Editor - Staff Writer

Smoke Signals

Sep./Oct. '09

Bi-Monthly Magazine

Working with Flintlocks

There have been dozens of books written on flints and flintlocks, discussing the proper way to place the flint in the hammer jaws, to sharpen the flint, and the speed of various brands of flint locks. I have been modifying and shooting flintlock rifles and pistols for over forty years, and I  doesn't think it makes any difference which way you place the flint, bevel up or bevel down, as long as it has a shower of sparks and the sparks fall in the pan. Bevel up versus bevel down is more relevant to the particular brand and style of lock that is being used and where it hits the frizzen.

Thereís always the question of which is best flint: knapped, cut, agate, black English, or manufactured flints? I have used everything available, and they all work. It's more of personal preference, I prefer the black English or French amber flints. A quality lock versus a junk lock is a no brainier. How fast the hammer falls doesn't determine how fast the pistol or rifle fires. There are many things that affect the ignition on a flintlock. Condition of the frizzen, placement of the touch hole or liner, shape of the touch holeĎs interior, sharpness of flint all together determine how fast a flintlock will fire. A rifle with the fastest lock that throws only one or two sparks into the priming powder will not fire as fast as a rifle with a slower lock that throws fifty sparks in the pan. How fast the hammer falls is not that important to the average shooter. How fast the rifle fires after the hammer falls is the most important issue to the us.

Flints & Knapping

A sharp flint is absolutely a must for good performance from your flintlock. The fastest lock time cannot compensate for a dull flint. An old friend showed me years ago a simple and quick method to knap a dull flint. The knapping tool was a piece of brass rod 1/2" in diameter by two inches long. To use the brass tool, the hammer of the lock is placed at half cock with the frizzen open and the pan empty of priming powder and weapon unloaded. The piece of brass is held at a slight angle to the face of the flint. Hit the cutting edge of the flint with a sharp rap from the piece of brass. Dwayne uses the handle of his Green River knife. The bottom of the flint face will flake off, leaving a sharp new cutting edge. Two or three sharp raps may be necessary for the desired clean, sharp edge you want.

A word of caution: NEVER test the sparking of a new or sharpened flint on a loaded gun, even if there is no prime in the pan. CAUTION use only brass or bronze to prevent sparks. Aluminum is too light to be effective, and steel could produces unwanted sparks. The brass doesn't have to be 3/4" in diameter, and it doesn't have to be round. Any diameter or shape from 1/2" to 3/4" will work fine. Plus the piece of brass fits very nicely in your possible bag or shooting box and can be found quickly.

Years ago we have watched people that never learned how to knap their flints, just throw them  away replacing them with new ones. Back then flints were 15-20 cents each, but today the cost of a good English flint is a $1 or more. Learn to knap the edge on your dull flints and get your money's worth.

Touch Holes & Liners

Usually the general thought is, "If there is a hole through the barrel to the main powder charge the rifle will fire just fine." This is true, but the results may not be what you want. A proper touch hole (vent) liner is critical to the speed that a flintlock will fire. I like permanent touch hole liners in my rifles. My experience has been that the liners with screwdriver slots or the hex head screws tend to collect fouling and slow down your ignition. I like the type that requires using a nipple wrench for installation and filing off the excess lug so it's flush with the barrel flat. The more times you screw a liner or nipple in and out of your rifle or pistol, the looser it becomes. This common practice stresses and wears the threads and increases the possibility of cross threading. That leads to failure. Usually "blow outs" of liners and nipples are the result of shooters frequently removing and reinstalling these items. To replace a permanent liner, just drill out the hole in the liner and remove it with an Easy-Out.

The inside of the liner should have a funnel-shaped interior not a straight tube. Think about this: powder will go into a funnel easier than into a tube. After drilling the diameter hole that you want,  use a cone or "Christmas tree" shaped carbide cutter to shape the internal part of the liner to a funnel shape. After the liner is installed in the barrel, I seen some guys put a shallow cup shape  in the outside face of the liner with a ball type carbide cutter. With this type of liner I can usually see powder grains in the touch hole after loading the rifle. I don't "pick" the hole before shooting, flashes in the pan are very rare. This internal shape of the liner appears to create a self cleaning action. The ignition is super fast, and I have never had a liner blow out.

