Shooting and Maintaining a
By John Fuhring
What, no video??? No, you are going to have to read and think.,
but there is detail here that will teach you more than any video can.
I hope you find this essay interesting and enjoyable.
This essay is presented to you free of charge and without any annoying commercials.
A flintlock showing the cock, frizzen, jaw holding the flint, brass primer pan and frizzen spring.
Inside is the tumbler, bridle, trigger sear, trigger sear spring and mainspring. This is a French model 1777
and therefore has a tilted pan. Notice that this piece came with a frizzen almost straight up as measured by
the angle with the barrel. I call this the "rake angle" and will have more to say about it later.
ForewordBefore writing another word, I want to warn you that I am not a qualified gunsmith and there is nothing in the following essay that you may take as "expert advice." I hope that I have approached everything with common sense and with good and rational observations, but that is something you must decide for yourself. Since I am not a professional nor am I charging you anything, I am not responsible for your safety, especially if you don't understand what I am trying to say and you go ahead and do something foolish. If there is anything that you think is foolish or dangerous for you to attempt, don't attempt it, but write to me or seek out professional advice from a licensed gunsmith. Always error on the side of safety since the person responsible for your safety and the safety of those around you is YOU, yes you.
Please forgive me if I seem a bit snarkey, but if a guy has no mechanical skills or proper tools, perhaps he shouldn't even own a flintlock. Reenactors who don't know how to keep their muskets shooting or cared for in a "armory bright" condition would perhaps be advised to get into some other aspect of reenacting other than that of a common soldier. On the other hand, if you have a sincere desire to learn about how to use and care for these firearms and are willing to really work at it, perhaps this is as good a place to start as any.
The purpose of this essay is to tell what I know about flintlocks, how they work and how to maintain them including the flints, the frizzens, the loading and the cleaning. If you find that I have made any serious mistakes or something doesn't work for you, please write me at my geojohn mail address and not in my guestbook and tell me about it. The last thing I want to do is spread bad information about black powder shooting because, quite frankly, there is already way too much of it out there as it is.
I know that I have created a very wordy essay, but I hope it is an easy and fun read and it does have some nice pictures. Read what you want, skip around, look at the pictures. It's free, there is no password registration required and nobody is going to spy on you or charge you anything or make you watch annoying commercials, I promise.
IntroductionI want to say something about the technical skills necessary to shoot and maintain any flintlock. Flintlock firearms, long or short, rifled or smoothbore, are much more complicated to load and to fire than any other firearm because you must have or want to develop several different skills. This point can not be emphasized too strongly, FLINTLOCK SHOOTING IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE APTITUDE AND MECHANICAL SKILLS OR WHO ARE WILLING TO LEARN THEM. It takes skill and the right accessories to simply load firearms such as these and then knowing how to work a complex mechanism so you get good sparks from a piece of sharpened rock is a skill not everybody has or wants to learn. Related to that, maintaining a sharp piece of rock (the flint) is an art and a science that most of humanity hasn't practiced since the Stone Age and very few people know how to chip flints like our long dead ancestors did. Flintlock shooters must know or must learn how to perform this art and science and hold this fickle firestick on target while the primer powder decides if it is going to set off the main charge or not. No, flintlocks aren't for everybody, but if you are among the lucky few who get infected with the spirit, they are great fun.
I'd like to take this opportunity to say something to hunters about how effective these weapons are. Yes, they were designed to kill and if you accidentally shoot somebody or yourself, the odds are very good that somebody is going to die. It is true that the bullets are huge lead things that weigh many times more than a modern rifle bullet, but the bullet enters a victim's body at sub-sonic speeds and thus will not set up a large shock wave that creates a huge "wound channel" of destroyed tissue. Unlike a modern high velocity rifle bullet, a large .69 caliber musket ball passing straight through living flesh, actually makes a much, much smaller wound channel and does not destroy tissue at any great distance from the path of the bullet. On the other hand, if one of the larger musket balls hits your arm or leg bones, it is likely your whole limb around and below the wound will have to be amputated, as it was in the old days, because tissue damage caused by shattering bone would be that extensive.
The point of bringing this up is to notify people that not only is the range and accuracy of a flintlock very limited, but compared to modern high velocity rifles, the killing power of these weapons is definitely inferior and therefore shot placement well within the killing zone of a game animal is of supreme importance. No shot should be attempted unless it is almost certain that the bullet will land within the kill zone and you will know your own capability and your gun's capability only if you spend a lot of time with it at the range before taking it hunting. Having said that, both the entrance wound as well as the exit wound (these bullets will exit) will be large and because there is relatively little tissue damage, bleeding will be heavy and so following a "blood trail" should be pretty easy for those physically fit enough to do some hiking after a wounded animal. It really need not be said that if you aren't physically fit enough to do this kind of tracking, your hunting days are over.
Finally, I have to admit that I've owned and shot a flintlock rifle for decades, but I am no flintlock expert, by any means. The purpose of this essay is to introduce you to flintlock shooting so that you have a place to start, especially if you do not have access to a real flintlock shooter for good advice. This essay contains my observations and opinions that may or may not be correct, so it is up to you to experiment for yourself and seek other, better ways of doing things that suit your way of shooting. In my opinion, experimenting, trying things and getting immediate results is a big reason shooting black powder is so much fun.
Why a flintlock?Before I begin I'd like to say something about why I find flintlocks worth owning and shooting. First, I love to do more than simply load clips and bang off as many rounds as I can in as short a period of time as possible. To me, that is not a fun way to spend my time. I much prefer the slower, make every shot count, that shooting black powder makes necessary. I actually love to perform all the steps necessary to load a black powder revolver, or muzzle loading firearm. Add to all that the sheer fun of owning and shooting something that is so utterly historical and so very cheap to shoot and you have something a guy could really get into. So, how did I come to my recent "conversion" and why did I get back into flintlock shooting?
