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The Era of the Flintlock

  • Posted on
  • By Marlan J. Ingram
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The Era of the Flintlock

At the time of the American Revolution, the British Army was considered to be the finest in the world. Their soldiers were drilled to an extraordinary degree. They were well equipped, well disciplined, well paid, and well fed. On June 17, 1775, the British army under the command of General Thomas Gage arrayed itself in battlefield formation to assault the American Colonists on top of Bunker Hill (note; the majority of the battle actually occurred on the adjacent Breed’s Hill).

The Era of the Flintlock


Marlan J. Ingram

At the time of the American Revolution, the British Army was considered to be the finest in the world.  Their soldiers were drilled to an extraordinary degree.  They were well equipped, well disciplined, well paid, and well fed.  On June 17, 1775, the British army under the command of General Thomas Gage arrayed itself in battlefield formation to assault the American Colonists on top of Bunker Hill (note; the majority of the battle actually occurred on the adjacent Breed’s Hill).  Those colonists opposing them were not professional soldiers.  They were farmers, shopkeepers, a variety of tradesmen, free blacks, and even slaves.  One of these was a slave named Peter Salem, who had been temporarily released by his owner to join the militia.  His actions in the battle would ultimately lead to his freedom.

With parade ground precision, the splendidly dressed, splendidly armed British arrayed 2400 men in battle formation to assault the hills.  The British drummer boys sparked out the marching beat, and the British stepped smartly and began their march up the hill.  The tunes of the British fifes punctuated the air, and the British came on to the lively tune of ‘The British Grenadiers’.  To the colonists waiting in the works on top of the hill, this must have been both a magnificent and terrifying sight.  The colonists, under the command of General Israel Putnam, had been instructed to hold their fire until they could see the whites of the British soldier’s eyes.  The colonists held their fire until the British were within 40 yards, at which point the colonists opened up, their lines erupting in flame, smoke and noise.  The lead balls slammed into the British ranks like a hail storm, but the British were so well trained that as soon as a man fell, a man from the rank behind stepped forward into the space and filled the hole.  More men fell, and more men stepped forward as the colonists loaded and fired as fast as they could.  Ultimately it was too much, and the British were ultimately forced back down the hill to where they started.

However, this was not a victory. The British reformed, then once again stepped lively in a march up the hill, but now stepping over the bodies of their fallen soldiers.  They were again met with a hail of lead, and once again they tried to hold, but were ultimately pushed back down the hill.  This still was not a victory for the colonists as the British reformed, then marched up the hill, now climbing over the bodies of their fallen friends to get at the colonists, who were now almost out of ammunition.  One of the British officers leading this assault was Major John Pitcairn, who was despised by the colonists because he had ordered his men to fire upon civilians during the Battle of Concord.  The British were able to successfully breech the lines of the colonists and pushed them out of their lines at bayonet point.  In this close fighting, Peter Salem deliberately took aim at Major Pitcairn, and shot him dead.

Peter Salem was lauded for his actions, but the colonists were forced out of their positions.  The British took the ground, but the cost of their victory was horrific.  The British lost 1054 men, while the colonists lost 450.  When looking at such carnage, it might surprise you to learn that they were not using anything that we would recognize as modern weaponry.  In fact, many now would look at the weapons of the period as antiquated, and question their actual effectiveness. The firearms of the period were called Flintlocks.


So, what’s a flintlock? First, a flintlock is a muzzle loading firearm, which means that to load it, a measure of powder must first be poured down the bore (barrel).  A lead round ball in a lubricated cloth patch would then be rammed down the barrel with a ramrod, until it sat firmly against the powder.  At the rear of the barrel would be found a ‘touch hole’.  On the side of the gun you would have a pan, which was just under the touch hole, and to this you would pour a small measure of powder to prime it.  You would then close the steel frizzen, which essentially closed a door over the pan, sealing the powder inside of it. A hammer on the side of the gun had ‘jaws’ which firmly held a piece of flint.  When the trigger is pulled, the hammer springs forward, with the flint striking the steel frizzen.  This would simultaneously open the frizzen, while at the same time throwing down a shower of sparks that would ignite the now exposed powder in the pan.  Some of the flame created from that would leak its way into the touchhole, igniting the main powder charge and firing the gun.  Accordingly, the name ‘firelocks’ was also used during colonial times.


We can further divide flintlock firearms into ‘types’.

Flintlock Rifle - As its name suggests, a flintlock rifle had rifling in the bore, which spins the projectile and gives the firearm greater accuracy, especially at distance.  To take advantage of that greater accuracy, the firearm had sights, as you would expect.  Best accuracy was obtained by using a tightly patched ball.  Calibers could run from .40 to .54 caliber (give or take). Rate of fire at best was about one shot a minute. With a rifle, you could get reliable hits at 100, and even 200 yards, and in some cases further. Often called ‘Kentucky’ long-rifles, they actually originated in Pennsylvania.  German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought over their hunting rifle, called a Jaeger, which ultimately evolved into the American long-rifles that we are discussing here. Rifles of the period were long, slender and graceful works of art, with barrels in excess of 40 inches.

