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Shooting a Flintlock Long Rifle

By James Passmore

It was the movie “The Revenant” that started me off. The famous story of Hugh Glass I already knew. The film was entertaining, but the recognition I felt when I saw Leonardo DeCaprio stalking through the forest with a beautiful flintlock rifle created a yearning. I suddenly remembered where my love of firearms had started.

 

The flintlock long rifle caught my imagination at a young age. It was the first rifle I recall wanting to own. It took me many years to realize this dream though, until I finally ordered a Kentucky rifle from Hayes & Associates in Carterton.

 

I have owned a black powder muzzleloader before – a .577 calibre reproduction Zouave military rifle from the American Civil War, which was a percussion gun. It was tremendous fun, but with all my rifles my main focus is hunting, and while the Zouave was powerful enough to shoot through a horse lengthwise, and accurate enough, to my mind the nature of the military style hollow-based bullet made it less applicable to hunting – I wanted a patched, round ball rifle.

 

It was time for a proper flintlock – a true wilderness hunting rifle.

 

“...to my mind the nature of the military style hollow-based bullet made it less applicable to hunting – I wanted a patched, round ball rifle. It was time for a proper flintlock – a true wilderness hunting rifle.”

 

The flintlock gave me pause for a moment. Flintlock ignition is less efficient than a percussion cap and more likely to be affected by rain and moisture. I also wondered if the rifle would be accurate enough. I already knew that the power of a round ball was considered weak.

 

But the spirit and romance of the thing had always caught my imagination. The flintlock was the purest form of gun at its basic level. I was to find out however that I was wrong on nearly every count – a flintlock long rifle is much more accurate, reliable, and powerful than I thought.

 

THE FLINTLOCK

A quality “fire-lock” was the pinnacle of firearms development for over two hundred years, until being replaced by the percussion cap system in the 1840s. In a flintlock a piece of flint or chert stone held in the hammer is struck down onto the steel surface of the frizzen, dropping hot sparks into a small charge of black powder held in the pan. This flash ignites the main charge through a touch-hole into the bore.

 

Part of the project was to decorate the rifle with the typical rococo-style carvings found on long rifles in the late 1700s. James used a veiner tool to create these authentic designs.

 

The frizzen is closed over the pan to protect and hold the black powder ignition charge until it is needed, and a spring allows the frizzen to flick out of the way once the sparks have been struck from its surface. The mechanics of it have not changed over the centuries.

 

It was truly a successful system and not altered until the mastery of chemicals allowed the invention of the percussion cap. New Zealand used to be awash with flintlocks – army-surplus Brown Bess flintlock muskets were sold to Maori and pioneers in their thousands in the nineteenth century.

 

THE AMERICAN LONG RIFLE

Making high quality custom long rifles is a cottage industry in the United States today and many modern gun-makers turn out a handful of high-end guns each year. Authenticity is important, with the golden period considered to be between 1770 and 1820. Great efforts are made to match original building methods.

 

Gun styles or schools are named after the areas they were developed in, such as Berks County and Lancaster County in Philadelphia.

 

Famous makers like Joseph Dickert are copied, and decorations and wood carving are developed from studying these old masters. If you have an interest in building one yourself from a historically correct kitset, “Track of the Wolf” in the USA can sell you authentic kits, and will also sell you a finished long rifle.

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PEDERSOLI KENTUCKY RIFLE 

Pedersoli in Italy has been making quality replicas of historic firearms since the 1950s. I ordered what they call their “Kentucky” long rifle model, which is offered in both flintlock and percussion versions from Hayes & Associates (the importers) with whom I have dealt with on many occasions and always received excellent service.

 

The Pedersoli Kentucky rifle is a walnut and blued piece that I have found to be perfectly satisfactory with some tailoring. The rifle I purchased was in .50 calibre with a 36-inch octagonal barrel, and is decorated with brass fittings including a handsome patch box cover. The lock itself is in the white, and the open sights are a simple V rear and a front blade. I found the fit of the wood to the metal parts finely matched.

 

The accoutrements of the flintlock shooter. Black powder, powder measures carved from antler, patch material, tallow lube, spare flints, pure lead round balls – and a feather traditionally used to block the touch-hole on a loaded rifle.

 

All the metal parts were well finished. A gritty and heavy trigger pull smoothed itself out over a couple of range sessions and the trigger pull now is exactly what I would want, light with no creep at all.

 

The Pedersoli Kentucky rifle comes with a brass rimmed patch box let into the stock, used to hold spare flints and patches. The brass fittings on this rifle were aged with vinegar to give a pleasing patina.

