History of the Flintlock
Guns, as we know guns, came about as cannons around 1300AD. Cannons were fairly simple devices back then. They were packed with powder - usually burnt wood ground up and mixed with dry urine - and the ball was simply pressed on top. Primitive cannons had smooth bores which allowed a good seal between the ball and the powder but this was poor for accuracy. Early cannons had a simple hole called a touch-hole drilled into their sides into which burning sticks called punks would be pushed to ignite the powder. With any luck the ball would come rocketing out and would hit what the user was actually aiming at. With early hand-cannons being nothing more then metal tubes fixed to wooden or metal rods, this required quite a bit of luck. Smoothbore cannons also foul after 5 shots or less between the lead ball and the powder, so they must be cleaned with water frequently.
The trigger evolved to fill the need of pressing one's face against the stock and effectively shouldering the weapon. While the shooter was sighting the weapon, he would also be groping with the punk to find the touch-hole. For early wall guns, this was not a problem. Arms were large enough that they required a crew to serve them. As things became smaller and more guns were manufactured for armed combat, it became impractical to have two soldiers per single gun. To add to the complications, most Europeans had made the pepperbox popular, which was a hand-cannon with four, individually loaded barrels. With four barrels, the user has four shots before reloading and can shoot four times as many shots before the weapon fouled out - providing the soldier actually lived that long.
The next advance would be the match-lock. People had replaced the burning punk with a match by this time. Not a match as we light our grills with which is more like a punk, but a match as in a slow burning fuse. This had its own set of problems, however. The fuse was visible for quite a distance and had to be kept burning, unlike matches which could be struck shortly before being employed. The fuses were also prone to burning out. However, the trigger was here to stay. The first trigger was merely a pivot. One side of it hung below the barrel, the other side held the burning fuse. The user could sight along the barrel and move the lever to trigger the firing. This was much better then simply grasping at the touch-hole with fire hoping to find it before the other guy did or the game moved along. Touch-holes also evolved. Along with the idea of a pivot for a trigger also came the idea of a pivot for a touch-hole cover, or frizzen. As the user pulled the trigger, the cock (the piece holding the flint or match) would come forward, push the frizzen out of the way and hold the flame to the now uncovered touch-hole. There would be a delay as the powder ignited, a woosh of burning charge and a boom as the ball took flight.
People killed things (and each other) this way for another 200 some years before clockwork caught up. The actual mechanism is hard to describe in text so I am going to defer to HowStuffWorks: Flintlocks which also includes video.
Choosing a Modern Flintlock
The main consideration in choosing a modern flintlock is: History or Functionality? Guns which are going to serve as target and hunting weapons are best filled by a weapon with a synthetic stock. Guns which are going to be displayed or ring that Daniel Boone spirit in you are best filled with a weapon with brassing and fine walnut. Thompson Center offers both styles as does Conneticut Valley Arms. CVA also offers left-handed flintlocks, as is mine, and is one of the only suppliers of such things. Another choice to make is if you want to build one from a kit. If you know someone who is good at carving and finishing wood or want to try on your own, there are kits to build a completely custom rifle. The finished product will be uniquely yours and can be very rewarding, but keep in mind that the kit is usually just as expensive as a finished rifle if not more so. Buying a synthetic stock rifle will save you finishing time and probably work out of the box. Also keep in mind that synthetic stocked rifles usually come with scope rings rather than iron sights. The choice is yours, I personally went with a CVA St Louis Hawken left handed flintlock.
Getting that Flintlock
There's always the corner gun-store, and they can order you anything you want. Unlike other rifles, flintlocks are less strictly regulated and do not require a federal firearms license to sell between private parties. You still should check your local laws, but as a general rule flintlocks are legal in every state minus California and New Jersey. New Jersey has all but made private gun ownership illegal and California holds the unique braindead law of making 50 caliber weapons illegal. You might be able to get away with a 40 caliber flintlock in California, but because you might some day replace the barrel with a 50 (or 60, or 70) caliber barrel, I would advise against pursuing it. If you live in a more permissive (read: sane) state, you can dig up some good private-seller-to-private-buyer deals on Gunbroker. Also worth looking at is Dixie Gunworks. Dixie also carries a selection of left-handed arms but is generally more expensive than Gunbroker. Finally, if you have one in your area, Cabelas will have just about anything you can think up. Cabelas also is the most expensive out of all these options, but what you pay for in money you make up in immediate choice.
