. If gun barrel is under 5 feet this position might put you in danger of muzzle flash so you will have to work from behind the axle. Use good judgment. Estimate recoil distance and stand well back from the axle.
  4. Reset the projectile with a lambs crook provided by the Safety Officer. Do not use straight rammer.
  5. Wearing gloves, use a gimlet to clear the vent. Grasp by shaft only. Keep head away from vent. When vent is clear, reprime and fire.
  6. If three attempts fail to fire the gun, use a CO2 fire extinguisher (with horn removed) to blow down vent and force powder (and projectile) from the barrel. If CO2 is unavailable, flood bore and vent with water and worm after through soaking.

Ten Basic Safety Regulations

  1. Powder charges should not exceed 2 oz. of Fg or 3 oz. FFA or Cannon Grade Goex powder per inch of bore diameter. No excessive charges. Use black powder only.
  2. Prepare powder charges in advance using heavy duty aluminum foil. Baggies may be used inside the foil, taking care not to allow excess air in the baggies and removing excess plastic where unnecessary.
  3. All crew members should wear ear protection devices.No person under the age of 16 is to handle powder. It is strongly recommended that all persons, especially children under the age of 11, wear protective gloves while handling lead.
  4. No one should cross in front of the muzzle at any time during the cleaning, loading or firing procedure.
  5. The interior of the ammunition chest shall be lined with a non- sparking material and the box itself shall be stoutly constructed of wood or metal. A copy of these safety rules should be posted inside the ammunition chest.
  6. Firing shall be at approved targets only.
  7. No drinking of alcoholic beverages at any time on the line. Any consumption of alcoholic beverages will disqualify a member from shooting for the duration of the day. No smoking at any time within the safety zone.
  8. Projectiles shall be constructed so that they easily pass through a sizing guage with finger or thumb pressure only. (The sizing guage to be a length at least 1.5 times the length of the projectile and in inner diameter no greater than bore size when the barrel was new.)
  9. No wadding shall be used at any time. This includes firing blanks.
  10. All new guns shall be inspected and approved by the Association. Inspect your gun tube regularly for signs of stress. Existing guns shall be inspected periodically.

Make sure each crew member has knowledge of procedures and safety rules. Walk. Do not run. Work at a smooth, steady pace.

If you are in doubt about ANY part of these firing or safety procedures, ASK THE RANGE OFFICER OR SAFETY OFFICER.

Anyone observed breaking any of the above rules will be subject to the removal of their piece from competition for the duration of the event and any score eliminated.

Mortar Regulations


for more on shooting muzzleloading artillery ..

the American Artillery Association

for a look at the history ..

Field Artillery in the Civil War


Suggested Sources for Further Information

The More Complete Cannoneer; M.C. Switlik; 3rd Edition, 1990; Museum and Collector Specilaties Company

Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War; Hazlett, Olmstead and Parks; University of Delaware Press

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