 

Learning to shoot a flintlock was an enjoyable part of the whole experience, and there are many tutorials available on YouTube. Basically the procedure is to pour a measured amount of black powder down the barrel, then place a greased patch over the muzzle and put a round ball on it. Now ram the patch and ball down the bore until they seat firmly on top of the powder charge.

 

Priming the flintlock with loose powder – only a pinch is required. Here you can see the flint clamped in the jaws of the hammer and wrapped in leather. A sharp flint is the key to reliable ignition.

 

The rifle comes with a wooden ramrod that fits along the underside of the barrel. The rifle is primed by pouring a small amount of black powder into the pan of the lock, which is then closed. The rifle remains on half-cock until the shooter is ready to fire.

 

ACCURACY

I went to the range for the first session just hoping that I could get the rifle to fire properly. Equipped with powder and shot, patch material, lube, spare flints, tools for knapping the edge on my flints, a piece of wire for clearing the touch hole, cloth patches for clearing fouling between shots, powder measures (in the form of empty brass cartridge cases the volume of which I had pre-measured with scales at home) and a positive attitude...!

 

The .490 inch round ball is cast from pure lead, and a cotton patch lubed with tallow is rammed down the bore under the ball. As the gun fires the patch catches the rifling and spins the ball – similar to a sabot.

 

My first shot went off instantly and with no hang fire, virtually no delay between priming and the main charge – K’BOOM! White smoke billowed everywhere. I was in business.

 

“I was to find out however that I was wrong on nearly every count – a flintlock long rifle is much more accurate, reliable, and powerful than I thought.” 

 

I discovered that with 80 grains of 3F Holy Smoke black powder, a 180 grain round ball measuring .490” diameter patched with .010 cotton (shirt material) and lubed with my own mixture of four parts Chefade and one part beeswax, would reliably give me a three shot group at fifty metres with all three balls either in one ragged hole or nearly touching. I consider this to be excellent accuracy.

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Graham Berryman of Dunedin test shoots the long rifle in the Greenstone Valley. The camera has caught the instant the priming charge ignites, just before the main charge fires.

 

In a .50 calibre muzzleloader, velocity for a pure lead round ball and 80-90 grains of 3F black powder is 1700 to 1800 feet per second. With 100 grains of powder you can drive it up over 2000fps. This is ballistically the same performance as a .44 Magnum from a carbine.

 

By the end of this first shooting session I was satisfied with the rifle’s performance, but I’d also made my first mistake. I had “dry-balled” the gun by ramming the ball down the barrel without putting the powder in first. There was no way to fire the rifle. The ball was stuck in the gun.

 

Accuracy with this reproduction of an ancient .50 calibre flintlock is more than acceptable. The rifle will put three shots into a neat group at 50 metres. The 180 grain round ball has a velocity of 1800fps at the muzzle, but energy drops radically over distance and on large game the rifle is best used under 100 metres.

 

I will now tell you how to get a ball out of a flintlock with no powder in it. This information on its own is worth the article. First you take a wire pick, or a toothpick or similar. Then you take tiny grains of black powder and push them through the touch-hole into the bore.

 

You laboriously do this until you have pushed two or three grains of powder into the gun. Prime the gun as normal with a pinch of powder, and after pointing it in a safe direction, flash it off. Two or three grains is enough to shove the ball out – it flies out of the muzzle with a satisfying popping sound.

 

THE FLINTLOCK EXPERIENCE

Part of the joy of the flintlock black powder experience is making your own accoutrements and decorating the rifle. I have carved powder measures from red deer antlers – 90 grains for deer and 35 grains for rabbits. People make their own powder horns and leather pouches for carrying their bits and pieces.

 

I have also decorated the stock with design touches typical of the period. After stripping the plain finish from the factory stock and finding the walnut underneath to have a pleasing figure, I reshaped the comb of the butt so that it more correctly represents the Roman nose-style that Pedersoli were aiming for.

 

“Part of the joy of the flintlock black powder experience is making your own accoutrements and decorating the rifle.”

 

I then studied the typical rococo wood carvings decorating the long rifle in the 1790s. I derived simple designs taken from actual guns of the period, executing them with a veiner tool. The stock was then refinished with thin coats of Tru-Oil.

 

I have visions of taking this long rifle up into the mountains for Chamois and Tahr. The challenge would suit me. Just carrying such a fine rifle through the forest is enough – but roaring up a red stag, calling him up in front of the ancient flintlock, is something I am really looking forward to.

 

James

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