How Black Powder Guns Work; The Greenhorn's Guide
If you are unfamiliar with buckskinning skills, and have ever wondered how black powder guns work, this brief article should help you understand the basics.
Hunters have always appreciated a good projectile. It seems to be in our blood. We like to throw things, chuck things, shoot things, and otherwise hurl things across space. For a long time in our history, our bodies limited what we could throw. However far and fast you could chuck a rock, or throw a spear, pretty well determined your effective range. Then, maybe around 50,000 years ago, the atlatl emerged onto the scene. After maybe 20,000 years (!), it was followed by the bow and arrow. Both of these primitive weapons extended a hunter’s range, and made them more effective on the hunt. As people began to more frequently turn their weapons on other people (also called war), the need to project weapons farther than your opponent became literally a life and death challenge.
Over time, people experimented with all sorts of different projectiles as a result of war. Beginning in the 9th century, the Chinese began experimenting with the first gunpowder charged projectiles. After likely much experimentation, they eventually developed the Heilongjiang hand cannon. Historians consider this primitive weapon to be the first “gun” in history.
As time marched on, and more people around the world learned about the concept of guns, there was a slow but steady development in the technology. Most of this development had to do with the ignition system. In other words, the big question was how would you light the gunpowder? People tried all sorts of methods with some success. By the time of the American frontier, there were two main options; flintlock and caplock.
Flintlocks were created in 1610 in France by an inventor named Marin le Bourgeois. Flintlocks were very functional, and were used widely in the early history of the American frontier. To load these guns, frontiersmen had to pour powder down the barrel and the ram their ball (bullet) down on top of the gunpowder. After that, they poured a little more gunpowder on the pan of the lock. The lock is the apparatus on the side of the gun that made the spark. Once the powder was in the pan, a metal device called a frizzen was lowered over it. When the marksman was ready to shoot, he cocked back the hammer and the gun was ready to fire. It’s important to realize, the hammer contained a small piece of rock, usually flint, on the end. With the hammer cocked, all the shooter had to do was pull the trigger.
Once the trigger was pulled, the hammer dropped and the flint it held struck the frizzen. The contact between the flint and the frizzen cast a spark and drove the frizzen out of the way, thus revealing the gunpowder in the pan. Gunsmiths had designed the frizzen so the sparks would be cast down onto the powder in the pan. All it took was one tiny spark to land on that powder and ignite it. Once the powder in the pan ignited, it burned quickly, and the flame made its way through a tiny channel that connected to the main powder charge the rifleman had first rammed down the barrel. Once the flame from the pan made its way into the barrel, the main powder charge would ignite and propel the ball downrange.
Watch this video to see how a flintlock rifle works.
Flintlocks were widely used on the American frontier, and were essential in the history west. Native Americans also wanted these primitive guns when they could acquire them. Having flintlocks not only helped them as hunters, but they gave them a definite advantage in war with their enemies. Until around the 1820’s, flintlocks were about the only type of gun you would find on the frontier. Then, slowly, a new technology began to emerge called the caplock.
While flintlocks were very practical guns, they did have their downfalls. First, there were times when the flint would not spark when it hit the frizzen. Without a spark, the gun would not go off. Often, a gun not firing could potentially put a frontiersman’s life at risk. Secondly, if the weather was bad, it could be difficult to keep the pan powder dry. If the powder got wet, it would not spark. Again, this was bad.
In order to overcome these obstacles, Reverend Alexander John Forsyth tried to figure out a way to create a more reliable spark. What he ended up developing in around 1805 was a small percussion cap. He figured out that by putting fulminate of mercury in the cap, it would produce a spark when struck with a hammer. Gunsmiths then devised a nipple the cap could rest on, that would channel the spark into the gun’s barrel.
To shoot a caplock, the shooter has to first pour the powder charge down the barrel, just like with a flintlock. Next, again like a flintlock, the shooter must ram the ball down the barrel onto the powder. At this point the processes are different. Rather than deal with the frizzen and the pan powder, the caplock shooter simply snaps a percussion cap on the nipple. To fire the gun, the hammer is cocked, and the trigger is pulled. It is a simple technology, more reliable, and faster to shoot than a flintlock. By the 1840’s on the frontier, caplock would become the dominant ignition system for several decades.
If you are interested in this process, or are reading the Jemmey Fletcher book series, access the video below. It demonstrates the process just described for a caplock muzzleloader. If you watch it, hopefully you’ll get a better sense of what life would have been like for Jemmey and his contemporaries.
Historically speaking, the caplock system would come into vogue at the end of the mountain man rendezvous time period. As time went on they would have become more and more common. In fact, in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, she describes Pa shooting a caplock gun in Little House in the Big Woods. Eventually though, both of these ignition systems would give way to the self-contained cartridges we have today.
Although black powder guns may not be used frequently by many shooters today, they still have their place. Not only are they still capable hunting weapons, but they simply are fun to shoot. By shooting one of these historic guns you can also get a better sense of what life would have been like on the American frontier. If you ever get the opportunity to shoot a few shots with a black powder gun, I’d encourage you to do so. As long as you stay safe, you can have a great time shooting, and learn more about history in the process
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