How to Build a Flintlock: The Basics
I enjoy the challenge of building something useful then actually using it. Like the canoe and kayak I built then use for weekend paddles or week long camping trips into the wilderness, the rifles I have built, I use to hunt whitetail deer. I built two flintlock muzzleloaders from "scratch", by that I mean I selected and purchased the parts, inlet them into the stock, and finished the wood and metal. I did not build from scratch like our forefathers would have, They would have cut a tree, dried it and carved the stock. They would have hand forged or formed all the parts, including forming and rifling the barrel. I did none of that, however this build is more involved, more challenging and more satisfactory than simply purchasing a kit that only requires staining and finishing the stock and assemling the longrifle.
The choice: What should I build?
I first built a Jaeger longrifle. It was ugly, so ugly it was kind of beautiful. It was a longrifle design brought to the US during the revolutionary war by the Hessians. Originally used for hunting in Europe, it's heavy caliber and short rifled barrel proved deadly on the battlefield. It was the rifle that influenced American rifle builders to abandon the smoothbore musket designs and create the more accurate and handsome american longrifle. So much for the history lesson...I sold that rifle...which I now regret, and built a Tennessee Mountain long Rifle in .50 caliber. It has a 42 inch barrel and a Tiger maple stock with iron hardware. It is NOT a piece of art. My craftsmanship is not at the highest level, adequate I would say, but after fifteen years of use, the rifle looks to me like an original vintage rifle with all indications of a hand built rifle and the patina of an old hand me down.
I wanted a long rifle and like the looks of the Tennessee rifle. Choose a style that is pleasing to your eye and practical. If you will be hunting, then be sure to choose a rifle (rifled barrel) not a musket (smoothbore), accuracy is important. Other longrifle styles are Kentucky,/Pennsylvania (several different styles) or Southern Mountain (Tennessee is one) and others. You could choose a Hawken style(mountain man style, c. 1840 ish, Jeremiah Johnson ish) rifle in half stock or full stock. These will typically be shorter barrels, 28 -36 inches. With a Hawken style you could opt for a percussion lock over a flintlock, which is slightly more reliable. I would like to build a full stock Hawken flintlock in .58 caliber someday.
A word about caliber: I found that .50 caliber round balls (which are ~158gr. @ 1500-2000 fps) are just adequate for whitetail. I would not choose .45, just my opinion...but as always shot placement is most important.
Now that you've found a style you like, what's next?
You could reasearch the longrifle and scour through catalogs looking for parts to purchase individually or you could purchase a kitted longrifle from one of several suppiers, here are two:
Track of the Wolf
Dixie Gun Works
These kits usually have options to select different woods or quality of stocks and sometimes different locks or brass or iron hardware. This makes for convenient one stop shopping. I spent about $600 on parts for my rifle. I would also recommend purchasing a book to guide you through the build such as "The Art of Building the Pennsylvania LongRifle".
A little terminology:
A lock is the mechanism that has a hammer (or cock) holding a flint in a half wrap of leather, which which stikes the hardened frizzen when the trigger is pulled, scraping hot metallic sparks into fine grained priming powder in the pan which ignites (eventually) sending flame through the touch hole in the barrel to the main powder charge. The charge burns creating a gas which expands in volume propelling the patched round ball through the barrel with a twisting motion imparted by the lands and groves in the rifled barrel. The three main components (trigger, barrel and lock) are held together with the stock. There you have it, lock, stock and barrel!
Some advice on components:
Lock: Purchase the best(period correct for the rifle style) lock you can afford. It will affect the performance of the longrifle more than any other component. You want the priming charge to ignite every time and as quickly as possible to avoid a hang fire, which could cause the shooter to flinch and throw the shot accuracy way off. I used a L&R Mantan Lock for my longrifle. Siler and Davis are good locks too. The Mantan is fast. I don't notice a difference between the ignition time when compared to my percussion rifles. You probably don't notice in the photo but it has a roller on the fizzen where it contacts the frizzen spring. Lock components can be polished to reduce friction and decrease the time between trigger pull and ignition of the main powder charge.
