The Gun-Flint & Flint-Lock, Learn About a Vanishing Weapon of America’s Frontier Past
Updated: Feb 12
The ‘pan-and-flint’ arms of the American Revolution and its following decades should be remembered as the signature weapon of the west generations before six-guns and Sharps rifles crossed the plains.
Whiteoak Hills (1844) - along the Illinois River, Indian Territory
It was early spring in the pre-dawn light as George “Kana’ti”[i] Tucker and his nephew “Tsali”[ii] made their ways through the groves of oak and walnut in search of wild turkey. Winter was still in the air as Kana’ti adjusted his dark red turban and pulled the lapels of his coat tight. “Ah-geydutsi, [iii] why did we not go after that gobbler down in the run?” asked the young nephew. The man being of many years’ experience in the hunt, paused and replied. “U-westi [iv], that old Tom-gobbler only wanted to talk big but he’d nary come near us so we’ll leave him be.”
Tsali shrugged, “Why don’t we go to him then.”
“Dulegi [v] have greater vision than man. That is their gift. If we approach, he will see us first and flee.” said the old hunter.
Kana’ti paused to listen, then looked over the new Carolina fowler he had just bought from Johnston’s store in the previous week. It was iron-mounted with a dark red maple stock. Carefully he checked the priming powder in his pan and then set the hammer in place with a firm ‘snap’. He motioned for the boy’s silence and to get low as he now slid gently over the ground up alongside an old hickory log.
Tsali was not more than two-rods back from his uncle as he watched him seemingly become part of the old log that he was nestled firmly against. His dark coat and breeches made him one with the forest floor. The old hunter worked his turkey call; first with soft chupping until a distant gobble was heard. He increased the call with more force, even interrupting the gobble of the interested Tom who was now clearly approaching over the acorn-strewn forest floor.
Like a serpent through the grass, the long Carolina fowler slid up into position in the crook of Kana’ti’s shoulder. “Come on over to me Chooch! [vi]” he whispered. Kana'ti exhaled for what seemed like an age as a large Tom strutted into view. The air was alive with the sound of a forest in the early morning light as the Tom gobbled again for a reply. A puff of sparks and white smoke bloomed from the fowler’s lock as a loud report sheared through the tranquil morning air. A tempest of feathers and thrashing wings crashed through the foliage as the hunter and his young pupil hurried toward their prize. With an air of satisfaction, Kana’ti turned to Tsali “This will be better than the bean soup I had planned for us in case I had missed.”
From the Revolutionary war until the 1840s, Flintlock arms were THE firearm of the young nation through its first 70 years. Although the percussion cap was introduced on the commercial market in the 1820’s, the ‘pan-and-flint’ firearms were prolific and continued to be heavily used throughout the century. In 1847, G.W. Kendall wrote of his friend and Texas Frontiersman, Tom Hancock and his preference for flintlocks: “Tom's ordinary weapon, and the one upon which he most ‘prided’ himself, was a long, heavy, flint-lock rifle, of plain and old-fashioned workmanship, for he could not be made to believe in percussion caps and other modern improvements.”
Flintlock rifles were carried by trappers and explorers as they fanned out from the eastern woodlands, across the plains and beyond the great Mississippi. Fowlers harvested meat for the cookfires of countless campsites and homesteads. To many of the Native Tribes and their emigrant neighbors, trade guns or 'fusees' provided security against the unknown and game for their larders. Muskets rode off on the shoulders of American soldiers, sailors, and marines in war and peace, from Florida to the Pacific coast, to many foreign shores.
The device is simple and involves a striking ‘cock’ that held a sharpened stone flint in its jaws. It was released by the trigger to strike a glancing blow upon a steel striking plate called a ‘hammer’ or later, a ‘frizzen’. This created a shower of sparks. Upon being struck, the hammer tilted forward exposing a small pan full of gunpowder. The flint’s sharp edge shears off tiny particles of white-hot steel that set off the powder.
This in turn, travels through a small port in the side of the gun barrel and sets off the main powder charge to fire the weapon. By the 18th century, a flintlock firearm in a rural American home was a common fixture.
*Note: The steel ‘hammer’ is named after the steel hammer used in strike-a-light fire-starting kits. See illustration in this article showing a full strike-a-light kit.
Different types of Flint-lock arms.
