A Writer’s Guide to Muzzle-Loading Firearms
Michael L. McDaniel
Why Am I Writing This?
If you’re writing (or trying to write) historical fiction, the odds are good that you’ll wander into the realm of muzzle-loading firearms. There’s a lot of myths and misconceptions out there, so I decided to put together a brief guide for authors who aren’t familiar with these arms.
And What Qualifies Me To Write It, Anyway?
This is where I get to blush… I’ve been shooting muzzle-loading firearms for 45 years. Compete with the North-South Skirmish Association (a group dedicated to shooting American Civil War firearms in competition). Certified as a Muzzle-Loading instructor by the National Muzzle-Loading Rifle Association. I’m also a member of the U.S. International Muzzle-Loading Team, and have represented the USA at the World Championships since 1996. Managed to win the Original division of the 50 meter percussion revolver match (Malson-O) and the overall revolver aggregate (Remington-O) in 2018. I won’t claim to be an expert – there are several people would could gainsay anything I write – but will claim to be a Reasonably Knowledgeable Individual.
OK…What Is Black Powder
Throughout the muzzle-loading firearm era (ca. 1350 to about 1870), “gunpowder” meant what we call today “black powder”. Modern nitrocellulose-based propellants are “smokeless powder”. Your characters will speak of “gunpowder” when they refer to firearm propellants.
Black powder is a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. Proportions are about 75%/10%/15%, but that’s subject to a bit of tweaking. However, potassium nitrate is always the chief ingredient.
Unless your characters are medieval artillerists or run a powder mill, they will not be making gunpowder themselves. They’ll either buy it, or have it issued to them by a military organization. Gunpowder was made in specialized powder mills…which were located a long way from anything else, as they tended to blow up on occasion.
Gunpowder was relatively expensive – in the 1600s, musketeers normally carried 12-16 rounds. Standard issue for infantry in the American Civil War was 40 rounds per soldier, though more would be issued if it was available and a battle was in the offing. But it wasn’t so cheap it could be wasted.
Side Note – Powder Trains
Fiction and films often show the heroes or villains laying a train of gunpowder to a much larger explosive charge, setting on end on fire, and fleeing while the fire makes its way, slowly and dramatically, to the main charge.
In reality, this is a good way to get killed, very quickly. Black powder doesn’t burn, it explodes. Drop your lighted match onto the powder train, and there’s a quick flash – and an explosion. The realistic option is to use “slow match”, a thin rope soaked in a solution of potassium nitrate. Slow match burns at a set rate (it varied by type), and characters can stick one end into a barrel of gunpowder and light the other end. This will let them make their escape.
What Makes A Firearm a “Muzzle-Loader”?
Until the 1870s, almost all firearms were loaded from the front end – the muzzle of the gun. You poured gunpowder down the barrel, rammed a projectile home on top of the powder, primed the gun (prepared a way to set the main gunpowder charge off), and fired.
Types of Firearm Ignition
Over the years, several methods were invented to set off the main gunpowder propellant charge.
Large cannon were set off by filling the touchhole with gunpowder, then setting it off with a slow match on the end of a wooden linstock. In the late 1700s, flintlock ignition systems supplanted this, and in turn were replaced by friction primers (that worked much like a large kitchen match) in the mid-1800s.
As to small arms, the very earliest personal firearms were hand cannon (sometimes called hand gonne). These were a barrel mounted on a pole. The user would hold the pole under his arm, or brace the end against the ground, and touch the shot off using slow match. These start to be seen in the mid-1400s, but they aren’t much use other than noisemakers – which was not to be sneered at, when terrifying horses.
But in the early 1500s, the matchlock was developed. This had a more conventional rifle-type stock to which the barrel was attached, and a mechanical lock that would put the burning end of a length of slow match into a small pan of gunpowder (total volume about 1/4 teaspoon). This priming charge would detonate, and the flash would set off the main charge of the gun. Matchlocks were practical weapons, provided that you weren’t in a pouring rain.
Matchlocks were in common use until the late 1600s. The Three Musketeers carried matchlocks…as did Japanese samurai. Having shot matchlocks, I can speak from experience that they were wise to also wear swords. Matchlocks are cranky beasts.
