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Flintlock of an 18th century hunting rifle, with piece of flint missing.

Flintlock is the general term for any firearm based on the flintlock mechanism. The term may also apply to the mechanism itself. Introduced about 1630, the flintlock rapidly replaced earlier firearm-ignition technologies, such as the matchlock and wheellock mechanisms. It continued to be in common use for over two centuries, replaced by percussion cap and, later, cartridge-based systems in the early-to-mid 19th century. Although long superseded by other developments flintlock firearms have enjoyed some popularity with black powder shooting enthusiasts.


Flintlocks may be any type of small arm: long gun or pistol, smoothbore or rifle, muzzleloader or breechloader. Most flintlock firearms are single-shot muzzle loaders. Because of the time needed to reload (experts could reload a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading musket in 15 seconds), these weapons were sometimes produced with two, three, four or more barrels for multiple shots, but these designs tended to be costly to make and unreliable. It was less expensive and more reliable to carry several single-shot weapons instead.

Flintlock mechanism
Flintlock muskets were the mainstay of European armies between 1660 and 1840. A musket was a muzzle-loading smoothbore long gun that was loaded with a round lead ball, but it could also be loaded with shot for hunting. For military purposes, the weapon was loaded with ball, or a mixture of ball with several large shot, and had an effective range between 40 and 100 meters. Smoothbore weapons that were designed for hunting birds were called "fowlers." Flintlock muskets tended to be of large caliber and usually had no choke, so they could also be used to fire a ball.

Some flintlock hunting arms had rifled barrels. Rifling is the process of cutting spiral grooves into the inside of the barrel. These grooves will cause a tight-fitting projectile to spin, which stabilizes its flight by the gyroscopic principle. Rifles are more accurate and have longer effective ranges than smooth-bore muskets but they take more time to load, due to the tight-fitting ball, especially after repeated shots, as the black powder used at the time tended to foul the barrels, making loading more difficult. This was not a problem for hunting, but military musketeers could not afford to take the time to clean their barrels in between shots. Rifles, because of their greater accuracy, did see some limited military use, particularly among sharpshooters.

The first rifled arms were introduced about 1500. Versions made in Germanymarker for hunting large game such as boar had barrels about 50-75 centimeters long. When German immigrants settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvaniamarker, they adapted their technology to the type of game available and the demands of the Indian trade, and built the long rifle, an improvement on the small game rifles used in Europe. This weapon, known as the "Pennsylvania Rifle" or "Kentucky Rifle," has a barrel 90 to 115 centimeters long, and carefully loaded and shot, will be accurate up to 300 meters.

Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles were unique to America, as long rifles of this type never became popular in Europe. However, the jezail of Afghanistan was another example of a long rifle. Unlike the Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles, which were used predominantly for hunting, the jezail was a military weapon, and therefore tended to fire a larger and heavier round than the Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles.

Flintlock pistols were used as self-defense weapons and for duelling, and as a cavalry arm. Their effective range was very short, and they were frequently used as an adjunct to the sword or cutlass. Pistols were usually smoothbore although rifled pistols were produced.


French courtier Marin le Bourgeoys made the first firearm incorporating a true flintlock mechanism for King Louis XIII shortly after his accession to the throne in 1610. The development of firearm lock mechanisms had proceeded from matchlock to wheellock to snaplock to snaphance and miquelet in the previous two centuries, and each type had been an improvement, contributing some design features which were useful. Le Bourgeoys fitted these various features together to create the flintlock mechanism. The new system quickly became popular, and was known and used in various forms throughout Europe by 1630. In particular, dragoons serving with the Parliamentarian army in the English Civil War were known to use snaphaunce muskets, or early forms of flintlocks.

Various breech-loading flintlocks were developed starting around 1650. The most popular action has a barrel which was unscrewed from the rest of the gun. Obviously this is more practical on pistols because of the shorter barrel length. This type is known as a Queen Anne pistol because it was during her reign that it became popular (although it was actually introduced in the reign of King William III). Another type has a removable screw plug set into the side or top or bottom of the barrel. A large number of sporting rifles were made with this system, as it allowed easier loading compared with muzzle loading with a tight fitting bullet and patch. One of the more successful was the system built by Isaac de la Chaumette starting in 1704. The plug passed completely through the barrel and could be opened by 3 revolutions of the triggerguard, to which it was attached. The plug stayed attached to the barrel and the ball and powder were loaded from the top. This system was improved in the 1770s by Colonel Patrick Ferguson and 100 experimental rifles used in the American Revolutionary War. The only two flintlock breechloaders to be produced in quantity were the Hall and the Crespi. The first was invented by John Hall and patented c. 1817 . It was issued to the US Army as the Model 1819 Hall Breech Loading Rifle The Hall rifles and carbines were loaded using a combustible paper cartridge inserted into the upward tilting breechblock. Hall rifles leaked gas from the often poorly fitted action. The same problem affected the muskets produced by Giuseppe Crespi and adopted by the Austrian Army in 1771. Nonetheless, the Crespi System was experimented with by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, and percussion Halls guns saw service in the American Civil War.

