In early 2016, I had an interesting conversation with Steve Comus, Director of Publications and Editor In Chief of SAFARI Magazine. Steve suggested all shooters, both hunters and target shooters, could benefit by learning to shoot a flintlock. Being a builder and shooter of flintlocks for nearly all my adult life, I heartily agreed.
Shooting a flintlock is like nothing else. When firing a modern rifle, pistol, bow or even a crossbow, you are free to follow your projectile to the target; not so with a smoke pole. A well- tuned flinter will offer no less than a split second delay from the time the trigger is pulled until the hammer strikes the frizzen, sending sparks and bits of molten iron into the pan powder.
At that instant, a small explosion occurs, sending sparks through the flash hole to the mother load. That causes a second more powerful ignition, sending the projectile (roundball) toward its intended target. Holding steady while all that occurs can mean the difference between hitting the target or missing by two feet or more.
What happens in that ever-so-brief interval determines a hit or miss. After squeezing the trigger, there is ample time for the shooter to flinch or look up to see his or her shot. To compound that, when the trigger is pulled, a small explosion occurs only inches in front of the shooter’s nose. It takes practice and dedication to remain on target while fire and smoke erupt only inches from your face.
Then there is the “slow burn” or “cook off” as it is sometimes called. That occurs when the pan powder has absorbed moisture from rain, snow or even dampness in the air. A slow burn may take a few seconds or more before the pan powder ignites the main charge (if it ignites). A second or two of hissing burning powder only inches from your face can feel like an eternity when holding on a deer, elk or other game. Use caution if a slow burn occurs; keep the barrel pointed down range until you are certain the powder is not going to ignite. As Steve Comus said, “What makes the flintlock such a good training tool is that it teaches the shooter to stay on target until the ball hits its target.”
Over the years I have learned the best way to teach a new shooter how to fire a front-loading flinter is to first dry-fire the gun at home in your easy chair, concentrating on holding on target for a full second after pulling the trigger. You don’t need to set the hammer, just squeeze the trigger and hold. Next, move to the garage, putting a small amount of powder in the pan (with none in the barrel). Now squeeze the trigger while getting accustomed to the small puff of smoke that occurs in your face when flint strikes frizzen, igniting the powder.
When you have mastered that, it is time to head to the range, putting a half load (50 grains for a .50-caliber) in the barrel. That puff of smoke you saw in the garage will now be a small explosion of fire and smoke near your face. Fire that load until you are comfortable and STILL on target! Don’t get discouraged — this may take a while — and then you are ready to move up to a full load of one hundred grains of black powder (for a .50-caliber).
When you can consistently hit your target with a full charge, you have become a better marksman! That, however, will not guarantee you have conquered the ability to shoot a flintlock. It is only natural to flinch when an explosion occurs near your face. If you are going to continue shooting a flintlock, before each hunting season you must go to the range to reapply what you have learned. Shooters soon forget to stay down on the shot unless they practice.
I hope this helps those who desire to become a better marksman. Shooting a flintlock is a lot like hitting a golf ball. No golfer ever looked up quickly and saw a good shot. Keep in mind you won’t be able to see the target anyway due to the cloud of blue smoke that hangs in the air for a second or two after each shot. It doesn’t matter your arm of choice. If you shoot a bow, rifle or pistol, spending time at the range shooting a flintlock may pay off making you a better marksman. K. L. Shelton is a frequent contributor to SAFARI magazine. He has hunted with a flintlock for nearly four decades and is also a builder of Kentucky rifles, fowlers and pistols.