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March 22, 2021

What Is a Flintlock Firearm?

By Seth Isaacson

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Flintlocks were arguably the most significant gunlocks of the muzzle loading era and were widely used for hundreds of years. In fact, many muzzle loader shooters today still strongly prefer a flintlock to other forms of ignition. They were predominantly used for muskets, pistols, blunderbusses, fowling pieces, and rifles, but there were also breech loading and repeating firearms that used flintlocks, with some even being used to fire swivel guns, cannons, and other larger arms.

A c. 1790-1800 Kentucky rifle attributed to master gunmaker John (Johannes) Bonewitz of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania.

Brief Flintlock History

While flintlocks are arguably the most familiar form of firearm ignition prior to the invention and adoption of the metallic cartridges in the second half of the 19th century, the exact date of its conception is still a matter of debate. It could be argued that the flintlock evolved in multiple parts of Europe concurrently, as gunsmiths made improvements to earlier lock mechanisms. Others argue that the flintlock was designed by Marin le Bourgeoys, a French gunmaker to the royal court sometime between 1610 and 1615.

On the right is a portrait of Henri IV in armor painted by Le Bourgeoys, while the right is a depiction of Marin Le Bourgeoys himself.

Regardless of the exact genesis, the flintlock was developed in the early 1600s and exploded in popularity by the end of the century in France and elsewhere throughout Europe. From the early 18th century through most of the first half of the 19th century, the flintlock was the dominant gunlock used on most European and American firearms. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, gunmakers developed many refinements of the flintlock mechanism, and by the advent of percussion ignition in the early 1800s, the flintlock had reached the pinnacle of its design.

An English gentleman circa 1750 with his flintlock muzzle-loading sporting rifle, in a painting by Thomas Gainsborough.

The introduction of the percussion cap in the 1820s marked the beginning of the end of the flintlocks dominance. The United States, and many other countries, continued to manufacture primarily flintlock martial arms such as muskets, rifles, and pistols for their armed forces into the 1840s. Some are even known to have been used during the American Civil War.

Check out some of my other articles that talk about using, collecting, and shooting muzzleloading firearms!

In other areas of the world, the flintlock remained widely used even later. As noted before, the flintlock has never fully fallen from use. Many shooters that enjoy traditional muzzle loading black powder firearms still continue to use flintlocks. There is certainly something very satisfying about firing a gun using a piece of technology that is hundreds of years old and involves a piece of rock!

So What Is a Flintlock?

In its most general use, a flintlock is a type of gunlock that uses a piece of flint that strikes against a piece of hardened steel to create a shower of sparks (technically shards of red-hot steel) to ignite gunpowder and fire a gun.

This simple animation should illuminate any confusion concerning the mechanics of a flintlock system. While this is a pistol, the primary factors of ignition are still the same. 

However, the flintlock was not the first gunlock to use flint and steel ignition. There were earlier and overlapping gunlocks that also used flint and steel ignition that emerged in the 16th century. Various “snaplocks,” snaphances, doglocks, and miquelet locks were developed in various parts of Europe, and some of these were used alongside flintlocks.

A diagram of the basic parts of a flintlock system.

The main key differences between these locks and a “true flintlock” (aka “French flintlock”) is that a true flintlock has a steel that also serves as the flash pan cover and a half-cock position achieved via engagement of the sear with a notch on the tumbler. Some of the earlier and contemporary locks had separate pan covers and steels whereas the flintlock has a single piece generally called a frizzen that serves both as the piece of metal the flint strikes against and the cover for the flash pan.

A second diagram of a flintlock system that exposes some of the internal mechanics featured.

While some other gunlocks also have frizzens, they are different from flintlocks in how their locks function. The miquelet lock, for example, uses a significantly different mechanism to achieve the same effect. That gunlock is a subject for another article.

How It Works

A flintlock is a relatively simple mechanism compared to modern firearms, but they were fairly complicated to construct and must be built properly to function correctly. To fire a flintlock, the lock must first be fitted with a piece of shaped/knapped flint (or chert) in the jaw of the cock. It is common to use a slab of lead or a piece of leather to pad the flint in the jaw. The main powder charge and projectile(s) must also be loaded into the barrel.

Learn more about flintlock rifles and how to use them in the blog lsited above!

The lock is readied to fire by first pulling the cock back from the resting position to the first position known as half-cock. It is secured in this position by the engagement of a half-cock notch on the tumbler with the nose of the sear. As noted above, this is one of the key differences between a flintlock and some other gunlocks.

The first image on the left shows the rifle's lock at rest, while the middle picture shows it being locked in the "half-cock" position. The third picture shows the measured powder being poured on the pan.

While the lock is positioned at half-cock, the flash pan is filled with a small amount of black powder for the priming charge. The frizzen is then manually pulled closed and secures the priming charge in place. The frizzen is held closed under tension from the frizzen spring. The cock is then manually pulled further to the rear by the shooter until the sear locks into the full-cock notch on the tumbler. At this point, with the cock at full-cock and the frizzen closed over a priming charge, the gun is ready to fire.

Pulling on the trigger applies pressure to the sear causing it to disengage from the tumbler. This allows the cock to fly forward under tension from the mainspring. The flint in the jaw of the cock strikes the face of the frizzen creating a shower of sparks (technically red-hot shards of metal) and at the same time forces the frizzen open exposing the priming charge.

Seth from Rock Island Auction Company shows off an example of firing a flintlock rifle in slow motion. What do you think??

The sparks ignite the priming charge which in turn ignites the main powder charge in the barrel through the vent/touch hole that is aligned with the pan, and the main charge propels the load out of the barrel. With a well-designed and built lock and a proper load, the ignition sequence is nearly instantaneous.

Finding the Perfect Flintlock

Rock Island Auction Company regularly features firearms that use flintlocks and other early gunlock types in our Premier, Sporting & Collector, and Arms & Accessories Sales each year. Any given sale may include many different flintlock firearms over varying ages from very early antiques to modern day masterpieces by contemporary artisans and even more affordable factory built flintlocks that are a great for learning to shoot and hunt.

This pair of gold mounted Boutet officer's flintlock pistols sold at Rock Island Auction Company in 2020 for $575,000.

If you are interested in buying a flintlock firearm, definitely check out our various sales throughout the year. If you are looking to sell a one, we are the #1 auction house in the world for antique and collectible firearms and are happy to help you sell individual or entire collections of firearms.

Flintlock pistols owned by Alexander Hamilton will be available during the May 2021 Premier Auction.

As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to come visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.

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