The following guidelines concern the safe loading and handling of flintlock muzzleloading firearms for the purposes of naval living history.
Use Black Powder ONLY with flintlock firearms. Leave Pyrodex and other synthetics for percussion ignition systems. Black powder is graded by the size of the granules as Fg, FFg, FFFg, and FFFFg. (The more F's, the finer the granules.) FFg and FFFg are the grades commonly used for pistols, and longarms. As a general rule, FFg or "2F" is for bores larger than .50-calibre, and FFFg or "3F" is for bore sizes of .50-calibre or less. FFFFg or "4F" being of extra-fine grain is used for priming the flintlock pan for it ignites more readily. 4F powder is also more susceptible to moisture, so in wet weather it may be of concern. With a good lock and a sharp flint you can get impressive results priming with 3F and even 2F, and they do not absorb moisture from the air as readily as 4F does. For living-history purposes where only blank rounds are used, FFFg is a good all-around choice. The granulation is small enough for proper ignition, and since no projectiles are used, there is less danger of excessive bore pressures.
The Blank Cartridge:
For ease of reloading, paper cartridge “blanks” are used, consisting of a rolled paper tube containing a pre-measured powder charge minus a projectile. The cartridge paper should fairly sturdy so it retains its shape. Modern newspaper is too flimsy. Some sutlers are now selling “pads” of cartridge paper, pre-cut to the proper pattern and ready to roll. For an added touch, some feature 18th-century print as if the paper was used from a discarded gazette.
The procedure for making a blank cartridge is simple. A piece of paper is laid out and rolled into a tube using a dowel as a form. The diameter of the dowel should be close to the calibre of the firearm. The dowel should be positioned as indicated by the dotted lines (diagram 1) so that after rolling it up, there’s enough paper sticking out the bottom of the tube to seal it. This is done by simply pressing the protruding paper against the butt end of the dowel. (diagram 2). The original cartridges, containing a lead ball were usually sealed and bound with small cordage or even glue (diagram 3). After removing the dowel, the result is a paper tube sealed at the bottom. A measured charge of powder is poured into the tube, and the open end is sealed by either twisting it or folding it. In doing so be careful not to tear the paper.
The size of the powder charge will vary with the bore size and bore length. Keep in mind that we are concerned with blank cartridges only! No wadding or projectiles are used. Placing anything on top of the powder charge will result in an audible increase in chamber pressure.
For smoothbore muskets and fusees, generally of .62 to .75 caliber, 90 to 110 grains of FFFg, plus an extra 10-grains for priming is sufficient. For rifles, a charge of 60 to 80 grains FFFg and with pistols, 20 to 40 grains FFFg should do the trick. Remember to add an extra 10-grains or so of powder for the priming charge.
Priming and Loading:
(This instruction is not based on any formal manual of exercise or drill.)
For proper ignition, the flint must be sharp, the touchhole cleared, and the bore and lock must be free of oil or moisture. A patch or tow worm should be used to swab the barrel, and the lock should be wiped off with a dry cloth. Using the vent pick, make sure the touchhole is free from any obstructions. Check the flint. If its dull and not throwing a good shower of sparks, knap a new edge on it. Replace the flint if necessary. Each firearm should be inspected by an officer for a functioning half-cock and to insure it is not loaded.
To prime with cartridge: Bring the lock to half-cock. Using the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, grasp the tip of a blank cartridge and remove it from the cartouche box, bringing it up to your mouth. Tear the cartridge open with your teeth. Its best to have at least two upper a lower teeth that meet in order to perform this function. Next, pour just enough powder to fill the outer half of the pan away from the touchhole. This will take about 10 grains or so of powder. Do not fill the pan with powder! You want the priming to be away from the touchhole so that the once ignited, the flash will be able to shoot through the touchhole into the main charge in the barrel. If the priming powder is up against the touchhole, it may act more like a fuse to the main charge and give a slower ignition.
