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Muzzle Blasts Online
The Flintlock Revisited
It is pushing on towards a decade since I last discussed the flintlock with the good readers of this magazine. (Oct. '90) In that time, many new members have joined our happy band. I am sure some of them labor under the illusion that the percussion lock is a viable alternative to the time-tested flinter, just as some poor souls have been conned into thinking that an in-line rifle will do wondrous things for their chances of bringing home the bacon. (I'm even told that some folks think cartridge guns and smokeless powder are not just a passing fancy!) If you are one of those deluded ones, a flint shooter who is having troubles, or simply a person who is not familiar with the flintlock, please read on. I think you may find an idea or two herein that might be of value.
Using A Flint Awl
Of course, if you are an old flint shooter from way back, you likely already know all this stuff and possibly won't agree with everything I have to say. That's cool. There's lots of room for diverse opinion in this shooting game. If your methods work and are safe, far be it from me to try getting you to change. (Besides, trying to get an old flint shooter to change his ways is about as futile as trying to herd cats!)
I would like to insert one little disclaimer before I plunge into the topic. I do not claim to be an expert. While I have futzed about with black powder for fifty of my sixty-five plus years, I am still learning. The thoughts and opinions voiced here are simply gleaned from years of shooting and observing the flintlock, as well as talking to other flint shooters.
I, like most modern shooters of muzzleloaders, started with a percussion rifle. I found it to be accurate and reliable. So why did I switch to a flinter? Being a history buff, I think that it was largely the romance of the things. "Muzzleloader" and "Flintlock" just seemed to go together, like "Pork and Beans." (Let's face it - tofu and beans may be more politically correct but that combination just doesn't cut the mustard!) Also, there was the challenge of shooting a flinter. As a kid, I'd often acquired old, odd-ball firearms just to see if I could make them function accurately. The moaning I heard about the problems faced by flint shooter just made them more appealing.
When rendezvousing became popular back in the '70's I, like most shooters, just had to have a percussion "Hawken.'' Flint shooters were considered the masochists of the game and given a separate division in which to shoot so that they wouldn't have to compete against the "superior'' percussion guns. Intrigued, I had to join this band. It wasn't long though, before folks started to notice that the scores posted for the "rock rifle'' shooters were often higher than those for the poor "persuction'' fellers. In my neck-of-the-woods, it is now rare to find a separate flint category. We shoot with the big boys and take our share of the goodies off of the blanket!
Now, mind you, I am not saying that a flinter is trouble-free, but I will say that a good quality flinter, if treated correctly, will give you fewer miseries than many percussions with a nipple and drum breech.
Let's look at some flintlock problems and their cures. The most common problems faced by the flint shooter seem to fall into four categories: 1) failure to ignite the priming (Klatch!); 2) failure to ignite the main charge (Klatch-pfft!); 3) slow ignition (Klatch-pfft-bang!); and 4) short flint life ($$$). We'll take a look at them in that order and see if there are some ways to avoid or cure those little difficulties.
Problem number one, failure to ignite the priming, can be caused by a number of factors. The most common is a dull flint. When using cut flints I soon found that knapping simply ruined the rock. I learned to carry a flat diamond-faced file that was used to touch-up the cutting edge of the flint, both flat and bevel, with about five strokes every five to six shots. This pretty well got rid of any failure-to-spark problems. Flint life was terrific.
There were a couple of cockroaches in the Jello though. The cut flints tend to eat frizzens, and that big white (or red) parallelogram perched in the jaws of my little Siler lock looked about as classy as a pair of longhorns bolted to the hood of a Porsche! And having to pull that purple plastic-handled diamond file out of my pouch to touch up my flint while surrounded by buckskin-clad purists is about as embarrassing as showing up tipsy at a Temperance rally!