They have been called “flintlocks”, or “firelocks” and they served in many roles either as rifled or smoothbore arms. With a wide selection of barrel lengths and calibers to choose from, each variation was best suited to for a particular job at hand from hunting to warfare. Light flintlock muskets were also called '"fusils" and mountaineer slang for Indian flintlock trade guns were “fusees". These names became so deeply entrenched in the vernacular, that 'fusees' kept the name long after the 'pan-and-flint' mechanism gave way to percussion caps. Likewise, the 'fusil' is now more synonymous with that of rifles and combat units in the modern-day British military and French shooting vernacular.
In their best known form, Flintlocks reigned as the premier firearm from the early 17th century right up until the dawn of the American Civil War two and a half centuries later. There were great strides in firearms technology during the 19th century and it tends to overshadow this venerable design that served our young nation so well.
A fowler is a smoothbore firearm that could throw shot after small game and birds or it can be loaded with a patched ball to take larger game. A round ball comes out of the muzzle rolling like a bowling ball. This gave it a relatively short range even with a well-fitted ball.
A musket is essentially the military equivalent of a fowler. The bore tends to be bigger; the design is more durable and there is a bayonet lug. Shortened models used by cavalry and dragoons were called carbines or musketoons.
A flintlock rifle has spiral grooves cut into the bore allowing the ball to turn like a screw for enhanced in-flight stability. This allowed the bullet to travel greater distances with improved accuracy. These are the typical ‘hunting rifles’ that you see carried by the heroes in films like Last of the Mohicans, or The Revenant. They may be small-bored for the small game of the eastern woodlands or bigger-bored for larger animals such as ‘buffalo’ (bison), elk, and bear. Eventually, these would also play a greater role as military arms that would be regularly issued to troops.
Pistols were available in a variety of formats. Smaller calibers could be carried concealed in populated areas as a deterrent against ruffians. Larger caliber pistols often accompanied travelers and frontiersmen as a secondary line of defense against an enemy or a variety of large predatory animals.
Nomenclature of the Gun-Flint
Flint is typically a form of cryptocrystalline mineral quartz or chert. According to Sydney B. J. Skertchly, F.G.S. (1879) an average workman will knap 3,000 flints in a workday of 12 hours, but a good one will make 4,000 at a pinch. One man for instance, working from 4 a.m., till 11 p.m. each day made 24,000 in a week. This means that a trained flint-knapper can complete 4-5 gun-flints per minute! This is a pretty astonishing feat considering the numerous precision strikes needed to give each flint its functional shape.
Parts of a Gun-Flint
The flat side of a gun-flint is called the face while the beveled underside is the back. The sides are aptly named what they are and the back-end is the heel while the sharpened end that strikes the hammer (frizzen) is called the edge. It is important to note that there is no rule that says the flint must always face up. Depending on the way in which the edge is formed, the flint may perform better either face up or face down.
On the back side of a flint, it may have only one rib. These typically have only one edge. In other cases where the flint is double-ribbed (as seen in the diagram above), it may have 2-edges instead of a single edge and heel. In the case of 2-edges, one edge will always be sharper than the other as the former edge was handled by the knapper while creating the latter edge.
Gun-Flint Size Charts and the Various Muzzleloading Guns They Are Used With
The dimensions are given on each plate are in the terms of length x width x height.
*Editor's note, this serves as a general guideline. I know many shooters who don't precisely follow the standard and they still shoot just fine.
In Plate 1 These are the largest of gun flints and intended for the use in military muskets, African trade guns, and even in large wall-mounted long-guns, swivels, & artillery (see No. 1, fig. 27) These flints are all 1-inch to 1 1/2-inch wide and up to 2-inches long.
The flints featured in Plate 2 are typically for military carbines (musketoons), and horse pistols. Note that they still have a fairly broad width of roughly an inch or more.
Plate 3 is now showing smaller sizes of about 1-inch which is suitable for horse pistols, American muskets, trade muskets, Jager rifles, and fowlers. A flint of about 7/8" or .85-.90 inch is serviceable for most muzzleloading civilian arms.
Plate 4 shows the smaller sizes of which a flint around 3/4" or .75 inch which is the most universally common for civilian hunting and target gun locks. Flints of around .60-.62 inch or 5/8" are most common for civilian pistols with the smallest "muff pistols" using a flint of about .40" width.
