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Flintlock Shotguns

posted Jan 9, 2013, 2:28 PM by Peter Lucas
   This year I decided to try a flintlock shotgun.  So far, most of my flintlock shooting has been done with an original English fowler or the short barreled blunderbuss which I built for the Blunderbuss Championships at the the NMLRA Winter Nationals.   While the flintlock ignition systems adds some complexities, for the most part, lessons learned by shooting a percussion shotgun translate directly to a flintlock shotgun. This article discusses some of the more interesting issues encountered when making the jump from a percussion gun to a flintlock. 

    Before discussing the idiosyncrasies of the flintlock shotgun, I need to make clear that I would not recommend a flintlock as your first muzzle loading shotgun.  Here are my reasons for this recommendation:
  • It is harder to hit targets with a flintlock. Breaking clay birds is fun.  Missing clay birds is frustrating.  If you are new to muzzle-loading shotguns you should put yourself in the best position to break the maximum number of clay birds early on.  Under the best of conditions, the lock time of a perfectly tuned flintlock will be slower than the lock time a below average percussion shotgun. (See EndNote at bottom of post )  The slower lock time makes it harder to break moving targets.  Even the best shooters will have better scores with their percussion guns as compared to their flintlocks.  
  • Flintlocks are more expensive.  A good used percussion shotgun can generally be found for $300 or less.  An inexpensive percussion shotgun is a great starter gun and will generally be as reliable as the more expensive models.  This not true of flintlocks.  Getting a flintlock to go off quickly and reliably is a tricky situation under optimal conditions.  As a general proposition, a cheap flintlock will give you more problems than a more expensive model.
  • Flintlocks can be temperamental.    A flintlock ignition system relies on a piece of sharp rock hitting a metal plate to create a spark.  The metal plate then has to snap out of the way and expose the loose priming powder.  The spark needs to land in the priming powder and ignite the priming charge.  The heat from the priming charge must travel through a small hole and ignite the main charge. If there is a problem with any of these steps, the gun does not go off. Even the most experienced flintlock shooters have misfires and hang fires from time to time.  Get used to it.
  • Flintlocks are more complicated. Flintlocks have more moving parts and they require you to pay attention to small details regarding the flint, frizzen and touch hole.  If you are new to muzzle-loading, these added details only complicate matters. 
  The Importance of Loading Routines

    While not unique to flintlocks, using a flintlock is much easier to shoot if you develop a consistent loading routine.  Loading a muzzle loading shotgun is a multistage task.  Under normal circumstances, there are at least five steps: (1) measuring and pouring powder in to bore, (2) inserting and ramming home the over powder wads, (3) measuring and adding shot to the bore, (4) inserting and ramming home the over powder cards, and (5) priming the gun and readying it for firing. 

  
    An important aspect of l
oading a muzzle loading shotgun is developing a fixed loading routine and repeating this loading routine until it becomes second nature.   This is particularly true when you are also dealing with the pressure of competition.  For me, it took several full days of shooting my percussion gun to really become comfortable with the loading process on the range. During the learning process, I forgot to add powder or shot, accidentally double charged the gun, or loaded one barrel twice while leaving the other barrel empty.   My most troublesome mistake was spraying some water/Murphy's Oil Soap mix down the bore prior to putting the over the powder wads in place.  (As an aside, it is very hard to get wet black powder to ignite.) These types of mistakes are just part of the learning process.   Once a set loading routine is established, loading speed will increase and the number of  the mistakes diminish.

    The establishment of a loading routine should not be confined to loading your gun from the bench.  It is equally important to develop a fixed routine for loading the gun while hunting. While my loading routine while hunting differs from my loading routine while shooting on the range, I have a definite and fixed routine which I follow while hunting.   It is not easy to reload a muzzle-loader while attempting to keep an eye on your bird dog and the other hunters in your party.   Having a fixed routine makes the loading process quicker and less prone to error.   My routine while hunting includes giving my dog the "charge" command which sportsmen of the 1800s had used.  When given the command to "charge," the dog is required to lay down while the hunters reload or "charge" their guns.  The charge command is little used today.  However, getting the dog under control and in a safe location is an important part of my loading routine when hunting. 


Changes in the Loading Routine Associated with the Flintlock

    Switching from a percussion muzzle-loader to a flintlock requires some small, but important, changes to the loading routine.  These changes deal primarily with safety issues which are unique to flintlocks.  With a percussion gun, most shooters develop the habit returning the hammers in the half cock immediately or very soon after the gun is fired.   Having the hammers in the half cock position has at least two significant advantages.  First, the air in the bore can be easily forced out through the nipple when the over the powder is rammed home.  This makes ramming the over powder wads home much easier.   Second, any remnants of the nipple which may cover the nipple will be blown out at the over powder wads are pressed into place. Once it is time to shoot, most percussion shooters will place the cap on the nipples with the hammers in the half cock position.  It is not until the caps are firmly seated that the hammers are pulled to their full cock position.  This sequence minimizes the chances of an accidental discharge during the process.

