Hands-on history: muzzleloading through the ages, part one

Ned Jilton • May 20, 2020 at 9:30 PM

Discovering history through hands-on learning can be a fun and interesting experience. Places like Rocky Mount, Exchange Place and Sycamore Shoals have excellent opportunities to learn everything from farming and weaving to blacksmithing and all the skills that were required for frontier life.

Some time ago a couple of friends — Tony Duncan and Ron Campbell — and I had our own brush with history when we got our hands on a muzzleloading matchlock musket, flintlock and a Civil War Enfield rifle.

The matchlock is what many consider the first gun, being that it was shoulder-fired and could be aimed by sighting down the barrel. It came into being in the 1500s and was cheap to produce and easy to maintain. It became the primary firearm of armies and colonists in the 1600s. The men who carried it into battle were known as musketeers.

Notice I say “musket” for the matchlock and not “rifle” like I did for the Enfield.

That’s because the matchlock is a smoothbore gun that is not “rifled.” That means there are no grooves, or rifling, in the barrel to put a spin on the bullet when fired. It’s this spin that helps stabilize the bullet in flight and give the rifle its tremendous accuracy, while the musket can be very inconsistent.

The matchlock musket is unique in that it does not generate its own spark like other muzzleloaders. Instead, a fuse or “match” was placed in the cock, what some today might call the hammer, which was connected to the trigger. When the trigger was pulled, the cock lowered the match into a pan holding loose gunpowder, which sent a flash of fire down a tiny hole in the barrel of the gun, called the vent, and ignited the main charge in the barrel.

Back in the day, the match was flax or hemp cord treated with a flammable substance to provide a slow burn. Normally it would be a long strand that was lit at both ends. This was in the event that the end igniting the powder was blown out by the flash in the pan it could quickly be relit using the other end.

The matchlock we were firing was a reproduction of a British .75-caliber muzzleloading gun. That means it was firing a lead ball about three-quarters of an inch across.

When it came time to shoot, I was the lucky soul who got to risk life and limb by going first. I had gone through the Cherokee Rod and Gun Club muzzleloading safety class, so you’d better believe that I was wearing eye and hearing protection. I know that’s not very 1600s, but the folks back then didn’t live very long and I hope to do so.

Remembering the old muzzleloader’s saying, “First the powder and then the ball or your gun won’t shoot at all,” I poured the powder down the barrel followed by the lead ball. Using the “scouring stick,” I packed the ball down on the powder. I then primed the pan, which is opened and closed by hand, with powder.

History buffs out there may know that the old musketeer military manuals would say “prime and load,” which means I was doing it backwards. But I thought it safer to put powder and ball down the barrel first and then prime to reduce the chance of an accidental discharge taking a finger.

It was now time to light the match.

With everything ready, I took my place on our firing line and with the matchlock pointing in a safe direction, I put the smoldering match into the cock. I then shouldered the gun and opened the pan while hoping that no sparks from the match would set off the powder in the pan before I was ready. Ron and Tony both had 911 keyed in and were ready to push send on their cell phones as they looked through their cameras when I pulled the trigger.

There was a whoosh as the powder in the pan flashed, followed by the bang when the main charge fired. Everything worked great and I still had my eyebrows, but I missed the target. Ron and Tony put the phones away and took their turns with the matchlock. Ron got the honor of being the first person to score a hit with the gun, and I scored my first hit on my second attempt.

Reloading was slow going as we removed the match from the cock after every shot so that it was nowhere near the gun or powder while we reloaded.

Overall this gun was great fun to shoot, and it was neat to get an idea of what the early settlers in Jamestown may have gone through when hunting or in battle.

Shortly after the matchlock musket made the scene in the 1500s, another musket, the wheel lock, also appeared.

The wheel lock was literally a wind-up musket. You used a spanner to crank a wheel on the side of the gun, putting tension on a spring. With the pan primed and closed, you would then place the cock, which held a pice of iron pyrite, against the wheel.

When you pulled the trigger, the tension on the spring was released, opening the pan and spinning the wheel which caused friction against the iron pyrite, producing a spark which ignited the powder in the pan.

The wheel lock was expensive to make and hard to maintain. This was the time before mass production, so any parts replaced on a wheel lock had to be custom made by hand. These factors kept the wheel lock from gaining wide usage and was why the matchlock remained in use for more than 100 years.

We couldn’t get our hands on a wheel lock, but next week I will continue as my friends and I fire the replacement for the matchlock and wheel lock — the flintlock — and then move on to the rifle that made the Civil War so deadly.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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