Flintlocks: How to Shoot Them

By Paul Vallandigham


Sadly, there is such a lack of information about how to shoot traditional muzzleloading guns, both flintlocks and percussion guns, that the consumer is left with whatever is the newest fad, and whatever the clerk at the local Wal-Mart doesn't know about guns. Cap and ball guns are close enough to cartridge guns, and even to the in-line actions, that clerks can't steer you too far wrong if you choose to buy a modern rifle or double-barreled percussion shotgun.

But, put a flintlock on the shelf and no one knows how to make it go bang, beyond that you have to put this rock in the cock (hammer), and hope it sparks, and hope the sparks hit the powder in the priming pan, and then hope the main charge in the barrel is ignited. It all sounds like so much hard work that consumers just don't want the guns anymore.

With the new in-line actions, you use #209 shotgun primers, the same as used to reload modern shotgun shells. You use black powder substitutes like Triple Se7en and Pyrodex, and sometimes this comes in pre-measured pellets, so you don't have to measure any powder! Then we have plastic wads instead of cloth, and jacketed pistol bullets instead of round lead balls.

Because everything goes down the muzzle, we (properly) call them muzzleloaders, and pretend we are doing things the way Daniel Boone and Davie Crockett, or the men on the Lewis & Clark Expedition did it 200 years ago. Add to that bad legislation passed by Congress to give us a little more false security, which restricts how black powder is sold transported and stored, and even finding a store that carries black powder is a chore. Finding Flints? Where do you start to look? If you live on the West coast, you are a long way from Friendship, and even Arizona, where the NMLRA holds it winter matches and all the products you need are available, just like at mountain rendezvous in the 1820's.

A myth has been spread by lazy, uneducated gun store clerks, and accepted by the public, that flintlocks are hard to get to fire, are slow to fire, and just can't be as accurate as a modern rifle shooting jacketed bullets in front of smokeless powder. You will even hear that flintlocks are slower firing than side action percussion guns.

Another problem that has become all too common is kind of a reverse snobbery among some flintlock shooters, who disdain anyone who doesn't shoot a rocklock, and don't want to teach people how its done. Some fear the competition they will have at the rifle matches, and don't want to give away any secrets to protect their edge--as if they are winning thousands of dollars in prize money at any rifle match held today! They pretend to be great shooters, who know all there is to know about flintlocks, when they usually are just mimicking something they saw their fathers or grandfathers do, and haven't a clue as to why it is done. The literature on shooting a flintlock is also lacking, so it is no wonder that young shooters have trouble finding information.

MYTHS DISPELLED

Flintlocks are actually faster to fire than a percussion gun, all things being equal. By that I mean, if you have two side lock actions, one flint and other percussion, and the flintlock is tuned properly (has the flint mounted properly in the cock, has a good frizzen that sparks, the angle of the cock will throw the sparks into the middle of the priming pan, and the main charge has been poked with a vent pick to allow more than one granule of powder to be ignited by the priming charge at one time), the main charge in a flintlock will be burning before the hammer on the percussion gun strikes the percussion cap. The priming powder ignites and in turn ignites the main charge in the barrel before the cock finishes its stroke and comes to a rest. The percussion gun, by design, has to strike the cap between the hammer and the nipple to cause ignition, so the flintlock has to fire sooner. Flintlocks fire quicker, lock time being equal.

SECRETS

The secret of shooting flintlocks are few, but important. With the current celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 200 years ago, west coast shooters are likely to see a lot of flintlocks being fired at ceremonies. So will people all along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from Wood River Illinois, where the expedition began, to Astoria Oregon, where it wintered over 1805-6 before returning. When you watch the flintlock shooters, check to see if they do the following:

1. In a flintlock, you don't pack the powder by ramming the ball down hard on the powder charge. A flintlock has to burn the powder one granule at a time, while a percussion cap sends a flame burning or pushing its way through the powder charge, igniting lots of powder all at once. A percussion cap actually detonates the powder, much like the primer in a cartridge does today.

The flintlock was designed to start a fire that quickly ignites all the powder to create the gases needed to expel the projectile. Load the ball using a marked ramrod, so that you load to a mark you have made on the ramrod that represents where the ball just begins to touch the powder under it. (You can feel and sometime hear a grinding action when the ball touches the powder). Leave extra air between powder granules, to speed the burning process in a flintlock. Actually, there is enough oxygen in the powder itself to provide all the O2 it needs for combustion. But extra oxygen helps it burn faster. (That is the secret!)

2. A flintlock works best if your priming pan is wide and shallow, holding the powder over a wider surface so that regardless of how you set the flint in the jaws of the cock the sparks will hit priming powder and ignite it. This may require use of a Dremel tool to grind the sides of the current locks to widen them, but the effort will pay off with more positive and faster ignition. There is nothing more conducive to a flinch than a misfire, or a "flash in the pan."