    The sequence described above with respect to percussion guns is not allowed for a flintlock at an NMLRA sponsored event.  Under the NMLRA Rules, it is not permissible to return the hammer of a flintlock (or more accurately the cock) to the half cock position prior to loading the gun.  NMLRA Rule 11000 requires that all flintlock firearms must be loaded with the frizzen and hammer in the forward position.  Like most of the NMLRA Rules, Rule 11000 is a matter of safety.  Having the frizzen in the forward or open position has several advantages from a safety perspective.   Any grains of powder which migrate through the touch hole during loading will fall harmless away.  If the frizzen was in the closed position, there would be a small quantity of powder in the pan, increasing the chance of an accidental ignition in the event of a stray spark. In addition, having the frizzen in the open position reduces that chance that the flint could in contact with the frizzen an produce a stray spark.  The same logic applies to having the hammer in the forward position.   Even with the frizzen in the forward position, if the hammer slips out of a half cock position, it is possible for the flint to hit the side of the barrel causing a spark witch could theoretically ignite the main charge.  

   Within the bounds of Rule 11000, there are a couple of possibilities with respect to the exact priming sequence which you could follow.    My routine (which was described to me by Richard Dale -- a long time flintlock shooter) is a follows: 
  • After stepping into the shooting station, pull the hammer to a half-cocked position.  With the hammer at half cock, add the priming powder to the pan. 
  • When the flash pan is primed, cock the hammer to the full cock position. 
  • Finally,  pivot the frizzen down to the firing position. 

    The logic behind this routine is that the gun will not be ready to fire until the frizzen is closed. In the event the hammer were to slip out of your hand during the cocking process, it would be less likely to create a spark which would produce an accidental firing. After you shoot, the hammer and the frizzen are both in the forward position. The hammer and frizzen are now in exactly the position they should be in for loading the gun.  Simply leave the hammer and the frizzen where they are and return to the loading bench.  This may sound like a small change to the loading routine.  However, if you are in the habit of bringing the hammers to the half cock position while at the loading station, it can be very difficult to simply leave the cock and frizzen of a flintlock in the forward position. This is particularly true when you are thinking about the bird you just missed.

Flints

    The heart of the flintlock ignition system is the flint.  Unless you have a good sparking rock, you will never have consistent ignition. 
There are many types of flints.  The most common varieties of gun flints are black English flints, amber French flints, and German agates.   The English and French flints are generally "hand knapped", which means that
the flints shaped by flaking pieces stone off the of the original piece of stone.  German agates, on the other hand, are generally milled to shape.  The hand knapped flints are thought to be sharper because the edges are created along natural fractures in the stone. American flints (other than the "Missouri Long Trek Flints"  discussed below) are generally milled rather than knapped.

    Eve
ryone seems to have their favorite type of flint and different guns seem to like different types of flint.  When starting out with a flintlock, the best thing to do is to start with one type of flint and see how it works in your particular gun.  In my case, I decided to make choice in flint based on the advise of Colonel Peter Hawker and his famous book Instructions to Young Sportsmen.  Colonel Hawker live between 1786 and 1853.  He grew up shooting a flintlock and unquestionably knew more about flints and flintlocks than any person alive today.  Colonel Hawker was from Great Briton, so not surprisingly, he was a fan of black British flints.  Here is what Peter Hawker had to say about flints: 

None are better than the most transparent of the common black flints. Great quantities (considered as good as any) come to London from Lord Cadogan's estate, at Brandon. They should be put in with the .flat side upwards, stand well clear of the hammer, and yet be long enough to throw it. Screw them in with leather; as lead strains the cock, and cloth is dangerous, from being liable to catch fire. If very particular about the neat appearance of your gun, get a punch for stamping the leathers, and change them as often as you put new flints. 

Instructions to Young Sportsmen:In All That Relates to Guns and Shooting... by Peter Hawker, 3rd Edition. (18__)

   
Brandon, the town mentioned by Colonel Hawker, is a small town in the English county of Suffolk. Flint has been mined in the area since per-historic times and the town became a major center for the production of gun flints  During the flintlock period, the number of flints produced from the area was staggering.  At the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars nine Brandon gun flint makers were commissioned to supply 360,000 flints a month. In 1813 fourteen flint masters were contracted to supply 1,060,000 musket flints a month, giving employment to 160 knappers and miners.  After the Napoleonic Wars had ended gun flints were exported to North and South America, Africa, New Zealand, Spain, Russia, China and Malaya. During the Crimean War Brandon supplied eleven million flints annually to the Turkish Army, and there were then three masters employing thirty-six knappers. Brandon flints were still in use in Abyssinia in 1935, and even in 1950 2,000 gun flints were being made each day, mainly for export to Africa.