During the 1600s, there was another option, the wheellock. This used a spring-loaded wheel and a “flint” (actually iron pyrites) to create sparks that set off the priming charge. Wheellocks had to be “spanned” (wound up) before each shot, but could be made reasonably rain-resistant – and could be carried around without the issue of a burning match. The Japanese made a few matchlock pistols, but the Europeans focused their attention on making wheellock pistols. Writers should note, though, that these guns were expensive. They were carried by gentlemen, aristocratic ladies, and elite cavalry – the average soldier would still use his matchlock and hope it didn’t rain.
Both matchlocks and wheellocks were supplanted starting around 1650 by the flintlock. There were several sub-variants of the flintlock, but all used a flint-and-steel mechanism to strike sparks that would fall into the priming powder and set it off. By 1680, the French had the flintlock as we know it pretty well developed, and other types of ignition fell by the wayside.
Flintlock ignition wasn’t perfect. The locks were much less expensive than a wheellock, but were still costly. A well-made lock could be pretty rain-resistant…provided the gun could be loaded where it was dry. Above all, a shooter who pulled the trigger on a flintlock had a significant amount of ironmongery shaking the gun, and unless the lock was very high quality there could be a significant delay between the fall of the hammer and the firing of the shot.
But help was on the way. In the early 1800s, fulminating compounds were developed that would explode when struck a sharp blow. These were too dangerous to be used as a firearm propellant, but in very small quantities were just the thing to replace the flintlock. After some dead end ignition systems such as tube locks, the percussion cap emerged in the late 1820s. This was a thin copper cap, with a drop of fulminate on the inside, that fitted over a nipple. Strike the cap, and it would provide a strong spark that set off the main propellant charge. Percussion ignition was reliable, fast, and compact. We use it today…only the cap has been moved to the rear end of a metallic cartridge.
OK…How Do You Use These Things?
The normal battlefield firing drill with a matchlock was to take the gun and slow match (which was usually lit at both ends) in the left hand. A small amount of powder would be put into the priming pan, and the pan cover closed. The rest of the powder would be poured down the barrel, the bullet rammed on top of the powder, and one end of the match put into the moving arm of the lock (the serpentine) that would put it into the priming powder. The pan cover would then be opened, aim taken, and the shot fired.
All this took time – usually about a minute. This is why most matchlock-armed soldiers had a pike-armed unit beside them. It’s also why matchlock-armed military units often had fire systems that had only a small portion of the unit shoot a volley at the foe.
Wheellocks were loaded much like matchlocks, except that the shooter would prime the gun, close the pan cover, span the wheel (wind it up), and lower the flint on top of the pan cover. Take aim, press the trigger, and everything else was automatic. The pan cover would open, the spring-loaded flint pressed to the wheel, the wheel released to spin, sparks made, the priming charge set off, and the shot fired.
Reloading in battle was a bit of a problem. The user needed a spanner to wind up the gun, and that was an item not attached to the gun. Most of the time, men armed with wheellocks used them to fire one or two shots, then follow up with cold steel.
Flintlock loading depended to a degree on whether or not you were military or civilian.
A soldier would tear open a paper cartridge that held the gunpowder and bullet, fill the priming pan, close the frizzen, pour the rest of the charge down the barrel, put the bullet down the barrel (often followed by the paper of the cartridge) and ram it home. Then bring the hammer to full cock, aim, and fire.
A civilian, on the other hand, would usually use a cloth patch between the ball and the barrel. That patch was intended to guarantee a tight fit, and would grip the rifling if the gun had a rifled barrel. Civilians made aimed shots, unlike soldiers who fired volleys on command. A civilian shooter might have a supply of much finer priming powder as well. The gun would be loaded, primed with the super-fine priming powder, then cocked and fired. Using such powder sped up the ignition process and helped with accuracy.
Loading a percussion arm was much like the way that a soldier or civilian would load a flintlock firearm. Pour the powder down the barrel, follow with the bullet (and patch, for a civilian), ram home. Then put a cap on the nipple, bring the hammer to full cock, aim, and fire.
After about 1850-55, military arms went to the elongated Minie ball, which was more accurate.
Side Note – Bullets
Bullets at this time are lead. Except for artillery – the medieval-era artillery often used stones (apprentice sculptors could make money whittling ammo), later artillery used iron balls. For small arms, lead bullets were almost always employed.
Bullets for military muskets were normally undersized, for quick loading. From the mid-1700s onward, Americans used a “Buck-and-Ball” load – a round ball and three buckshot. This gave a much better chance of hitting in conflicts with the Iroquis in the French & Indian War…and British, in the War for Independence and the War of 1812.