My new found appreciation
Just recently I converted a beautifully made and fun to shoot little .32 caplock target pistol into a flintlock (the subject of a new story when I get around to it). While I was working on the conversion and getting it to work really well, I had some thoughts and ideas that I thought I'd practice on my .45 flintlock Hawken rifle that I built from a kit about 40 years ago. My Hawken is a beautiful piece, but I was never satisfied with the way the lock worked. The story of how I improved that rifle's lock will be the subject of another story, but let me just say that I made some minor mechanical changes to the lock, reduced the force of the mainspring so it wouldn't shatter the flints and deeply hardened the frizzen to almost diamond hardness and now I just love the rifle. Success with these flintlocks made me seriously consider getting the 1777 cavalry musketoon which I've already described at some length on another web page.
I now have four flintlocks, a .32 pistol, a .50 pistol, the .45 rifle I mentioned and the .69 French model 1777 musketoon mentioned above. I have recently come to an understanding of the flintlock that makes me really appreciate them and want to shoot them. First, there is no cheaper way of shooting than a flintlock. As cheap as shooting a caplock is, the caps are expensive and getting more so because few gun stores have them and buying them anywhere requires paying either a "hazardous shipping fee" or a large markup. If you have a excellently functioning flintlock, ignition of the powder charge is almost guaranteed and you can get as many shots out of a good flint that you can out of a tin of caps (but only if everything is just right). If you have source of cut agates, you can make your own superior gunflints for free. Speaking of cost, if you cast your own bullets from scrap lead, your major expense, after initially buying everything, is just for the powder and a flint or two now and again.
How gun barrels were made then and nowBack in the 18th and 19th Centuries the original barrel tubes were made from a long "ribbon" of wrought iron that was hammered into a tube around an iron mandrel while the strip was still red hot. This high temperature hammering welded the tube's seam together. There are several videos showing how this amazing process can be done by a skilled blacksmith. By today's standards, this was a crude way of making a barrel and therefore all barrels had to be proof tested to see if the welds would hold. The barrel tubes that made it past the proof stage then went on to work safely and reliably to this very day. Actually, these barrels were made by expert smiths who turned out hundreds of barrels a day in huge workshops.
Back in those days, steel making was a kind of a "black art" or perhaps a "blacksmith's art" and so only small parts that went into the lock mechanism were converted into steel, everything else was made of wrought iron. Wrought iron is an almost pure form of iron without any carbon in it to give it strength or hardness. Wrought iron can not be hardened by quenching in water, in fact, if you heat wrought iron and plunge it into water, it only gets softer because what little carbon it had is oxidized out of it. Wrought iron has slag and other impurities from smelting that tend to form layers within the iron and therefore wrought iron is not a homogeneous iron and is considerably weaker than even mild steel.
By contrast, the barrel of a modern reproduction is a seamless steel tube made of modern homogeneous, medium carbon steel. Being made this way and out of modern steel, a modern barrel would be several times stronger than an original gun's hammer-welded, wrought iron barrel. Steel anywhere near as good as what is used in a modern reproduction wasn't available to firearm manufactures until the 1850s when Colt introduced a high quality homogeneous steel they called "Silver Spring Steel" that was made from low phosphorus Swedish iron ore. As good as Silver Spring Steel is, I seriously doubt the old Colt steel is anywhere near as good as the steel used in modern reproductions.
Wrought iron is very easy to hammer into shape (thus the word 'wrought') and once formed, it is very tough, soft but tough. The surface of this kind of iron can be turned to steel by the process of "case hardening" or carburizing where carbon is added to the surface of the metal when it is red hot and then that surface is made super hard by quenching the red hot piece in water. The process of carburizing the surface of iron makes parts that are tough and hard, don't wear out and will spark when struck by flint. The case hardening process was well understood by the smiths of the 18th Century with their big forges, but today we can do the same thing with simple gas torches and inexpensive hardening compounds.
How a flintlock is able to set gunpowder burning andA flintlock works only because a hard piece of rock, the flint, is able to scrape tiny bits of iron off of the very hard frizzen face as the flint strikes it and slides down it while opening the pan to receive the sparks. Because the steel of the frizzen is so hard, scraping off tiny particles of iron requires a lot of energy and that energy comes from energy you stored in the mainspring when you cocked the gun. When these tiny particles of iron are forced off the surface of the frizzen, all the energy that is necessary to scrape them from the hardened metal of the frizzen makes them extremely hot and they start to burn in the oxygen of the air. Naturally, this is what are called sparks and they are actually tiny particles of burning iron and not pieces of flint (as some people believe).
what must be done to insure reliable ignition.
If a flint is to perform this little miracle of nature, several factors must be right. First, the angle that the flint meets the frizzen is very important and it may be adjusted by how far the flint sticks out of the jaws of the cock. If the flint sticks out too far, it will meet the frizzen at too great an angle and will tend to dig into the metal and even if it doesn't, the flint's sharp edge will shatter thereby reducing the life of the flint. Also, flints striking at too great an angle won't produce good sparks. On the other hand, if the flint is too far back in the jaws and doesn't stick out enough, it will simply glide over the frizzen and fail to produce sparks or produce very weak sparks that misfire.
In addition to the correct flint to frizzen angle and a hard frizzen surface, it is of supreme importance that the hardness extends deep enough into the metal both to prevent the flint from eventually "digging in" and gouging the frizzen. If the frizzen isn't hard enough or the hardness doesn't go deep enough to prevent gouging, re-hardening is very easy to accomplish with some very simple tools and supplies. I will address this subject of frizzen hardening in much more detail in the repairs section of this article.
In addition to a very hard steel frizzen with hardness that goes deep, the flint must be sharp enough to scrape off tiny pieces of hard iron. Traditionally, flints are sharpened as they were in the Stone Age by the process called "knapping." I have ruined countless flints by trying to knapp them myself, so I do it the easy and best way with a small and inexpensive diamond coated wheel I bought at Harbor Freight for just a couple of bucks. These diamond wheels very quickly shapes the flints and the edges are much straighter than done by the old "knapping" process. Flints shaped and sharpened this way will generally last you many times longer than if you try to knapp them with a brass hammer (unless you are a real expert).