Flints, of course, come in several varieties. I prefer the black English type or the yellow French (if you can find them) because they are the traditional flint of American History, they are still fairly inexpensive, and because I have had fine success with them. More on them later. (I have recently been using some black "Kentucky Flints" that were knapped by Terry Strange of 386 Glenwood Drive, Glendale, KY 42740; Phone (502) 369-9187. He sells them for $8.00 per dozen plus $3.00 shipping, so the more you order at a time the cheaper they are. The flints I received show that he is still learning his craft but they are all good, usable flints and throw lots of sparks. Service is quick, and with English flints climbing in price, I predict Terry's business will prosper.)
With any flint, cut or black English, I like to use a thin leather pad to give the jaws something to bite on and to grip the rock, so that it cannot move about in the jaws of the cock. A failure-to-flash reason nearly as common as a dull flint is having your rock loose in the jaws. Make sure it is held tightly. I do not recommend using a lead pad, though. Lead is a dead metal. It has no resiliency. A flint that was tight in the jaws a few shots ago can end up on the ground as the lead compresses and loosens up. (Yes, the military issued sheet-lead pads but they also issued a new flint for every fifteen shots. You, I hope, are not so profligate.)
The flint should be placed so that it almost touches the face of the frizzen with the pan closed and the gun on half-cock. If you have gotten a flint that is over-long and will not let the pan close, just knap a little recess in the back of it so that the rock can be inserted a little farther into the jaws. Taking some rock off of the back of the flint does not shorten flint life. Knapping the front of the flint can chip away the equivalent of dozens of shots. (I'll cover knapping in detail, under "Short flint life.")
Whether you put the flint in bevel-up or bevel-down depends upon the personal druthers of the lock. Try it both ways and see which gives you the best results. My small Siler accepts the flint either way, but flint life is much longer with the bevel-up until the rock is worn short. Then I can flip it over and get another 20-50 shots out of it. I also have a large Davis lock that is discernibly slower with the bevel-down. Do what works for you and your lock.
Also, make sure that the hammer can travel full forward without the flint hitting the barrel. A wide flint, or one with its cutting surface not at 90 degrees to its axis, can fool you. You don't want it to cut a furrow into your barrel when it snaps forward.
On occasion, you will find a lock that lets the flint dip into the pan so deeply that the face of the flint is right in front of the touch-hole. This is not good! The jet of hot gases coming out of that hole will eat off the face of a flint in very few shots. Set your rock back so that it is not being gas-cut, or figure on doing some serious knapping - real soon-like! If your lock simply travels too far, either get shorter flints or solder a small metal insert onto the cock-stop to shorten the travel.
Once a sharp flint is in the jaws (and you have checked to see that the leather is not sticking out enough to touch the frizzen and soften the strike), cock the empty gun and snap the lock. It is best to do this in reduced light so that you can see a majority of the sparks. Do you get a lot of white-hot sizzlers or just a few big orange sparks? If you get just the big orange ones, there is a good chance that your frizzen is too soft. (Short flint life is often combined with a soft frizzen too.) The flint digs into the metal too deeply and gouges out pieces of metal that are too large to heat white-hot, while breaking off pieces of flint. This is a common problem with some of the cheap imported locks. I have not seen it in a domestic lock in many years. Look at your frizzen face. Is it evenly scraped, or are there deep gouges and ridges forming in it? A few careful minutes on a belt sander will smooth out the face of the frizzen. Then, take it to a gunsmith for proper hardening if you have not the knowledge to do it yourself.
If you have a cheap imported lock, you may find that the metal is so poor that it will not even case-harden well. (Not all imported locks are of poor quality.) In this instance, your smith will have to half-sole the face of the frizzen with a piece of file. This was once a common practice, but the quality of locks has improved so much recently that it is not done much anymore. When I started shooting flint you got an original, a one-at-a-time custom, a Siler, or the now defunct Haddaway lock if you wanted a good one. The rest were of fair to bad quality. Today, there isn't a bad American-made custom lock on the market, as far as I know. One large American commercial gun-maker does put out a lock that I consider to be less than desirable. That is why I recommend a Siler, Davis, L&R, Chambers, Caywood, or other quality lock.
