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Flintlock Shotguns Part 2 -- Some thoughts on shooting Skeet with a Flintlock

posted Mar 10, 2014, 10:47 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 10:06 AM ]
   A prior Article discussed some of the changes which you experience when changing from a percussion muzzle loading shotgun to a flintlock shotgun.  The Article takes a little more detailed look at my thoughts on shooting skeet with a flintlock shotgun.  

    First, it is important to understand that this article is being written from the prescriptive of someone who shoots a lot skeet with a modern gun. If you are not already comfortable with shooting skeet, do yourself a favor.  Shoot with a modern gun until you are comfortable on the skeet field.  A flintlock shotgun is not the gun you want to use to learn the game of skeet.  It is faster, easier, and cheaper to learn to shoot skeet with a modern gun and then adapt to the flintlock.

    This Article is also being written from the perspective of a person who is just learning to use a flintlock gun.   Figuring out how to get a flintlock to go off reliably takes some trail and error.  In addition the trial and error, advice from experienced flintlock shooters can be very helpful.  In this regard,  I would like to thank all of the flintlock skeet shooters at the NMLRA Western Nationals for all of their advice and help.  I also need to than all of the skeet shooters at the NMLRA Western Nationals for their patience with a new flintlock shooter.  
The Distractions of a Flintlock Shotgun

    Without getting all "zen" about the subject, in order to shoot at an optimal level, it is necessary to be in the correct mental "zone".  The “zone” is a concept which exists in all sports, including the shooting sports.  Being in the zone (or the “Flow” as it is referred to by some psychologists) is the mental state of being fully immersed in the activity. The participant is so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter. Crowd noise, opponent reactions, and other distractions simply don’t matter. The focus of attention is clearly on the task at hand. In addition, the participant ego is completely lost in the activity itself.  You do not consciously “think” about the activity; it just seems to happen. 

     The flintlock introduces a number of distractions which can make it difficult to get into proper frame of mind to shoot effectively. A flintlock makes its own type of music.  There is the scrape of the flint against the frizzen, the clap of the frizzen as it snaps open, and swish of the priming charge as it ignites, and, finally, the boom of the main charge.  In addition to the noise, ignition of the priming charge produces a puff of white smoke inches from your face and almost directly in line with the target.  Until you get used accustomed to shooting a flintlock, these new noises and visual stimulants can be very disconcerting.    

       My strategy was to try to work into the rhythm of the flintlock a little at a time.  Start by shooting the gun at easy birds. Initially, I concentrated on the both the high and low house bird from station 7 on the skeet range. The low house bird on Station 7 is a straight away shot with the bird exiting directly from your right side. The high house bird on Station 7 is an incoming bird, which requires only minimal lead (as long as you keep your gun moving).  Only after breaking a number birds in a row did I feel comfortable enough to move on to the more serious shooting.  Breaking easy birds develops confidence and allows you to focus your attention on your shooting, rather that the sounds, vibrations and blinding flashes being made by the gun. In other words, you are starting to enter the zone with the flintlock gun.

  Flintlocks Take Longer to Go Off
      Once you are comfortable on the skeet field and comfortable with the flintlock gun, you need to consider a flintlock's ignition speed.   Whenever a group of muzzleloaders start talking about flintlocks, it is only a matter of time until you hear:  "My flintlock goes off just as fast any any percussion gun."  When you hear this, smile and try to change the subject.  You are never going to convince this person that flintlocks are just inherently slower than percussion guns.  I usually try something like this "That's great, what was the most number of shots which you have ever gotten out of a single flint?"  Usually, the person will start talking about something which happened years ago, was not witnessed by anyone else,and is certainly not repeatable. It is these types of "facts" which form the basis of the bulk of the "knowledge" that most self proclaimed experts possess about flintlock guns.  The same holds true for the "facts" contained in this Article.    

    Modern testing puts the time it takes a flintlock ignition system to ignite the priming charge at 35 to 60 milliseconds. By comparison, a typical side hammer muzzleloading shotgun will have a lock time of 20 to 25 milliseconds.  Modern guns have lock times in the 2 to 10  millisecond range. Moreover, when dealing with a flintlock, it is not enough to simply measure the time necessary to ignite the priming charge.  You must also add in the time necessary for priming charge to ignite the main charge. 

   The old timers who grew up shooting a flintlock and made the transition to a percussion gun reached the same conclusion without the aid of modern timing equipment.  The leading expert during the flintlock period was Colonel Peter Hawker,  Colonel Hawker used some of the fastest flintlock guns ever made and had more experience with flintlock guns than any modern shooter will ever hope to have.  His personal gun was a double barrel flintlock made for him by Joseph Manton.   Colonel Hawker also concluded that a percussion gun (which he referred to as  a "detonater")  was faster than a flintlock..  Here is what he had to say about the relative speed of the two ignition systems. 

    As a detonater goes so very much quicker than a flint, it becomes necessary, in firing one, to avoid shooting too forward; and I should, therefore, revert to my former hints for young men learning to shoot, and say, observe precisely all that I before under the head of shooting, but if you have a dentonater make only half the allowance; that is, where you would fire six inches before a bird with a flint, fire only three inches with a detonater; and so on.

Instructions to Young Sportsman (Third Edition) Peter Hawker 1824

        A 35 to 60 millisecond delay is too short a period of time to be perceived by humans. However, that does not mean that delay does not impact on your shooting.   For the sake  of discussion, lets assume that an average flintlock takes approximately 50 milliseconds to go off. An American skeet target travels at approximately 48 miles per hour or 70 feet per second.   Consequentially, a skeet target will travel approximately 3.5 feet during the time a flintlock is going off.  As discussed below, since your gun is (or should be) moving when you touch off the shot, it is not necessary to add  3.5 feet to your lead.  However, the delay is something which must be considered when shooting a flintlock.  The flight time of a shot string to the average target on the skeet course is only about 45 milliseconds.  Consequently, a modern gun will have already broken the target before many flintlocks have ignited the main charge.  With that in mind, lets take a closer look at the effect of the flintlock ignition system.