Flintlock weapons were commonly used until the mid 1800s, when they were replaced by percussion lock systems. Even though they have long been considered obsolete, flintlock weapons continue to be produced today by manufacturers such as Pedersoli, Euroarms, and Armi Sport. Not only are these weapons used by modern re-enactors, but they are also used for hunting, as many U.S. states have dedicated hunting seasons for black powder weapons, which includes both flintlock and percussion lock weapons.

The flint for flintlock - 17th century

Method of operation

  • A cock tightly holding a sharp piece of flint is rotated to half-cock, where the sear falls into a safety notch on the tumbler, preventing an accidental discharge.
  • The operator loads the gun, usually from the muzzle end, with black powder followed by shot or a round lead ball, usually wrapped in a piece of paper or a cloth patch, all rammed down with a ramrod that is usually stored on the underside of the barrel.
  • The flash pan is primed with a small amount of very finely ground gunpowder, and the flashpan lid or frizzen is closed.

The gun is now in a "primed and ready" state, and this is how it would typically be carried while hunting or if going into battle.

To fire:

  • The cock is further rotated from half-cock to full-cock, releasing the safety lock on the cock.
  • The gun is aimed and the trigger is pulled, releasing the cock holding the flint.
  • The flint strikes the frizzen, a piece of steel on the priming pan lid, opening it and exposing the priming powder.
  • The contact between flint and frizzen produces a shower of sparks that is directed into the gunpowder in the flashpan.
  • The powder ignites, and the flash passes through a small hole in the barrel (called a vent or touchhole) that leads to the combustion chamber where it ignites the main powder charge, and the gun discharges.

The British army used paper cartridges to load their weapons. The powder charge and ball were instantly available to the soldier inside this small paper envelope. To load a flintlock weapon using a paper cartridge, a soldier would

  • move the cock to the half-cock position;
  • tear the cartridge open with his teeth;
  • pour a small amount of powder into the flashpan;
  • close the frizzen to keep the priming charge in the pan;
  • pour the rest of the powder in the cartridge down the muzzle and stuffed the cartridge in after it;
  • take out his ramrod and ram the ball (still in the cartridge) all the way to the breech;
  • replace the ramrod; and
  • shoulder the weapon.

Now he is ready to place the weapon on full cock and fire on command.

Cultural impact

The flintlock mechanism was in main use for both military and civilian use for over 200 years. Not until the Reverend Alexander John Forsyth, a Scottish minister, invented the rudimentary percussion cap system in 1807 did the flintlock system begin to decline in popularity. The percussion-cap system replaced the flintlock's flint and flashpan with a waterproof copper cap that created a spark when struck. The percussion ignition system was more weatherproof and more reliable than the flintlock. The transition from flintlock to percussion cap was a slow one, even at that, since the percussion system was not widely used until around 1830. The Model 1840 U.S. musket was the last flintlock firearm produced for the U.S. military although there is evidence obsolete flintlocks were seeing action in the earliest days of the American Civil War In fact, during the first year of the war, the Army of Tennessee (Confederacy) had over 2,000 flintlock muskets in service.

As a result of the flintlock's long active life, it has left lasting marks on the language and on drill and parade. Terms such as: "lock, stock and barrel," "going off half-cocked" and "flash in the pan" remain current in the English language. In addition, the weapon positions and drill commands that were originally devised to standardize carrying, loading and firing a flintlock weapon remain the standard for drill and display (see manual of arms).

Image:FlintlockFiring.jpg|A flintlock musket being firedImage:Musket.jpg|Reproduction flintlock musket detailImage:Flintlock5892.jpg|ignition sequence

See also


  1. "Pistols: An Illustrated History of Their Impact" By Jeff Kinard, Published by ABC-CLIO, 2004
  2. Flayderman, 1998
  3. Flayderman, 1998
  4. Day of Concord and Lexington (French, 1925) p. 25 note 1. See also pp. 27-36.
  5. Flayderman, 1998

  • Flayderman's Guide to Antique Firearms and Their Values 7th Edition, by Norm Flayderman 1998 Krause Publications ISBN 0873493133, 9780873493130

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