Before you decide to heat-treat or half-sole that frizzen though, I'd suggest that you knap your flint. Often a hard frizzen will require an initial knapping of a new flint before it will work well. But then, a hard frizzen will not be gouged either, so discerning the difference is not hard to do.
Now, let's say you get sparks like the Fourth of July but you also get a flash-in-the-pan fairly often. There can be a number of causes, often working in concert. Let's look at a few:
One problem can be the humidity. A rifle that works well in a dry climate may become fussy where it is humid. After you fire, watch the fouling in your pan. Does it start out gray and quickly turn to a shiny obsidian-colored puddle? Under such a condition, a 1/32" flash-hole is just asking for problems. In damp or humid climes, I consider a 1/16" touch-hole to be the minimum. Plus, if you dump your priming into such a mass of shiny, damp goo, it will absorb moisture, and after a short time, it will not burn as rapidly as it should, if it flashes at all. [Editor's note: Under such conditions, you might try priming with FFFg or even FFg; since those granules are larger and graphite-coated, they are less susceptible to minor humidity, and they still flash reliably and quickly.]
Under damp shooting conditions, it is a good idea to always wipe your pan between shots. Carry a small bottle of alcohol. Dampen a cleaning patch with it and wipe out the pan. Alcohol is an excellent solvent and evaporates quickly to leave a nice dry pan. (Denatured is to be preferred over rubbing alcohol, which is 20% water.)
Also wipe off the cover of your pan. It too, is covered with goo. If you move your rifle about after priming, or over-prime the pan, some powder will be stuck on the under-side of the pan cover as it is lifted by the flint. With a slow ignition this dampened, but ignited, powder can be blown over the fence and into your face. Do you get speckled shooting glasses during a shoot? Or, if you are foolish enough to not wear glasses, do you have a tendency to see spots before your watery eyes after a shoot? Wipe the pan and cover on humid days and see if the problem is not resolved. (And wear shooting glasses!)
Another aid for wet weather shooting is "Rain Coat." This is a fine white powder, that you add to your priming to help prevent absorption of moisture. You mix six parts priming powder to one part Rain Coat. One little bottle will last danged near a lifetime. I use it in my hunting primer. (Mountain States Muzzleloading, #1 Muzzleloading Place, Dept. MB, Williamstown, WV 26187.)
Just before shooting in wet or humid weather, wipe the face of your frizzen. If there is any moisture there, or dirt that has collected moisture, it should be eliminated. Such moisture sucks heat right out of your sparks before they ever get a chance at the priming.
When you ram your ball home, air is forced out of the vent, blowing it clear...maybe. It may also have simply blown a clinker into the vent. Pick your vent. When hunting, put a quill in the vent to keep moisture out of the main charge until you are ready to prime. A quill will not swell up and stick like a wooden toothpick, nor will it break off in the vent.
When hunting in the rain, wipe your pan lip and cover with a lubed patch to coat them. You don't want a big mass of lube as some of your muzzleloading manuals show. This can act like denture adhesive. Also, it can vaporize when you fire and temporarily blind you. All you need is enough to force the water to bead up so that it cannot wick into the priming. Put a little lube in the barrel channel just ahead of the lock to prevent water from running along that crack and into the pan. Change priming hourly under soggy conditions. Carry your lock tucked under the armpit of your capote.
Well now, let us suppose that your powder always flashes but you don't always get ignition, even with a full-sized touch hole. It might be the placement of your vent that is the problem. The vent (touch hole, flash hole) should be just about level with the top of the pan. (Or a bit lower if you have one of those locks with a pan that holds about a pint of powder!) If your vent is a bit high, opening your touch hole to 5/64th may take care of the problem, but a better solution is to remove the vent liner and replace it with a liner that has the vent off-center, so that it lines up with the top of the pan. My favorite flinter was converted from percussion to flint, forcing this solution to be used. The vent liner is made from a hardened stainless bolt. It has lasted for thousands of shots. A wire gauge still shows no discernible wear, and my chronograph still reports very little deviation in velocity from shot to shot. (Oh I know, the super-competitive shooters change liners about as often as they do their socks. I'm not arguing with them. I just go by the old axiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!")
