Ignition system for firearms developed in the early 16th century. It superseded the matchlock and the wheel lock and remained in use until the mid-19th century. The most successful version, the true flintlock, was invented in France in the 17th century. When the trigger was pulled, a spring action caused the frizzen (striker) to strike the flint, showering sparks onto the gunpowder in the priming pan; the ignited powder, in turn, fired the main charge in the bore, propelling the ball.
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Flintlock is the general term for any firearm based on the flintlock mechanism. Introduced about 1630, the flintlock rapidly replaced earlier firearm-ignition technologies, such as the matchlock and wheellock mechanisms. It continued to be in common use for over two centuries, replaced by percussion cap and, later, cartridge-based systems in the early-to-mid 19th century. The Model 1840 U.S. musket was the last flintlock firearm produced for the U.S. military although there is evidence obsolete flintlocks were seeing action in the earliest days of the American Civil War. In fact, during the first year of the war, the Army of Tennessee (Confederacy) had over 2,000 flintlock muskets in service. While technologically obsolete, flintlock firearms have enjoyed a renaissance among black powder shooting enthusiasts and many fine flintlock rifles and pistols are being made today.
Flintlock muskets were the mainstay of European armies between 1660 and 1840. A musket was a muzzle-loading smoothbore long gun that was loaded with a round lead ball, but it could also be loaded with shot for hunting. For military purposes, the weapon was loaded with ball, or a mixture of ball with several large shot, and had an effective range between 40 and 100 meters. Smoothbore weapons that were designed for hunting birds were called "fowlers". They tended to be of large caliber. They usually had no choke, so they could also be used to fire a ball.
Some flintlock hunting arms had rifled barrels. Rifling is the process of cutting spiral grooves into the inside of the barrel. A tight-fitting projectile will tend to spin, which stabilizes its flight by the gyroscopic principle. Rifles are more accurate and have longer effective ranges than muskets but they take more time to load than a smooth-bore musket. The first rifled arms were introduced about 1500. Versions made in Germany for hunting large game such as boar had barrels about 50-75 centimeters long. When German immigrants settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, they adapted their technology to the type of game available and the demands of the Indian trade, and built the long rifle, an improvement on the small game rifles used in Europe. This weapon has a barrel 90 to 115 centimeters long, and carefully loaded and shot, will be accurate up to 300 meters.
Flintlock pistols were used as self-defense weapons and for duelling, and as a cavalry arm. Their effective range was very short, and they were frequently used as an adjunct to the sword or cutlass. Pistols were usually smoothbore although rifled pistols were produced.
French courtier Marin le Bourgeoys made the first firearm incorporating a true flintlock mechanism for King Louis XIII shortly after his accession to the throne in 1610. The development of firearm lock mechanisms had proceeded from matchlock to wheellock to snaplock to snaphance and miquelet in the previous two centuries, and each type had been an improvement, contributing some design features which were useful. Le Bourgeoys fitted these various features together to create the flintlock mechanism. The new system quickly became popular, and was known and used in various forms throughout Europe by 1630.
Various breech-loading flintlocks were developed starting around 1650. The most popular action has a barrel which was unscrewed from the rest of the gun. Obviously this is more practical on pistols because of the shorter barrel length. This type is known as a Queen Anne pistol because it was during her reign that it became popular (although it was actually introduced in the reign of King William III). Another type has a removable screw plug set into the side or top or bottom of the barrel. A large number of sporting rifles were made with this system, as it allowed easier loading compared with muzzle loading with a tight fitting bullet and patch. One of the more successful was the system built by Isaac de la Chaumette starting in 1704. The plug passed completely through the barrel and could be opened by 3 revolutions of the triggerguard, to which it was attached. The plug stayed attached to the barrel and the ball and powder were loaded from the top. This system was improved in the 1770s by Colonel Patrick Ferguson and 100 experimental rifles used in the American Revolutionary War. The only two flintlock breechloaders to be produced in quantity were the Hall and the Crespi. The first was invented by John Hall for the US Army in 1810. The Hall rifles and carbines were loaded using a combustible paper cartridge inserted into the upward tilting breechblock. Hall rifles leaked gas from the often poorly fitted action. The same problem affected the muskets produced by Giuseppe Crespi and adopted by the Austrian Army in 1771. Nonetheless, the Crespi System was experimented with by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, and percussion Halls guns saw service in the American Civil War.
The gun is now in a "primed and ready" state, and this is how it would typically be carried while hunting or if going into battle. A safety notch at half-cock locks the cock to prevent it from falling by pulling the trigger.
The British army used paper cartridges to load their weapons. The powder charge and ball were instantly available to the soldier inside this small paper envelope. When commanded, he:
As a result of the flintlock's long active life, it has left lasting marks on the language and on drill and parade. Terms such as: "lock, stock and barrel," "go off half-cocked" and "flash in the pan" remain current in the English language. In addition, the weapon positions and drill commands that were originally devised to standardize carrying, loading and firing a flintlock weapon remain the standard for drill and display (see manual of arms).