Hands-on history: Muzzleloading through the ages, part two

Ned Jilton • May 27, 2020 at 9:45 PM

Last week I wrote about two of the earliest muzzleloading blackpowder firearms used in the colonies — the matchlock and the wheel lock — and the fun of firing the matchlock.

Now we move ahead to the muzzleloading firearms that replaced them and brought this country through the Revolution and the Civil War: the flintlock and the percussion rifle.

My friends and I were able to get our hands on both a flintlock rifle and a reproduction of an 1853 model Enfield rifle to shoot. So let’s learn a little about each and then head out to the range, starting with the flintlock.

The flintlock replaced the match in the cock of the matchlock with flint. And it replaced much of the clockwork mechanism of the wheel lock with a piece of steel, called a frizzen, on the lid of the pan.

When loading the flintlock, you pull the cock back to a position known as half-cock to put powder in the pan. This should be a safe position to load in, but if the cock were to accidentally release and strike the frizzen, you could have an accidental discharge. This is where the saying “don’t go off half-cocked” comes from.

When it comes time to shoot, you pull the cock back to the full-cocked position and pull the trigger. That releases the cock, which springs forward, striking the flint against the frizzen and producing a spark, while at the same time knocking open the cover of the pan and exposing the powder to the spark. The spark ignites the powder, which in turn ignites the main charge in the barrel.

Sometimes when you pull the trigger, you get the spark and the flash with lots of smoke, but the main charge fails to go off. This is where the saying “flash in the pan” comes from.

The flintlock we were shooting was what some might call a trade rifle. It had a shorter barrel than that of the traditional Kentucky or Pennsylvania long rifles we see in the Daniel Boone or David Crockett TV shows and movies. It also fired a .50-caliber lead ball.

Since it was a rifle, loading was a little different than the musket we shot earlier.

With the musket, you simply put the powder and the ball down the barrel. But with a rifle, the bullet has to grip the grooves of the barrel to work. Since you can’t make the bullet the same size as the muzzle, you make the bullet sightly smaller and use a cloth patch to make a very firm, tight fit.

So when we loaded the flintlock, first we poured the powder down the barrel. Then we placed the patch over the muzzle and placed the ball on top of that. Using a ball starter (some hardy souls use their thumb) we pushed the ball about an inch down the barrel and then switched to the ramrod to push it the rest of the way.

When we fired, the difference between the musket and the rifle was very apparent.

Even though we had a few “flash in the pans,” when the rifle did fire we hit the target every time. As opposed to the musket, which was somewhat of a hit-or-miss proposition.

Although we were having fun with the flintlock, it was time to move on to the percussion rifle: the Enfield.

Two innovations in firearms took place just before the American Civil War.

One was the development of the percussion cap.

This was a a small disk of copper or bass, coated on one side with explosive fulminate of mercury, which eliminated both the flint in the cock and flash pan on the side of the gun.

The disk was simply placed over a small nipple on the barrel where the pan used to be. When struck by the cock, the fulminate of mercury detonated, sending a spark to the main charge.

This made the percussion rifle a dependable, all-weather gun as long as you kept your powder dry.

The second innovation was the Minie ball.

Named for its developer, Claude-Etienne Minie of France, and later modified by Capt. James H. Burton at the Harpers Ferry Armory, the Minie ball wasn’t a ball but a conical bullet like those we use today. It was made of lead weighing a little more than an ounce and had a hollow skirt at its base.

What made the skirt so important was that you could load the rifle quickly, like a musket, but when the gun fired, the force of the powder igniting caused the skirt to spread out and grip the rifling of the barrel. Thus eliminating the need to patch the bullet while loading.

The spin from the rifling, along with its aerodynamic, conical shape, made the Minie a very accurate bullet.

With these two innovations, you now had a gun that loaded with the speed of a musket but had the accuracy of a rifle.

As I stepped up to take my turn with the Enfield, I couldn’t help but recite silently to myself “load in nine times” that soldiers were trained with in the Civil War. I’ll spare you the recitation.

The Enfield is a .58-caliber rifle, but I was loading with a .575-caliber lead Minie. That little difference meant the bullet just slid down the barrel and was seated against the powder with just a couple of simple taps of the ramrod. But when the gun was fired, that hollow base spread out and gripped the rifling, sending the bullet accurately to its waiting target: an empty Coke can 50 yards away.

As I loaded and shot the Enfield that day, it quickly outclassed everything else I had fired. It loaded so easily that I fired several rounds, and it was so accurate that I began placing the targets as far away as I could while backing up as much as I could. Sadly I wasn’t on a regular rifle range, so I didn’t get to try it at say 100 or 200 yards.

By the end of the day, I had black powder smudges all over me, but it had been fun getting some hands-on history with some muzzleloaders.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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