Evolution of Gunflint

Gunflint found on one of our recent CART excavations.

Gunflint found on one of our CART excavations.

by Jonathan BrisendineCART Archaeological Technician

While term “Flint Knapping” in American archeology most often references the process by which American Indians made stone tools, the term can also apply to historical archaeology. Here it will be discussed in its use with firearms. The introduction of the flintlock firing mechanism represented a major leap in firearms technology and gunflints, or the debris from their creation, are often found on sites dating to the Colonial and Early National periods.

Throughout time mankind has always sought to push the boundaries of progress, by inventing new technologies that make any given task easier and more efficient. This is seen radically in the implements of warfare. Man is always seeking to gain the edge over their enemies in this field. First it was the bow, which gave a person a huge advantage over the previously used spears and the Atlatl. With the invention of the bow, combat switched from almost entirely hand to hand combat increasingly to a combat at distance.

This trend in distancing the combatants in war accelerated with the introduction of the firearm. Not only do firearms allow one to attack from a distance but they reduce the amount of skill required of the combatant.  For instance in order to fire a good bow, one first had to possess the knowledge of tree species in order to select appropriate materials for the bow and arrow shaft.  Additionally, knowledge of knapping and hafting were required as was the proper technique to place the flights.  Finally, to ensure the projectile had sufficient power required a lot of strength to draw the string. A gun, however, requires the ability to load the weapon and pull a trigger. Here I will only be discussing the technological advances in firing mechanisms and not other implementations such as rifling in the barrel and encased ammo.

The first rendition in firing mechanisms required the user to lower a burning wick or match with one had into a pan of gunpowder that would then set off the charge in the barrel. This not only affected the aim but required the user to use an overly large kickstand to hold the riffle steady with one hand while the other lit the powder as seen below.


The next step in this was to make the process more mobile and efficient, as having to stop and rest your riffle against something was not the most effective way to deploy the weapon. With this came the Matchlock in the 1400’s. The matchlock provided a clamp that held and swung the wick into the flash pan, thus igniting the powder and firing the weapon. This was still very unreliable as it was highly susceptible to moisture, as both the powder and the wick were exposed to the elements. The question then remained on how to keep both the ignition source and the powder dry and still ignite it.

The introduction of a new ignition source and use of a flash pan partially solved these problems.  With that in mind, the Flintlock was invented around 1630. This solved both problem of keeping the ignition source dry and partially protected the gunpowder within the flash from the elements.  The flint was knapped the same way any stone tool is, shaped to be held by a clamp within the cocking mechanism. Once the trigger was pulled, the spring loaded cock swung forward, striking and opening the frizzen.  This in turn revealed the black powder beneath and the impact of flint with steel created a spark which ignited the charge. Seen below is an example of one such gun flint and how it works. The lesson here is that sometimes you have to look to the past to find solutions for the future.

The next major leap in lock technology arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the development of the percussion cap. The flint lock was replaced with a simple hammer mechanism.  The frizzen was removed and replaced with a “nipple.”  A small power charged encased within a brass procession cap was then placed, inverted over the nipple.  When the hammer struck the cap, the charge traveled through the nipple and into the barrel.  This advancement not only protected the ignition charge from the elements, but also reduced the amount of time necessary to prepare the weapon for its next shot.  This greatly increased the potential rate of fire and, combined with other improvements such as rifled barrels and self-contained rounds with rings to grab the rifling, forever changed the battlefield landscape.  This change can be seen in the drastic increase in firearm lethality between the American Revolution and Civil Wars.

To see examples of the flintlock gun part, go to http://www.jefpat.org/CuratorsChoiceArchive/2010CuratorsChoice/Aug2010-FlintlockGunPart.html


Edited by Christopher Sperling – Staff Archaeologist


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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