Marin le Bourgeoys created the flintlock mechanism between 1610 and 1615 while serving as the Valet de chambre (a job title close to a lackey but with a higher potential for upward mobility) for King Henry IV. Pulling the trigger of Bourgeoys’s creation released the hammer, which held a sharpened piece of flint that struck a piece of steel called a frizzen, flicking it back and creating a shower of sparks that lit a small pan of powder,
which subsequently traveled through a tiny hole in the barrel and lit a larger charge of gunpowder, the explosion of which shot the lead ball through the barrel and toward its target. Here was the original Rube Goldberg machine — but as it was slightly less unwieldy and inconsistent in firing than its predecessors (doglock, matchlock, wheellock mechanisms), and therefore more deadly, it was soon in use on the weapons of the 17th and 18th centuries, first in muskets and then rifles. In America, the most famous forms of these were known as Kentucky or Pennsylvania long rifles and were used to accurately kill small game, and later British soldiers and officers during the American Revolutionary War. By the mid-19th century a caplock system made the flintlock obsolete, though they persisted among the lesser-equipped; during the first year of the American Civil War, Tennessee had over 2,000 flintlock rifles in service.
Today, the M249 squad automatic weapon can fire 1,000 rounds per minute and the M40 sniper rifle can hit targets half a mile away; even a standard hunting rifle shooting .30-06 cartridges can hit targets up to 500 yards away. And yet le Bourgeoys’s weapon lives on. It’s not because the flintlock rifle competes with modern weapons. Hunters and enthusiasts who continue to use flintlock rifles admire them as intricate machines and works of art; they use them to access the special, lengthier hunting seasons that most states offer, during which the woods are much less crowded than during normal rifle season and game is under less pressure from hunters; they appreciate the challenge of killing an animal with such a weapon, just like American and European hunters did hundreds of years before.
That challenge is not hyperbole. To use a flintlock rifle effectively, one must become a master at two processes that are at first clumsy and arduous: loading and firing. It’s not ripping open powder cartridges with your teeth and slamming home a ramrod like you’re in The Patriot. To become a skilled flintlock hunter, you must spend time both on the range learning not to flinch as explosions go off near your nose and honing the combination of ammunition and powder.
Black Powder Safety
1. Don’t smoke around the black powder or your rifle.
2. Mark your ramrod to show where it will sit at the muzzle when the gun is loaded. This way you can be sure your load is seated correctly; you can also check to make sure the gun hasn’t already been loaded.
3. Use only black powder or pyrodex, not smokeless black powder, which can damage the firearm.
4. If the rifle fails to fire, keep it pointed downrange in preparation for a hangfire, or delayed discharge.
5. Clean the rifle thoroughly after every firing. Black powder causes heavy corrosion and buildup that can damage the rifle or worse, cause an obstruction or explosion.
1 Gather your ammunition. The ammo for a flintlock rifle isn’t a self-contained round like in a modern weapon. There are three main, separate, parts here: fine-grained gunpowder for the first explosion in the “flash pan”, coarser gunpowder for the main explosion in the barrel of the rifle, and the bullet, either a round lead ball or a conical-shaped bullet like a minie ball. The type of powder (coarseness ranges from “F”, or very coarse, to “FFFF”, or very fine), amount of powder and the bullet you use depend on the calibre and rifling “twist” ratio of the rifle, though the main charge of powder that is primed down the barrel is usually between 85 and 100 “grains”, or between 0.19 and 0.23 ounces. Testing different combinations of powder and bullet types at a rifle range is the best way to fine-tune a loadout for accuracy.
2 Load the quick cartridge. Soldiers in the 18th century used paper “cartridges” that contained both powder and bullets for easy loading. Today plastic “speed loaders” do much of the same thing: the plastic tube holds the bullet, main charge and flash pan powder. The ball or bullet is lodged into the bottom, facing up; the main powder charge (in the number of grains you’ve decided upon) is poured into the top, and the finer flash pan powder goes in a small side container that can be spilled out into the pan separately. Capped, the speed loader holds all three elements in one place for easy loading and keeps the powder dry. (Note: if you’re using balls rather than conical bullets, you’ll also need cloth patches.)
3 Load the barrel with powder. After ensuring proper safety standards (know what’s downrange of your target and use a proper backstop), you’re ready to load the gun. The main powder charge in the barrel goes first. Its explosion will propel the bullet down the rifled barrel and toward the target. Place the rifle’s stock on the ground in front of you so the barrel is pointed toward the sky. Keeping your head and face away from the end of the barrel, open your speed loader tube and pour the main powder charge down the muzzle of the barrel.
4 Load the barrel with the ball. Next, align the tube of the speed loader with the muzzle of the rifle. If you’re using a conical bullet or minie ball, make sure the correct end is pointing upward, so it’ll point toward the target once it’s seated in the barrel. If you’re using a ball rather than a conical bullet, place a cloth patch over the muzzle of the barrel before loading the ball in on top of it; this patch “seals” some of the space around the round bullet to ensure it gains spin as it travels down the rifled barrel. Using a “starter rod”, a short rod with a wooden ball on the end, push the bullet into the barrel. Once it’s securely inside the muzzle, switch over to the longer ramrod, pushing the bullet until it seats firmly against the powder charge at the end of the barrel. Tap it lightly to ensure it’s seated well — most ramrods have markings that should line up with the end of the barrel when the ball is seated entirely at the other end of the barrel. The powder and ball are now ready to be fired.
5 Prime the pan. The powder in the pan is what initially ignites when a shooter pulls the trigger, dropping the flint onto the frizzen in a shower of sparks — which in turn will hopefully travel through a small pinhole to ignite the main charge in the barrel of the rifle. To load the pan, lift the frizzen into an open position and place the hammer at half cock. Fine black powder should be poured into the pan until it is nearly full. Make sure the pinhole from the pan to the barrel is clear using a small metal pick, then close the frizzen.
6 Secure at half cock. With the frizzen closed and the hammer at half cock, the flint should rest securely against the frizzen. Double check that your flint is in good shape, without cracks or chips. Some shooters prefer to place a small cloth or rag between the flint and the frizzen at this point to ensure no accidental sparking occurs. This is how the rifle will be carried while you hunt — make sure to hold the rifle carefully and check often to be sure the powder in the pan hasn’t fallen out or gotten wet. Without it, you won’t be able to fire when a deer appears, broadside, 20 yards away.
7 Set to full cock and take aim. As you shoulder the rifle, use your thumb to pull the hammer back into full cock position. Most flintlock rifles have normal “iron” sights. Like on any other weapon, you aim by squaring the center post between the two rear sight posts and then centering on your target. (Effective range tends to be around 200 yards.)
8 Squeeze the trigger. This too is just like firing any other type of rifle: slowly exhale, hold the breath, then smoothly squeeze — rather than jerking or pulling — the trigger, straight backward.
9 Follow through. After all that prep, this is easily the hardest part of firing a flintlock. The normal human reaction is to flinch at explosions happening inches away from one’s face. You need to fight that. Between squeezing the trigger and sending the bullet downrange, several things must happen: the flint sparking against the frizzen, the pan in the powder igniting and subsequently igniting the main charge in the barrel. This can take up to 1.5 seconds and involves a smaller and then a bigger BOOM, during which an accurate shooter must hold perfectly still on his target. This takes a lot of practice: you must anticipate the explosions without reacting to them. Which is why it’s time to get out on the range.