A suggestion on caliber: 50 caliber is the smallest I would suggest. The reason behind this is because its the historical standard, it has the most diverse ammo selection, and finally because larger rounds are more expensive and harder to shoot. Other popular choices are 72 caliber (almost exclusively limited to African or Safari arms or "Brown Bess" guns), 58 caliber, and 69 caliber. Below 50, there's 45, 40, and 30. You can probably find numbers in between but you will have a hard time finding the ammo to match. Below 50 caliber, there is also the problem that black powder cannot throw rounds fast enough with tight enough rifling to keep the small, light rounds on target. (People below 50 caliber usually shoot sabot instead, but more on that later). Above 50, the balls are punishing to shoot and burn up a lot of powder. Stick to 50 for the best options.
When you first get your flintlock, you want to take it apart immediately and inspect it. If you purchased a synthetic stock, you merely tear it down so you know what to clean, put some grease in the threads and reassemble it. If you purchased a wooden stock, you should notice something: The parts hidden by the lock and patch-box are usually roughly cut and unfinished. Since black powder residue attracts water and makes an excellent sponge, you will find that your wood has gone sour after a season of shooting! Go to the hardware store and buy a small brush and small bottle of all-weather deck sealer. Take all the brassing off your stock (careful with those screws, they are usually self-drilling and you can only take them off once or twice) and paint it with your deck sealer. For the parts such as the forelock which will never be open again or the barrel retaining ring, you can put these back on with the varnish wet and forget about them. The varnish will glue these into position in addition to not letting any water in. Step two of this is that you may find that your stock has either swollen in storage or is too tight a fit after varnishing. Grab yourself some sandpaper and take a little off where the barrel is rubbing so you can barely press the barrel in. You want the barrel to be held tightly against the stock and the barrel retaining pin to be impossible to remove by hand but not so much a sharp blow with a screwdriver cannot dislodge it. Clean up the holes too and anything else that looks rough after the first coat of varnish. Give it a second, final coat and you should be ready to shoot after it dries.
Flint, Powder and Tools
Going for the historical look for your muzzleloader might be your thing. You might want to have historical pieces of flint, too. This limits you to English Flint. If you feel the need to be extremely authentic, you would instead want to buy a flint node which allows you to make flint chips. When you are shaving your own flint, you hold the node in your palm with a leather glove and strike it with a sharp knife. The resulting flint flakes will be what you feed to your rifle. On the other hand if you can sacrifice some of the historical authenticity, Arkansas flints are precision cut and last over 250 shots per face. Natural flint has to be re-faced after as few as 10 shots and sometimes refuses to strike in frizzens which have been faced with Arkansas flint. Rather then deal with the whole thing, I strongly suggest the novice flintlock shooter purchase an Arkansas flint and stick with it. Keep in mind that the flint is actually chipping and scraping the frizzen, so frizzens which have been used with Arkansas flints usually have trouble sparking English flints and visa versa. French flints are something new to the market here and I suspect that they are similar to English flints in both quality and use. Also worth mentioning here is that for a few extra dollars, you can buy a lead pad which is better than the leather. The lead pad usually takes the shape of the flint, which some may not find desirable, but it also causes the flint to strike more reliably. If you are using Arkansas flints, there is more then enough surface area to strike reliably with leather. On the other hand, if you are using English or French flints or flint flakes, the lead may be what you need to make reliably striking flints. If you want to avoid the lead, you can dip your leather patch in saltwater and press it into the flint. As it dries in the jaws, it will take the shape of the flint and become hard. Finally, if you find you are breaking flints in half, loosen the jaws of the cock holding your flint. The flint should not have play, but it should be able to center itself when striking the frizzen. After a few dry shots, tighten the jaws up again and the flint should be trouble-free until it either collects too much powder fouling or needs to be refaced. Remove the flint, wipe it off, reface it, and replace the flint into the jaws. Take care to always check to make sure your flint clears the side of your barrel. The flint is more then hard enough to score the finish.