Polish the surface of the priming pan to a mirror finish so that it attracts less moisture from the air to foul your prime. A smooth finish also makes it easier to wipe out residue after the prime has burned, so that the residue does not attract water.

In humid areas or conditions, use the same powder used in the main charge to prime your gun. Leave the 4F priming powder for sunny days at the range. The coarser powder will burn just a tad slower, but that time is measured in millionths of a second, and you won't hear the difference or react differently in the interval between the two powders.

I also find that in some guns it helps to bank the powder in the pan away from the touchhole, so that there is air under and around the touchhole for the flame to go towards. This helps direct the flame from the prime into the touchhole and to the main powder charge. Make sure the touchhole is above the priming pan, and never cover the touchhole with powder.

There are compounds sold that you can mix with your prime to decrease its affinity for water, but no one with much experience relies on these compounds in lieu of common sense. When I hunt in the rain, I leave my priming pan dry, with a feather or toothpick in the touchhole to keep moisture out of the main charge. I wrap the muzzle with plastic. If you are trying to be period correct, a leather collar that has been water proofed using tallow, or some other grease, can be tied over the muzzle.

Animals such as deer and elk move slowly when its raining, if they move at all, because they are robbed of their sense of hearing by the sound of all the raindrops hitting branches and leaves around them. That gives a hunter time to take the feather out of the touchhole, remove the muzzle cover, prime the pan, cock the hammer, and take an aimed shot while the quarry is still in sight.

Wipe the underside of the flint with a swipe of your index finger as you cock the hammer. This removes moisture that may have condensed on the underside, where you can't see it, and your gun should fire as expected.

It works for me. I killed a wild boar in Eastern Tennessee one Labor Day weekend when it was about 85 degrees and raining, with my .50 caliber flintlock rifle. I wore a poncho to keep both my rifle and me dry, my gun tucked under my arm so that my body could keep moisture out of the lock. My leather hat with the broad brim kept water out of the priming pan when I loaded it.

3. Use a vent pick to poke a channel in the main powder charge in the barrel. This allows room for the flame from the prime to enter the barrel through the touchhole, and burn several granules of powder simultaneously. This speeds ignition so much that I have had club members come up to me while reloading to ask if I am shooting a flintlock or a percussion gun! When I show them the flint action, they all want to know how I do that. Now you know.

4. Wrap your flints with lead, not leather. Leather tends to act as a shock absorber, and the flint will rebound or bounce off the face of the frizzen just at the time it is cutting into the steel and starting to shear off bits of steel at the high temperature required to ignite the priming powder below. Instead, when the flint rebounds, it tears bits of steel off that are then caught on the edge of the flint. The second repeat hit will produce a few sparks that may ignite the prime.

Within a few shots there will be usually so much steel clogging the edge of the flint that it will not throw a spark from the frizzen into the pan. Misfire! Then you will see the shooter take out his knife, or a hammer, or some other device, and begin pounding on the front edge of the flint. He has to knock off enough of the edge to make a new one, free of the bits of steel that are clogging the edge. That takes at least 20 shots out of a flint, takes time, leads to flinching, and a general distrust and dislike of flintlocks in general. Finally the shooter buys another muzzleloader that uses percussion caps or shotgun primers for ignition! And all because he wrapped the flint in a leather shock absorber instead of lead.

Lead does not give, or bounce, and it doesn't let a flint bounce when it hits the frizzen. Lead holds the flint firmly in the jaws of the cock, and provides weight to drive the flint into the frizzen and down in a scraping action to cut and throw very hot steel bits into the priming pan. If the lock is tuned properly, the angle of the cock to the frizzen will be correct and the flint will not only scrape steel from the frizzen in one continuous stroke, but will be self-knapping. That is, it will make a new edge every time the gun is fired. There will be no need to knap the flint, as it will not clog its edge with steel.

It takes a few shots for a flint to "set up" in lead, unlike a leather wrap, so you have to initially check the tension on your cock screw about every 5 shots, but it will hold the flint firmly once the lead forms to the smooth surfaces of the flint. About every 30 shots you will need to check the flint to see where it is throwing the sparks. You may have to move it forward in the cock, and use a piece of twig behind the lead wrap to keep the flint wedged in the forward position. Aren't you glad that Mother Nature provides us with twigs virtually everywhere?

5. Springs. Most modern locks have springs that are out of balance and are too strong. The result is that they crush expensive flints, and damage the frizzen unnecessarily, and jar the gun, making it difficult to achieve consistently tight groups. The frizzen spring should provide such tension that it takes no more than 3 pounds of weight to open the frizzen.