Breaking Birds Crossing Birds with the Flintlock

    When shooting straight way birds -- such as low 7 on the Skeet field, the long lock time of a flintlock is largely irrelevant. There is little need to lead the bird; just point the gun at the bird and pull the trigger.  Once you start having to lead the bird, the longer lock time of a flintlock begin gun begins to make a difference.  The impact which slower ignition time will is heavily dependent on the shooting technique which you are using.  Shooting techniques include: spot shooting, pass through, pull away and sustained lead.   Like the vast majority of skeet shooters, I claim to use the sustained lead technique,  The theory behind the sustained lead technique is that the shooter matches the speed of the barrel to speed of the moving target prior to pulling the trigger.  

    Despite what the name implies, you are never going to exactly match the speed of the bird with the swing of the barrel with a sustained lead.  Instead, there is a finite window of time during which the correct lead will be established.  The advantage sustained lead technique having 
roughly equal 
swing speed and target speed maximizes the sweet spot during which the trigger can be pulled and the correct lead is established. Theoretically, as long as the sweet spot is at least as long as the ignition time, the required lead does not change.  While this is a nice theory, there are a variety of practical problems which I encountered while putting the theory into practice. 

      On the skeet field, the sustained lead technique works well for the crossing birds found at Stations 3, 4 and 5. It is relatively easy to match the swing speed to the bird of the bird on these stations.  Shooting a flintlock is not that much different than shooting a percussion gun on the crossing birds at Stations 3, 4 and 5.  However, I did find that the use of a more "aggressive" move was beneficial when using a the flintlock shotgun.  In this context, the term aggressive means breaking the bird earlier (ideally 10 to 15 feet before the center stake.)  The use of an aggressive move requires a short, but strong swing when the bird comes into view.  For me, this translates into more broken birds with the flintlock on Stations 3, 4 and 5.   (Todd Bender describes the use of an "aggressive" move in his video covering shooting doubles on Station 4.)

   The sustained lead technique, however, is not appropriate for all target presentations which you find on the Skeet field.  For example, many skeet shooters tend to "spot shoot" the high house bird on Station 1.  This a straight away shot. The required "lead" is given by shooting below the bird, not to the side of the bird.   Like many other shooters, I shoot the high house bird on Station 1 by aligning the gun along
the target path and let the bird come to you.  You pull the trigger just before the target reach to the top of the rib. (Todd Bender does an excellent job of describing this technique on his website.)  Ideally, the gun movement is minimal.  (The picture to the left is of Sommer Tucker, a veteran flintlock skeet shooter, shooting the high house bird on Station 1. )

   Initially, things did not go well on Station 1 with the flintlock.   Spot shooting is heavily reliant on timing.  The delay inherent with a flintlock ignition is sufficient to result in many lost birds without an adjustment in technique.  

  After missing several birds on Station 1, I moved by break point (or kill zone as some call it) to the far side of the center stake of the Skeet field.  Allowing the high house birds get a little further away has a couple of advantages.  First,  the "visual angular velocity" of the high house bird on Station 1 consistently decreases as the birds cross the skeet field. Visual angular velocity is a measure how quickly the target moves through your field of view.  It is also a measure of how quickly your barrel must be moving in order to match the speed of the bird.   At the time the high house bird on Station 1 crosses the center stake, it has a fairly low visual angular velocity.  A lower angular velocity of the bird translates into a smaller required lead; making timing less critical.  The other advantage of breaking the high house bird on the other side of the center stake  is that the pattern has a little more time to spread out giving a larger margin for error. Even if bird is broken a few yards beyond the center stake of the skeet field, you are still only 25 yards from the bird.  After adjusting my break point (which is the same place as my hold point on this station) and a little practice, I started hitting the high house birds with the flintlock. 

  The high house bird on Station 2 and the low house bird on Station 6 also provide some challenges for the flintlock shooter.  The theory behind the s
ustained lead technique is to matching swing of the barrel to the speed of the bird.  However, the geometry of the target presentation for the outgoing birds at stations 2 and 6 makes matching the speed of the barrel to the speed of the bird next to impossible.  The illustration to the right shows the visual angular velocity of the high house bird on Station 2.  The bird has a very high initial angular velocity as it exits the house.  This requires a very rapid initial movement of the gun.   However, as the bird nears the center stake, its angular velocity quickly drops off.  If you maintain your swing speed with a strong follow through you end up well in front of the bird.   Said differently, the delay associated with the flintlock may cause you to shoot in front of the bird in certain situations.   It is very counter intuitive to think that the flintlock may less lead on certain skeet stations.  

      My approach to Station 2 and 6 is based some advice from John Shima at a modern skeet clinic.  Conventional wisdom is that your hold point for the outgoing bird on stations 2 and 6 should be approximately three feet beyond a line running through the station and perpendicular baseline.  (This hold point is also 21 feet from the house and approximately 1/3 of the way between the house and the center stake.)  With my modern gun, John Shima had me move my hold point out another three feet.  The new hold point requires a shorter, more "efficient", swing and a little more perceived lead.  I have found that this new hold point is also very helpful when shooting a flintlock.  Intellectually, I am not sure why it works, but it certainly seems to work for me. 

       So those are my current thoughts on shooting skeet with a flintlock.Now all I need to to is stop thinking about leads and start focusing on the birds.