Flintlock Musket - Unlike the rifle, the flintlock musket as used by the military was smoothbore like a shotgun, and generally did NOT have sights.  Instead, they had a bayonet lug that could be used for rough aiming, if need be.  Because of this, the wood stock stopped just a few inches short of the muzzle to allow the socket bayonet to be attached.  The muskets were thicker at both the wrist and the butt, which allowed the weapon to be used as a club in close quarters.  The primary advantage of the musket, and the reason it was preferred by the military, is that it could be loaded faster.  In a rifle, a ball was tightly patched and well fitted to the bore.  In a musket, they were typically loaded with an undersized ball, which facilitated faster loading.  The British Brown Bess Musket was .75 caliber, but it could be loaded with a .69 caliber ball. Instead of loading separately from a horn with a measure, the ball and powder were wrapped together in a paper ‘cartridge’. Rather than a patch, the ball was rammed down the barrel still wrapped in the paper cartridge. Whereas you could get one shot a minute with a rifle (with greater accuracy), the goal was to get three shots a minute with a musket...but accuracy was sacrificed to achieve this.  Expected rate of accuracy using the military method of loading was to be able to reliably hit a man size silhouette at 50 yards.  In well trained hands, and especially with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, this range could be extended...to a point. Muskets of the day (depending on country of origin) had barrel lengths from 42 to 46 inches, or more.

A Third Option – The Fowler and the Trade Gun - There was another option, which pretty much split the difference between the rifle and the musket.  A fowler had sleek lines like a rifle, and would generally have a front sight, but no rear sight.  However, it was a smoothbore like the musket, and could therefore be loaded with a tightly patched ball like a rifle, or with shot for smaller game.  In many ways, this was the primary hunting gun used in the colonies.  As to the Trade Gun, as it was called, between the rifle, musket and fowler, its lines were closest to that of the fowler.  Both the French and English imported these into America, not only for the colonists, but for the American Indians as well.  These even split the difference between the rifle and musket with their calibers, as .62 caliber was seemingly the most common. With a tightly patched ball, you could reliably get hits out to 100 yards. Barrel lengths could go from 42 to 48 inches, and in some cases, longer.

When you come into Openrange Sports in Crestwood, KY, take note of the flintlock rifles that we have on display, and marvel at their beauty and artistry.  Many have enjoyed shooting them.  Still, others will look at them and offer the opinion that the guns back then ‘didn’t work’, or that you couldn’t hit anything with them.  The reality is that if you are reading this and you are an American citizen, the people who fought for and gave you that freedom utilized flintlock firearms to do it, and that was a long hard fought war.

One month after the Battle of Bunker Hill, General George Washington was put in charge of the Continental Armies.  One of the new rules he instituted was that blacks would no longer be allowed to fight, but Washington relented when he found out the British were enlisting them.  Slaves, however, were still forbidden to serve.  Accordingly, Peter Salem’s master freed Peter, who then used that new found freedom to join up, and fight for the next five years.  The colonials won battles, but lost many more, but held on, as the idea of having a standing army existing in the field was in and of itself an act of independence. The colonists couldn’t truly be defeated until that army no longer existed.

The breaking point for the colonists came at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1777-78.  During that freezing winter, some of the European officers who came over to fight on the side of the colonists stated in their diaries that many of the American soldiers were ‘naked’ in the truest sense of the word, so poor was the condition of their clothing.  There was no pay, and their food was in short supply, and infested with maggots, or rotten. Many soldiers were without shoes, and it was said that you could track the colonial army by the bloody footprints left in the snow.  Some soldiers deserted, others died of disease, but others stayed and toughed it out.

It was into this situation that a Prussian military officer by the name of Baron Von Steuben came to train the colonial soldiers.  He had been sent by Benjamin Franklin from France and recommended to General Washington.  Von Steuben started by taking a small group of soldiers, and drastically simplifying and standardizing the manual of arms they were using.  He couldn’t speak English, so he had his instructions and orders translated.  He could curse in several languages, which endeared him to the soldiers, and if they couldn’t understand his curse words, he had those translated as well.

His small group mastered the new simplified drill, and he then used this small group to teach larger groups.  By the time spring arrived, you had soldiers who had survived numerous privations to include drilling barefoot in the snow.  Those shopkeepers, farmers, tradesmen and ex slaves came out of Valley Forge as a well drilled, hard core fighting force.  They fought the stunned British to a draw at the Battle of Monmouth and beat them so soundly at the Battle of the Cowpens that the battle is still studied in military academies to this day. 

