(Continued from Part 2. This concludes the article.)
Around the 1630s, somebody in Europe (I’ve seen it credited to Germans, Austrians, French,…) invented the most widely used ignition system prior to the development of cartridges as we view them now. The flintlock dominated the world of guns from the mid 1600s through the Texas Revolution. This mechanism was what fought in the Seven Years’ War (commonly known as the French and Indian War), won our independence in the Revolution, fought the British again during the War of 1812, was used innumerable times in skirmishes and for feeding families, and stood off Santa Anna at the Alamo. I’ve even seen Civil War portraits of Confederate soldiers holding flintlocks.
After loading, a priming charge (usually 3-to-5 grains of powder) was poured in the flash pan. Note: Don’t over prime that flintlock and singe an eyebrow off. Don’t ask… It was a steep learning curve, and I had complete dork-face with only one eyebrow.
Some of the flintlock’s parts are holdovers from previous generations. The iron frizzen is closed over the pan, and the hammer (containing a piece of flint) is cocked. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer strikes the frizzen, pushing it away and showering the pan with sparks, which causes the priming powder to burn through the touch hole into the main powder charge, leading to BOOM (hopefully; I’ve had a lot of hang fires, pan flashes, and no fires, plus these older generation guns have a lot of quirks, and I’m sure the matchlocks and wheel locks have their own set of issues).
In my less-than-humble opinion, this system is the choice for long term sustainability, as you don’t need anything but powder and balls to keep it shooting. Flint rocks are great for the ignition spark source, but can be replaced with anything that causes spark when struck against steel; obsidian is a rock that springs to mind.
The last ignition type we’ll discuss is the traditional cap lock (I won’t go into modern inline muzzle loading rifles, as many of these are ignited by 209 shotgun primers, and have become almost as specialized as new age sniper rifles; nor do they don’t fit my theme). Explosive primer caps came about in the 1820’s, and were really brought to the limelight when Samuel Colt made us all equal (when he patented the revolver; if you like guns, you should know this). These caps are the predecessors of the primers we know and love today.
The famed Hawken rife is predominantly shown in cap lock form (although, I’m sure there were flinters produced as well), and perhaps it is the most common replica muzzle loading firearm made. In fact, two of my guns are of the Hawken persuasion (including my favorite, the flintlock). With these guns, after the initial loading, all the shooter had to do was cock the hammer (the direct great gran-daddy of the external hammers we know today) place a cap on the nipple, and when the trigger is sprung, the hammer strikes the cap, sending fire down the flash channel, leading to BANG.
This ignition type is by far the fastest and most reliable, with no real discernible difference in ignition time between cap lock and most modern guns. Plus, this type allowed use in more inclement weather, because the priming charge wasn’t exposed to moisture; thus, some very bloody battles were fought in the rain, game could be hunted in wet conditions (when things are damp, it’s a lot easier to stalk into range), and guns could be left loaded and primed for longer periods of time for instant action.
Rifles Versus Muskets
Well, that’s the skinny on the ignition mechanisms as they evolved. Let’s spend just a minute talking over a few different guns in general. First, most muzzle loaders you will encounter will likely be rifles. This isn’t just a reference to their length; it means their barrels have rifling to spin a projectile to increase range and enhance accuracy. This technology is accredited to German Jager rifles, used for hunting in the old world, and brought to America by some of the forefathers of the people of Pennsylvania we now know as the Amish, hence the infamous Revolution-era Pennsylvania rifle, which is credited with kills on the King’s soldiers out to a whopping 300 paces (read a history book! There are several accounts of this, believe it or not. I wasn’t there so I can’t say how true they are).
Rifles are different than muskets, which generally refers to old military guns that were not rifled, mostly ‘cuz the type of warfare back then wasn’t the type of gun-fighting we think of today; instead it was volley-fire, where you and your brother and 20 or more of your best buddies lined up and marched to 75 yards or less from that HUGE line of Redcoats and then everybody shot all at once, then stood there trying to reload while the enemy fired back (good heavens, aren’t you glad it’s today, and we use cover and M16s?). So, anyway, the biggest advantage of the musket was simply this: it was just plain easier to push a ball down 36+ inches of smoothbore barrel than the same length of rifle barrel. Plus these could shoot shot which means you could plug a deer with a ball tonight and use shot to smoke some duck tomorrow, assuming that you were done fighting the war.