    Despite the wide variety of flints which are currently on the market, black British gun flints continue to have an excellent reputation and are still widely considered to be the best quality flints available.   British gun flints are available from a variety of sources, including Track of the Wolf.  I ordered several from Track and found that they all preformed quite nicely.   At the NMLRA Western Nationals, I was able to shoot a 20 bird match with my flintlock blunderbuss  with a single black English flint (without knapping),  I had only two misfires in the match.

 
   
In addition to the black British gun flints, I have also had good luck with "
Missouri Long Trek Flints"  from Rich Pierce. Technically, Rich's flint is really Burlington Chert.  As a stone, chert is closely related to flint, but is generally thought to be of lower quality in terms properties for tool making. The raw chert is collected by Rich Pierce who then knaps it by hand. The chert varies from white to gray and sparks great in my guns. 

    Rich has a unique system with respect to ordering. Rich sends you the flints without pre-payment and encourages you to test one of the flints in your gun. If you like the flints you send him his money. If you are not happy with them,  send them back. Rich Pierce can be contacted at: Rich Pierce, 504 West Drive, St. Louis, MO   63130. rpierce@dom.wustl.edu

Priming Flasks/Priming Powder

   
Another change associated with shooting a flintlock gun is the necessity of having a priming flask. Today, virtually all shooters use a small flask containing very fine powder which is used to prime the pan just prior to firing the gun.  However, a priming flask, and for that matter separate priming powder, was not always used by flintlock shooters. 

    There is considerable debate regarding whether sportsmen from the flintlock era used separate priming powder and priming flasks.  The answer to that question appears to depend on the exact time period in question.  Flintlocks were in use from approximately 1635 through 1830.  Priming methods evolved over that period of time.  The best description of the evolution of priming methods for the flintlock is based on an article found in The Encyclopedia Britannica: a dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information, Volume 12 (1910).  The modern flintlock was invented in approximately 1635 and represented an improvement over the earlier match lock and snaphance ignition systems. When using either the match lock and snaphance ignition systems,  a fine-grained priming powder (called surpentine powder) was poured into the pan from a separate priming flask. So it makes sense that the early flintlock shooters continued the practice of priming the gun with a separate priming powder. 

    However, as time progressed, shooters discontinued the use of a separate priming powder.   Period books such as An Essay on Shooting, 1789 and Instructions to Young Sportsman (Second Edition) 1816, discuss the proper loading of a flintlock shotgun.  In both cases the shooter is instructed to prime the pan with a small portion of the portion of the main powder charge.  Moreover, a priming flask is rarely found with original flintlock guns, in even the more elaborate cased sets. The gunsmiths who made these cased sets, and the gentlemen who could afford them, would have been at the leading edge of the shooting technology.  To the extent a separate priming flask was in use, it would have been included in the gun cases. 

    By the end of the flintlock era, many flintlocks were of the 'self-priming' variety.  A self priming flintlock is a gun which allows powder to move through the touch hole into the pan when the gun is loaded.  The ramming of the over the powder wads, literally forces part of the main charge into the priming pan.  In order to be self priming the touch hole must be significantly larger than the touch hole seen on today's guns.  In addition, many of the better self priming guns, employed a vent wiper to prevent the fuse effect from slowing ignition. The vent wiper small arm on the frizzen cover which moves powder away from the touch hole as the frizzen snaps forward.  By moving the powder away from the touch hole, the heat from the priming charge could more quickly ignite the main charge.  Obviously, self priming guns present some safety issues and they would not be permitted at NMLRA events.

    Based on the period literature, I did not start out using a separate priming power. If it was good enough for the old timers, it was good enough for me.  However, modern tests have shown that priming powders hold a significant advantage with respect to both ignition times and consistency.  An example of such a study can be found at: Priming Powder Timing  MuzzleBlasts April 2005 by Larry Pletcher.  Based in large part on Larry Pletcher's work, I have now started using a finer priming powder.

    While I still have a lot to learn about flintlock shotguns, they have have proved to be a fun addition to my muzzleloading shotgun collection.  For the experienced muzzleloader, they are worth a try. 


*  Many people will claim that their flintlock is faster than a percussion gun.  Testing using high speed timing devices have shown that the human senses are not an accurate gauge of lock times and ignition speed.  Based on the work of Larry Pletcher at BlackPowderMag.com, I firmly believe that even the fastest flintlock guns cannot compete with a percussion gun in terms of ignition times.

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