This is the last post in this series by my good author friend, William R. Bartlett’s. It continues his discussion of all things firearms and deals with Flintlock weapons in particular. If you have missed the rest of this brilliant series on firearms, you can check it out here. As always, Bill includes some great tips on writing about older firearms and some common writing blunders. Enjoy and bookmark!
A Writer’s Guide to Firearms by William R. Bartlett
Part 6 (cont’d): Firearms before the Modern Age
Flintlock weapons reigned in battle for over two hundred years and are based on the long-known principle that flint striking steel causes a spark hot enough to start a fire. The flintlock uses this spark to ignite the powder in the priming pan, which, in turn, ignites the powder charge in the barrel.
The flintlock went through a series of developments before it became standardized as the weapon of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, but they all had one thing in common. The vise, or cock as it was known, that held the flint was spring-loaded. A simple pull of the trigger released the flint where it struck the steel above the priming pan, producing white-hot metal shavings (i.e. sparks) that fell into the pan powder, igniting it and subsequently, the main charge in the barrel. The developments were known as the snaplock, which, like the matchlock and wheel lock required manual opening of the pan cover, the snaphance, (sometimes called the snaphaunce) in which the pan cover opened when the trigger was pulled, the miquelet, which had a two-position sear and combined the pan cover with the steel into a spring-loaded part called the ‘frizzen,’ and the English doglock, which also had a flint, frizzen, and pan, but also contained an external safety, an extra catch on the hammer that prevented a premature discharge while loading. Since these are all flintlocks in that they use the flint-on-steel method to ignite the powder and since the snaplock, snaphance, miquelet, and doglock are transitory developments, I’m going to focus on the final variant.
The first true flintlock is generally accepted as having been developed in France by Marin le Bourgeoys for King Louis XIII in 1610 and, as was stated earlier, it was a remarkably durable design. For example, the Land Pattern Musket, commonly known as the Brown Bess, was standard issue in one form or another for the British Army from 1722 until 1838.
How a Flintlock works
Like the matchlock and the wheel lock, the flintlock has the pan to one side of the barrel that’s filled with a priming charge. A spring-loaded cover called a frizzen keeps the priming powder in the pan dry and in place, but the cover does more than that. A steel projection angles sharply upward from the priming pan cover in a slightly concave fashion and provides the steel for the flint to strike. As with the wheel lock, the hammer, or dog, is actually a vise that holds a wedge of flint, typically within a small leather pad that keeps the stone secure. However, unlike a wheel lock, the cock of a flintlock is located behind the priming pan.
The cock is first placed at half-cock and a small amount of powder is poured into the pan, after which the frizzen is pulled down to cover the powder. As with every other musket, the weapon is placed between the feet with the muzzle pointed skyward. The powder is poured down the barrel, followed by the ball. To keep the ball from rolling out of a smoothbore, some paper wadding was used. In a military weapon, this was usually the paper containing the cartridge. (The cloth patch used with a rifle was sufficient to keep the ball in place and no additional wadding was required.) The weapon was then placed in full cock and brought to the shoulder where it was fired by pulling the trigger.
Advantages of a Flintlock
The action was simple, rugged and reliable, which allowed the use of large numbers of troops in massed formations. Field repairs could be easily made by ordinary men without extraordinary skills or training. As with the wheel lock, loading could be done in advance of need and cavalry dragoons could carry a pair of loaded pistols on their pommel.
Disadvantages of a Flintlock
The weapon had to be loaded from the muzzle as well as priming the pan, making it time-consuming to load. However, since (nearly) all weapons were loaded from the muzzle during this time period, the loading speed was not considered to be a significant detriment. Wet weather, the largest single bane of every muzzle loader, was especially hard on the flintlock because flint will not strike sparks from wet steel. Civilians frequently used a cloth or leather cover over the frizzen to keep it dry between uses. Even though the action was generally reliable, it wasn’t foolproof. Accounts exist of priming failures. Sometimes, too much powder in the pan will block the touchhole and not enough wouldn’t ignite the main charge in the barrel. The large number of troops involved created huge clouds of smoke that made it difficult for commanders to control their troops. This, incidentally, is the origin of the term, ‘fog of war.’