Powder can be pyrodex or black powder. I feel the pellets are interesting but best left to the caplock people. They are hard to ignite in a flintlock. Black powder is more historically accurate and also burns smokier then pyrodex and other powder substitutes. Black powder also has a sulphur in it and oftentimes smells of rotten eggs or urine. Pyrodex has the advantage of being easier to clean, cleaner burning and the aroma of charcoal. Pyrodex is also ideal for hunting as it does not readily absorb water both with as powder and as burnt residue. Unlike black powder, pyrodex does not have a flake-shape but rather a rod-shape. This makes pyrodex easier to improperly tamp down and change the burning character. I still, however, suggest people new to flintlocks use pyrodex but remember the problems associated with tamping its particular shape. You will need both FFG powder for the bore under the patch and bullet and FFFG powder for ignition. You can get a flintlock to fire using FFG in the pan but the result will be a slow burn rather than a fast flash.
Another important bit to know about powder is that the trap of the frizzen (the part which covers the pan) has to mate to the pan. There should be no gap where powder can come out. Remembering that pyrodex is usually finer then black powder flakes, take some FFFG pyrodex and put it in the pan. Tip the gun. Does the powder fall out? If so, you need to file down either the pan or the frizzen to improve the lock. Filing down the frizzen is the preferred method since the frizzen will eventually need to be replaced anyway. If the pan itself is bent or otherwise poorly made, consider sending the lock back for replacement. Later, swap the powder for black powder instead of pyrodex and repeat the test. There should be no difference. Remember, different brands of powder and powder replacements have different grain sizes. If you find that your powder is too fine for the normal operation of your lock, switch brands. Hogdgons offers a range of reloading data and powders and I personally like it.
A Word About Tools
This is going to be the most visible choice - next to the gun itself - you make between historical look and modern materials. Even if you purchased a muzzleloader with a classic look, you might want to consider the use of modern tools with your classic rifle. Why? Modern tools work better in the weather and oftentimes are more functional than classic tools. Modern tools also combine several classic tools into a single unit. Plastic and fiberglass hold up much better compared to wood in the presence of moisture absorbent black powder ash.
Thompson Center makes a bullet starter with a classical look but modern functionality. The bullet is seated with one of the short studs then rammed down the tube a short way with the ram. The hole in the starter is to place over the tip of your ram-rod. While the likelihood of a detonation shooting patch and ball is slim to none, if you choose to shoot sabots or minne balls you should keep the ball on the end of your ram. The ball has one simple purpose: Instead of having a ramrod fire through your hand should you shave hot metal off the ball and cause detonation, the ball provides enough area that it will shove your hand out of the way. Even classical starters have this feature. Another authentic short ram is the hammer or 'T-style' ram.
The classic patch was made from pillow ticking, old cloth, or whatever happened to be around. Modern patch is made from denim or similar material and cleanly cut. If you choose to use historical patching, you can skip buying patch. The authentic method of patching a patched round ball is to pull your cloth across the crown (the opening to the barrel) after charging the rifle, take your short ram hammer and pound the ball and patch barely into the crowning. Once the patch and ball is seated, pull the patch-cloth up and cut across the crown with a knife. Ram as normal. As you can imagine, this caused severe deformation to the balls and resulted in making the leading edge flat. Not great for accuracy or aerodynamics, but if you want to explore the old ideas of shooting, flat balls are something to look for. Modern patching material comes in two forms: lubricated and unlubricated. Lubricated patches are magnets for dirt so avoid these. Unlubricated patches should be clean cut and consistent. This patch is a good example of a good, consistent patch. The edges are sharp so it will not leave threads to burn and foul the barrel and the material is flame resistant. These patches are poorly cut and the material appears inconsistent in terms of thickness. These will cause your rotating shot to pull to one side as if attaching a weight to a ball as you throw it. The patch thickness plus the ball thickness should equal the caliber of the barrel. .010 inch patches plus a .490 (49 caliber) bullet will work well in a .500 (50 caliber) barrel.