Last but not least is the fowling piece. This is the forerunner of today’s sporting shotgun. Smooth, sleek, and graceful, these pieces are hard to come by in original form, and current replicas can cost as much as four budget level ARs (even more in some cases, as they are mostly hand made direct copies of an original; but don’t think this price point is just for a fowler, many modern replica rifles cost this much and more). Many companies offer completed guns, ready to shoot, as well as kits, for you do-it-yourselfers. (Those two Hawken type guns that I mentioned earlier? Those were kits I LITERALLY put together on a rainy day).
Cabela’s, Traditions, Thompson / Center (perhaps the best commercial muzzle loaders built, in my opinion), and Lyman all offer completed guns and kits, and these are really good choices (my kits are Lyman Great Plains rifles, and they shoot amazingly.
So you choose what type of mechanism and what barrel profile you like and get back to me for exact details, eh? ‘K got it. So, for more of me kicking and you grinning, let’s say you’re going with a rifle. You can get ’em in a pile of different calibers. From .22 to .75, you can get a gun for every size and shape of critter that roams; although, I’m not to keen on the thought of teeing off at a grizzly bear or Cape buffalo; my wife doesn’t think I’d look too good squished into the stereotypical pulp. So, mostly you’ll see .50 cal, with .54 running a close second. The cap lock kit I built is a .50; the proverbial “.50 caliber Hawken” as made famous by Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson.” My eyebrow-burning flintlock is a .54.
Now let’s cover the hard knowledge. ALWAYS remember this sequence: powder, patch, ball, prime. I promise, kids, if you SCREW up this sequence, then you get to SCREW out a ball (this is the EXACT opposite of fun, and you tend to look like a SCREW BALL in front of anybody watching. Does my capitalizing convey any points? So, any who, first and foremost, you should check that your touch hole is clear of obstructions. This is only done before you load the first shot.
A Simple Test
Those of you running caplocks can place a cap on the nipple, put the muzzle near (read: TOUCHING) a blade of grass, or my personal favorite, a dandelion, and pull the trigger. If the grass (or whatever) moves, you’re good to go. Those of us rockin’ flintlocks can put a pinch of powder (10 grains or so, but I don’t measure this charge) down the barrel, prime the pan, and set ‘er off in a safe direction; you’ll know the touch hole is clean if it poofs out of the muzzle. If you need to maintain noise discipline (or if TSHTF and ain’t anybody making caps anymore), using a nipple / touch hole pick will help, but more so with a flintlock, because the ignition path is straight into the main powder charge.
Okay, so your barrel is cold, and touch hole is clear. Pour powder into your powder measure (measured powder means consistency, which equals accuracy; also, you don’t want to pour fresh powder from your powder horn/ flask/ can/ or whatever directly down the barrel, because there may be leftover embers from the previous shot, and it could cause the fresh powder to ignite in your hand), and dump the measured powder down the barrel. Next grab a lubed patch (these are cut from pillow ticking material, I make patch grease at home; commercially available patches are also pillow ticking, lube is generally close to T/C’s product called Bore Butter) and a ball.
Center the patch over the muzzle, put the ball on top of the patch, and push it in with your thumb (you won’t get it far, it’s hard). Next use your short starter. (This is a stubby rod with a round handle on top, and it’s essential, because without, you can’t start driving the ball easily), next use your ramrod to drive the ball all the way down the barrel. You’ll know you’re home when the ramrod will bounce off the ball if you “throw” or “flick” the ramrod down in there.
