Like many of you folks, I have been around firearms most of my life. My early life was almost idyllic as far as I was concerned, almost like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn: A young country boy with his dog, Old Town canoe, muskrat and mink traps, camping gear and all that other fun stuff in lots of remote north woods with a single-shot .22 rifle.
I had three brothers just back from WWII, so I got a lot of great gun training at a young age. But I was never really interested in muzzleloaders. Even back then they seemed old-fashioned, outdated and too much trouble to deal with. I kept that attitude most of my life.
Shift forward 60ish years, and recently I was reading a book in a great series about the Napoleonic wars between France and England. These wars were fought with wooden ships and iron men. The book talks about the Royal Marines of the time.
These guys were posted way high up in the rigging. When these big ships locked horns to board each other for close-quarters combat, the Marine sharpshooters in the rigging would try to shoot the opposing force’s officers — and yep, they were shooting muzzleloaders.
It’s quite a challenge to just hang on 150 feet or more up on a piece of rigging swinging in maybe a 60-degree arc, nevermind trying to hit a small target 200 feet away. Now they had my attention, and I thought maybe this muzzleloading thing might be interesting — if maybe just the historic arena.
Since I didn’t know squat about muzzleloaders, I thought I should check it out. I needed some hours of continuing firearms study to keep my law enforcement and armed security credentials in effect, and this qualified. So after a very interesting week, I am now also an NRA Muzzleloading Instructor.
Let’s start out with a little history, and maybe we’ll go on from there in later columns. These puppies go back a long, long time. Actually, the history of these firearms is one of the best and interesting parts of all (not to say it wasn’t really cool to load and shoot a .68-caliber Spanish flintlock from the 15th century).
Black powder is what makes muzzleloaders go bang and propels the bullet, of which there are many types. The Chinese first used black powder in fireworks as far back as around 1200 A.D. A little after that, Germans and some Englishmen refined it and came up with the first practical muzzleloading gun in around 1300.
By the middle of the century, a sort of hand cannon — and yes, they were dangerous as hell — came about, and some of the first larger black powder artillery pieces were in use. These first attempts, as you might guess, weren’t exactly safe.
Trial and error was the practice of the day, and many failures occurred — some with disastrous results. Powder measure was very iffy. Sometimes convicted criminals were used to test the devices. They could climb the gallows steps to the noose, or walk up and light that thing off.
Black powder was then and still is now what is used as a propellant for these devices. Black powder is an explosive propellant made by mixing sulphur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and charcoal. Modern “smokeless” gunpowder is a completely different animal and should never be used in a muzzleloading gun. I don’t care what your nutty uncle says he’s done, the answer is still no, never.
The term muzzleloader, of course, comes from the way the gun is loaded from the business end or muzzle of the gun. Modern guns are loaded from the breech (the rear into the chamber) in one of several ways. Shoulder-fired muzzleloaders were developed over the course of about four centuries, and they fell into five basic phases.
The earliest ones were called matchlock guns and were invented in the early 15th century. The name came from the wick, or “slow match,” that was lit before the gun was fired. Needless to say wet weather conditions or a marine environment was not very desired or helpful. These wouldn’t have worked well in monsoon season in Vietnam.
A slight improvement in them was called the wheel lock gun, so called because it used a piece of pyrite held against a small steel wheel. The spark to ignite the powder charge was created as the wheel turned — much better in adverse weather conditions.
The next major step was the flintlock of the early 1600s. As I found out, keeping a flint mounted correctly, let alone keeping it sharp so it will produce a spark, is a real challenge. I began to think that my instructor (not the most patient man I have ever met) had made up his mind that I was probably mentally challenged. I eventually made it work, but it’s a good thing I wasn’t being charged by a platoon of enemy soldiers.
Next in the progression of muzzleloaders was the percussion cap gun of the early 1800s. These used a type of primer cap to ignite the powder. The cap was placed on a steel nipple. Pull the trigger, and the hammer strikes the cap to create sparks, setting off the powder charge.
The percussion gun was a huge improvement, and paved the way for the last evolution — the modern break-action inline muzzleloader still in use today. Many purists do not consider this inline a true primitive weapon but that debate will go on forever.
And that is a very basic history of the muzzleloader. If that’s enough for you, or if you want to learn more in future columns, let me hear yes or no in my email and we’ll go from there. Until then, safe shooting.
Billy Carl is an NRA-certified firearms instructor and is available for individual instruction in firearms safety and concealed carry classes. Contact him at 941-769-0767 or through J&J One Stop Gun Shop at 2324 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte, or 941-979-5008.