Loading the Flint-Lock
Prime - Open your pan and add priming powder, then close the frizzen. This closes the port to leakage during the loading process. (*Some ranges require this to be the last step for safety purposes.)
Charge - Pour your measured gunpowder down the muzzle
Add wadding or shot-card with patched ball
Ram - use your ramrod to drive the bullet to the very bottom, resting on the charge. Firing the gun with your ball resting half-way will burst the barrel
Return ramrod and you're ready to shoot
Additional Notes on the Flint-Lock
Flint-Lock vs. Percussion-Lock:
“8 ½ -parts of powder, fired with percussion caps, are quite equal to in force to 10-parts of gunpowder fired in the ordinary way by means of pan & flint.”
-John P. Curry (1862)
The percussion lock muzzleloader was the next step in firearms ignition technology. It used a fulminated cap that was more reliable and less prone to misfire in wet weather. Upon ignition, the full blast of the cap travels straight into the powder charge with minimal fuel waste. The new design also conserved gunpowder. With a flintlock, about 5-grains of powder are used in the priming pan and a degree of the ignition’s escapes from the touch-hole
'Keep yer' Powder Dry' - Tips for cold, wet weather
Cover your lock - use a 'cow's knee' (oiled or waxed hide covering over the lock)
Leave your long gun out on the porch during cold nights - cold weather has a lot of airborne moisture that will condense once you come into a warm room. These droplets will run down your bore past the patch and soak your powder. Military arms have tompions (stoppers) that plug the bore when they are carried in cold, damp weather.
Sunning your powder - traditional gunpowder could attract moisture from the air and would need to be sunned in order to dry. When the FF-grading system was introduced in 1825, graphite was added to the tumbling process. This helps keep powder from absorbing moisture from the air and it's why modern shooters seldom complain about this problem. If using paper cartridges, regularly sun them to ensure they stay dry.
Make the powder in your flash pan finer - crush regular gunpowder in the flat joint where the frizzen hinges over the pan. I often use this in lieu of priming powder.
How to Knap Your Flints - Depending on the manual, some recommend knapping or replacing gunflints after every 7-14 shots. That works fine for a hunter but not so much for an infantryman in battle. This is a reason why the flints of military arms tend to be larger. The bigger the contact area, the more sparks produced. Here are some ways to extend your flint's functionality.
Flaking hammer - use downward blows upon the flint's edge to flake it.
Percussion pin - hold a nail point down on the flint's edge and use short, sharp blows from a small hammer upon the nail head.
Frizzen pressure- bring the cock to fill release. Use edge pressure of the frizzen's underside to chip down on the edge. You can do the same with your bag-pliers.
Fire Striker - Remove the flint and lay it down on a board. Use the striker to press down on the edge to chip it.
Regularly check behind your lock plate when cleaning - Search for loose powder that may work itself into the stock's cavity behind the lock plate. It's not that likely but if it does occur, there will eventually be enough powder in this empty space to become a real problem when an errant spark finds it.
There is still a vibrant culture of muzzle loading shooters out there who keep the tradition alive. The muzzle loading rifles, fowlers, muskets and pistols used by today's enthusiasts are just like the ones that were used by the soldiers, mountaineers, and travelers of America’s frontier times. They are still being made by skilled gunsmiths using time honored techniques just as their forefathers did. In essence, this era never died, but rather lives on even today but the number of those still practicing this vanishing art of marksmanship are declining.
Perhaps you feel that you are a salt-of-the-earth type who believes in rugged individualism and the traditions reaching back to the founding of this nation. There are still those out there willing to share their expertise in the art of muzzle loading and there is a need for new shooters willing to learn and embark on their own journey of walking in history's moccasins.
For more information on a modern maker, check out Tom Fuller English Gunflints: https://www.trackofthewolf.com/list/item.aspx/141/1
[i] Cherokee male’s name, roughly translates as ‘successful huntsman’ similar to the English name ‘Hunter’. [ii] Common Cherokee boy’s name meaning ‘Charlie’ or Charles. [iii] Cherokee for ‘uncle’. It was traditional for uncles to play the role of a surrogate father in mentoring his brother’s children. In the following line, the uncle addresses the boy as u-westi or ‘son’. [iv] Cherokee for ‘son’ [v] ‘Turkey’ [vi] Cherokee slang, similar to ‘hombre’ or ‘man’