These diamond wheels are especially suited for a modern man who has lost his Stone Age skills, but you should avoid breathing in the fine silica dust that is produced by this grinding process. Grinding is fine, but when you are out in the field or at the range and far away from your workshop, a really excellent "knapping" may be done with no tools at all. A really easy, very fast and effective way of "knapping" a flint that has become dull and won't spark reliably is to allow the pan to be slightly open and then allow the flint to strike the frizzen low down. This will tend to lightly shatter the tip of the flint and create a new and sharp edge. For me, this technique works better and a whole lot faster than trying to "knap" the flint with a small hammer. If your firearm is loaded and primed, expect that the sparks created this way will discharge the piece and so, as always, keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction --- usually by being pointed right at the target.
These inexpensive diamond coated wheels are ideal
for quickly shaping and keeping flints sharp.
I use cut agate which is tougher and lasts longer than an ordinary flint and lately I've started to use cut Arkansas stone that seems to be superior to any "flint" I've ever used. Whatever kind of "flint" you use, they are all made of a kind of quartz that is called "microcrystalline" or "cryptocrystalline" because you need a mineralogical microscope or a X-ray diffraction device to see the tiny crystals. The packing of these tiny crystals together makes the "flint" tough and not so prone to shattering, but some forms of microcrystalline quartzes are tougher than others. In order of toughness, it is my opinion that ordinary flint is fine, but is on the bottom, next comes the better quality brown French flints, next the black English flints and best of all are the flints made of agate and Arkansas stone.
This pictures shows where the edge of the
flint is when the cock is all the way down
and the frizzen is held against it.
This is a bit high, but sparks well. and
should last for several shots.
Finally, the angle which the flint meets the frizzen is critical. The flint must strike the frizzen at such an angle that it will produce good sparks, but not so abruptly it will shatter or become prematurely dull nor should it encounter the frizzen at too small an angle so that it will simply slide down the frizzen without scraping off any metal particles. This ideal angle of the flint to the frizzen is actually easy to achieve and it involves the orientation of the flint in the jaws of the cock and this may be adjusted by the spacing material in the jaws and, in the case of the "swan neck cocks, heating and adjusting the angle of the cock. Although it is easy to adjust how the flint meets the frizzen, it takes careful observation and a lot of trial and error before you learn where that piece of flint should be. If you are new to flintlock shooting, you had better have a lot of flints and be ready to change flints often until you get everything right.
By the way, the cock screw that holds down the flint usually has two ways of tightening and loosening it. There is usually a screwdriver slot at the top, but I suggest you never use it because you really can't get the flint in there tightly and you can easily "bung" it up and make the screw unsightly. A better bet is to use a hardened steel rod that fist the hole that is almost always drilled into the top of the screw. Make the screw tight so the flint can't get loose, but not so tight that you strip the threads or break the top of the screw's head (been there, done that).
You already know that it is impossible to clamp down on a piece of hard rock with pliers so that the rock can't move in the jaws. The surface of a flint is too hard and too irregular to allow it to be held in the jaws of a cock without some kind of soft spacer that conforms to and holds the flint rock tightly in the jaws. The traditional and most widely used spacer material is a leather strip. Leather works great and it is what most people use. I've even used artificial chamois made for washing cars and found it as good or better than real leather.
In the days when the flintlock muskets were used in war, a lead strip was used instead of leather. People claim that lead strips are actually superior to a leather because they better conforms to the irregularities of the rock and thus holds the flint in the jaws better. I tend to agree. Leather strips have always worked well for me, but I was having trouble keeping flints aligned in my 1777 musketoon. I made a lead strip by pounding flat a .45 round ball and bent it to conform to my flint. I also snipped out the back of the formed strip with a diagonal cutter to allow room for the jaw screw. I have to admit that the lead strip is superior to the leather strips I've used in the past. As long as you have something that conforms to the shape of the flint and the jaws and allows the flint to be held in without moving around, there are a lot of materials that work fine, but you must use something.
If everything is done right, ignition of a flintlock is nearly as certain as a caplock, but you must have a good, sharp flint in the jaws and the frizzen must be hard. If everything is right, flints will last for perhaps a half a dozen shots before they will have to be adjusted for proper angle or replaced with a fresh flint. Again, it does take some rather specialized skills that not everybody has or wants to develop and it takes attention to the working of the gunlock and condition of the flint.
Safety concerns regarding flintlock firearmsTo be honest, I would hesitate and I absolutely do not recommend shooting full military loads in an actual 18th Century musket with a wrought iron barrel because without extensive X-ray inspection, it is impossible to know if the breech can stand even black powder pressures. It is entirely possible that your antique was cleaned with water and over the years the salts and acids formed by water reacting with the fouling salts (H3SO and H2SO4) ate away at the breech and made it too thin to be able to resist chamber pressures. Modern reproductions have a strong breech made of modern steel with a threaded breech plug and even if cleaned with water, not enough time has accumulated to rust out the breech. The only way you could possible have a mishap with a musket built like this is if you load too much powder and get a too large bullet stuck halfway down a fouled barrel. Any Indian, Italian and especially an original musket can be expected to crack or at least bulge its barrel under these circumstances.
Unlike smokeless powder, there must be no "head space" between the powder and the bullet or an explosive detonation can occur that will bulge or fracture even the best steel. I urge you most sincerely to seat your bullets all the way down because life is too short and even if you do survive, who wants to go through what's left of life blinded and without hands? Even if you are really lucky and only spend a week or so in the hospital and don't loose anything important, your several hundred dollar musket and especially your reputation as an intelligent and responsible gun owner will be ... ah... 'shot' for life.
I was just thinking about something I noticed when I did cavalry reenacting many years ago. We would put in full loads of powder so that we'd get a lot of smoke and a big bang, but that would build up very thick layers of hard fouling not seen in live firing and the build up would be surprisingly fast. Of course, it was part of "camp life" to clean the weapons in the field after a reenacted battle using hot water from the company coffee pot to flush out the thick layers of fouling. I would certainly never advise anybody to use hot water as a cleaning agent, but back then we did it as a quick way to keep our weapons clear and worried about doing a proper job of cleaning and oiling only after we got home from the big event. Because firing blanks really builds up fouling thick and fast, a barrel obstructed this way might become dangerous especially if the reenactor neglected his weapon and let the fouling build up over a couple battles or more without cleaning. An obstructed barrel will bulge or blow up regardless of what it is made of or where it is made. The very best Italian steel will blow as quickly as Indian steel so you reenactors who shoot blanks, please do not neglect your weapons and remove all fouling after a battle even if you have to pour hot water down your musket.