Barrel: Most barrels are rifled with a 1 in 66 twist. This means the ball will twist one complete revolution for every 66 inches it travels. This is best for stabilizing the flight of a patch round ball. Rifles designed for conical projectile such as a Minnie ball (or modern muzzleloaders) usually have faster twist like 1 in 25. A good quality barrel is important. I have used Green Mountain and Goetz barrels. My Tennessee has a .50 caliber 15/16" wide by 42 inch long barrel
Trigger: A trigger can be of different varieties. A standard trigger. Pulling the trigger presses directly on the sear until the hammer is released. This can cause a heavier trigger pull. A single set trigger, pushed forward sets the trigger so that the pull is lighter. A set trigger, single lever, has two triggers. The rear trigger is pulled to "set" the front trigger for a lighter pull. The front trigger will not work unless it is set. A set trigger, double lever gives the option for the shooter to set the front trigger for a light pull or leave it as a standard trigger with a heavier pull. I have a single lever set trigger on my Tennessee longrifle.
Stock: Most wood is either Maple, Walnut or Cherry. Walnut is nice and preferred for some styles. Cherry is used but less frequently. Maple can be purchased with many levels of figure in the grain. Straight grained maple is boring but functional. Tiger Maple can be purchase with different amounts of tiger striping, more striping is more expensive. Birds eye maple is premium. My rifle is better than average tiger maple with about 50% striping in the grain. I would recommend purchasing a stock that is at least 95% factory inlet, which means the difficult job of carving a barrel and ramrod channel are done for you. The majority of the stock is shaped. The only components left for you to inlet are the lock and side plate , trigger assembly and guard, barrel tang, butt plate, ramrod pipes, nose piece and patch box (if desired).
The other components are completely up to your personal preferences and will not affect performance significantly.
Building the longrifle
Tools you will need: Wood carving set or small chisel and gouge, flat file, triangular file, hacksaw, rubber hammer, exacto knife, candle and vasoline (or purchase some blacken), drill, tap set, sandpaper
Once you have all the parts the first thing to do is be sure the barrel fits in the barrel channel of the stock. If it does not quite fit then some material will need to be sanded or scraped from the channel for a proper fit. Next, the touch hole needs to be made in the side of the barrel. Usually a brass touch hole liner is installed. It is screwed into a tapped hole in the barrel then filed flush, once the breech plug is installed. The touch hole should be just forward of the breech plug end, so the touch hole liner will probably bottom out on the breech plug. Now, install the breech plug. On my Tennessee longrifle the plug was connected with a long tang which helps hold the barrel in place. If the top flat of the barrel is not perfectly flush with the tang, then some filing will be called for. The inletting of all the parts begins now, this is the fun part! This involves placing the parts on the stock in their proper positions and tracing their outline on the wood. A thin layer of wood is then removed from within the outline using your wood carving tools and exacto knife. Once the part is rechecked for proper fit and the initial inlet is adjusted if necessary. The part needs to be lightly coated with vasoline where it contacts the wood. This surface can then be held over a candle flame to allow black soot to build up. It is then placed back into the inlet and given a gentle tap with a rubber hammer. Use your wood carving tools to remove the wood that is blackened. Repeat this process until the part is flush with the stock. First do the barrel tang and mount the barrel. The Tennessee long rifle required installation of brass barrel lugs on its bottom. The lugs were mortised into shallow slots cut in the barrel with a hack saw and filed with the triangle file. The lug positions were then inlet into the stocks barrel channel. I then clamped the barrel into the channel. After marking the lug positions on the side of the stock, I drilled a hole completely through the stock and barrel lug. I used finishing nails inserted into the holes to pin the barrel to the stock.