Use a trigger pull gauge to measure it. Just hook the trigger pull gauge over the top of the frizzen, and slowly pull in a straight line forward until the frizzen opens. Another test is take the frizzen spring off, and put some priming powder in the pan. If the cock is angled correctly and the flint set properly in the jaws, the flint should cut steel and fire the prime without the frizzen spring providing resistance.

The mainspring only needs to be about 10 pounds to ensure proper ignition. Today's locks often require more than 40 pounds of tension to cock them. Put your rifle or shotgun butt down on your bathroom scale, make a note of the weight of the rifle on the scale, and then slowly cock the hammer back to full cock while watching the dial of the scale. Subtract the original weight of the rifle, and you have the amount of spring tension measured in pounds.

If your gun is a large musket with a large lock, the spring may be even heavier than 40 lbs. Those big locks require very expensive flints, and I have seen men with locks that literally shattered the stone in one blow. Even in the days of the Brown Bess, paper cartridges came boxed 20 to a package, and with a new flint for the gun. They did not expect the flints to shoot more than 20 times before being replaced!

Think you are better off with the new in-lines? I doubt it. Modern arms makers want to protect themselves from product liability lawsuits, so they sell us guns that are intentionally over-engineered. That means heavy springs. Can't shoot consistent groups because of the hammer jolt that shakes the gun when you fire? You will need to do something about those springs. A competent gunsmith can reduce the tension on the V-springs found on modern replica flintlock actions. He can remove the rattle and tickle that destroys accuracy, while still allowing your gun to shoot each time you pull the trigger and save your flints.

The large rifle flints I use in my American 20 gauge fowler can get 60-80 shots per flint. MY .50 caliber rifle gets about 80-100 shots per flint using medium sized rifle flints. The large flint I use in my fowler run about a dollar each at retail, and the smaller rifle flints run between 60 and 75 cents each. That means it costs me about .0125 cents for each shot fired in my fowler, cheaper than the cost of shotgun primers, and about .0075 cents every time I fire my .50 cal. rifle. That is cheaper than large rifle primers.

6. For the past 60 years or more we have been stuck with the idea that the cloth patch we use with a round ball performs two functions: it grabs the ball and imparts the spin of the rifling to the ball as it travels down the barrel, and it seals the bore so that gases behind the ball cannot cut past the edge of the ball and melt or blow away parts of the ball. We measure our patches and tweak our loads with micrometers to find the right ball and patch combination to achieve this mythical goal, so that we can provide that perfect seal. But, even in the best of guns, time lapse photography shows that gases make it past the patched ball and exit the barrel in front of the ball. Our guns are rifled fully to the muzzle, and we have to use a short starter to seat the bullet or ball. When we examine 19th Century possible bags we find no short starters before 1870, and no loops or straps to hold the short starter in the bag. When we examine old guns, the muzzles all appear to be worn, but tighten up a couple of inches below the muzzle. What happened?

Davie Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Simon Kenton did not take micrometers to the range with them to measure cloth thickness. And they surely didn't carry such a thing through the Cumberland Pass into Kentucky, where they spent as much as a year at a time, hunting and exploring the country while planning to move their families west.

The Cloth they had was homespun, not cloth made at a mill. Yes, expensive cloth was available to the wealthy city people from the mills in England and other European countries, but the folks who explored and settled this country lived a far rougher existence.

If they had clothes made of cloth, it was homespun wool or flax (linen). Cotton came later. Wool was turned to thread using a spinning wheel, and then the threads were made into cloth using looms. The cloth these explorers had was anything but consistent, and no one had any accurate method to measure its thickness, anyway.

The muzzles of their guns were routinely coned, or tapered, so that the patch and ball could be pushed into the barrel quickly with the thumb, and would be centered and slowly grabbed by the patch as it was pushed down with the ramrod. No short starter needed. No manufacturer today cones its barrels.

So, what was really going on back then? How did they get guns to fire so accurately, as we know from historical accounts that they did? I believe that the patch served one purpose, which was to center the ball in the barrel. In a rifle, the patch did transfer the spin of the rifling to the ball as it traveled down the barrel. But they sealed the bore from the gases another way.

There are numerous references about longhunters keeping wasps nests in their hunting shirts, and it is this that I believe they used to seal the powder behind the bullet. If they ran out of wasps nest, they used whatever was available, including rawhide, leaves, tobacco, broad grasses, bark (especially birch bark), weeds, etc.

But the nest was desirable for a couple of reasons. First, it could be found throughout eastern North America. Second, it is made from digested cellulose fibers that are regurgitated by the wasps to make the nest. It has a fine smooth silken texture to it, and it is strong, although it can be crushed easily in the hand when dry, just as can tobacco leaves. A pinch of wasps nest could be crushed between fingers or rolled in the palm of the hand, and then it would be dropped down the barrel of the gun.

