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Black Powder flintlock and Matchlock Muskets and Pistols Muzzleloaders

 

How to Mount a Flint on American and British Muskets: A History
American Revolution       War of 1812        Mexican-American War

How to Fix a Flint on American and British Muskets MilitaryHeritage.com
Today the cock (B) is often called a hammer, and the modern
 term "frizzen"(K) was actually the "hammer" historically. The Jaws holding the flint are marked (C)

Flints came in a number of different patterns.  The first gunflints were termed gun spalls and were napped so as to have a rounded back and were a simple wedge. They are found in 17th and 18th century archaeological sites but this design was also used as "strike-a-lights" and hide scrapers.  The second type was the wedge style that finishes with a square back or heel. This pattern was widely used throughout the 18th century.  The third type has a flat bed on top and was considered the best for a regulation military musket lock.  The fourth style came to a point on top but was considered inferior to the flat bed style.  The last two types dominated flint production from the late 18th century and the 19th Century.  There were lesser quality or common variations of the styles of flint.

  carbine gunspall pistol rifle types of gun flints
 

Grades of flat bed Musket flints: Thick Best (left) Thinner Second Quality (middle) and Common (right)

Grades of flat bed Musket flints: Thick Best (left) Thinner Second Quality (middle) and Common (right)

British troops received their supply of musket flints in a small 70lb cask (called a half barrel) which contained two thousand of the napped stones.  Each infantry company was expected to keep 200 extras for replacing used up flints.  Generally each musket flint was about a inch wide and an inch and a quarter long. However because the locks were handmade, the half cock position varied greatly effecting the size needed.  One soldier at the St George's Massacre in 1768 noted that his flint was too long stopping his hammer (frizzen) from closing and he had lost his priming.


19th Century Flint Nappers at Work.  A worker could make 3000 gunflints in 12 hours! Notice the half-barrels for storing completed flints.

As a result, flints had to be further napped to ensure each soldier had the right flint for his unique situation.  This conclusion is supported by a 1773 sportsman shooting manual which stated "the size should be suited to the lock of the gun, and be neither too large and thick, nor too small and slight; the first will not give fire freely, and the other will be vary apt to break." The same manual suggested clear flints were best "but whether the dark or light sort is immaterial as there are good of both kinds."

   Original Gun Flints found on the Battlefield at Lundy's Lane, 1814
Original Gun Flints found on the Battlefield at Lundy's Lane, 1814.
Note the various grades of flints.

How often did soldiers change their flint in battle?  Many factors impacted this.  The quality of the flint, the strength of the main and the frizzen spring and the hardness of the hammer (frizzen) all effected the longevity of the flint.  Sportsman manuals of the time do give a hint to the answer.  When hunting fowl, a misfire was to be avoid by changing your flint more often.  A 1789 shooting treatise recommended changing the flint after 15 or 18 shots, while an 1814 shooter's manual suggested swapping out the flint after just 7 or 8 shots!  An order in 1770 noted that British soldiers in Bombay were expected to carry two extra flints in their cartridge pouches, along with a wood snapper to use inside of a flint while practicing drill.  Soldiers changing their flint in battle created discipline issues:

"All military men must that nothing is more adverse to the operations of a regiment than the necessity (which too often occurs in consequence of the proper form of gun-flints not being sufficiently attended to) for men to quit their ranks for the purpose of either hammering or changing their flints.  To brave men such a necessity is painful as well as dangerous, while to the less resolute it serves at least for a pretext to pass into the rear, or eventually to relinquish his post altogether." (Rees, 1819)

Napping Tools Used to Make Gun Flints, 1797.
Napping Tools Used to Make Gun Flints, 1797. Notice Fig.7 showing a French flat bed top flint style.

The first to write on the subject for military musket flints was Bennett Cuthbertson in 1768: "The flints should always be screwed firm, between a thin piece of lead, it having a more certain hold, than leather, or any other contrivance". This belief was echoed by Thomas Simes in 1777 in his work A Military Course for the Government and Conduct of a Battalion, who also repeats the 1773 sportsman advice mentioned before:

"The Flints best for service are those most clear, though the colour is immaterial, as there are good and bad of all kinds; neither too small or too thin are best, lest the first may not give good fire, or the latter break: they should be screwed in firm, between a thin piece of lead, it having then surer hold than leather, &c."

It appears this advice was adopted to some degree by the various British regiments. However it was not until 1809 before any sort of official army position was taken. Likely concerned with the various regimental methods of fixing flints, the British Adjutant-General found it necessary to issue a memorandum on the subject.

