(PA) Flintlocks still inspire debate

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Dec 24, 2002
Moscow on the Colorado, TX
Flintlocks still inspire debate

By Tom Mitchell
Friday, August 26, 2005

After nearly 300 years shooting flintlock rifles, rifle flints are still sparking debate among shooters. Some age old questions persist such as, should the bevel be placed up or down; what type of flint is best, black English, French, agate, modern “space-age” flints; cut flints, or knapped flints?

If we tackle the first question, should the bevel be placed up or down, the only correct answer is — yes. In other words, it doesn’t make a hill of beans worth of difference how the bevel is placed as long as the flint throws a spark. Some flints may spark well with the bevel up, others with the bevel down.

As to what type of flint is best boils down to a matter of personal preference. Many long-time flintlock shooters prefer the black English flints. So-called French flints are very hard and throw a tremendous spark shower but are also hard on frizzens. They are best left for hunting situations rather than general shooting. Machined agate flints are quite reliable and are used by the U.S. Muzzleloading Rifle Shooting Team and in a number of Muzzleloading Rifle matches.

English flints, while very reliable, have only one sharp side but can be knapped for a sharp edge at least once. Most agate flints have two sharp ends and can be reversed when one edge goes dull.

Certainly another consideration is how the flint is mounted in the hammer vise. The very best and time proven method is to secure the flint wrapped in a small piece of leather. Some old timers used a chunk of lead but lead does not have the “springiness” of leather.

Admittedly, some people place a lot of stock in lock speed. The truth is any good lock is fast enough and most rifles today have good locks. What’s really important is how fast the rifle fires after the hammer falls. This latter consideration depends on spark shower and spark shower takes us back to a good sharp flint, and of course, a good quality frizzen.

The frizzen surface is the heart of making good sparks. Even the sharpest flints won’t spark on a worn frizzen. Badly worn frizzens may have a “washboard” appearance and of course, will no longer throw sparks.

While there is a method to refurbish an old frizzen which involves case hardening, perhaps the best solution is to buy and install a new one. This is a five-minute job anyone can do. Some of the best frizzens may wear out after a few hundred shots, so it’s a good idea to have a spare on hand.

A word of caution is necessary about testing a flint or frizzen — never test the spark on a loaded rifle.

Even if there is no powder in the flash pan a good spark shower can easily ignite a powder charge in the bore.

And for a final word on good ignition in a flintlock rifle, pay attention to the touch hole liner. The liner must be kept free of obstructions and clean of burnt powder residue. Normally, proper cleaning of a muzzleloader will ensure that the touch hole is also clean.

However, after repeated firings a touch hole liner may become loose. It is important to check to see that liners are snug or a “blowout” may occur. Repeatedly removing and reinstalling liners is not a good practice and unnecessary.

Except for stainless steel, some liners are made from soft, malleable material and the more they are screwed in and out increases the likelihood that one will loosen easily and blow out.

Some “engineering specialists” may attempt to “improve” ignition by drilling out a liner but this is a practice to be avoided by all but the most knowledgeable muzzleloader smiths.

And one final word of caution for safety’s sake, NEVER use modern smokeless powder of any kind in a muzzleloader. Use only black powder or black powder substitutes approved by the rifle manufacturer.

The writer has done his research. Thank you Drizzt.

BTW, one issue of Muzzle Blasts featured a test on bevel-up v. bevel-down. Conclusion. Each lock is different and you have to figure it out for that particular lock.

Another issue is the grain powder for priming the pan. While we are given to believe that a finer powder is used, high speed photography done by Colonial Williamsburg suggests that larger grain is superior as it traps the sparks better than the finer grain 4F. Sparks don't just ignite the powder, it actually bounces back up towards the frizzen but the "bounce" is less with larger grain. This made the folks at Williamsburg conclude that larger grain powder trap the spark, thereby promoting ignition.

Patch box - was it for patches or for accessories (worm, stuck ball remover)?

...and it goes on.
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