Because the temperature of the gas from the burning powder in the pan of a flintlock traveling through the touch hole is so low, real black powder must be used for the main charge. Black powder substitutes and (may the gods forbid!!!) smokeless powder is set off at much higher temperatures and if you load with anything but real black powder, you will be stuck with a main powder charge that you can't set off. Somehow you will have to use a screw tipped bullet puller to get the bullet out of the barrel and believe me it will be a royal pain (and I know because I've had to do it before). Of course you can put in a ten grain black powder "secondary primer" charge before the main charge of black powder substitute, but using real black powder makes everything so much easier. Of course, the primer charge in the frizzen pan must be real black powder or you will get misfires.
Finally there is this, flintlocks will "hang fire" and misfire and there will be "flashes in the pan" and each of these can present their own safety concerns.
A "hang fire" is always a possibility and it occurs when the primer charge burns very slowly and fitfully and may even go out. If the piece goes off at all, there is an excessive delay between the time the primer charge starts to burn and the main charge goes off. While the primer charge is sputtering, you must assume that the piece will eventually go off and so you must keep the piece pointed down range.
If the primer charge goes off normally, but the main charge does not, you have a flash in the pan. Many times the main charge will go off after a long delay, so be careful. When you have a flash in the pan, you must assume that the gun will eventually go off and so it is vitally necessary to keep the gun pointed down range. I recommend keeping it pointed in a safe direction for at least 30 seconds. Carefully check out the vent hole and see that it isn't obstructed with fouling. Most people suggest that you take a vent pick and clear whatever might be in the vent. After a full minute or two, with the gun pointed down range, reprime the gun and try to fire it again. If the gun still won't fire even after clearing the vent, you must take a small amount of fine powder (2 to 3 grains of FFFG or finer) and force it into the gun grain by grain through the vent hole with your vent pick. Whatever was the cause of these flashes in the pan, the piece should now discharge, but, at this point, you should stop and do a good internal cleaning, either at the range or at home.
If it is windy out and especially if your flint needs attention and the frizzen isn't sparking well, you may get a the kind of misfire where the primer charge fails to ignite. A misfire should be treated as a hang fire and you must wait a number of seconds to see if a spark is smoldering and will eventually set off the piece. If, after several seconds or so, the primer charge hasn't gone off, check the pan to see if you have enough powder in it, take a look at the edge of the flint and if it looks OK, close the frizzen, cock the piece and try again. If it still won't go off, dump out the primer powder and give some attention to the flint or replace it with a fresh one.
With chips of flint flying and burning particles of black powder that may be blown back into your face from the primer pan, it is absolutely essential that you wear eye protection. If your eyes are protected and you have on some kind of hearing protection, your well maintained flintlock can't possibly hurt you when it goes off (providing it doesn't kick too hard). With the confidence that your eyes and ears are protected, you can keep your eyes open and keep the piece on target all the time the primer is burning and then follow through as the piece goes off while still pointed at the target and you must do all this without flinching.
Finally, flintlocks will do the most amazing things and eventually you will see things that really surprise you. For example, just yesterday I had a little fire going in my primer pan that burned rather slowly but with a lot of smoke. To my utter amazement the fire in the pan went out and did not set off the rest of the powder in the pan. As easy as it is to get black powder to burn, you would think that a nearby fire would surely set off a pan full of powder, but it didn't. On the other hand, never "bet your life" that a stray spark won't set off an unprotected can or flask of powder.
Bullets and bullet metal for hunting
If you are shooting a rifled flintlock, you can shoot elongated bullets that have several advantages over a round ball. The elongated bullet is heavier for its diameter giving it two big advantages over a round ball. First, an elongated bullet has what is called a better ballistic coefficient. This translates into a bullet that can travel further and retain more of its initial velocity and energy than a round ball. In other words, the elongated bullet is much more effective at a longer range. A second advantage of an elongated bullet is what is called improved sectional density and that translates into improved penetration of the bullet so that even a bullet that has slowed down at long range can penetrate deeply into a target and kill it. Round balls have terrible ballistic coefficients and terrible sectional density and loose their energy and ability to penetrate rather quickly, especially in calibers under .57. Smaller round balls are generally only effective out to ranges of 50 yards or less even when shot from rifles.
If you are shooting a large caliber smoothbore, you must shoot round balls because elongated bullets will tumble and loose their effectiveness as soon as they leave the muzzle. This is because smoothbores don't have rifling to spin up and stabilize long bullets. Large round balls certainly lack the ballistic coefficient and the sectional density of elongated bullets, but because of their large diameter and the resulting very heavy weight, they sort of make up for it. Of course, round balls shot out of smoothbore barrels lack accuracy at long distance, but within their useful range (about 50 yards maximum), they are very effective.
Elongated rifle bullets can be of two types. The first is a soft bullet that is started in the barrel under force so that it "engraves" into the rifling and thus fits the bore perfectly. A good example of the engraved bullet is the REAL bullet. The other kind of bullet commonly used with rifles is the saboted pistol bullet where a smaller caliber modern hollow point pistol bullet is embedded in a plastic carrier that fits the bore and spins the bullet up as it is shot out. The problem with saboted bullets is they must be shorter and lighter than a full sized engraved bullet, your rifle's barrel must have a very fast twist and many people aren't happy with the sabot bullet's accuracy (or cost). Of course, there are Minie bullets too, but they are seldom used for hunting because their rear skirts tend to get blown out under heavy loads.
Then there is the question of the metal that goes into a bullet. The traditional bullet metal is pure lead, but in more and more places it is illegal to hunt with lead bullets. An advantage of the sabot is that it can carry a lead free copper bullet. Of course, the lighter copper sabot bullets have poor sectional density (penetration) and poor ballistic coefficients (poor long range performance), but they are effective and legal. For smoothbore shooting, nothing but round balls will work, so hunting with lead-free bullets hasn't been an option for me, but perhaps that is about to change.
