by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This is the continuing fictional saga and guest report of a man teaching a woman to shoot. Today Jack will start teaching Jamell, how to shoot a muzzle loading rifle.
Our guest writer is reader, Jack Cooper. Take it away, Jack.
Teach me to shoot
by Jack Cooper
This report covers:
- A fowler?
- Jamell Fowler
- A refresher
- Flintlock basics
- Loading sequence
- Speaking of ramming
- Priming sequence
- Flash in the pan
- Wet weather
DANGER: Today’s topic talks about loading and shooting a black powder firearm. Black powder is explosive, even in the open. Be sure you know what you are doing before using black powder!
I went with Jamell to pick up the custom flintlock she ordered. It was part of a trade for one of her sculptures, and she took pictures of the clay rendering she had made to show to the gun maker. He was thrilled with her work, which will be an 18-inch bronze of a mountain man facing a grizzly bear. Apparently he will owe her some money plus the gun, but I stayed out of their business.
I was surprised to learn that Jamell had changed her order from a flintlock rifle to a classic 20 gauge (.61 caliber) flintlock fowler. That is what later turned into the shotgun we know today, though at the time people shot single balls, buckshot (large lead balls of around .30 caliber and larger) and birdshot in the same gun. Shooters did not typically shoot birds on the wing with flintlocks, though “shooting flying” as it was called, was invented about this same time.
She chose a fowler because it was more authentic to what was carried day in and day out in the 1750-1800 timeframe. Rifles did exist, but if a person owned just one gun, it was a fowler.
I learned from the gun maker that if this fowler is loaded correctly it should put 5 round balls into about three inches at 50 yards. That surprised me. He and I agreed to speak again about the right way to load and manage this gun, so I can be sure to teach Jamell the right way.
When he handed the gun to her he told her it has a name. “This is Jamell Fowler. It was traditional to name long guns at this time period, and I thought I would name it for you. The name has been inscribed on the inside of the metal butt plate, so everyone will know it.”
Jamell Fowler is tall and beautiful like her new owner.
Tears formed in her eyes when he told her this, and I have to admit, I had to look away as well. This was one artist giving a special gift to another artist. Both of them appreciated the skill and love that went into the making.
“Jamell, it has been many years since I made a gun lock myself. They are readily available from the black powder supply houses, so why would I go to all the time and effort to make one? I normally make the barrel and the stock, but I buy the lock and all the other small parts I need. But this time, I made the entire gun for you — lock, stock and barrel.”
“Is that where that expression comes from?” I asked.
“Yes. And there are several other popular expressions that come from flintlocks. I have written a list of them for you. I expect you to teach them to Jamell as you show her how to shoot her new gun.”
We then went over the basics of loading, maintaining and caring for a flintlock fowler. I knew a lot of it from my experience with muzzle loading rifles, but there were a couple things I didn’t know. I will cover all of them for you as I teach Jamell about her new gun.
When we left the gun maker’s house, Jamell could not stop talking about her new pride and joy. She confided to me that although her sculpture was worth twice what the maker had asked for this gun, there would be no exchange of cash. He gets his bronze for the fowler, straight across. Excuse me — for Jamell Fowler!
Let’s take a moment to examine Jamell’s new gun. Being a fowler, the barrel has thinner walls than a rifle because there is no rifling. Although many people today call any long gun a rifle, it has to have a rifled barrel to qualify. What Jamell has is properly called a gun.
A fowler is a smoothbore predecessor to the shotgun. The barrel walls are thin.
The flintlock is one of the most significant developments in the whole history of firearms. Before the flintlock, firearms used a slow burning wick called a match — hence the term matchlock. The pilgrims came to North America with matchlocks and the much more complex wheelocks that work like lighters. John Alden’s wheelock (yes, the pilgrim!) can be seen in the National Firearms Museum.
The flintlock was better than both the matchlock and the wheelock because it was less complex than the wheelock and more reliable than the matchlock. It was also an all-weather gun — sort of. I will get to that!
Lock is cocked and the frizzen covers the priming charge in the pan.
The gun has been fired. The flint in the jaws of the cock struck the frizzen, forcing it back and opening the pan. At that time a shower of sparks fell from the frizzen onto the pan, igniting the priming charge.
The flintlock forces a piece of flint to strike a hardened steel plate called a frizzen, sending a shower of sparks down onto a small charge of black powder that’s held in a pan. The charge ignites and burns in an instant, sending fire in all directions, including through a small hole called a vent or touchhole, where it ignites a larger charge of powder inside the barrel that propels the bullet.
This all takes time to happen — several hundredths of a second when it’s done right. The human senses are acute enough to detect a lag time between the ignition of the priming charge in the pan and the main charge inside the barrel. The time this takes is called the locktime — the second phrase given to us by flintlocks.