Writing failures for the Flintlock
- Hitting a target at great range. The round ball used for bullets was ballistically inefficient and the sights frequently consisted of a single blade near the muzzle.
- Neglecting to prime and/or lower the frizzen. Both of these are required in order for the weapon to shoot.
- Not replacing the ramrod. If the ramrod is left in the barrel, it could be shot with the bullet, leaving the weapon unable to be reloaded.
- Not having the correctly shaped flint in the cock. In order for a spark to be struck, the flint needs to be the right shape, a tapered wedge. The stone must be knapped, or shaped by chipping off small pieces in order to be fashioned into the appropriate wedge.
- Shooting in inclement weather.
The Caplock or Percussion Cap
In 1800, Edward Charles Howard discovered fulminates. These are unstable compounds that can be detonated by friction or heat. They can also be detonated by a physical blow. A Scottish minister, the Rev. Alexander John Forsyth, discovered in 1807 that he could prime his flintlock with a fulminate that would eliminate the smoke from the igniting the powder in the priming pan and keep the birds he hunted from rising before the main charge was ignited.
About ten years later, the percussion cap, a tiny, metallic cup with a fulminate of mercury lining, was developed. In order to use it, rifles and muskets were made without the priming pan, flint, or frizzen. In their place, a cone, frequently called a ‘nipple’ because of the orifice that ran through it to the musket touchhole, was built onto the side of the weapon. The hammer finally became just that: a hammer that hit the percussion cap, causing the minute amount of fulminate inside to explode, and channeling the expanding gasses to the chamber where the main powder charge is ignited, sending the projectile downrange. After about four hundred years of evolution, a firearm that could be used in a drizzle or very light rain had finally arrived.
How a Caplock works
Unlike the matchlock, the wheel lock, and all the developments of the flintlock, there is no priming pan. Consequently, there is no need to prime the weapon before loading. Simplicity itself, the musket is loaded through the muzzle as in the other weapons. Then, the musket is lifted, placed in half-cock, and held with the left hand while the right hand extracts the spent percussion cap and retrieves a fresh cap from the cap pouch. Usually, the caps were made a little loose for a couple reasons: Firstly, there was some variability in the actual size of the cones. Secondly, it makes it easier to remove the spent cap from the cone after shooting. The new cap is squeezed to ensure a tight fit, then placed on the cone. The shooter can then place the hammer in full cock and pull the trigger to fire. That’s it. No worry about keeping an ember burning in a slow match, no need to lower a dog on a wheel, and no need to keep the frizzen covered and dry. Load, slip on a cap, and fire. Simple. But, the bullet was still a round ball. More development was on the way.
In 1846, Claude-Étienne Minié (pronounced meen-YAY), a French army officer, developed the first projectile that was more than a simple sphere. His projectile was bullet-shaped, in the modern sense. This development allowed greater ballistic efficiency by reason of its streamlined shape and the delivery of greater kinetic energy due to the increase in mass. Prior to the Minié ball, (yes, it was still called a ‘ball’ by sheer force of tradition) the mass of the projectile was limited by the bore diameter. For more hitting power, one needed a larger ball. However, the larger ball presented greater wind resistance when shot, resulting in a shorter range and decreased accuracy. The Minié ball was cylindrical in shape with an aerodynamically-shaped nose, composed of a soft lead, slightly undersized that facilitated loading, and had a hollow, cup-shaped base. When this bullet was combined with the rifling that Minié included in the weapon he developed in 1849, the result was a match made in heaven. Or, in hell, depending on one’s perspective. As previously noted, a bullet spinning on its axis is more accurate and has greater range than one without. However, rifling was the only way to impart this spin and loading a round ball secured to the rifling by a cloth patch (proven technology) was five to ten times slower than loading a smoothbore musket. With Minié’s invention, the cloth patch wasn’t needed. Col. Minié’s projectile was slightly smaller than the bore and loaded as quickly as a smoothbore. When fired, the hollow base flared and engaged the rifling, imparting a spin with its ballistic advantages. The impact on the target was devastating. These were the weapons used by the British in the Crimean War and by Americans on both sides during the Civil War; one reason the fighting was so bloody.