Just lately I bought two pounds of a bullet alloy that is lead free and should be legal anywhere where there are lead restrictions. I have already cast and shot some round balls for my .69 smoothbore, but because my bullet mold is a bit too big, the fit it very tight. The reason the fit is so tight is because the lead free metal is an alloy of tin and bismuth, but unlike lead, it does not shrink when it cools after being molded. I have a round steel punch that works wonderfully as a bullet sizer and I've used it to shave off a "belt" that allows the ball go down the bore more easily.
A lead ball weighs 1.1 ounces whereas the alloy ball weighs a bit over 0.9 ounce, which is still quite heavy and will easily do the job at the ranges the musket is useful for. I like these lead free bullets, but they are very hard and brittle, which is fine for musket balls and patched round balls, but I don't believe they will work in rifles as "engraved" bullets (REAL bullets, for example), but I will experiment with them and see what they will do.
The importance of "Fouling Management"As in all black powder weapons, the flintlock rifle, pistol or musket will tend to build up hard fouling. In the case of rifled barrels, this fouling will cover the rifling and destroy the piece's precision and accuracy in addition to making it hard to load. To maintain accuracy and your ability to load a round, you will have to stop shooting and clean the barrel. In the case of the smoothbore pistol or musket, fouling means that you have to use undersized round balls which also destroys accuracy and the leakage of gas from the burning powder past the ball (called "windage") will reduce the muzzle velocity. If you use tight fitting balls in a smoothbore, eventually the fouling will get so thick that you won't be able to get a ball down without excessive measures and at that point, you will again have to stop shooting and clean the barrel.
We can achieve good fouling management by the use of the right substances applied in the proper manner. In the following paragraphs I will present my ideas to minimize fouling and maximize precision. What I am about to suggest is very controversial because it has been my experience that to keep fouling soft, your flintlock's bore needs a residual of grease after the bullet passes. What the bore really needs is grease behind the bullet. Certainly, grease on a patch tends to "clean" the bore as it goes down and many times this is enough to allow you to keep shooting, but sometimes this isn't enough and in the case of unpatched bullets, application of grease under the bullet is necessary.
Before I continue, let me submit a proposal for your consideration. I think that we use the term "Bullet Lube" way too loosely. Crisco, lard, Bore Butter, Spit Ball, Etc. should Not be thought of as "Lubricants", but rather as "Fouling Modifiers" or "Fouling Limiters". They do what they do not by reducing friction, but by transforming hard fouling into soft grease. How about calling them "Fouling Sanctifiers" for turning bad fouling into something good? From now on, I'm going to try to avoid using the term "lube" altogether and call it what it is, grease.
Shooting greaseWhat I call 'shooting grease' can be as simple as an eatable fat all by itself. Products that are proved to work include tallow, Bore Butter, Crisco, Spit Ball and lard, but I recommend that those products be used by themselves only in cool to cold weather. All experts agree that you shouldn't coat your bullets or your firearm's bore with petroleum based oil or grease or alox. Eatable fats dissolve and soften fouling whereas petroleum derived oils are reported to thicken into a kind of tar. Lately I've read where it's OK to use water pump grease, but water pump grease contains lithium and lithium is toxic. Thanks, but I'll leave water pump grease to others to try as I'm sticking to the traditional non toxic stuff.
Some time ago I made up a custom blend of what I guess is about 85% Crisco and 10% beeswax (by volume) for use during warmer days (above 60F or 16C). For my revolvers and small rifled pistols and my.45 flintlock rifle the stuff works way better than anything I've ever used and as an added bonus, I am able to use more grease without contaminating the powder below. Now, after all my crowing about this mixture, I am more than a little embarrassed to admit that it doesn't work in my .69 smoothbore flintlock. It seems that the wax binds with the fouling to form a rather tough layer that makes it very difficult getting my oversized slugs down the bore after several shots. The worst thing is, that waxy layer resists dissolving in eatable oils and I have to resort to rubbing alcohol or some other solvent. This seems to be happening only when I shoot my .69 musketoon and I'm not sure why, but something stronger than vegetable oil must be used to get rid of the waxy fouling.
Lately I have experimented with an eatable grease, but without any wax, in my .69 musketoon and it worked well to keep the fouling soft and greasy even after a dozen or more shots. From now on I will avoid using any shooting grease that has beeswax in it, at least in my smoothbore. I'll say more about this in the cleaning section below.
Loading and firing the flintlock
Only real black powder should ever be used in a flintlock firearm.
In every case, I begin with the cock on half cock and the frizzen open:
Grease clinging to the inside of the muzzle after the powder was put down. The ball will follow.
I'm probably using way too much shooting grease, but better too much than not enough.
Experiments will determine how little I can get away with.
The gun is now loaded and primed, the frizzen down, the cock on half cock and the piece is ready to fire. While concentrating on what the target looks like sighting down the barrel and automatically increasing trigger pressure, the cock will be released, the flint will strike the frizzen and (most of the time) sparks will set off the primer charge and the main charge will go off sending a ball shooting out of the muzzle and hit the target -- or miss it, as the case may be. In actual fact, it isn't quite as simple as all that.
With a flintlock there is a huge amount of "lock time" (that time the trigger is pulled and the bullet actually leaves the barrel). During this long time period the shooter has plenty of time to flinch (hence the name "flinchlock) and for the shooter to loose his concentration. When shooting any kind of flintlock, it is of supreme importance to fight your tendency to flinch with every power of concentration you have. You must keep your eye on the target and your mind completely focused on what it looks like staring down that barrel. Your finger must start with pressure on the trigger and then gradually increase it without you even thinking about it so that when powder in the pan goes off followed by the main charge, you are still concentrating on the target and the firearm sort of goes off by itself. Concentration and actively holding the flintlock piece on your intended target at all times is the secret and what you must do.
I have written this elsewhere, but it bears repeating because it is so important and important in helping you overcome flinching:
With chips of flint flying and burning particles of black powder that may be blown back into your face from the primer pan, it is absolutely essential that you wear eye protection. If your eyes are protected and you have on some kind of hearing protection, your flintlock can't possibly hurt you when it goes off (providing it doesn't kick too hard). With the confidence that your eyes and ears are protected, you can keep your eyes open and keep the piece on target all the time the primer is burning and then follow through as the piece goes off while still pointed at the target and you must do all this without flinching.