Often times, the vent-liner itself is the villain. The old-timey rifles simply had a hole bored through the barrel to the powder chamber. How those guys shot well with that arrangement is a mystery. That long touch hole would act as a fuse and slow the ignition terribly. A properly made liner has a hole of about 1/16" to 5/64" in diameter that is only about 1/32 to no more than 1/16th of an inch in depth. Inside of that, the liner cones out to almost the full diameter of the insert. This puts the powder right by the priming charge. Ignition is quick. Some vent liners have touch holes that are a quarter-inch long, or more, before they enter the cone. Not good! Check your vent liner. Most on the market are fine. Some are little more than a bad joke!
A few locks have, as noted, overly large pans that put the priming charge too low to ignite well. You can either use a lot of powder in the pan and fry your face, or reduce the size of the pan. I've seen several pans welded up and then a more appropriate-sized recess ground into them. All owners claim improved ignition with less priming, and they no longer get "sunburned" foreheads in the winter. You can check to see if this would help your lock by putting Bondo into the pan and forming it to shape. It will burn out in short order, but it will allow you to check out a possible solution without springing for a welding job right off the bat.
Another problem, which falls into both the failure-to-fire and slow ignition categories, is often the cleaning jag. I contend that most of the jags on the market are too large in diameter. A cleaning patch should be pushed loosely down the bore, and when you start to pull it back out, it should bunch up on the jag and pull the fouling out of the bore. Most of them push the goo into the bore as you insert the cleaning patch. This shoves all that crud right into the area where the vent is. Even if it isn't blocked, it may well be obstructed to the extent that it causes slow ignition. I put my new jags in the chuck of an electric drill held in a vise, and use a file to reduce the diameter. Oh, I still get hang-fires occasionally. I had one a couple of months ago!
I read a lot of outdoor magazines at the local barber shop. The other day I ran into one of those tales about muzzleloading hunting in which the modern-day Daniel Boone said that part of the challenge of shooting a flintlock was to be able to hold it on target while it went "Klatch-Ffft-Boom." If you believe this, you are in for a pleasant surprise. I assert that a properly tuned flinter is so fast that it is difficult to tell its ignition speed from a percussion. If your rifle has a perceptible lag betwixt trigger pull and boom...something is not quite right, or your perception speed is a lot faster than mine. Let's examine a couple of things that might speed up your rifle a bit.
I don't know why this is true, but I've seen it work enough times to be convinced. Some locks simply stop the flint too far from the pan. By removing some of the metal on the cock (hammer) stop and allowing the cock to drop until the edge of the flint is just above the pan, you will get faster ignition. It sounds silly but I am convinced it works, even though I can't explain why. [Editor's note: Be sure you're aware of what's happening on the inside of your lock while you carefully make that modification; the nose of your mainspring must not be allowed to slip off the foot or lifter of the tumbler, and often you have an internal tumbler stop that needs to be coordinated with the external cock stop.]
Another mouse in the cookie jar has to do with ignition speed and our final problem - poor flint life. This is the angle of the cock. Some of the locks on the market hold the flint too upright. An upright cock tends to smash the flint into the face of the frizzen at too much of an angle. The flint is dulled and the frizzen is ridged by such an action. If the neck of the cock is heated and the jaws tipped forward slightly, so that the flint strokes the steel instead of smacking into it, you get better sparking and longer flint life. I've seen frizzens turned into washboards in a few hundred strikes while giving only twenty to thirty shots per flint. By smoothing the frizzen face and bending the cock forward a bit, those same locks now stay smooth and give 75 to 150 shots per flint. Indeed, I consider anything under 100 shots from a black English flint to be poor flint life. I've gotten 50 to 75 shots out of "worn out" flints thrown away by other shooters. (No, I'm not related to Jack Benny but we Celts are a thrifty lot!)
