Loading and Firing a Flintlock
Firing a flintlock rifle is something that every hunter or shooting enthusiast should experience. It will give you an appreciation for the advancement of modern firearms.
For the several seconds it takes to load and fire, you will be personally connected with a piece of American history. Imagine the battles that were fought, the food that was provided to the frontier families by hunters. Imagine the craftsmen that built these rifles by hand.
Another reason for firing a flintlock is that if you do it often, it will improve your marksmanship. The delay between the ignition of the priming charge ignition and the ignition of the main charge requires “follow through,” or continuing to hold on target after the trigger is squeezed.
The first step in loading the rifle is to pour loose black powder down the barrel. This should be genuine black powder, FFg or FFFg, not a substitute. The replica powder usually has a slower ignition time, which is not desirable in any muzzleloader, but especially a flintlock.
You should pour the powder into a powder measure first and then into the barrel. This is for two reasons. First, you need to measure the powder volume accurately to ensure consistent shot accuracy and eliminate the possibility of over-charging. Second, if you pour powder into the main barrel directly from a source like a powder horn, an ember remaining from a previous shot could ignite the powder in the horn and cause an explosion and severe injury.
A powder measure is simply a cylinder of known volume, closed at one end. A typical volume is 40 to 120 grains, depending on the caliber of the rifle. I use 80 grains of FFFg in my .50 caliber flintlock, pictured here.
Next a patched round lead ball must be “rammed” down the barrel and seated firmly on top of the powder charge. The round ball should have a diameter slightly smaller than the diameter of the bore. For my .50 caliber rifle I use .495 inch diameter round balls.
The rifling in the barrel is essentially grooves cut on the inside of the barrel in a spiral pattern. These cause the projectile to spin as it travels down the barrel which stabilizes it and greatly improves accuracy. The typical twist for rifling used to fire round balls is one complete twist in 66 inches.
The patch is usually cotton fabric. I use pillow ticking which is available in most fabric stores. The patch should be lubricated; a variety of commercial products are available but a 50/50 combination of Crisco and melted beeswax works well. Even saliva can work in a pinch. I usually pre-lube a batch of patches.
The patch should almost cover the entire round ball when in the barrel. Some people like to carry a strip of patching fabric about an inch wide. You work a dab of lube into the end of the patch strip with your fingers, and then set the patch strip on top of the muzzle. Then place a ball on top of the patch and ram it about ¼ inch down the barrel with a ball starter. Then cut off the rest of the patch strip with a patch knife.
The patched ball should be rammed down the barrel with one continuous, firm motion of the ramrod until it is seated on top of the powder charge. The in-and-out motion of the ramrod you see in movies is not necessary and will only lead to a broken rod. Usually the ramrod has a mark to help indicate that the ball is seated against the powder.
Next cock the hammer to half cock and pour finely granulated (FFFFg) priming powder into the pan. Fill the pan about ¾ full.
Then close the frizzen on the pan. The frizzen is the hardened steel surface that the flint strikes to create a spark.
When it comes time to fire the rifle, the hammer is then pulled to full cock, the rifle is aimed, and the trigger is pulled. The trigger strikes the flint against the frizzen to create a spark, igniting the priming charge in the pan. The priming charge in turn ignites the main charge in the barrel with a flame that travels through a small hole in the barrel in line with the pan.
- Building a Flintlock: The Basics
My recollections of building a Tennesse Flintlock Longrifle.