The hole in a percussion nipple runs between .020 and .030 in diameter, depending upon the manufacturer. This size hole is not practical for good ignition in a flintlock. For best results I use a liner with a .062 (1/16th.) hole for my flintlocks in .40 caliber or larger. For .32, .36, and .38 calibers, I like to use a .050 hole in the liner. With the smaller powder charges that are normally used in these small calibers, the .062 hole allows too much jetting of main powder charge out of the touch hole. This causes erratic pressures and affects the accuracy. The lag time between the jetting and ignition of the main charge makes it more difficult to hold through on the target in the offhand position, especially with a flintlock pistol. The smaller hole reduces the pressure loss from the main charge in a smaller caliber. Replacing the touch hole liner when the hole gets about .008 larger than the original hole size, or when the accuracy falls off. A good, properly shaped liner should last for about 800 to 1000 shots, and thatís a lot of shooting.

The best hole gauge and vent pick that we have found is a set of welding torch tip cleaning wires. These can be purchased at any welding supply store. To check the size of the hole, insert the largest wire that will fit into the hole, and then measure the wire with a dial caliper or micrometer. If the hole is too large, then replace the liner.

Your Frizzen.

The condition of the frizzen is very important to how the lock sparks with a sharp flint. If the frizzen looks like a "washboard", breaks up the edge of your flint, or doesn't throw many sparks, it is time to clean up the face of the frizzen and reharden it. The procedure that most use is very easy. Heat treating is not that hard a process. The items you need are: One wire clothes hanger; "Kasenit" surface hardening compound sold at several of the muzzle loading suppliers; Two quarts cheap 30-weight motor oil; one quart cheap automatic transmission fluid; and two propane torches (one will not generate enough heat). A word to the wise, do this outside or in a well ventilated area. A friend loaned me a book on this process written by George Shimel in 1947, here's his method of caring for a frizzen. This is as clear as anything anyone has ever written.

  • Mix the oils together in a large coffee can or similar metal container equipped with a lid for storage. Three quarts of oil will stay cool longer and cool the metal best. CAUTION: Do not use water, because it can cause fractures in the metal by cooling too quickly. Remove the frizzen spring with a spring vise, remove the frizzen from the lock. Smooth the face of the frizzen on a six-inch coarse grinding wheel. Going slow and grind off only enough metal to remove any "wash board" and gouges visible. Grind vertically, not across the frizzen. Don't worry about getting the frizzen hot, you're going to heat treat it anyway.
  • Next, cut a section of wire from the clothes hanger, about eight to ten inches long. Run the wire through the screw hole in the frizzen and wrap the wire tightly so the frizzen doesn't move around. Pour about a cup of "Kasenit" into a shallow metal can. A tuna can works very nicely. Clamp one of the torches in a vise and light both torches. Heat the frizzen until it is bright red throughout. It must be entirely heated to a uniform color. Smother the heated frizzen in the "Kasenit" until it is well coated. The "Kasenit" will melt and adhere to the metal. Immediately reheat again to a bright red color and cook it for about three minutes. Be sure the entire frizzen is a uniform bright red color and completely coated. After cooking, quickly quench the heated frizzen in the oil mixture and swirl it around to assure fast cooling. Leave the frizzen in the oil until it is cool enough to handle. Wipe the excess oil from the frizzen and repeat the procedure for a second time. Itís recommended doing the above procedure twice to assure a good deep hardening.
  • After the frizzen is cooled enough to handle, clean it with acetone, alcohol, or any degreasing agent. Remove it from the wire and polish the face of the frizzen with 400 grit paper or emery cloth. Be careful, and don't drop the frizzen on a hard surface because it is brittle like glass and can break at this point. Affix the frizzen back onto the wire and light one torch. With a low flame starting at the pivot point and pan lid, slowly and carefully heat the frizzen. This is called drawing the temper back. Be sure that the color changes uniformly. It will happen very quickly. When it reaches a soft yellow/brown (STRAW) color, quickly quench it in the oil and swirl around to assure uniform cooling. Leave in the oil until completely cool. The ideal colors are between straw and bronze. If you don't hit the straw color, but maybe blue, don't worry, try it for sparking it will probably be fine.
  • Remove the frizzen from the oil and clean with a degreasing agent. Put a drop of oil in the screw hole and install the frizzen and frizzen spring back onto the lock. Test it using a new sharp flint. It may take several attempts before you start getting uniform sparking. After you start getting sparks, check to see if there are any tiny metal shavings in the pan. If there are, you have done it right.

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