About half an inch of this fine material would provide a very good seal for the bore. It would compact under the patched ball driven down on top of it, sealing the powder away from the patch and ball. This gives more consistent velocity to the load, and protects the patch around the ball from being burned, which in turn protects the ball from being melted or cut. All of which contributes to accuracy.

The patch material needs to be thick enough to fill the deep rifling characteristic of a traditional muzzle loading rifle, where each groove is typically cut 6 thousands of an inch deep. We usually use a .015" to .020" thick cloth patch made of pillow ticking, or denim, or some coarse cotton or linen material, and this thickness compresses sufficiently to get down into the rifling.

So, the final secret is to find one patch and ball combination that will serve the function of filling and cleaning out the gunk from the rifling, as well as grabbing and centering the ball in the barrel. Then, to seal the bore, use a separate wad or filler, such as corn meal (yes the same kind you buy to make corn bread), PufLon (a synthetic filler now being sold for straight wall rifle cartridges), or try wasps nest, birch bark, tobacco, or whatever else you can find.

You can buy card wads from Butler Creek in most standard calibers and gauges, or buy a punch from Dixie or Brownells and make your own out of Styrofoam plates. I generally prefer to use cardboard wads, as they hold up well in the barrel and seal well. Celotex, commonly used as an insulating material in construction, is often used to make the thicker shotgun wads. It can be used in rifles, too.

MARKSMANSHIP

Because we do not have a military draft, and colleges dropped their mandatory ROTC training for freshmen and sophomores back in 1964, young men and women today rarely have been trained in proper marksmanship techniques. This is the other reason why shooters look for an easy gun to shoot, with optical sights. No one practices long range shooting standing on his or her two legs, and the art of off-hand shooting is becoming a dinosaur, along with my generation. See my article "Off-Hand and Trick Shooting" about the secrets of off-hand shooting for more information about this important subject.

LOCKS

The rest of the comments here have to do with the lock, but once you know what is optimum, you can usually do the modifications yourself. A propane torch will provide enough heat to let you bend the top of the cock forward enough to get the proper angle. Use a protractor to measure the angle, it should be 25 degrees from the bottom edge of the flint to the face of the frizzen on contact.

The flint should strike the frizzen between 1/3 and 1/2 of the distance up from the bottom of the frizzen. A belt sander, using your bare fingers, and with water nearby to keep the spring cool, will allow you to reduce the size of the V-springs to useable dimensions.

Coil springs can be cut with a Dremel tool, grinder, or diagonal pliers. I cut them one coil at a time, then reset them in the lock and measure the change. I do the same with the springs in my modern bolt action rifles. You can do it, too, if you understand and obey the rules of firearm safety.

POWDER AND FLINTS

If your local gun dealer does not stock black powder, go online and look up the Goex powder distributor for the area where you live. I found a distributor in California that delivers to 11 states. I also see a distributor in Montana. Certainly the distributor can tell you who his dealers are. And, you can always contact the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association in Friendship, Indiana (nmlra@nmlra.org) for a list of local black powder gun clubs. Members of the club will steer you to sources for powder and flints, gun makers, and black powder gunsmiths. Some club members order powder together so that they can get a discount on the price, and the members buy a year's supply at one time. Flintlock shooters also do this in buying flints, often buying a lifetime supply. I am still using rifle flints I bought in the early '80's, at about 10 cents each.

CONCLUSION

The flintlock tips I have written above have been learned from years of practice, trial and error experimentation, and advice from friends--some long dead. The shooter controls how he loads his gun, whether he sets his flint properly, how much powder he puts in the pan, whether he picks the main charge with a vent pick before shooting, and, of course, his shooting skills.

There really is no good reason not to own and shoot a flintlock rifle. Yes, you can't use black powder substitutes, because they don't ignite consistently unless they are contained in a closed chamber and lit with a very hot flame. But, black powder can be cleaned out of a barrel with soap and water, while you have to use smelly commercial cleaners to remove most black powder substitute residues.

You do have to clean guns that you shoot with the substitutes, and even with smokeless powder. There is no getting around that. You have to use one solvent to remove the plastic that rubs off the wad in the barrel, and another to dissolve the salts and other chemical compounds in the residue from the black powder substitute. At the range I use a brush to break up the crud after each shot, so that I can continue to load and not see a change in the point of impact of my shots due to fouling buildup.

Flintlocks are as accurate as any other gun, if the shooter can shoot. Just check the current match records with the NMLRA and compare the scores shot with flintlocks versus percussion guns. There is no difference. And any modern rifle shooter would be proud to have such scores by his name.




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Copyright 2005 by Paul Vallandigham. All rights reserved.



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