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Muzzle Blasts Online
Muzzle Blasts Online Cover
January 1997 Volume 2, Number 1

Ramrod Rights and Wrongs

Scientific studies on the physical properties of native American woods indicate that there are lots of good ramrods out there where you might least expect them.

Of all the tools and accessories relating to the use of muzzleloading firearms, the lowly ramrod gets the hardest use and the most abuse. In its various forms, the ramrod has, throughout history, been used as a skewer for roasting meat over an open fire, as a muzzle rest for long range shooting, possibly as a hickory switch to punish errant children, and sometimes even accidentally shot. This last practice hurts on both ends of the rifle; a friend of mine inadvertently fired his ramrod down range during a timed match; he promised his badly bruised shoulder that he would never do that again! Considering such potential for misuse, it is little wonder that few original ramrods survive to grace the fine old rifles they once served so well.

In any case and whatever the use, the ramrod must be made of strong material. Steel and wood are traditionally used for ram rod shafts, with steel being confined largely to military weapons. The traditional wood for ramrods has been hickory. Most muzzleloaders probably have not considered other woods even though some good ones might be made from woods often overlooked. High capacity for loads parallel to the grain is one good indicator of suitability for ramrods when you consider that some ball/patch combinations require in excess of 100 psi to start them down the barrel (the author measured this by bathroom scale deflection and calculated the value based on cross-sectional area of the ball/patch combination). Having the ramrod shear under such a load will produce sharp ends which can result in serious injury to hands or face, so the shearing strength under loads parallel to the grain is also important to consider in ramrod wood selection.

Some of the properties of native woods relative to their suitability for ramrods are shown in Table 1. (Reviewer's note: The reader is cautioned that test results may not always be applicable. This is particularly so when the test is done on a piece of wood much larger in cross section than that of a ramrod. Or, if a ramrod is smaller in diameter than the thickness of the annular rings of a specific species, the test results won't apply to the use of that species for a ramrod. Commercial tests often conclude that curly woods are just as strong as straight grain woods. This is true of large samples, but when the sample gets to be thinner than the amplitude of the curl, the results are completely wrong. This would apply to thin cross sections of forestocks as well as to small diameter ramrods.) It is no surprise that the hickories have high compression and shear strengths (although black locust beats hickories in both categories). However, one of the big surprises is that birch (the dowels you find in hardware stores are often made of birch) is close to the hickories in both categories. The elasticity of the wood is also important since you want a ramrod that will resist deflection and return to its original shape (one of my early attempts at using a synthetic polymer ramrod was like trying to push cooked spaghetti through a keyhole). According to the ``Wood Handbook,'' (Agricultural Handbook no. 72, 1987) which rates the modulus of elasticity calculated from a simply-supported center-loaded beam, birch is more elastic than many of the other hardwoods such as ash, beech, elm, and nearly equals hickory and locust. Although the common hardware store dowel has been dismissed by previous writers as unsuitable for ramrods, yellow birch dowels would probably make excellent ramrods if carefully selected for grain. Another surprise from Table 1 is that longleaf and slash pine rate right up there with most of the hardwoods and beat some of them in both compression strength and shearing strength. Furthermore, they are more elastic than all the hardwoods except birch, hickory, and locust. If the top ten woods were rated in decreasing order of combined strengths (compression and shear), we would have to put locust first (although I bet that osage orange would rival it for first place if comparable data were available), followed by shagbark hickory, pignut hickory, sugar maple, yellow birch, longleaf pine, slash pine, white oak, white ash, and beech.