inlet the lock
Next the lock needs to be disassembled so that just the lock plate remains. It is then clamped on the side of the stock so that the pan is aligned properly with the touch hole. The plate is then inlet, but additional inletting of the lock components (tumbler, sear, etc.) is necessary. Adequate clearance for all the moving parts must be given, including adjustments for any interference between the hammer and stock. The side plate is next, using the same blackening/inletting process already described. On my Tennessee only one bolt runs through the stock holding the lock plate and side plate together. This hole should be drilled before the side plate is inlet. Reassemble everything and check for proper fit.
inlet the trigger assembly
Next the trigger should be inlet. Similar to the lock, the trigger assembly should be disassembled. The trigger plate should be positioned at the center line of the stock bottom such that you are certain the trigger will contact the lock sear when pulled. Inlet just as you did the lock. The trigger plate will be held in place with wood screws or in the case of the Tennessee, two bolts run from the barrel tang to the tapped holes in the tiger plate. Alignment when drilling these holes can be a little tricky. Depending on the type of trigger guard you selected, it may require inletting or even some filing to fit with the trigger plate. The guard on my Tennessee was not inlet and just held on with wood screws. The trigger should be reassembled and installed along with the lock. Install a flint in the lock with a leather keeper wrap and test the trigger/lock mechanism. If there is anything that binds, adjustments will be necessary. The flint should produce a nice shower of sparks falling into the pan when it contacts the frizzen.
inlet the other hardware
Next I inlettted the ramrod pipes and pinned them to the stock just as was done with the barrel lugs. Inletting the butt plate, toe plate, nose cap and patch box followed. A front and rear sight were added to the top barrel flat, similar to the barrel lug mountings. I chose a buckhorn rear sight. I added some minor decoration by inletting diamond shapes made of bone over the barrel lug pins and a hunters star made of antler in the stock cheek rest.
Now you have a complete longrifle ready for finishing. I decided to “brown” the barrel and metal hardware. This is basically rusting the parts then rubbing out the corrosion with steel wool and coating with oil to stop the rust process. This will leave a dark brown satin finish on the metal. All the metal needs to be removed from the stock and degreased. To accelerate the rusting I coated the surfaces with nitric acid and placed them in a damp area of my basement. Once they were rusted I neutralized the acid with baking soda. Be careful not to rust the components on the back of the lock, trigger plate or the inside of the barrel. The barrel and metal part can be left unfinished and allowed to naturally turn brown over the years, if desired.
The stock should be sanded, wetted to raise the grain then finish sanded with fine grit once it is dry. To bring out the striping in the tiger maple I used Aquafortis, which I think is acid. I applied a coating to the stock then let it dry to a yellowish tint. Carefully using a torch I heated the wood and the yellow turned dark brown with lighter areas where the striping showed. I then sealed the wood with a 50/50 mixture of varnish and turpentine, followed by about three more coats of varnish. Everything was reassembled and the longrifle was test fired.
What you need to get started
Round balls, black powder(substitutes don’t work well in flintlocks), jag, ball puller, powder measure, powder horn, patches (pillow ticking from the local fabric store)
If you are new to black powder you should purchase Sam Fadalas book:
Follow all the safety rules associated with shooting sports in addition there are some precautions unique to black powder, which are covered in the book. Things like using a powder measure, never charging from the source (powder horn), priming with a small horn, etc.
When I tested the Tennessee, I used a small charge, 30 grains of FFg black power topped with a patched .495 round ball. The patching material needs to be lubricated. A commercial patch lubricant can be purchase or you can make your own by melting Crisco and beeswax. Or in a pinch spit will work. The pan was primed with a small amount of FFFFg black powder. I stood next to a large tree and held the longrifle on the other side. Ignition was flawless. Eventually I developed a hunting load of 80 grains of FFFg powder and a patched .495 round ball. My success is shown in photos at the bottom. The longrifle is fun to shoot and improves your skills because of the slight ignition delay and when if used for hunting the fact you only have one shot teaches patience.
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