Bullets were spherical for most of the muzzle-loading era. In the 1840s, the first elongated bullets were developed.
Chief among these were expanding designs such as the French Minie ball, the American equivalent Burton bullet, and the Austrian Lorenz design. All of these were designed to be slightly undersized for ease of loading, then expand to grip the rifling when fired. Provided that the bullet was not too bad a match for the bore, they were quite accurate.
Solid elongated bullets were also common for percussion target rifles. If your character is a target shooter, he or she might well be using such bullets.
A Side Note On Patches
Shooters of muzzle-loading arms who were trying for best accuracy would often use a cloth patch between the bullet and the barrel. A properly fitted patch would help accuracy, even with a smoothbore barrel. Patches were cotton or linen. Elongated bullets of the percussion era might be patched with paper (“Patched” is a bit of a misnomer with those long bullets…”wrapped” is more accurate). Patches could either be pre-cut (I’ve got cased percussion pistols that came with a patch cutter), or a strip of fabric put over the muzzle, the bullet started down the barrel, and the patch cut off.
As a rule, military arms did not use patched round balls. Soldiers were normally issued bullets that were rather undersized, for speed and ease of loading. Specialist riflemen might use them, but the average soldier would never see them.
A Side Note On Flints
Flints were a consumable item, like powder and shot…but not something that the average person could make. This was usually the job of specialist flintknappers, skilled workers who would make gun flints in bulk. You’ll get disagreements to this day as to the superiority of English or French flints.
People had been making firearms with multiple charges loaded in a revolving cylinder since the 1600s, but they were VERY scarce. It just wasn’t practical. Especially given the need to recock the gun, reprime, and rotate the cylinder.
Part of the problem was solved with the adoption of the percussion cap in the 1830s. This provided a reliable ignition system. Then came Samuel Colt…Colt didn’t invent the revolver (and never claimed to), but he invented a system that would unlock the cylinder, rotate it, and relock it with the next chamber in line with the barrel – all by the simple act of cocking the hammer.
Colt had some problems at first, but the combination of the Mexican War in 1847-8 and the 1849 Gold Rush made him rich.
Colt (and his imitators) made single-action revolvers. The hammer had to be cocked before firing each shot. British gunsmiths, notably Robert Adams and William Tranter, developed double-action revolvers. The hammers on these revolvers could (mostly) be cocked to give a light trigger pull…or if the user was in a hurry (like being overwhelmed by very unfriendly natives), he could pull the trigger and shoot with a heavier trigger pull.
A minor point…most British percussion revolvers were five-shooters.
In either case, loading was straightforward. The appropriate amount of powder was poured directly into each chamber of the cylinder. A felt wad might be put over the powder, then the bullet put on top. A loading lever attached to the gun would ram the bullet home. The user would then put caps on the nipples, put the hammer into a safe position (Colts had pins between the nipples for the hammer to rest on, the later Remington design had slots for the hammer to rest in, and the British often had a blocking system that prevented contact unless the trigger was pulled).
Sometimes, pre-loaded paper cartridges were used, each containing one charge of powder and a bullet. The whole assembly would be inserted into the front of a chamber and rammed home with the loading lever.
Side Note – Reloading Revolvers
The most common reload was a second revolver. Or more…Mosby’s Rangers in the American Civil War liked to carry four revolvers into battle. Otherwise, you drew a saber or knife and went to work with cold steel. If there was a lull in the fighting, the gun could be reloaded.
The notion of swapping loaded cylinders has no basis in historical fact…and if you try it with an unloaded cylinder, you will understand why. The cylinders on percussion revolvers are meant to stay in the gun, except for cleaning. Removing it leaves you juggling the gun (and if it’s a Colt, juggling the barrel and frame separately), the empty cylinder, the loaded cylinder…and possibly doing this on a horse that is moving. Better to holster the empty gun and draw a loaded one.
And A Final Side Note – Duels
Duelling was an activity indulged in by gentlemen – and only by gentlemen. Upper middle class or higher.
In theory, duels were a last resort to restore honor after a deliberate affront had been made and an apology refused. Some affronts, notably a blow, could not be apologized for. But the normal incidents of everyday life were not intended to result in a trip to the field of honor.