Fiq. 2 Exotic woods such as ebony were used for ramrods on some of the more expensive European muzzleloading arms. Unfortunately, I could not find comparable data to compare the exotic woods to our native American woods. Using such exotic woods may seem snobbish and a bit overdone; however, I must admit, after viewing fine arms collections in Britain, Germany, Lichtenstein, and Austria, that ebony does make a statement in elegance. Ebony ramrod blanks have been available commercially from time to time; if not currently available, a reasonable facsimile (Fig. 2) can be made by staining a nice hickory ramrod with a water-soluble aniline stain. While exotic woods may be obtained from a variety of sources, be wary of those not cut specifically for ramrods, no matter how visually attractive they may be. Ask yourself (and the potential supplier!) if you can get a straight piece long enough without significant grain run-out. Fiq. 1 Heavy duty use of a ramrod with grain run-out like the one shown in Fig. 1 is a sure invitation to disaster. Stain acceptance (some close-grained woods resist taking much color whether you use water-, alcohol-, or oil-based stains) is also important. It would be nice if the wood used for the ramrod could be of the same species as that of the stock since it should take finish to a comparable degree. The three most popular stock woods, cherry, maple, and walnut, might all make decent ramrods if straight-grained and dense. However, they are considerably less elastic than birch, hickory, or locust. And remember, don't yield to the temptation of making a curly maple ramrod for anything but a wall hanger! However, I have made durable ramrods from curly hickory (which seems relatively rare).

Whatever its composition, the strength of the ramrod is limited by the caliber of the rifle. Commercial ramrod blanks come in fractional sizes: 5/16, 3/8, 7/16, and 1/2 inch being nominal diameters. Unfortunately, getting truly round blanks is like looking for an honest politician or a cheap neurosurgeon. The simple device shown in Fig. 3 Fiq. 3 was made from a piece of discarded 1/4" steel plate which was used as a practice piece in a welding class. It can be used to true up the diameter as well as reduce blanks to the proper size. I drilled my holes as I needed them, therefore the random arrangement along the plate. The holes are in 1/64" increments; I like to make the ramrods at least that much smaller than the ramrod thimbles. You simply drive the ramrod blank through the hole in the sizing plate using a wooden mallet (I put a pistol cartridge case over the end I am striking to prevent mushrooming). Shavings will curl off the blank on the near side and a smoothly downsized rod will emerge on the other. Sometimes tapering the rod will be required; the clearance between the forward lock bolt and the ramrod hole is often quite limited and therefore the ramrod must be tapered at that end to clear the bolt. If you want to taper the shaft, then drive it only part of the way through the sizing plate, decreasing the travel with each smaller hole until the desired taper is obtained. The little steps in the rod that result from going down in 1/64" increments can easily be smoothed by sanding. If you are going to taper lots of ramrods, then consider buying Michael Lea's nifty little ramrod tapering device advertised in Muzzle Blasts.

A ramrod should be more than just a stick to seat a bullet, although some ramrods (which are probably not the originals) I have seen on old rifles qualify for little more than that. Ramrods currently seen on most rifles, new and old, seem to be constructed bass ackwards, with the ball-seating cup on the muzzle end when in place in the thimbles. This means that every time you load, you must reverse ramrod direction. That can be cumbersome when you are in a hurry, particularly in dense brush which can snag the rod every time you reverse ends. When the rifle is in normal loading position, the ball-seating cup is better on the lower ramrod end. The radius of the cup should approximately fit the ball: I use a 5/16" ball end mill for .32 caliber; 3/8" for .36 and .40 caliber cups; 7/16" for .45; 1/2" for .50; and 5/8" for .54, .58, and .62. This fitting is best threaded for 8-32 to accept most commercial ramrod tools. And there are a lot of them! There are straight cleaning jags, as well as ones tapered or stepped to swab specific types of breeches. There are bore brushes for every caliber, as well as collared ball pullers, tow worms, patch retrievers, and breech plug face scrapers. Looking for one of these out of a loose assortment in a shooting bag would be like trying to find the spare house key in the wife's purse. Tom "Ol' Bear" Harbin and his Upcountry Rangers used a neat little work station arrangement Fiq. 4 (Fig. 4) to keep everything together. They generally started with a five inch section of 3/8" square steel bar stock. Holes were drilled and tapped one half inch each side of center for 8-32 and 10-32 screws. This let the bar do double duty as a strong handle for pulling a ball and stuck patch. Other holes were tapped to accept various fittings as shown.

