So, you’ve seen period films (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?) with those lovely old guns you’re pretty sure are called flintlocks, but what really is a flintlock muzzleloader, and how does it work? Let’s start with some of the history behind these antiquated firearms.
The argument can be made that firearms were first made practical with the advent of the flintlock mechanism that first surfaced in 1630s France. While most flintlock firearms were also muzzleloaders like the matchlock and wheel lock, the flintlock device was far more effective. Indeed, the technology would not be surpassed for another two hundred years.
The two major firearm mechanisms before the flintlock had the following problems:
- The 1400s era matchlock required a lit match to fire. The matchlock had to be manipulated before it was ready to fire, the match cord had to be lit, and it wouldn’t work in the rain.
- The wheel lock, which came into use around 1515, did not use a burning rope like the matchlock. All one had to do was pick it up and pull the trigger gun would fire. The problem was that the wheel lock had many moving parts and was prone to breaking, especially if dropped. And, due to the intensive labor required to produce the wheel lock mechanism, only the wealthy could afford such firearms.
With less than twelve moving parts, the flintlock was more reliable and sturdier than wheel lock guns, and also much less expensive. They also did not need to use the matchlock’s burning rope. By 1700, the world’s major armies had adopted flintlocks or converted their matchlocks to the new technology. These first modern armies would make empires and wage world war for the first time with the flintlock. The use of flintlock firearms also marked a time that practical, ready-to-use guns were more available to the common people than ever before, which allowed for true civilian gun ownership in both the city and in the untamed wilderness. While the percussion cap lock that came in the 1830s was an improvement, both flint and percussion guns were made obsolete by the American Civil War (1861-65) with the first practical cartridge firing guns.
Even though flintlocks went out style they never completely left the stage. Native Americans and African tribes used them well into the 20th century. Today many reenactors of historical events, as well as primitive hunters, continue to use flintlock firearms, either with original guns or modern production replicas.
How It Works
The flintlock mechanism has a hammer with two pieces of metal that act as jaws and are tightened by a screw. These jaws hold the sharp, squared flint. The hammer has two positions: half cock and full cock. The half cock is reached when the hammer is pulled back from the down position to its first click. This was the first safety mechanism and used to load and carry the gun without it accidentally going off. Full cock is when the hammer is drawn back until the shooter hears the second click,which marks that the gun is now ready to fire.
There is an L-shaped piece of steel, called the frizzen, in front of the hammer, held in place by a spring (unsurprisingly, referred to as the frizzen spring). When it is pushed forward, it exposes a recess called the pan. When loading the gun, a small amount of gun powder is put into this pan and the frizzen is pushed back over it. This keeps the powder from falling out or getting wet.
When the trigger is pulled, the hammer flies forward. The flint scrapes hot metal sparks off the frizzen and pushes the frizzen forward out of the way. The gun powder is then exposed and the sparks trigger its combustion. The heat from the ignition of the powder travels through a small hole on one side of the barrel and explodes the powder within the barrel, sending the projectiles out the barrel and into the target. All this happens faster than a person can blink.
Even though the flintlock did not really innovate the way the gun is loaded like we know it today but they changed the world we are in. Flintlocks explored the world and made nations and empires. But the true innovation is that the flintlock made the gun a reliable tool that everyone could afford shaping modern armies and civilian gun ownership as we know it today. At the very least they are fun and rewarding to shoot.