Flintlocks: Making Your Flintlock Failsafe

Making Your Flintlock Failsafe

by Earl Matsuoka

There are several areas of special care that a wise shooter pays attention to in shooting a flintlock in a place as humid as Hawaii.  Especially in the hunting field where your gun will be loaded for long periods soaking up whatever moisture is present.  But, before we can get to that we have to set up our piece so it can perform with mechanical perfection.

Even more important than in selecting a new percussion gun, buy the best quality you can afford.  In a flintlock gun, the sparks from the flint striking the steel frizzen flashes the priming powder in the pan carrying fire through the vent into the main charge.  For this discussion we’ll separate this into two stages; the first, flashing the pan or priming charge, and the second, the firing of the main charge in the barrel.


The first stage deals with the lock itself and here is where you want to get the best lock you can afford.  Cheap locks are out of time, have soft frizzens that do not spark well or pans that do not seal weather out very well.  They are frustrating and not fun to shoot.  A good lock will produce a bright shower of yellow-white sparks directed into the pan to light the charge instantly.  With everything working properly there should be no lag between the pan flash and the main charge igniting.


The most important item in this first phase is the flint itself.  I have limited experience with the cut flints now sold through various sources but can get over a hundred shots from a traditional chipped flint by re-knapping when needed and this is a skill you should acquire.  You cannot re-knapp a cut flint very well if at all and knowing you have a dull flint that may or may not spark is frustrating.  The quality of chipped flints varies greatly however and I strongly suggest paying the few cents more and using only black English or amber French flints.  The English flints can be purchased from a number of muzzle-loading suppliers and are great, but the finest flints known are the amber French flints that can be located through HHAA member, Chris Mann, who deals with the person who actually shapes the flints.  Get the size appropriate to your lock.  Set the flint in the jaws of the cock or hammer in a scrap of leather cut from an old shoe with the bevel up or down depending on your individual lock so the sparks are directed into the pan.  Do not clamp a flint naked in the jaws of your hammer.  Some publications have advised using sheet lead instead, but I would do this only on the extra hefty musket locks if at all.  With the hammer on half cock, the edge of the flint should not touch the frizzen face, and in working around a sharp flint be very careful as the edge can be as sharp as a piece of broken glass, and do not under any circumstances get your finger between the flint and the frizzen as an accidental hammer release can separate your fingertip.  You can recognize an experienced flint shooter by the many healing cuts about his fingers that just seems to appear when you unknowingly brush against a mounted flint.  Be careful!


Although the frizzen springs should just lightly hold the frizzen closed against the pan, many locks have powerful springs that hold the frizzen closed with such force that the striking flint will shatter edges before it can move the frizzen away uncovering the pan.  You can carefully thin the spring reducing the force needed with a small rotary grinder but watch the heat generated and polish all grinding marks off before compressing the spring again.  Lightening this spring will also minimize gun movement when the hammer falls, increasing accuracy.


A simple test of lock timing given me by Mark Silver and Monte Mandarino is to load the priming pan only, turn the unloaded gun upside down and drop the hammer… if there is a falling shower of burning powder all is well for pan flashing and we can move on to insure the main charge ignition.


After the pan powder ignited reliably, we have to get that fire into the main charge in the barrel.  Nothing is as important here as the placement of the vent or touch hole in the barrel.  Many replica guns sold today have a fault here correctable by a good gunsmith who can install a vent liner in the proper position.  The correct position for a vent hole is almost even with the top surface of the pan.  Not near the bottom floor of the pan as is sometimes common.  This error leads to fuselike ignition and moisture easily killing the main charge as it travels through the now damp priming or pan powder to the main charge.  With the vent properly placed, wet pan powder can be wiped out with t finger tip, replaced and flashed firing the still dry main charge.  A pan properly loaded is loaded only half way to the top with the lock tapped to move the powder over to the outside of the pan.  This causes the fire to be directed instantly toward the vent avoiding the hand fire like ignition common in movie depictions.


Since we want to avoid anything that resembles a fuse, all my guns are equipped with non-traditional stainless steel vent liners that are counter bored from the inside to place the main charge closer to the vent opening.  Since I only use relatively large bores, I also open my vent with a 3/32” drill to easily convey the pan flash.  There is nothing more impossible to instant ignition than a small hole drilled through the whole thickness of a barrel wall resembling nothing less than a 1/2” fuse.  If there is any delay and there will be in this scenario, it would take a might man indeed to avoid flinching when the pan ignites inches from your eye a half second before the main charge fires

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