This development may have left military commanders in somewhat of a quandary. What should this new-fangled thing be called? A rifle? It has rifling, so it seems logical. But, rifles were civilian weapons, of little use on the battlefield. Muskets had been used by the military since the hand cannon lost favor, but they’d always had a smooth bore. One can only picture the debate. ‘It has rifling. It’s a rifle.’ ‘Muskets are military weapons. Since we in the military will use it, it must be a musket.’ Tempers would have flared. ‘It’s a rifle.’ ‘It’s a musket.’ ‘Rifle.’ ‘Musket.’ ‘Rifle!’ ‘Musket!’ Eyebrows would have risen and anger turned to amazement. ‘Rifle musket,’ they’d say in unison. In the true spirit of a compromise, (which satisfies no one) they settled on the term.
Truth be known, the above paragraph is sheer conjecture on the part of the author. However, human nature being what it is, a reality this close to the imagination should surprise no one.
Coincidentally, the percussion cap was invented at the onset of the industrial revolution, which created ways of mass producing items with increased precision. This allowed for something that shooters had wanted for centuries: A practical firearm that could fire more than once before reloading, or, a repeater, as it was known. One of the earliest examples was in a handgun called a ‘pepperbox.’ The pepperbox had a number of smoothbore barrels that rotated around a central shaft. Some models had a few as three barrels, some had seven or more. The percussion cap was forged into the top of each barrel and, like every other caplock weapon, it could be loaded in advance of need. It fired in double action only, i.e. the shooter had to pull the trigger to cock and fire the hammer, which also advanced the barrels around the armature.
However, the pepperbox had a number of disadvantages. Firstly, it was notoriously inaccurate. None of the barrels had a sight. No rear sight. Not even a blade on the front of the barrel. Nothing. In fact, they were so inaccurate, Mark Twain once joked that the safest place to stand around a pepperbox was directly in front of the muzzle(s). Secondly, most had no integral ramrod. With all muzzle loading muskets, a ramrod was kept in the stock below the barrel, but there wasn’t a place to store a ramrod on a pepperbox. Consequently, most had to be disassembled in order to be loaded. Thirdly, it was heavy. Each barrel was a piece of forged steel and, when combined in a number of six or seven, the weight became noticeable. However, it fulfilled its role as a close-range, self-defense weapon.
Samuel Colt received a patent in 1836 for the first practical revolving firearm. Although revolvers like the pepperbox had existed for a number of years and unsuccessful revolvers were produced prior to the development of the caplock, Colt’s first revolver factory in Paterson, New Jersey produced a revolver that was recognizable as such by modern standards. It contained a cylinder of five chambers which rotated when the hammer was manually cocked and aligned a chamber with the single barrel. After the failure of his first venture at Paterson in 1843 (he had the misfortune to develop a repeater during a time of relative peace), Colt went back into business making revolvers in Hartford, Connecticut in 1847 with an improved model that had six chambers and an integral ramrod. This time, he was successful and his business grew to become internationally known. Improvements and different models of percussion cap revolvers continued to be developed until the slender and elegant 1860 Army Colt, arguably the most graceful revolver ever made, ended the caplock era when it was replaced by the introduction of the self-contained metallic cartridge. Colt also produced rifle-length revolvers, but these were generally unsuccessful and never reached the popularity of the handguns.