Use crisco. The traditional lubricant is pork or beef tallow. Remember that black powder already smells like sulphur and urine, so add bacon to that aroma. Crisco does not smell nearly as bad and works just as well if not better since it has a higher flash point. Patches or bullets advertised with bore butter usually dry out, so keep them in small bags of five or so and only open what you plan to use.
Ram and Puller
You can stick to wood, but it will eventually foul and become spongy. I suggest buying a metal ramrod which will not flex and has a handle on top to aid in pulling stuck balls and patches. Also handy to have is a ball and patch puller. Since this will screw into the lead ball in the case of a misfire, having a ramrod made of a stout material and a handle on top will make the task of twisting the screw into the lost ball much easier.
Powder Storage and Measure
Your FFFG powder must be stored in such a way that you do not ever confuse it with FFG powder. The flintlock would traditionally be fed from a powder horn. Horn, rubbed with wax, made a waterproof funnel powder could be kept in and dumped into the barrel quickly and easily. Measuring the powder was something that came along later as gunpowder manufacturing improved. Later, after percussion cap rifles became popular, the horn was replaced by the pouch made of brass. I highly suggest buying a small flask for FFFG and a large flask (of a different appearance or material) for FFG. Since flasks come in many shapes and sizes it should be easy to find two you like. Modern flasks include nozzles which measure a powder charge for you. Most of these are as simple as putting the funnel portion into your barrel and twisting the knob or pressing the plunger for the amount of powder you desire in 20 or 30 grain throws. Finally, if you own a powder scoop set for smokeless reloading, there probably will be a black powder measurement for your set. Be sure to wash these before and after using them with black powder so no mix occurs.
.490 (49 caliber) is the most common caliber of patched ball and the easiest to get .010 (1 caliber) patch for. 1 caliber patch is just thick enough to make it easy to work with and thin enough the ball has enough weight to fly well at the slow speeds black powder shoots at. Other options for projectiles include lead conicals (patchless) and sabots. Lead conicals also cause lead fouling in your flintlock and require solvent rather then simple water to clean the bore. These were fine to use in smoothbore barrels when blackpowder guns did double-duty as shotguns, but inappropriate for most modern rifling. You should avoid these unless you are willing to put up with the fact that they are harder to start, put more wear on the rifling, and require solvent to clean from the barrel. Sabots are the compromise and include a patch-material and a conical round at the expense of authenticity. There is something to be said for technology; sabots often fly as well as their smokeless cartridge children.
One of the technologies worth noting for modern hunting is that someone had the brilliant idea that sabots might carry pistol or rifle bullets normally used with smokeless brass cartridges. The idea came about from the 45-70, which was the first brass cartridge caliber which saw mass adoption. Things have come full circle and there are now plastic sabots which accept 45 caliber (.451 inches) bullets. If you have noticed that both lead balls and 45 ACP bullets are around 200 grains, you should have caught the notion behind these sabots. These let you take your existing reloading stock of bullets and use them in your blackpowder rifle. If you lack free bullets, you can buy several other purpose-made bullets which will work in blank plastic sabots. The plastic fouls very little and cleans easily. The only advisement here is to avoid old sabot stock made from "polypatch" which is known to melt in your barrel. When using 45 ACP wadcutter style pistol rounds weighing 230 grains with 60 grains of powder, I have found they drift after about 50 yards, but they certainly are passable for casual plinking.
Other Odds and Ends
Bring along a paperclip (or feather if going for authenticity) to use as a touch-hole pick for clearing the touch-hole. Bring along a screwdriver capable of driving out your barrel wedge. A cup of water for cleaning would be good. If your powder flask did not include a measure, get one and attach it to your powder horn or flask. You may also want a powder measure if your flask does not support fine grain measurements. Find a small funnel to use for pouring powder.