Marking Your Ramrod
A VERY smart thing to do, since you’re loaded and know the ball is tight to the charge, would be mark the muzzle end on your ramrod, so in the future you can slip the rod down the barrel and see if it’s loaded. A few pointers: first, the wooden ramrods supplied with my rifles are mostly just for looks, and I own a couple of “unbreakable” range rods (they’re some cool type of polymer or fiberglass; I’ve seen a wooden ramrod break and almost cut through a kid’s hand — a major owie). Second, you want that projectile (shot charge, for those of you runnin’ buckshot or birdshot in a smoothbore) fairly snug against the powder charge, so there’s not an air gap and you don’t literally blow the barrel up (this is why I bounce the ramrod), but if it’s too tight, it could cause a hang fire (where the priming burns but the main charge delays, possibly up to 2 minutes; this can be quite dangerous). A hang fire is much preferable to ruining your gun. So that pretty much gets you through the firing sequence. I use my wood rod now and swab the barrel a few times to clear any sparks.
I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH, whatever you do, DO NOT blow down the barrel after a shot. Period. Doing so could push a hot ember down into any unburned powder left over, and, as Dirty Harry put it, “Blow your head clean off.” And it could literally only take a pinch of powder to do it (hopefully it’s quite obvious, that at the time of this writing, I haven’t done that yet). I know, there’s a few old shows that demonstrate this practice, but those boys got lucky, and it is Hollywood, so just don’t. The purpose of this was to cool the barrel after a shot so that fresh powder wasn’t poured on top of hot embers. If you’re worried, use a patch with a splash of rubbing alcohol on it. Now start the loading process again.
Black Powder Only!
I must mention that when I refer to powder, I mean BLACK POWDER or one of the acceptable substitutes, such as Pyrodex, Hogdon’s Triple 7, or American Pioneer. I don’t know a lot about the latter two, but I’ve had good luck with the Pyrodex. Currently (pretty much the last 12 years of my muzzle loading career) I use “true” black powder, not a substitute. Good ol’ Goex “triple F” is my go-to brand. The “triple F” refers to the size of the granules. Mostly, you’re going to see either two F (FFG) or three F (FFFG).
The higher the “F” count, the finer the granules, the finer the grain, the faster the burn. Two F would be for the larger bore guns, three F is pretty much universal. You may see four F, which is one step more coarse than fireworks- grade explosive powder and used strictly for priming long guns that have a flash pan. Pyrodex is labeled RS, meaning rifle or shotgun, and I believe they have a P variation, suitable for black powder pistols and ball-and-cap revolvers. Pyrodex and the other substitutes even come in pre-measured pellets, which apparently work just great, given their popularity, but I have no experience with them.
I must point out that with a “front stuffer” you must, and I mean ABSOLUTELY MUST use black powder or an acceptable substitute. If you think, “Oh, I’ll just use a dab of regular rifle/shotgun/pistol type gun powder,” you’re going to be in for a very rude awakening (refer to above ruining of day/blow up gun in face). Modern gun powders create vastly higher pressure curves that will prove dangerous or deadly if you pour it down your barrel.
I must also point out that you should always give your gun a thorough cleaning after you’re done with it, as black powder is very corrosive. My preferred method? Warm water with a little dish soap stirred in a bucket. Take the barrel out of the stock, sink the nipple / touch hole in the suds, and scrub the inside of the barrel with successive patches on a jag until they come clean. Cleaning in this manner creates a siphon effect and sucks water through the priming channel up into the barrel, then back out with the down stroke, and it works marvelously.
Pro tip of the day: Wet your patches before putting them in the gun. Use a rag dipped in the bucket to wipe down the lock (firing assembly), wipe everything dry, swab the barrel with an oily patch, wipe the exterior metal surfaces with an oiled rag and reassemble.
Well, I think that wraps up today’s lesson on the finer points of bein’ a regular Daniel Boone. Hopefully this article set will push you down the road of self sustaining mountain-man-hood and maybe some time we’ll meet up at the range or rendezvous. Until then, keep that cannon smokin’.
Editor’s Closing Comments: Here in a America, many non-shooters use words and phrases like “Lock, stock and barrel”, “screwball,”, “flash in the pan”, and “going off, half-cocked,” without realizing their origin. We are a nation of shooters. And we were muzzleloader shooters, from the very outset.