After priming, shut the pan. Turn the barrel facing upwards, and pour the remaining charge down the barrel. Most historic sites will not allow anything else to be put down the barrel, not even the paper. Even the removing the ramrod is a major No-No. Any deviation from this should be pre-arranged with the site, host vessel, the Coast Guard, and the Captain. Ramming down the paper for wadding does give your weapon a louder report, but should only be done during certain firing demonstrations, not in battles where someone may be injured, especially from a ramrod left in the bore. This has happened! If for some reason your are loading from a powder horn and not using a paper cartridge, for safety's sake, never pour powder directly from a horn or flask into the barrel. Instead, always use a powder measure. A horn or flask full of powder could explode like a hand-grenade if the powder ignited as you were pouring it down the bore. The only exception to this would be priming the flintlock pan using a small priming horn or flask.
One last thing:
A flintlock is as reliable or even more so than a cap lock, but requires more attention. The key to reliable ignition with a flintlock is a good sharp flint, an unobstructed touchhole, and everything as clean and dry as possible. While firing blanks, there’s no need to swab the bore between shots, as is often necessary when firing live rounds. You may find it helpful to wipe off the flint and hammer face (called a frizzen nowadays), and wisk the pan clean with a brush every few shots. The edge of the flint can be razor sharp, so watch your fingers. Also ensure the touch hole is clear by using your vent pick. When firing, remember to aim above anything in front of you and never discharge a firearm when closer than 100 feet to a person in front of you.
Historical Points: Seamen were given a loaded pistol and a cutlass for boarding purposes. The common practice was to fire the pistol, then throw it or exchange to the other hand so the cutlass could be used. While the right hand wielded the cutlass, the pistol could be used in the left hand as a club or to parry attacks. Muskets were a different story. Cartouche boxes were used to allow for reloading. It appears that the belly box was the norm aboard ship, (hand-me-downs from the army). Seamen would have to be instructed in the basic loading and firing of small arms, and took part in target practice. During battle, firing was typically done as targets presented themselves, firing at will. Volley firing worked on the battlefields ashore, where troops were in mass and the chance of a musket ball hitting an enemy was good. But aboard ship where cover and concealment was available and readily taken advantage of, volley firing was impractical. In addition, it required too much training and practice for seamen to be concerned with.
Benjamin Chapman, Sergeant of Marines
About the author:
Mr. Russell Borghere, a.k.a., Benjamin Chapman, is serving as Boatswain of The Ship's Company of H.M.S. Fowey (24) and H.M.B.V. THUNDER, a living history group portraying Royal Navy Marines and Seamen of the AWI period. He is also Sgt. of Marines for the Richmond's Marine Detachment. He has been involved with various aspects of living history and muzzleloading firearms since the mid 70's, with a deep interest in 18th-century maritime history, early whaling, and all aspects of marlinspike seamanship. The Richmond is obliged for the courtesy of this course on safe loading and handling of flintlock muzzleloading firearms for the purposes of naval living history. Copyright © 2001 Russell J. Borghere. All rights reserved.
The guidelines provided above may not necessarily be inclusive of all safety practices required for any procedure or operation conducted in private or at reenactment events. Every effort has been made to provide accurate and detailed instructions for the reader and student, but the information presented must be treated as a guideline only.
The reader or student of this course assumes all risks, responsibility and liability for any and all injuries, losses and damages to persons or property arising from the use of information found in this course. Reasonable care has been used in this course’s preparation. The copyrighted author, contributors or H.M.S. Richmond; singly or in consort will not be responsible for any form of injury, loss or damage through the misuse of information found herein.
The authors of all CBT courses respectfully advises the readers and students that they make no representation of safety for the loads, procedures or methods reported herein. The facts, as published, were used on a given day, under a set of circumstances that are subject to numerous variables, any one of which may cause an accident if changed or even duplicated. Please use caution at all times when handling black gun powder, firearms, melee arms, knives, axes or tools of any find.Repair to the Site Index Page | Repair to the Computer Based Training Index Page