"Horse Guards, 14th July 1809.

MEMORANDUM.

THE cause of a Piece missing Fire is generally ascribed to the badness of the Flint, the softness of the Hammer, or the weakness of the Main Spring or Feather Spring; but the real cause will very generally be found to be a want of Correctness in fixing the Flint.

This sometimes proceeds from Carelessness, but it is too often owing to ignorance of the true principles which ought to direct the fixing of the Flint.

It is frequently imagined that an uniformity should prevail on this subject, as it does and ought to do on many others, respecting the movements and management of Arms; instances are not infrequent where directions have been given that Flints should be fixed in exact conformity to some approved pattern.

This practice is founded in error, and is productive of more extensive mischief than can well be imagined.

In fixing Flints no uniform mode should be attempted: the flat side must be placed either upwards or downwards, according to the size and shape of the Flint, and also according to the proportion which the Cock bears in height to the Hammer, which varies in different Musquets.

This is ascertained by letting the Cock gently down, and observing when the Flint strikes the Hammer, which ought to be at the distance of about one-third from the top of the Hammer.

Most diligent observation ought at the same time to be made whether every part of the edge of the Flint comes in contact with the Hammer so as to strike out the Fire from the whole surface.

A Flint will often appear to the eye to be carefully and skilfully fixed, and to stand firm and square, yet on trial being made as above directed, it will prove to have been very ill fixed, inasmuch as the surface of the Hammer in some Musquets does not stand square, but stands a little aslant to the Cock.

Each particular Flint therefore requires its own particular mode of being fixed, so as to accommodate itself to the particular proportions and conformation of each particular Lock.

It is perhaps unnecessary to mention, that, whatever the position of the Flint should be, it ought to be screwed in firmly; and that the Cock should also be let down, in order to observe whether the Flint passes clear of the Barrel.

Whenever a Piece has been fired, the first opportunity should be embraced of examining whether the Flint remains good, and fixed as it ought to be, and no time should be lost in correcting whatever may be found amiss."

The United States Infantry issued a similar regulation, published in 1820:

 

On his tour of Europe after the war, Winfield Scott collected every book published in French or English on the army. In 1818 he sat down and compiled the General Regulations for the United States Army.  Made an act of Congress in 1821, orders regarding mounting the musket flint are even more insightful:

"With a view of action, it is important that the fixture of the flints should be carefully examined.  They will be fixed with a view to effect,  more than to uniformity; thus, it may be frequently necessary to place the flat side up, on account of the relative height of the cock and hammer.

The thick end of the flint will always be enveloped in a bit of sheet lead, cut to a shape corresponding with the part of the cock which receives it.  After being closely screwed, the cock ought to be let down gently, to ascertain whether the edge of the flint strikes fully and equally the surface of the hammer.  The lock will never be snapped without express permission.  The flint ought to strike at the distance of about a third of the length of the hammer from the top.

In firings, the soldier will frequently cast his eye on the flint, and promptly correct any derangement which may take place in its fixture."

 

Material Used to Secure the Gunflint in the Jaws

Scott touches upon the subject of the material used to assist the securing of the flint in the jaws of the cock. In the 18th century, both Simes and Cuthbertson suggested a thin piece of lead and evidence seems to point to this being most common.  Even sportsman manuals recommended lead first, and a piece of stout leather as a second choice.  Further archaeological finds show that the use of lead to secure the flint in place dates back to the 17th century.

Flint wrapped with a piece of lead on a New England musket lock from the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary. The ship part of Sir William Phips Expedition in 1690
Flint wrapped with a piece of lead on a New England musket lock from the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary. The ship part of Sir William Phips Expedition in 1690  (Pointe-à-Callière)
 

In 1809, for example, the 71st Highland Light Infantry ordered "the flints to be put in between a piece of lead, nicely beat out and notched." The "notched" is a reference to a notch out of the lead to allow the screw for the jaws to pass as close to the rear of the flint as possible, along with the rounding of the corners to prevent injury. Archaeological finds in the American Revolution show a use of various notches.  There was the elongated pattern that allowed a little more adjustment.  There was also single hole pattern (illustrated below), but the elongated hole seemed more popular.  It should be noted that sheet lead without notches was quite common throughout the entire period.


Original flint with lead piece using the round hole notch: view from above (left) and rear (right). Note the bite marks from the Jaws. This pattern was found for the American troops at Fort Stanwix between 1777 and 1780.