The important thing to remember about these revolvers is that, while they didn’t load from the muzzle, they did load from the front of the cylinder. Although the Paterson Colt didn’t have an integral ramrod and required disassembly to reload, the next variant, known as the Walker Colt had an integral ramrod that was hinged at the forward side of the frame, under the barrel. Pulling the ramrod down pushed a plunger into the cylinder, seating the bullet against the powder. The Walker Colt, the most powerful revolver until the development of the .357 magnum in the mid-twentieth century, was the firearm that set Samuel Colt’s business on the road to success.
Writing failures for the Caplock
- Failure to put a percussion cap on the cone. Without a percussion cap on the cone, the weapon will not fire.
- Failure to remove the spent cap from the cone before shooting again. Usually, spent caps were replaced as the last step in the reloading process. Keeping the cap on the cone also prevents air circulation and ensures that live embers left in the barrel or chamber will die and not ignite fresh powder. It wasn’t uncommon for the spent percussion cap to split when hit by the hammer and fall off when the hammer was cocked again during reloading. Caplock revolvers could jam when the percussion cap split and the pieces fell behind the breech of the cylinder, keeping it from revolving.
- Running out of percussion caps. The small caps, kept in a separate pouch from the rest of the ammunition, were easily dropped. A shooter could load the weapon and find his supply of percussion caps depleted, rendering it useless.
- Anachronisms. While it was possible for one to use a matchlock during the American Civil War, it wasn’t possible for a caplock to be used in 1500. Incidentally, a Pennsylvania farmer, John L. Burns, participated in repelling Confederate invaders at the Battle of Gettysburg. A veteran of the War of 1812, he took his flintlock and fought beside Union troops. Shot in the arm and leg, he survived the battle, despite his age of 69, and became well known after the war.
- Use during heavy rain. Although the percussion cap allowed ignition regardless of the weather, the cartridge still had to be loaded from the muzzle. Heavy rain could soak the powder enough to prevent ignition.
Whereas most primitive firearms loaded from the muzzle, not all of them did. A few breech-loading flintlocks were developed, some of them rifles. The Ferguson Breech Loading Rifle was used in small numbers by the British during the American Revolution, but didn’t exhibit spectacular success. A mediocre performance along these lines was the general rule of unconventional firearms before the invention of the caplock. The percussion cap and the machinery of the industrial revolution allowed for the precision necessary to explore alternatives that were previously unsuccessful. For example, the Sharps Carbine was one cavalry arm that loaded from the breech and saw extensive use during the American Civil War. The trigger guard pivoted forward, which dropped the breechblock and exposed the chamber. A cartridge wrapped in flammable paper was inserted into the chamber and the trigger guard was pulled upward and latched into place. A percussion cap was placed on the cone, the hammer was pulled back to full cock, and the trigger was squeezed, firing the weapon.
After nearly four hundred years of development, a rifle that was loaded from the breech and fired from a weather-resistant primer became cutting edge technology, but the primer and cartridge were still separate. In 1841, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse developed a paper cartridge with the percussion cap contained within it and the rifle that could shoot this self-contained cartridge. Called the ‘Dreyse Needle Gun’ because the long firing pin resembled a needle, it had a tremendous rate of fire, at least double that of muzzle-loaded weapons. Featuring a breech that opened by turning a bolt, the paper cartridge containing primer, powder, and projectile was manually loaded into the chamber and the bolt closed. The trigger was pulled, and the weapon fired. All that remained would be to make the cartridge weatherproof by enclosing it within a brass casing. In twenty years, give or take, the current era of firearms would relegate these most modern of muzzle-loading weapons to the antique closet, a mere quaint curiosity, of interest only to history enthusiasts and scholars of the past.
I hope this helps with your writing. I’ve always liked historic fiction and found errors about the weapons used in the story to be disappointing, at best. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see your work and admire your skill as I enjoy your story. Thank you for your patience.