Yes, we ultimately won our independence from England, with the aid of the French (which is sometimes forgotten), and by utilizing flintlocks.  However, the era of the flintlock isn’t limited to the American Revolution.

The French and Indian War (1754-63) preceded the American Revolution and was fought with flintlocks.  If you haven’t seen the 1992 version of Last of the Mohicans, (which depicts the French and Indian War) directed by Michael Mann, it is a MUST see. 

The era of the flintlock continued well after the American Revolution.  On November 4, 1791, U.S. Major General Arthur St. Clair took 1400 men into battle against Miami Warriors under Chief Little Turtle at the Battle of the Wabash.  St. Clair’s men suffered 1194 casualties, including 918 killed.  This is known as ‘St. Clair’s Defeat’, and yes, this battle was fought with flintlocks.

The Guillotine was made famous during the French Revolution (1789-99).  However, this was also the rise of Napoleon, who mastered flintlocks and battlefield tactics to such a degree that we now refer to all such military/linear fighting as ‘Napoleonic’ tactics.

In 1812, the British Army once again came across the waters and bought their famous ‘Brown Bess’ flintlock muskets in an invasion of America.  This sparked the War of 1812.  This was a hard fought war, and the British succeeded in burning down the U.S. Capital.  The final battle of that conflict, the Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815.  Noted pirate Jean Lafitte was given a temporary pardon so that the artillery on his ships could be used for the defense of New Orleans, and General Andrew Jackson also enlisted two battalions of free blacks in the city, who were part of his battle formation pouring fire into the British ranks.  The Americans suffered 333 casualties in that battle but inflicted 2,459 on the British.  The idea of specifically targeting individuals in battle, specifically officers was frowned on in the European tradition, as it wasn’t considered ‘gentlemanly’.  As in the American Revolution, this is not a custom that we strictly observed.  At the Battle of New Orleans, the British Officer corps was all but wiped out.  It’s been stated that General Jackson had one of his riflemen take out a British Officer from 400 yards with a flintlock long-rifle. Yes, this was once again an American victory.

The Texas Revolution (1835-36), was fought with flintlocks.  At the Battle of the Alamo, all 189 Texan defenders were killed, but they killed between 1000 and 1600 Mexican soldiers in the process.  At the Battle of San Jacinto which followed it, 9 Texans were killed, but 630 Mexican soldiers were killed.

By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65) percussion muzzleloaders had taken over and were the mainstay, but there were still Confederate units who marched off to war, especially in 1861-62, with flintlocks, but those were eventually replaced with percussion muzzleloaders.

The author, Marlan Ingram, in the outfit of a Manumitted Slave (free man), circa 1775-80. This represents a postwar impression, as he is dressed as a private citizen and a free man.  Clothing is handmade of linen.  The ‘spectacles’ are historically correct frames with a modern prescription in them.  The shoes are ‘straight last’, meaning that there is no right or left foot, as in modern day footwear. The Trade gun is a .62 caliber, with a 48-inch barrel.  Marlan has also portrayed Daniel Goff in a PBS Special about a black revolutionary war veteran from Kentucky.

Today, there are quite a few who love history, and like to hunt with historical firearms.  There are people who use them exclusively for their hunting, and they ‘make meat’ every year.  In the Living History community, we not only like to study history, but we like to put our hands on it, to ‘touch’ the material culture of the day, at least to the extent we can.  We not only get into the flintlocks of the period, but also the clothing and the accouterments.  There are cottage industries where people specialize in not only making flintlocks and clothing, but also such things as ‘hunting pouches’, sometimes called ‘rifleman’s pouches’, powder horns, long knives, tomahawks, etc.  By putting our hands on the material culture, it allows us to better understand it, and that in turns allows us to better teach it. 

Marlan’s powder horn, and handmade pouch, sometimes referred to as a rifleman’s pouch, or hunting pouch.  The pouch is handsewn with linen thread, and the strap is made of linen, and also sewn with linen thread.  Lead balls, patches, extra flints, and all items necessary to fire and maintain the flintlock were carried in such pouches.  The wisk to sweep out the pan is made of horsehair. This pouch and horn accompany Marlan’s .62 caliber Trade gun.

















































  1. Bill Brundage Bill Brundage

    Found this article today and enjoyed it as I am also reading Rick Atchison's The British are Coming. While Rick is very detailed in the history he gives a great account of Breed's Hill (Bunker Hill) but did not mention Peter Salem shooting Major Pitcairn. Great photos of Marlan in his historical clothing. You can tell he really enjoys guns and his history. I will have to pay more attention to the flintlocks next time I am out at Open Range.

    Thanks for all you do.

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