A highly convenient and effective method that proves that shooting black powder is not the mess people think it is.
There is absolutely one cleaning technique that I avoid and that is the use of any kind of water or water & soap solutions. I do not take off the barrel and, for sure, I do not put the breech end in a bucket of water as seen in many videos. I use vegetable oil as my cleaning solvent or in the case of my musketoon's thick fouling, I use isopropyl alcohol. This is a method that I believe is far superior than using water in terms of protecting the steel from rust. Cleaning with vegetable oil will not smell up my house and it is especially superior in terms of speed and convenience.
Having said all that, I encountered a situation where trying to clean with just vegetable oil flat out didn't work. As I've already mentioned above, after shooting many rounds with a shooting grease with too much wax in it, I had me a barrel that was filled with a hard and almost indissoluble layer that consisted of a nasty mixture of fouling and beeswax. I am embarrassed to admit it after all the crowing I've done about cleaning with eatable oils, but the truth is I had to take the barrel out of the stock and clean it out with 90% isopropyl alcohol (Thompson's No. 13 (basically Ballistol + water) also worked very well on another similar occasion). Actually, cleaning with isopropyl alcohol is pretty nice because the alcohol does not react with the barrel's metal to cause rust and it does not create obnoxious smells. If you clean with the stuff, I suggest you be very careful it doesn't drip onto the stock or you remove the barrel first because alcohol is a strong solvent that will damage your stock's finish.
Today's update: I shot a couple of dozen rounds out of my .69 musketoon and this time the grease I used was straight Crisco. I am extremely pleased to report that the fouling stayed soft and gooey and greasy. All I did to clean the musketoon was to send down clean patches until the last one was reasonably free from black goo. From now on I will avoid putting wax in my shooting grease meant for long arms and especially in my large caliber musketoon. I'll say more about this technique in just a second.
After shooting black powder, I try to clean my firearms as soon as I get home, but sometimes I have to wait a few hours before I can do it. If the barrel has a greasy layer in it, and if a greasy fouling remains on the outside of the barrel from the primer pan and smoke blown out the touch hole, a slight delay in cleaning shouldn't cause a problem.
I start my cleaning by sending down a patch on a jag or a small rag screwed into my worm. If the fouling is soft and greasy, I simply continue to use clean patches until the last one comes out reasonably clean. This is usually requires only a few patches. If the fouling is thick and hard and it is a small bore (.50 or smaller), I will use an eatable oil like jojoba or olive oil as a solvent, If vegetable oil doesn't seem to be dissolving a hard fouling (especially if it is waxy), I soak a patch in isopropyl alcohol as described above. Of course, some people swear by the commercial cleaners and especially Ballistol mixed with water to make "Moose Milk." I urge you to experiment and discover what works best for you in terms of effectiveness and convenience.
Once the last patch or rag comes out reasonably clean, I take that patch and put shooting grease or eatable oil on it and run it down the bore to protect the iron and have the barrel ready for the next shooting session. As always, swab down the bore with vegetable oil (jojoba, olive, canola, Etc.) or shooting grease as your last step to prevent rusting, especially if you have used a solvent.
The residue on the outside also requires removal and for that I take a small cloth or paper towel and put some eatable oil on it and then wipe everything down. Most of the time I do not remove the lock, but just wipe down the places I can get to without removing anything. Of course, I wipe down the outside of the barrel with special attention to the breech end and all around the cock. I wipe down the primer pan and the front side of the frizzen and all parts of the lock's outside. I avoid putting oil or grease on the frizzen face or the flint.
For calibers up to .50, a jag works great
and especially if your rifle or pistol has a touch hole insert.
For a smoothbore and other flintlocks .50 caliber and larger, a worm is essential.
This is especially true if your touch hole doesn't have a removable liner.
Cleaning patchs made from pieces of an old towel screwed into the worm
makes a disposable swab that is superior to using a jag with thinner cloth patches.
I do not use elaborate tools, brushes or reusable (shotgun) swabs for cleaning, but a simple jag or worm with cloth patches works well enough. For my .69 musketoon I have found that a worm is absolutely essential. The worm can be used to hold terry cloth that is then screwed into it and if you loose it down the barrel or have wads that were left in after firing, the worm works marvelously for fishing out foreign objects. In my opinion that for any musket or rifle, especially those without a touchhole liner, you should have a worm with you before you take it out shooting for the first time and every time you go out afterwards. Of course, I do not use a worm with my smaller caliber rifles and pistols, but they all have removable touch hole liners and any lost or stuck patches can be pushed out once the plug is out.
A bullet puller is another necessary tool
for those emergencies when you must remove
a stuck bullet or unload your muzzle loader for any reason.
Lubricating the lock mechanism
I am still experimenting with a suitable lubricant for the inside of the lock. I have tried light gun oil and a dry lubricant, but nothing really lasted very long before I felt there was excessive friction inside the mechanism. Just lately I oiled everything with a few drops of a light synthetic motor oil I use in my car and so far it is working great. Synthetic oil, not being a distillate mixture of oils that includes some heavy fractions, should not get thick over time nearly as quick as will ordinary oils, but time will tell and I may have to use something different. Of course, as I've said elsewhere, experimenting with black powder firearms is half the fun of owning them.
Repairing your flintlockTo remove a spring without breaking it is (as mentioned) a delicate task requiring a special tool. The traditional and perhaps best tool is called a spring vice. I have made my own tool, but I went to a lot of trouble to insure that it can't damage a spring. Whenever removing a spring you have never removed before, take a lot of time and really think it out before applying any tool or you will end up with a snapped spring and the same thing goes with a new spring you are going to put in for the first time.
Flintlocks are quite reliable and seldom need any repair beyond attention to the flint. Having said that, springs do break and there may come a time when that really heavy trigger pull you once thought you could live with is just too much. The flintlock has three springs that at some point may break, the frizzen spring, the trigger sear spring and the mainspring. The mainspring is the heaviest of all the springs and it sometimes does break, but they are easily replaced. However, if you are not a careful worker who can handle small tools with a delicate touch, removing and/or replacing springs is better left to a gunsmith or other skilled person.
The inside of the lock showing the internal parts.