The muzzle end of the ramrod should be pretty as well as practical. Putting a removable cleaning jag Fiq. 5 (Fig. 5) aids in gripping the ramrod (however, I have never liked the looks of a cleaning jag permanently attached to the visible end of the ramrod. As an alternative, the tip on that end could be rounded and flared a bit (also in Fig. 5) as I have seen on some Jaegers, so as to be easy on the hand during loading. This particular ramrod is 7/16" shaft diameter with a flared 1/2" tip threaded 10-32; it sure feels better than most when pushing that big 0.610 ball down a fouled bore of a Jaeger rifle on a dry day. Remember that whatever tip you put on the ramrod, it must be fixed firmly in place. I first thread the inside of the tip to provide good adherence for the Fiq. 6 epoxy (which doesn't hold well to smooth brass surfaces). If the end of the tip is threaded for an 8-32 or 10-32 jag, you can turn in a screw on that end, clamp the head of the screw in the vise and run a tap three or four turns into the other end (Fig. 6). After the tip is in place and the epoxy is set, I drill a 1/16" hole through tip and ramrod, slightly countersink both sides and peen in a piece of welding rod. On brass tips, brazing rod might be more desirable.

Jaeger rifles and muzzleloading scatterguns of European origin often had horn tips on the muzzle end of the ramrod Fiq. 8 (Fig. 8). Personally, I don't believe that horn tips are all that practical (horn has a tendency to split under pressure and does not hold a thread well), nor is it easy to make a tip from horn. Still, if you cannot sleep at night until your prized Jaeger or continental shotgun has a nice horn tip on its ramrod, here's how to proceed: choose a horn tip which is at least 1.5" long and which has a color compatible with your nosecap (most horn tips are black or brown-to-tan, but sometimes you can find a cream-colored one). If you have made powder horns in the past, you probably have the horn tips lying around in your ``miscellaneous'' drawer. Square off the large end of the tip, locate its center with a vernier caliper or other means and centerpunch a mark there. I then use my lathe to chuck up the tip in the headstock chuck with the large end stabilized by a live center in the tailstock. After you true up the large end (take off only enough to get that section round), chuck on the trued section and part off to the proper length where the small end is to be trimmed by cutting at the point where the tip diameter will match that of the ramrod, plus about 0.025-0.050" extra for good measure. Part off that section and then drill the hole for the ramrod; I usually use a 7/16" rod on my big caliber Jaegers and drill a 5/16" hole to allow for adequate wall thickness of the tip to avoid splitting. Scoring the tip of the ramrod a bit with a file as shown in the Fiq. 7 Fig. 7 will help the epoxy to hold the rod firmly in place. I also taper the tip about 2-3 to create a flare at the end as shown in Fiq. 9 Fig. 9, but this can be overdone, with the result that small bits of horn will gradually shed off the front end. The tapering and final shaping can usually best be completed after the tip is glued on with epoxy, since you don't have a lot of gripping surface for the lathe to hold the unmounted tip. Cup the large end using a ball end mill or router bit of the appropriate size if it is for a rifle, but leave it flat if it is to be used in a scattergun. Again, don't overdo the cupping, or it will weaken the edge of the horn excessively.

On some rifles, it just doesn't seem appropriate to have all that fancy a ramrod tip showing. A plain alternative is shown for a trade gun in Fiq. 10 Fig. 10. Here, the ramrod has no tip, but simply a 1/8" transverse hole. A four inch section of drill rod (or a big nail) can be inserted to serve as a handle for pulling if the need be. If you drill the top jaw screw on the lock to accept this little rod (nail) also, you have an effective way of tightening down on that flint.

One final reminder: when wood grows, it incorporates a small amount of silica into its tissues which is abrasive enough to eventually cause bore wear, particularly at the muzzle. Before I was aware of this consideration, I gradually ruined the accuracy of several fine barrels (as I am sure the old timers did also over their lifetimes). At events where authenticity is not required, leave the wooden rod in its thimbles and use a 1/4" or 5/16" stainless steel rod with a plastic collar to protect the muzzle.

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