Another Lead pattern found used by French and Prussian armies in the 18th century. Archaeological finds suggest it was being used by American troops in the 1790s. 

Though notched, one of the patterns used by the French for pistols or carbines was quite different.  Illustrated below, the French lead piece only secured one side and part of the other.  However the lead piece had a decoratively stamped edge to further increase the hold. During the Napoleonic Wars the French also had single lead pattern with an elongated hole like the British but with folding tabs for the side of the flint.  By the 1820s that pattern started appearing with some units in the American Infantry.  The below pattern also spread to North America and has been found in archaeological digs on the American frontier. 


Left: French Pattern of Lead Flint holding piece found at Waterloo. A similar pattern was found at Fort Crawford, an 1816 outpost in Wisconsin. 
Middle and Right: post-1815 American army stamped lead pieces with sides. 

Use of a single piece of lead has not universal in the British Army. For example the 12th Regiment of Foot ordered their men to always fix their flints between two pieces of lead.  In 1809 the Britain's West York Militia also directed "The Flints must be well fixed in the Firelocks and always between two pieces of lead beaten thin."  Archaeological finds support this technique throughout the 18th and early 19th century. 

In the end, lead fixing pieces varied greatly in pattern, thickness and size.  Generally speaking, prior to 1750 wrapping your flint with thin lead in whatever way gives the best grip is the easiest for authenticity.  For the French and Indian War or the American Revolution, a thicker piece of lead with a round notch works for both American and British muskets. However you are not wrong if you do the method mentioned in the previous sentence. 

A more interesting variant was the use of soft copper or brass instead of lead.  The 29th Regiment in 1812 noted that the musket flints were to be fixed "with a regimental copper-plate." The "regimental" in this context usually refers to an approved regimental pattern and not regimentally marked. This pattern likely looked more like the French pattern.  Some were reported being found under a War of 1812 guardhouse at Fort George in the 1970s,  They were described by the archaeologist as "scrap sheet brass, semicircular outline, serrated front edge, triangular notch." 

Whether using lead, copper or leather, changing the thickness of the piece either above or below the flint helped to get the proper angle for the best sparks.  In his 1804 book on the Baker Rifle, Ezekiel Baker noted the following:

"To ascertain when the flint is fixed in a proper position, let it be struck over, and you will easily perceive how the fire is dispersed about: if it strikes the hammer so high as the fire is dispersed then lay double the lead or leather that the flint is fixed in under the flint against the cock, which will lower the fore part of the flint and cause it to strike the hammer lower: if it strikes too low, double the lead or leather as before mentioned, under the flint at the fore end of the under jaw of the cock, which will raise it to a proper position to fire.  As the jaws of the cocks are not all in the same position, and the flints are not all of the same thickness, nor of the same shape, a piece of paper, or any other soft substance carefully placed under the flint at either end, as may be required according to the foregoing directions, will fix it sufficiently firm. This remedy will be found useful in the flinting of all locks, as well as muskets, &c. as much depends on the flint being put in properly for the lock to fire true and well."

Today the use of lead is frowned upon for health reasons and more often than not leather has been substituted for holding the flint in place by black powder enthusiasts. To date I am unaware of anyone using cooper or brass as a substitute and since it was the choice of at least one regiment, it may prove an interesting alternative to "firing true and well."

----------------

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

George Edie, A Treatise on English Shooting. (London, 1773).

---------- , An Essay on Shooting. (London, 1789).

Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry.  (London, 1768).

Thomas Simes, A Military Course for the Government and Conduct of a Battalion. (London, 1777).

Horse Guards, General Regulations and Orders for the Army. (London, 1811)

Abraham Rees, The Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary. Volume 14 (London, 1819)

War Department, Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of Infantry (New York, 1820).

Winfield Scott, Letter from the Secretary of War Transmitting A System of Field Service and Police, and a System of Martial Law for the Government of the Army of the United States. (Washington, 1820)

--------------------,  Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of Infantry. (Philiadelphia, 1824) Contains extracts from general regulations for the Army.

Ezekiel Baker, Twenty-three Years Practice and Observations with Rifle Guns. (London, 1804)

Henry James Pye, The Sportsman's Dictionary, Fifth Edition. (London, 1807).

B. Thomas, The Shooter's Guide or Complete Sportsman's Companion. (London, 1814).

Syndey Skertchly, On the Manufacture of Gun-Flints. (London, 1879)

 

 Author Robert Henderson enjoys unearthing and telling stories of military valour, heritage, and sacrifice from across the globe. Lest we forget.

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