Where the mainspring interacts with the tumbler
and where the trigger sear interacts with the tumbler's
sear are high friction and wear points and requires a good lubricant.
The dreaded "locking pliers."
Gunsmiths shudder at the sight of one of these when used to compress springs. To make the steel softer than a spring's steel and prevent scratching, I heated the jaws to near white hot and then let them slowly cool between two fire bricks. I also filed down the sharp ridges inside the jaws so the clamping force would be more evenly distributed. Anytime a spring has to be removed or installed, great care must be exercised. The tool must have soft steel jaws, the compression must be at the end of the spring's travel and only enough compression must be done to allow the spring to be removed or installed. An overly compressed spring can snap and scratches from a hard tool on a spring's surface can cause it to fail at some future point. This tool is quick, versatile, easy to use, cheap and safe to use if used carefully and with a lot of thought.
Micro-blacksmithingAs mentioned earlier, all parts of early black powder rifles and muskets were made of wrought iron or started out as wrought iron. This is because, in the early days, steel making was very difficult and reserved for making the small lock parts. Wrought iron is very easy to hammer into shape (thus the word 'wrought') and once formed, it is very tough, soft but tough. The surface of this kind of iron can be turned to steel by the process of "case hardening" or carburizing where carbon is added to the surface of the metal when it is red hot and then that surface is made super hard by quenching the red hot piece in water. The process of carburizing the surface of iron makes parts that are tough and hard, don't wear out and will spark when struck by flint. The case hardening process was well understood by the smiths of the 18th Century with their big forges, but today we can do the same thing with simple gas torches and inexpensive hardening compounds.
Modern low carbon steel is much tougher and more homogeneous than wrought iron, but it too is soft and will not spark unless it is further carburized. A very common problem you may have to deal with, especially with a new flintlock, is the hardness of the frizzen. Many, if not most frizzens come from the factory with a very thin hardened layer that soon wears through exposing the soft low carbon steel (or wrought iron) inside.
Here is a frizzen who's outer later wore through exposing the soft
interior. This causes the flint to "dig in" and shatter and the frizzen
produces very poor or no sparks at all. Part of the problem was
that the "rake angle" from the factory was off.
If you have a badly gouged frizzen such as shown above, you should grind it smooth with a wheel and then deeply harden it. Actually, hardening this part is not that difficult, but it must be done correctly and you must have the right tools, setup and supplies. For years I used a really great product, but you can't get it any more so a product called "Cherry Red" substitutes for it. I have never used Cherry Red, but it seems that it is a proper substitute for my old hardener and the process is exactly the same.
Model 200B Mag Torch
Inexpensive and really hot.
I go through a lot of propane, but I have a refill kit
and a large tank. The tiny orifice behind the large
burner clogged soon after buying the torch so I unscrewed
the burner and took out the particles clogging the orifice
and WOW, what a huge, hot flame I now have.
First, you must have a really large and hot propane torch. I used to use MAPP gas, but it is no longer manufactured and that wimpy MAP gas that substitutes for it is both terribly expensive and hardly a degree hotter than straight propane. I also have some fire bricks I use to make a temporary little furnace for getting things really hot.
1. I recommend using a large large torch such as the one shown. With the frizzen resting on a fire brick and its face toward
me, I direct the flame at it and heat frizzen to a bright red temperature.
2. When the frizzen is really hot, I pick it up with a pair of pliers and then plunge the frizzen face into the hardening
compound so that compound sticks to the hot surface. I let it cool there until it is no longer red hot.
3. I reheat the frizzen to red hot and let the compound that is stuck to it melt. I leave it in the flame for a minute or
so, then brush it down with a steel brush while it is still red hot to remove all the black scale.
4. I repeat steps 1 through 3 two more times, removing the scale with the wire brush each time.
5. As a final step, with an open container of cold water handy, I heat the cleaned frizzen to red hot and then quickly plunge
it into the cold water to give it a very hard and deep case hardening.
When done, the frizzen's face is wire brushed smooth and the front of the frizzen may be polished. The frizzen's face will be harder than a file and the flint wont dig in, but it usually won't spark well. A newly hardened frizzen has to be "broken in" by repeated dry firing with a good flint. I have done this operation for all my flintlock's frizzens because I am never satisfied with the factory hardening. I did not do this with Paul's original Brown Bess because its frizzen was properly hardened by people who really knew what they were doing and it sparks remarkably well as it is.
I watched a video the other day where the guy suggests that some of the hardness of the frizzen be taken out so the part won't shatter. First of all, I've never had a frizzen shatter no matter how hard I made it. With case hardening, only the outside is hard, but the inside steel is soft and tough and resists shattering. I have tried "tempering" a frizzen to see how well it would spark and no matter how lightly I tempered the steel, it would not spark. My suggestion is to make the case hardening just as hard as it is possible to get it by using a good hardener, high temperatures and rapid quenching in cold water.
If your lock is really "eating" up flints, it may be due to reasons other than a frizzen that is too soft. First, the flint must strike the frizzen a little higher than half way down, but high enough to get good sparks and you will have to experiment with where and how to place the flint in the jaws for best flint life and good sparks.
Another common reason flints will shatter or otherwise be quickly used up is because the mainspring of a new lock is too strong. You should be able to, with a bit of strength, cock your lock with your 5th finger (the pinkey), but if you can't, your lock may only need to be lubricated. If that isn't it, your bridle may be holding the lock mechanism in too tight and you need do some filing and polishing to make the mechanism operate smoothly. Finally, if you can't cock the lock without extraordinary force and everything else is good, the spring is too strong. One reason a spring might be too strong is that it binds up due to the channel in the spring's fold limiting the spring's travel.
Channel too narrow, metal too thick and binding.
Take a tiny diamond wheel saw on a small rotary tool and open up the rear of the mainspring where the parts of the mainspring are touching. You may have to further open up this channel with a hacksaw blade until you get it almost to the inside of the bend. Be sure you remove as little metal as possible and yet still have a spring that compresses properly.