Other than a rock-bashing lock, the main reason for poor flint life is often the way a shooter knaps the flint. Many people just get out their little knapping hammer and bang away on the front of the rock until there are enough sharp spots to get a good spark. Wrongo! This method will let you use about 1/3 of a 3/4" flint. By the time you have used approximately a quarter-inch of rock, the flint will be so blunt that further sharpening is next to impossible. If, instead, you used a knapping awl (see illustration), you would take spawls off of the underside of the flint when you knapped it, thus maintaining a taper and about doubling the life of the flint. With flints going for over a buck apiece now, that shines!
To use a knapping awl, simply make your rifle safe (empty is best), hold it so that your hands are free or have a buddy hold it, (muzzle down-range) and set the hammer on half-cock. Place the awl against the front of the flint with the quarter-inch tit touching the flint's face and the 1/32" ridge against the top. Now give the awl a smack with your hammer. A long piece of flint will pop off from the under-side. Move along the flint's face and repeat the operation until you have an even-faced flint. There will be little scallops, but those will wear off in a few shots. That flint will be sharp for quite a time and will usually re-sharpen until there is not enough left to grip in the jaws.
So, what is good flint life? Flints vary. If the original knapper read his rock correctly and got the grain right, you should average about 150 shots out of a 3/4" flint. I've had rocks that shattered on the first drop and others that went over 200 shots. Thick flints taper faster than thin ones and often will not sharpen as far back. Smaller locks generally tend to give less flint life because they have smaller rocks. Locks that stroke the frizzen instead of bashing into it will sharpen their own flints much of the time and give remarkable life. An exact numerical answer to that question is not possible.
Over the years, I have trimmed the amount of "gear" I carry to a minimum. However, wet, numbed fingers recently dropped my knapping awl into tall grass where it made like a frightened night crawler and disappeared. Not wanting to carry two of the things, I have notched my screwdriver to do double duty. (See illustration.) To simplify life even more, you can file a notch in the top of your patch-knife blade, and it also becomes an awl. Use the heel of your hand to smack it. Two more tools removed from your shooting pouch.
One word of warning: When you have finished knapping your flint, blow the flint chips out of your pan. If left in there, they will take off like Frisbees when hit by the gases from the touch hole. I have seen acquaintances wounded by them.
Ready to load? Pour a little alcohol down the barrel, wet a patch with it and "foosh" the alcohol out the touch hole. Rapidly run the patch back and forth to dry the bore. Do the same with a dry patch. The alcohol should be evaporated and the bore cleared of oil and other residues.
With the pan open and the hammer fully down, measure and pour your charge. (Never do this with the gun on half-cock. Half-cock notches can and do fail. Rifles can and have gone off from half-cock. Seating the ball will often "foosh" out enough fines to act as a priming charge. You are the rifle's only reliable safety!)
Lube your patch with spit if you are going to shoot in the next few minutes, or your favorite goo if it will be a while before you shoot, and push a ball home, seating it firmly.
Now is the time to pick your vent. Some folks like to have a pick in the vent while loading. I don't. It prevents the air that the ball pushes ahead of it from blowing powder into the insert cone, where it is available to the flash of the priming.
If you will not shoot for awhile, and the atmosphere is damp, insert a quill into the flash-hole. (Old bird's nests are a good source. Just beware of lice.) When ready to shoot, remove the quill and prime. Put in enough 4 or 5F powder to cover the bottom of the pan. Don't fill it. (A 50-50 mix of 4 and 5f is even better.) Tip your rifle away from you and tap it a couple of times to drift the powder to the outside of the pan. This way, much of the flash will travel towards the touch-hole, not out into space. This also prevents the powder from filling the touch-hole and acting like a fuse. If you have been carrying your rifle primed for a while, give a flick of the wrist to throw the powder away from the barrel. This accomplishes the same thing.
The lock is your rifle's engine. The trigger is the starter. The barrel is the running gear. You wouldn't build a car with an expensive body and skimp on those items, yet expect it to perform well, would you? Poor quality components in a fancy stock are, as Snuffy Smith used to say, "Just a purty face with naught a-hind it." A quality flintlock is not just a thing of beauty, but a fast, accurate, and reliable shooter, which, given proper care, should last for generations.