Western Trips

Friday, May 25, 2012

Flintlock Firearms of the American West

When touring museums and other historical sites in the American West, inevitably you'll find many fine displays of frontier firearms. Some of the best displays I've viewed are those of flintlock firearms including flintlock rifles. Flintlock firearms go quite a ways back in American history.

How the Flintlock Worked

flintlock mechanisms
Flintlock mechanisms
The flintlock mechanisms shown on the left are good images of how the firearm worked. The flintlock weapon came into use during the early 1600's and was used for both military purposes and for personal protection.

The Flintlock muzzleloader used black powder that was ignited from the flint's spark. These were ingenious yet quite simple weapons. On the flip side of the coin, the black powder rifles posed several problems, some dangerous.

First of all, handling black powder pistols could be problematic if not done properly. Funnels were used to help mitigate the problem of premature ignition. Secondly, the flintlock was noted for discharging a flash or sparks forward and sideways. This could be a problem when a group would fire a volley.

Using the Flintlock Weapons

Essentially, the group of soldiers would need to fire their shots simultaneously to avoid one person's discharge setting off another persons gun by accident. Accidental firing was often a problem. Barrels would have to be cleaned often because the black powder residue would build up after firing. Another problem of course would be the time it took to reload for a second shot. One answer to this was the multi-barreled flintlock. Some had two to four barrels.

flintlock pistol
Flintlock pistol from California State Military Museum
The problem with this weapon could be a simultaneous explosion where all barrels fired at once. The gun could blow up in the users hands. The idea was to fire each barrel separately, but the sparks from the first fire could unintentionally ignite the others. The alternative for rapid fire was just to carry more than one single shot pistol.

The flintlock pistol shown right is a 1860 model. next to it is a copper and leather powder pouch. This firearm is on display at the California State Military Museum in Old Town Sacramento California.

The Kentucky Long Rifle

In addition to the flint lock pistols, the flintlock long rifles were another thing altogether. The long rifle, sometimes referred to as the Kentucky Long Rifle, came into use in the 1740's. At that time Kentucky would have been the western frontier.

The flintlock long rifle went through some modifications over the years and eventually was replaced in the first half of the 1800's. Rifles, in general, became more popular then the musket primarily because of their much increased range. Some of the lineage of the long rifle goes back to German immigrants who migrated to the American colonies in the early 1600's. The earliest long rifles in America were being designed in Pennsylvania by German craftsmen. They were subsequently taken into and used in the western frontier, then Kentucky and Ohio, by trappers, hunters and explorers. The early long rifle was generally made of maple, was .50 caliber and had a muzzle length of perhaps 46 inches.

long rifle
Long Rifle on display at Red River Museum
The downside to the long rifle as opposed to the musket was that the loading time took about three times longer. Not too bad if you're using the long rifle for hunting but a bit disadvantageous in battle situations.

An advantage in battle was that the long rifle could hit a target perhaps three times distant than the musket. This was attributed to the fact that the long muzzle gave the black powder more time to burn thus increasing the power and resulting in better accuracy.

The authentic long rifle shown at left is on display at the Red River Museum in Vernon Texas. You can see just how long these muzzles were. The barrel is some 40 plus inches. Vernon is located on U.S. Hwy 287 about 50 miles west of Wichita Falls, TX. If you're in that area it's a very worth while stop.

long rifles
The photo to the right was taken at the Fort Sumner Museum in Fort Sumner New Mexico. This is the museum located at the site of the old Ft. Sumner Military outpost and at Billy the Kid's grave site. You can appreciate the barrel length of the Long Rifles looking from top to bottom. The top rifle is has a 40 plus inch barrel and the one under it just about three inches shorter.

Percussion Replaces the Flintlock
The percussion or sometimes called caplock eventually replaced the flintlock. This happened in the early 1800's and then in about the mid 1800's the muzzle loaders were being replaced by the breech loaders. The Sharps Rifle developed by Christian Sharps at about 1850 is a good example of an early breech loader. Starting in the 1850's, the Sharps Rifle was the premiere weapon for accurate long distance shooting.

Two addition articles we have that you'll find interesting are Frontier Firearms of the 1800's and the Bison and Sharps Rifle.

While traveling the western U.S., I have found numerous historic sites and museums where authentic frontier weaponry is on display. You may want to make note of a few of these for your next western road trip.

Fort Stockton Museum in Fort Stockton Texas

Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos New Mexico

Fort Sumner Museum in Fort Sumner New Mexico

The California State Military Museum in Old Town Sacramento California

The History Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe

The Red River Valley Museum in Vernon Texas

Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco Texas

Buffalo Bill Cody Museum in Cody Wyoming

These represent only a few. There of course are many others spread all across the U.S. There are many long rifle associations across the country as well as sale events that draw enthusiasts from near and far. There is also a very good book published, North Carolina Schools of Longrifles, 1765-1865, by author William Ivey.

(Photo of flintlock mechanism is in the public domain. Other photos shown  and article are copyright Western Trips)