Metal too thickIf after a lot of testing and a lot of thought you determine, FOR SURE, that you have a mainspring that is still just too strong, the strength may be reduced by VERY CAREFULLY AND VERY SLOWLY filing metal off the TOP of the spring. You should never take metal off the sides to make it thinner, but off the top only. Be sure you maintain the taper so that the tumbler end is shorter than the end where it doubles around. Be sure your work leaves a smooth surface with no nicks. When you have a spring tension that is acceptable, even if it is a bit strong, it is probably best to stop right there. By the way, I modified the springs of my new .69 musketoon and my Hawken .45 rifle and I can report that the mainsprings are now easier on the flints, they are easier to cock, the frizzens spark better than ever and I'm glad I went to the trouble.
Flint placement is very important and must be done properly to insure you have good sparks. I have found that the best flint placement is when you start by having the frizzen open and the cock all the way down. You then bring the frizzen slowly down toward the flint (close the pan). The very bottom edge of the frizzen should at least touch the flint and prevent the frizzen from closing over the pan. The flint might be a little longer than this, but shouldn't be too much longer. It is my belief that the upper part of the frizzen is for opening the pan, but not for creating sparks. The lower part of the frizzen is where the hot sparks are created and you should look for scrape marks or a kind of polish down there to see if your mechanism is tuned up properly. Naturally, this area must be hardened properly and not just the top and center part of the frizzen.
If you have a hard frizzen and have done all the things to insure good sparks from a hard frizzen, you might look into how the top jaw is positioned in its cock. I'm talking about the angle of the flint in the cock and if the screw is square with the top jaw.
In an attempt to figure out why my frizzen was throwing weak sparks, I started looking closely at pictures of original muskets and how the flints were held in the jaws. I noticed that my top jaw was at the wrong angle, it was resting on the bottom of the jaw guide and was not at all parallel with the bottom jaw. On removing the screw, it was obvious what was wrong, the hole in the jaw was way, way too large and allowed the jaw to rotate up and displace the angle of the flint.
Here is my musketoon's cock holding the flint at the wrong angle.
Notice that the top jaw is on the guide's bottom. You can't see it,
but the screw is not square with the top jaw and the top jaw is
rotated up. This is made worse if you use a thick flint or thick
flint holders like the lead ones shown below.
Weak sparks even with a very sharp flint.
Here's the flint held at the proper angle in the jaws.
Notice that the top jaw is square with the screw
and the bottom rear of the jaw is above the guide's rest
where it should be. Strong shower of sparks.
I needed a much tighter fit between the top jaw's hole and the shaft of the screw if I wanted the top jaw and flint held in correctly. I considered brazing metal into the hole and then boring it out to the same diameter as the top of the screw shaft, I considered brazing metal on to the screw shaft and machining it to the same diameter as the hole, but, in the end, I used my little lathe and made a brass insert that fits tightly inside the jaw hole and has a bore diameter the same diameter as the screw's shaft. As you can see, the insert works perfectly.
When I went to try the lock, I was very pleased at the large shower of sparks that the frizzen now throws. Who would have thought that flint angle and top jaw position was so important? I never did, but I do now.
Conclusions and suggestionsAre flintlocks for every kind of shooter? The short answer is no, they certainly are not. There are a series of things you must consider before deciding if a flintlock firearm is right for you.
First, is the gun simply for display and if it is, just hang it up for you and your friends to admire. You won't need to know anything beyond what the firearm means to you. This can be a reflection of your interest in a specific period of American, European or World history or simply your interest in a flintlock firearm as a martial work of art.
If you are an historical reenactor and want portray a period soldier and fire only blank ammunition, you will need to know about loading and priming and taking care that the flint is working properly. If you don't have mechanical skills, you had better have a "company armorer" who is really good, who can keep your gun operating properly for you and to whom you can go to for advice and help. You should be aware that the flintlock is the most complicated kind of firearm a shooter is likely to ever encounter.
If you want to shoot ball ammunition (live rounds) at a range of some sort and without the support of an armorer or that "mechanical" friend of yours, you must have at least some mechanical aptitude and know how to use the small tools necessary to keep a flintlock working or else get another type of firearm. If you are the kind of shooter that likes to shoot up box after box of ammo as fast as you can, a flintlock is definitely not for you.
Finally, if you aren't in the habit of cleaning your guns immediately after a shooting session and are a bit casual about how they are stored away, any kind of black powder firearm is not for you.
If you are good with working with your hands, like to do so and have a good mechanical aptitude and you like to take the time to load, aim and shoot without being in a big hurry and if you enjoy the pleasure of a jolly blast of fire and smoke, a flintlock might be just the ticket. For me, a half dozen shots out of any of my black powder firearms, including my revolvers, pistols, rifles and musketoon, is far more satisfying than a whole box of cartridge ammo that I can shoot up in the time it takes me to reload my musketoon just a couple of times.
My French model 1777 cavalry musketoon flintlock
After some extensive, but very fun work correcting a lot of minor things, I am very proud of this gun.
Paul's original Brown Bess I rebuilt
All modesty aside, I am very pleased with how this gun turned out.
My Hawken flintlock built from a kit in the mid 1970s
By adjusting the mainspring's strength, the angle of the flint and making the frizzen super hard, this rifle is vastly improved.
My Crockett flintlock conversion from a caplock My Trapper flintlock
Both pistols have had the horribly "farby" stampings on both sides of their barrels polished off leaving the barrels "in the white"
Both frizzens were rehardened, the flints positioned correctly and now they spark like champions.
As always, I hope this article was useful to you or at least encouraged you to consider black powder shooting. It is my sincere desire to help people realize that black powder firearms can be quite as accurate as a modern smokeless firearm, but more fun to shoot and not the big mess they think it is. Black powder firearms, especially flintlocks do take work to shoot and care for properly, but many people find that the extra effort is half the fun and if done right, it isn't nearly as big a chore that many people think it is. Please have fun, but always think safety and always keep in mind where the bullet will hit if your firearm should go off unexpectedly. Always keep your powder where sparks can't possibly reach it or you may be badly burned or worse.
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If you liked this story, you might also like to read about my musketoon project
French Model 1777 Cavalry Musketoon made in India
You might be interested in how I recently rebuilt my friend Paul's flintlock
Restoring Paul's original India Pattern Brown Bess
You might also like to read one more of my
Black powder revolver articles.
or you can go to my shooting articles selection page
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