On Muzzleloading Safety and Design

By Randy Wakeman


I’m going to apologize in advance for the content of this article; it may be more of a read than the casual reader cares to endure. Whenever you explore a technical matter, it is important to give background and that is included here. I am gratified to have received Guns & Shooting Online’sEditor’s Muzzleloading Writer Lifetime Achievement Award,” although I’m of the opinion that my life is not quite over as of yet. That it is for contributions to “muzzleloading and muzzleloading safety” makes me feel good and a bit humbled. While muzzleloading may be a very popular topic, safety rarely is. It is vitally important though, as unsafe muzzleloading manufacturers or unsafe consumer practices hurt the sport we love, and tend to tarnish all of the good things that muzzleloading has to offer. Unsafe product or practices hurt everyone, sooner or later.

I spent more than twenty years in the industrial marketplace, the majority of those in field and application engineering and technical sales. As a result of that, I received formal training in electrical and mechanical power transmission design, fluid power design, bearing design, and machining. When you design chain drives, v-belt drives, integrate couplings, torque limiters, variable speed drives, and associated components into a final system that a Fortune 500 account relies on to stay in business it might seem a far cry from the firearms industry. But, it isn’t. Field engineering in several hundred plants across the country for all of those years is very much the same as the firearms industry. We manufacture bearings, in quantities small and large. We manufacture hose assemblies in quantities small to large as well, cut gearing, machine couplings, and design, engineer, fabricate, and install entire drive systems. Running an industrial fabrication shop is very similar to what firearms manufacturers do. While some folks think “engineer” is a guy that works for the railroad, design application engineering and material sciences all work with industry practices and standards based on the application. We didn’t smelt steel, though we worked with the steel industry. Nor do firearms manufacturers smelt steel, or manufacture all the components used in the final product.

Our fabrication work made us responsible for the final product. Only the fabricator has direct control of the quality and standards of the outsourced materials. The fabricator does the final machining and assembly, of course, and the same is true in the firearms industry. Few firearms companies grow their own lumber, make their own iron sights, scope bases, or recoil pads. Many, many small parts are outsourced: from springs to pins to sprockets and chain. Just on the basis of set-up time, it is impractical to manufacture one or two sprockets, gears, or sheaves, much less an oil seal. Whenever possible, industry standard components are used to save the customer initial cost and to ensure ease of maintenance, repair and overhaul costs downstream. Firearms manufacturers can ill afford to personally manufacture trigger locks, ramrods, jags, or wrenches and hope to remain competitive.

Though our notion of “engineering” may paint a picture of a scientist scribbling out equations, but that is hardly reality. We begin with known, established, industry formulas and plug in the variables. We don’t modify or invent new branches of physics, we merely employ what is well-established. Based on field experience and individual work conditions (temperature, atmosphere, shock load, hours per day of operation) we might add additional service factor multipliers. The same is true for firearms manufacturers.

There is a great distinction between “non-critical parts” and critical parts. If a plastic ramp cracks or falls off from our “iron sights,” it is hardly a “wake the President” issue. By the same token, our hose manufacturing facility generally applies no special consideration to “general purpose air and water hose.” It is inexpensive, light duty, low pressure hose that eventually will need replacement. UV light, abrasion from dragging it around and storage temperatures all affect its service life. Eventually, replacement is inevitable.

When we manufacture fire hose, however, the standards change. After the assembly is manufactured it undergoes 100% proof testing. It is a time consuming, but necessary, step and I should know—I’ve done it. When the building is on fire, the firemen show up on the scene, the hoses are quickly deployed, you'd better believe that a ruptured hose is not an option. No water from the hose and the fire may burn ever brighter, and human lives may be on the line. It is easy to make the distinction.

The same goes with our high-pressure hydraulic assemblies. When we cut the hose and apply the fittings, the final hose assembly is 100% proof-tested, individually pressurized to two or three times the working pressure. Normally we use Gates hose, the exact type being used is dictated by the applicable industry standard; it may be ABS (American Bureau of Shipping), DNV (Det Norske Veritas for North Sea Floating Vessels), DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard), GL (Germanischer Lloyds), or SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). If a fitting lets go, it had better be on our test bench, not in the field where an ejected fitting can put out an eye or crack a skull. I’ve personally manufactured and tested my fair share of Gates hydraulic hose, so I’m well familiar with the procedure. This is just one example of trained procedure and industry standards applied to pressure containing applications that I’ve been intimately involved with for over twenty years.

The connection between this and firearms speaks for itself. If we apply SAAMI standards (U.S.) or C.I.P standards (Europe and all C.I.P. member nations) to muzzleloader barrels, the direct relevance becomes vividly clear. It is identical wine in different bottles.

As for the hose example, in our tens of thousands of hydraulic assemblies produced every quarterly period, we are using certified components that conform to all of the applicable standards for the specific use. Despite that, we still test. In the miles and miles of hose used, how do we know that there isn’t a latent flaw in the tube? We cannot be certain, so we must individually test. Then, we know. One out of every 10,000 hoses may suffer a harmless catastrophic failure at the bench, but it cannot be allowed to do so in the field.

Back to muzzleloading. Now, perhaps, you can better understand my perspective as a paid consultant to the industry, whether it is a propellant manufacturer, a muzzleloading manufacturer, or in my work as Senior Editor at Guns & Shooting Online, or as part of the staff of Gun Tests print magazine. Safety is requisite; something I’ve stressed over the years in my commercially available videotapes, my consulting work and as co-author of two muzzleloading manufacturer’s owner’s manuals.

In the case of one well-known rifle manufacturer where 100% proof-testing has always been policy, despite using the best certified barrel materials, guess what? Barrels do fail on the bench. A very low number fail, only one or two out of every 100,000 barrels, but if not for proof testing those barrels would have likely failed in the field, having at the least the possibility of causing injury.

NATO has their own standards, the US Military has their MIL-SPECS and, as in other industries, there are standards like these that may exceed the “normal standards.” In this case, the accepted standards for sporting arms and ammunition are set by the CIP and SAAMI. The American firearms industry has been self-regulating and, due to our court system, total misrepresentation of product is not viewed favorably.

I’ve been asked, “What are all the standards used by muzzleloading companies?” Although I’m as informed as anyone in the industry, the specific practices employed by any one company and one model of rifle can only be answered by that company. In some cases, the answer is contingent on what company policy was in force at that particular time for that particular model. We have, for example, Chinese-made imported arms available where the manufacturing standards and practices employed in China are not generally known, nor easy to learn. It seems to be that way in the toy business, too, as well as the more “grown-up” endeavor of firearms.

There is only one reason to cheat the well-known, well-established practice of proof-testing that dates back to long before the British Rules of proof of 1868. ("The present law on the subject is to be found in the Gun Barrel Proof Acts 1868, 1950 and 1978 and various Rules of Proof, but particularly those of 1925, 1954, 1986 and 1989 when the metric system of measurement was introduced." – Source: Birmingham Proof House.) The sole reason not to proof-test firearms is to attempt to save money by cheating the system and cheating the consumer in kind.

The muzzleloading companies that offer us quality barreled actions built with certified materials that are proof-tested to keep us safe deserve our thanks and our support. Those companies that ignore industry practices, reasonable quality control, material specifications and do not proof their rifles prior to sale equally deserve great disdain.

I appreciate the “Lifetime Achievement Award,” but what I would appreciate more is muzzleloaders all built to the same standards. I will continue to praise the best and criticize the inadequate with an even hand. Now, you know the background and field experience from which I do this. In the end, it is informed consumers that will make the difference.




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Copyright 2008 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.



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