Daniel Boone would probably laugh at the elaborate powder kit we have assembled, the bright colors of our patches and our new black powder substitute but thankfully we avoid certain death at the hands of Indians and terrible winters in our modern age.
Firing the flintlock is broken down into the three phases loading and priming, shooting, and cleaning. In that order, they are most standard to least standard between any two rifles.
When first starting to load your muzzleloader, be aware that the rifle is rarely sighted in from the factory. If you are left-handed, also be aware that any sighting action was done by a right-handed shooter and will require adjustment. Start with 60 grains of powder at 50 yards. Loading is fairly easy, but the initial shot will be without a ball. This is called the fouling shot and it puts just enough fouling on the barrel to grip the patch tightly. After the fouling shot, blow down the barrel and follow this process as written.
Loading and Priming
Your flintlock manual will specify a maximum powder charge between 100 and 150. Rarely do they exceed this. Pay attention, loading too much powder will result in an explosion next to your face as the breach-plug or touch-hole gives up. If you get away lucky, the bore will merely bulge and must be discarded. If you are using a powder measure, set the measure for 60 grains. Place your funnel into the mouth of the measure and pour a powder charge of FFG powder into the measure. Be sure to top the measure off but also level it. With the butt of the flintlock on the ground, grab the barrel. Place the funnel into the barrel and dump the powder down the tube. Some people skip the funnel, but do so at the risk of getting powder caught in lube on the crown of the barrel. Take your patch and swab it through the crisco to get a thin coating. Place the patch, crisco side down, on the crowning of the barrel. Take the ball and locate the sprue. This is the rough, raised part of the ball where it was poured into the mold. Good balls have a low sprue. This should be facing up. Take the spur of your short-ram and knock the patch and ball into the barrel (if using cloth patches, cut the whole-cloth now). Advance it using the short ram, then take the long ram and push it further. Put the short ram knock onto the top of the ram and finish seating the ball. You should be able to feel when the ball is seated on the powder and this is the signal to stop ramming. Mark your ramrod with your screwdriver now or verify your mark for a seated ball. This is your hint for telling when a rifle is primed with a patch and ball. If you can put the ramrod in the barrel and still see the mark, you have a charge ready to fire.
Withdraw your ramrod and point the rifle level down range. Open the frizzen. Most gunworks at this point say to use half-cock as a safety, but I have always had trouble getting powder into the pan at half cock. Consider carefully using full-cock. Take your FFFG powder and barely fill the bottom of the pan. Using your pick, clear the touch-hole and be sure to clear a channel into your powder charge through the hole. Close the frizzen.
As an established shooter, you should already know how to sight along a weapon. If your flintlock has one trigger, this is pretty simple. Some flintlocks have two triggers. Consult your manual as to which trigger is the set trigger and which trigger is the firing trigger. Usually, but not always, the firing trigger is the forward trigger and the set trigger follows it. Pull the set trigger until you hear the clockwork click. Now, when you barely touch the firing trigger, the gun will go off. If you notice a delay, you either need more FFFG in the pan or you have not cleared the touch hole and created a channel for the flame to ignite the main charge through.
Now, what to do about changes in range? This is where the muzzleloader really shines over cartridge based arms. If you followed the advice of shooting at 60 grains for 50 yards for your zero, you may have figured it out already. Shooting at 25 yards, drop 10 grains from your powder and you should end up close to zero. Shooting 75 yards? Add 10 grains for 70 grains. Shooting 100? Add another 10 grains for 80 grains. Depending on your rifle, you may need to add or subtract more then 10 grains, but you get the idea. When hunting or target shooting, this is where it really pays to know the range and know your powder loads. With a cartridge arm, shooters were forced to compensate with elevation adjustments. With a black powder arm, you can choose your load and take the guesswork out of the elevation through the sight picture. This is especially true in still-hunting where you may find a nice hiding spot but its not at the range you loaded ammo for. With a muzzleloader, you can load the gun once you find the spot and can find the range the game is likely to appear at.
