Sparking a Flint Lock

FFtbang! Shooting a flint lock is the most challenging and rewarding type of shooting there is in the shooting sports

I had been wandering around the woods all day in a raging blizzard. It was the third weekend of deer hunting and the first day of the Wisconsin muzzle loader season. During the 9 day gun deer season, I had harvested two deer with my .54 cal Mortimer flint lock. I figured one more big Wisconsin deer would completely fill the freezer, and keep the family supplied with meat until the following fall. When I got up in the morning to hunt, the blizzard was raging so hard I couldn’t see past the end of my short driveway. “I thought, “Yup, its gonna be a great day in the woods”. I charged up my trusty flinter, put on an extra layer of longies, pulled on the Capote, and headed out to the woods. My drive time to the happy hunting ground was triple the normal drive time. I guessed that with the snow flying and the wind howling, the deer would be bedded down in the shelter of the swamp rather than up on the ridges. I was hoping to kick up a deer or cut a set of fresh tracks and then run down the deer. But the deer outsmarted me and I did not see a single deer or fresh track all day. As the gray light of the storm began to fade to the black of the night. I moseyed back to my car, I pulled the cow’s knee off the lock and discovered there was snow packed around the frizzen. I gently blew the snow off the lock, cocked the rifle and pulled the trigger. The gun went off like clockwork.
A flint lock can be a finicky and unpredictable beast, but with proper loading procedures and care, a flint lock can also very reliable. My Mortimer has dropped many a deer and even bear.

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The main components of a flint lock are the cock, which holds the flint and scrapes the flint across the frizzen to generate sparks. The frizzen- piece of high carbon steel on a hinge, which does two jobs-create spark and hold the priming powder in pan. The pan which holds the priming powder, and the touch hole which is the conduit between the flash of powder in the pan and the main charge in the barrel.

Understanding the process by which a flinter ignites the main powered charge is vitally important to making one work.The pan is primed with powder, the cock is pulled back. the target is in the sights, and the shooter squeezes the trigger. Now what? The springs in the lock propel the cock forward and it collides with the frizzen. The collision causes the frizzen to snap forward uncovering the pan and priming powder as a shower of sparks from the frizzen descends on the priming powder in the pan. Then POOF!. The priming powder ignites. A fraction of the flame from the priming powder flicks into the touch hole and the powder charge in the barrel goes BOOM!
There are three things that can happen when the trigger is pulled on a flint lock. The best result is the rapid boom described above. Second is a fffft-boom, this is a called a hang fire. The third is silence. This is called a misfire. Of the three, the misfire is the most dangerous because the lack of firing may be a really long hang fire. Hence, if there is a misfire, the muzzle must be pointed in a safe direction for at least a minute before the shooter begins to tinker with the gun. Even after a minute, the muzzle must always be pointed in a safe direction.
If a hang fire or a misfire occurs some thing prevented one or more parts of the firing sequence from happening. The good news is that with meticulous loading techniques, a shooter can get a flint lock to go Boom nearly 100% of the time.
I am going to describe my meticulous loading process and explain why each step helps my flinters go boom with no delays. The first step in the ignition process is the flint striking the frizzen. To make sparks, the flint must be sharp. The best way to ensure a sharp flint is to put a new flint in the cock before heading out to hunt or starting a serious competition. If plinking or a friendly competition, just run your finger along the edge of the flint. With some experience, a shooter can tell if the flint is sharp. If the flint seems dull, employ the knapping hammer until one or two small flakes of flint drop off. Now get the frizzen ready by wiping it down with a cloth. And while you’re at it, wipe the pan out as well. Doesn’t hurt to wipe the underside of the flint too. Now that all is clean and sharp, the gun is ready to load. It should also be noted that the wipe down process can be done after the barrel is charged. First powder goes in the barrel along with a patch and a ball. After the powder is dumped in, it doesn’t hurt to tap the butt on the ground a time or two to make sure the powder settles down into the breech and in front of the touch hole. The next step is to ensure that the touch hole is not obstructed. Do this by running the touch hole pick in and out of the touch hole a time or two. Some shooters will put the touch hole pick in the touch hole prior to pouring the powder down the barrel. In addition to clearing out the touch hole, the pick acts to create an air space in front of the touch hole. This pocket allows the flash from the pan to ignite more granules of powder than if the powder was flush with the touch hole, which means a faster over all ignition time. The final step is to put powder in the pan. Don’t load it up and cover the touch hole. This will cause a delay since the excess powder will act like a fuse. For fast ignition the gun must have a good flash from the pan. Think of the priming powder in the pan as a spark plug.

The tools needed to load a flint lock include (Right to left) Primer, Spare Flints, wiping cloth, touch hole pick, screw driver, flint knapping hammer, and pan brush. Powder horn and measure is for charging the barrel.

When shooting the gun, listen to the ignition process. Do all the individual sounds meld into one continuous sequence? If so, you have your loading process down. If not, try tweaking the loading process. Add a bit more or a bit less prime to the pan. Try putting the flint in the cock with the bevel up or down. Try both 3Fg and 4Fg for the priming powder. The diameter of the touch hole pick may make a difference. I have a thin wire pick that I use on the Mortimer, it works great. But when I got a trade gun, it occasionally had hang fires. I inadvertently fixed the problem when I bought a hand-forged set of flint lock tools. The pick was custom fitted to the touch hole and the hang fires disappeared. The goal is to make the ignition process as fast as the lock will allow.
That brings up one important point on flint locks. As seen from the article, a well functioning flint lock is an intricate device. It takes skill to make one that works well and is reliable. When buying a flinter, its best to check out the reputation of the manufacturer to make sure you get a good one. Buying a flint lock because it is cheap is usually a recipe for failure.
There are a few tricks that can be used when hunting, to increase the reliability of the flinter when dat ole thurdy point buck comes strolling past. A “Cow’s Knee” is a piece of leather or cloth that covers the lock and trigger to make it harder for moisture to dampend the prime and prevent the gun from firing. After priming a flint lock rub a bit of bees wax-based lip balm on the area where the frizzen meets the pan. This will also make it harder for water to dampen the priming powder. Finally, check and change the priming powder often. Even if its completely dry out, I will change out the prime a few times during the day to make sure the gun will go off like clock work.
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A cows knee fitted over the lock lowers the risk that moisture will interfere with the ignition process.

It takes more skill to shoot and hunt with a flint lock than another type of gun. This is what makes hunting and shooting with them so rewarding.

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