In practice…well, there were incidents of, “Let’s you and him fight,” where gentlemen were pressured into fighting because someone else thought they had been insulted. On top of this, fighting a duel or two was seen as proof of a young man’s character and courage. So if you need your character to fight a duel, it can be arranged…
When you think of a duel with pistols, the normal notion is two gentlemen, standing back-to-back, taking ten paces, turning, and firing. Dramatic…but almost pure Hollywood hokum. The reality was that the seconds would agree on a distance, mark the firing positions, put their principals on their marks, and give them a command to fire. This was usually, “Fire, one, two, three, Stop!” Shooting before or after the allocated three seconds was cheating…and both seconds would shoot down a principal who did so.
How far apart? Ah, that was the trick. With smoothbore flintlock duelling pistols, ten to twelve yards was normal. With rifled percussion guns, twenty-five yards (or meters) would be close range, and the French would take it to seventy meters on occasion.
The seconds in a duel had several responsibilities. They were neutrals, not involved in the dispute. If possible, they were supposed to adjudicate matters without a duel being fought. If not, they needed to keep the bloodshed to a minimum. This could be done by keeping the number of shots down (one exchange of fire was normal for minor disputes, up to three for very serious insults), and the distance high. One reason why the French fought at fifty to seventy meters was that a rifled percussion pistol was accurate enough to make a head shot at that distance – provided that the shooter was skilled enough. Not many people are.
Another trick that might be employed, especially with flintlock pistols, was to hand the duellists unloaded guns. Misfires were common enough that it would not be thought too unusual for both guns to have problems…and a misfire was considered a shot, on the field of honor. And often enough, the simple fact that the encounter had taken place was adequate to satisfy honor, troublemaking neighbors, and attractive young ladies who wanted to be wooed by gentlemen with the nerve to fight.
OK…How Accurate Are These Guns?
One question that often comes up is how accurate these guns really can be. The short answer is, “A lot more accurate than you think.”
Now, a military musket (matchlock or flintlock) with the undersized military bullet loads will not be terribly accurate. The buck-and-ball loads existed for a reason. At 100 yards, you were reasonably safe. But at 30 or less, a volley could be deadly. “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” wasn’t a slogan, it was sound tactics.
You can get decent accuracy out of the old muskets, if you use a tightly fitting bullet, possibly with a patch. Competitors at the World Muzzle-Loading Championships will routinely hold a 4-5 inch group of 10 shots at 50 meters. But those aren’t representative of the military loads.
As for rifled guns, the flintlock rifles and Civil War rifle-muskets are capable of shooting about a 2-inch group of 10 shots at 50 yards. Having said that, the rifle-muskets shooting Minie bullets are cantankerous…deadly accurate if the bullet fits and the load is right, but that group will go to 4-5 inches at 50 yards if anything is off.
The most accurate guns are the percussion target rifles shooting paper-patched bullets. Those are capable of shooting minute-of-angle groups. One inch or less at 100 yards. Offhand shooters at the World Championships know they have to shoot a clean 100 at 50 meters – ten of thirteen bullets into a group just over one inch – if they want to win the Vetterli match.
When it comes to pistols, the smoothbore flintlock duelling pistols will shoot ten rounds into a 3-inch group at 25 meters. If the shooter can handle it…flintlock pistols are a postgraduate education in shooting technique. Anything short of flawless shot execution will send the bullet off into the white.
As to the percussion guns? The revolvers are surprisingly accurate – my own original Remington will comfortably put ten shots into a 1.5 inch group at 25 meters, if I do my part. Which I did…once. The only clean target I’ve ever shot.
And the single-shot percussion pistols are even more accurate. One inch at 25 meters is possible, with a good gun and the right load. At that point, you’re pushing the limits of even an Olympic-grade pistol shooter.
And How Fast Can They Be Shot?
Loading speed depends on how tight the bullet fits. For a military matchlock shooter, one round per minute is feasible. Military flintlocks were faster, up to two rounds per minute. Civil War era rifle-muskets could come close to matching that rate of fire, especially in practiced hands. Rifled guns took longer to reload, typically around two minutes…less, if using pre-measured charges.
There are many myths and false stories that surround muzzle-loading firearms. Whether it be leather-patched bullets, people swapping revolver cylinders, or characters either making impossible shots or missing pathetically easy shots, it hurts the storytelling to get the facts blazingly wrong. Hopefully, this guide will be of use to writers putting these arms into the hands of their characters.
(Featured image Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons – SAH)