Some people blow down the barrel and use a spit-patch only once every few shots and others like myself find that their rifles have fine enough rifling that a spit-patch is needed every shot. At very least, blow down your barrel to clear the hot embers out the touch hole. The spit-patch is a damp patch which, as the name implies, was moistened in the mouth of the shooter and run down the barrel. The cleaning jag, which came with your rifle, will screw onto the end of your ramrod. If you bought a second ram, affix it to that one as the handle makes this much easier. Take a patch and wet it with your water or spit and lay it across the crowning of the barrel. Ram it down with the cleaning jag and pull it back out. Friction will cause the patch to stay on the jag. If you lose the patch in the barrel, you may have a bulge, so pay attention. Do not clean so aggressively that you remove all the fouling from the barrel, a single swipe with a patch should be enough. Be aware that using too much spit also can result in fouling the next load of powder, so only moisten the patch rather than soak it. The hint to clean the barrel is when you can no longer feel the rifling of the barrel while ramming a patch and ball.
Powder does not flash.
The flint may be covered in powder fouling and not scraping the frizzen properly. The flint may have walked so its not scraping the frizzen properly. The pan may be covered in too much fouling and is absorbing water from the spit-patch (this does pollute the powder). The claws of the cock may not be tight enough on the flint.
The pan flashes, but nothing happens.
This is where the expression "a flash in the pan" comes from. Usually this means your touch hole is fouled or your powder-charge is fouled. Before you do anything, keep the gun pointed down range for a minute. There is a condition called a hangfire which means the powder is burning slowly. If the powder gets hot enough with enough air, the gun will fire as normal but well after the pan has burnt out. Give things 60 seconds to cool. Clear the touch-hole with your pick. Clean the pan. If all else fails, unscrew your touch-hole and put a few grains of FFFG into the charge until it does flash. If you bought a second rod and a ball extracting jig, you can try to pull the ball this way. Also, if you were distracted, you may not have put the powder charge in at all. This happens to all of us
The gun fires, but the ball does not clear the barrel.
This usually happens when people use under 50 grains of powder. For most rifles, this is the minimum but changes as things foul. Usually you figure out this happened when you go to use your cleaning jag and find something in the barrel. Use your ball extractor to remove the patch and ball. Do not fire the weapon to try to clear the ball, this will result in bulging the barrel.
I cannot shoot tight groups with my flintlock.
Part of the problem is the "shooters flinch" where the flash in the face is making you jump. Try reducing the amount of powder in the pan. Also, you may be too aggressively cleaning the barrel and not leaving enough fouling. Try cleaning the barrel less-often, such as every other shot. Consistency is key to muzzleloading, are you seating the ball onto the powder with the same amount of force each time? Are you using the same amount of lube? Powder? Patch and seating of the sprue? You may also be tamping down the ball too hard on the powder, which makes it burn more slowly. For powder substitutes, this often leads to incomplete burning and has the effect of loading the gun with much less of a charge than intended. Once you get a consistent load, you should be able to shoot quarter-sized groups.
When you are done shooting, take the gun home. Knock out the barrel wedge and get a glass of boiling soapy water. Unscrew the touch hole (not the breach plug) and immerse the plugged side of the barrel in the water so the water covers the touch-hole. Take your cleaning jag and a patch and repeatedly work patches in and out of the barrel. The soapy water will dissolve the black powder (and substitutes) residue. If you only shoot patched ball, no solvent is needed. If you shoot sabot or lead, you will need lead solvent to clean the barrel and a brush. Your standard rifle cleaning kit should include both but you may have to purchase a 50 caliber brass brush. Repeat the process of pulling the water through the barrel with the cleaning jag until the patches come out clean. Use soapy water to wipe down the rest of the gun including the lock. It helps to use a toothbrush in the lock to get all the residue out of the small corners. Let this sit to dry. Grease up the touch-hole and screw it back into the barrel. Coat all the metal in a light coat of oil.
Hang up the gun over the mantle and enjoy the idea that you now know how to shoot as your ancestors did for the last 700 years.