When a lock is made right and loaded right it has a fast locktime. When either of those is not right, the locktime is slower, which causes natural flinching. It doesn’t matter how tough you are — a charge of black powder exploding in your face will cause you to jump. And you better wear some kind of safety glasses every time you shoot a flintlock! In the old days they closed their eyes.
The fixture that holds the flint is a moving vise called a cock, because it resembles a rooster holding something in its beak. When you prime the flashpan, you pull the cock back to half cock. That is a safe position where the trigger cannot fire the gun, as long as both the trigger and the cock are in good condition. You don’t want your gun to go off half-cocked! Yes, “going off half-cocked” is the third common phrase we get from flintlocks. It means starting something before you are ready.
Speaking of the cock, that is where we get the verb, “to cock the gun.” So there’s number four!
Jamell Fowler is 57 inches long overall, with a 41.5-inch octagon-to-round barrel. There is a “wedding band” at the transition from octagon to round. The pull is 13-3/4-inches, which the maker determined is perfect for Jamell. The gun weighs 6 lbs. 14-3/4 oz, and balances just forward of the lock. The wood is curly maple that the maker says is 50 percent figured. I can see stripes along the entire length of the gun, but they are not as complete and vivid as they need to be for 100 percent coverage. Instead of a $5,000 wood blank, this one only cost $400. When you get into perfect curly maple you are bidding against violin and guitar makers. Of course the hundred-plus hours spent inletting the barrel and action added considerable cost to the stock!
Al;l the metal is browned by the slow rusting process. It looks completely correct.
A wedding band marks the transition from the hand-filed octagon to round barrel.
One reason the fowler was the preferred weapon over the rifle is the speed with which it can be loaded. It’s about 2-3 times faster than loading a Kentucky rifle, which was the fastest-loading rifle (generally speaking) of its day.
The first step in loading is to make certain there are no burning embers inside the barrel before you load the powder. If you are shooting more than one shot (rare for a fowler, unless you are at a range or hunting birds) it’s best to run a damp cloth or a wet wad of tow (fibers of the flax plant) all the way down the bore and back out, first.
Next you measure a charge of powder and pour it into the barrel. Jamell’s gun uses 100-110 grains of FFg powder for a single .61-caliber ball or 80 grains for a 3/4-ounce charge of shot.
Follow this with a wad of tow or paper to hold the powder in one place. Then load a ball and ram it down onto the powder. You do not need a patch if the barrel is made right and if you have the right size lead ball. Jamell Fowler is a 20 gauge smoothbore that takes a .61 caliber ball. It’s called a .62 caliber smoothbore but it measures and takes a .61 caliber ball. The ball weighs 342 grains, so it packs a punch! And 100 grains of powder in a gun weighing just 6 lbs. 15 oz. (yes, it’s lighter than a Beeman R9) means the punch will be felt at both ends!
Speaking of ramming
Although the gun came with a period correct wooden ramrod, Jamell bought a stout fiberglass rod that she will make to actually load the gun. The wood rod is fine for occasional use in the field, but for full time use a fiberglass rod is the best.
Another patch of tow goes on top of the ball and the loading sequence is finished. It is extremely important that the gun is loaded the same way every time, because, as with airguns, consistency is the key to performance in a black powder gun.
The gun is loaded before it is primed, for obvious safety reasons. Now the cock is pulled back to half cock. It will remain there until you are ready to shoot.
Priming consists of dropping a very small charge of FFFFg powder into the pan. The maker said to use about 4 grains or less. A common mistake new shooters make is pouring too much priming powder into the pan, thinking it helps ignition. Some even try to make a trail into the vent hole. All that does is usually slow the lock time and make ignition less reliable.
Flash in the pan
If the gun fails to fire, we call it a hangfire for at least a full minute. Keep the muzzle pointed downrange the entire time, because the gun can fire many seconds after the power flashes in the pan. But if it does not fire after a full minute, you have just witnessed a “flash in the pan.” Yes, that is phrase number five. It means something that started well but failed to deliver.
Lower the frizzen to cover the pan and the gun is ready to fire. Just before you fire, pull the cock all the way back (cock the gun). The trigger on this fowler is very light, maybe only three pounds and utterly crisp. You can tell it has been made by a master.
The gun maker who made Jamell Fowler said the pan is nearly waterproof in the rain, but not if the gun is dropped into a creek. You can improve on that by sealing the edges of the frizzen that covers the pan with melted candle wax, but for gosh sakes — do not hold a burning candle near a flintlock! Melt the wax away from the gun and bring over just the liquid wax. Better yet, don’t do it that way. Just get a leather cow’s knee cover for the entire lock.
The thing is, the moment you take a shot in the rain the pan opens to the weather and the gun is no longer reliable. Flintlocks in wet weather take a little more management than cartridge guns.
Now that I have taught Jamell how to load and manage her gun, the next stop is the range, where we will shoot it for the first time. Stay tuned!