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The Types of Traditional Muzzeloaders

Blackpowder was the only available propellant for firearms until the advent of smokeless powder in the late 1800s. Round balls were the only projectiles until the development of elongated bullets in mid-19th century and I don’t believe became commonly used in America until after the Civil War.

There are several types of ignition for traditional muzleloading guns. The early, simple but cheap, matchlock, and the later complicated and expensive wheel lock, are not seen very often. That leaves the flintlock and the percussion lock or ‘caplock’.  A good flintlock can be as ‘fast’ to ignite the powder charge in the barrel as the more modern caplock, but is more susceptible to hang fires if not cared for properly and is more vulnerable to getting wet from rain.

Historically, most muzzleloading firearms were smooth bores. After about the early 1700s, the smooth bore flintlock ‘musket’ became fully developed. They fired a ball of around 0.7 inch in diameter, and were heavy weapons with long barrels that could be fitted with bayonets. Civilian fusils were similar to muskets but lighter in weight with a smaller caliber and were not fitted for bayonets. “Officer’s Fusils” were generally high quality muskets that may or may not have the capability of using a bayonet. Reportedly, some officer’s fusils were actually short barreled ‘sea Service’ naval muskets, lacking a bayonet capability because the navy didn’t see the need for them. A semi-military musket was seen in colonial America and differed from the fusil in being styled more along the heavier musket lines, made from parts that were ‘odds and ends’ and they were cruder in construction than the fusil. These were locally made guns used by members of militias and lacked a bayonet capability. Fowling pieces firing shot were a highly variable group but none had rifling.

Away from the frontier, rifles were distinctly uncommon until the early 1800s or even later. Patched round balls, first developed in Europe, were the only projectile. Early American rifles were of similar to their forerunner, the European jaeger rifle, but over time calibers became progressively smaller while barrels at the same time became longer. How much of this lengthening of the barrel was due to ‘fashion’, and how much was due to the theory that longer barrels ‘hit harder’ is a matter of argument. Early butt plates were of the ‘shotgun’ type, but over time they became much narrower and developed a pronounced ‘hook’ that persisted as the ‘rifle style butt plate’ through the 19th century. This narrow style is guaranteed to give you a nasty shock when a powerful hunting load is let off. It does look cool, tho.

Generally, round balls shoot best with a rifling twist of about one turn in 72 inches of barrel length, while elongated bullets need around one turn in 48 inches, or even less, to become fully stabilized, but original firearms exhibit great variability in the rate of rifling twist, maybe because they were ‘set up’ by the maker with a certain optimal load.

Loading the Flintlock

I was browsing the internet and found an ‘expert’ who claimed to be explaining how simple the flintlock was to fire and who then got all bogged down, making it very complicated, indeed.

Compared to a caplock, in the nature of the beast, a flintlock will inevitably have a slightly variable period between squeezing the trigger and igniting the main charge behind the bullet. This is why in matches, flinters will often be given a ‘bonus’ of around 10% to ‘even things up’. Now, I’m no paper puncher, but I hunt so I care about reliable ignition. With a good flintlock and a new flint, I can expect 20-25 reliable shots before I have to stop to ‘knap’ the flint’s edge to resharpen it. You get what you pay for with flintlocks, Lyman and Pedersoli flintlocks, as examples, are good in my opinion. My favorite rifle, though, has a Siler lock. For Heaven’s sake, don’t buy a cheap rifle with a cheap lock.

There’s nothing wrong with wrapping the flint with leather, sheet lead works too, paper punchers looking for scores even glue the flint into place. That said, put your priming powder in the pan about ½ way up. Close the frizzen, tilt the rifle so the lock is up and lightly tap the stock once, more for luck than anything, but this does ensure powder is in or near the touch hole. Rain is the greatest challenge to a flintlock. Keep it sheltered, change the priming powder periodically, and except for a really bad downpour, you’ll usually be ok.

Yes, a flintlock is a little trouble, but hey, if you want it easy, just go get a lever action .30-30.