If you think modern weapons are complicated, consider the frontiersman of the 17th and early 18th century whose survival often depended upon his ability to load and fire a flintlock rifle quickly. Loading and firing a flintlock was a twelve-step process that didn’t always succeed. (Flintlocks were notoriously unreliable about firing.) Since Daniel Boone had a reputation as a crack shot with his Kentucky rifle, he must have been a world-class rifleman, because just getting it loaded and ready to fire–much less actually hitting anything with it–was a lengthy and involved process!
Here are the twelve steps it takes to load and fire a flintlock rifle or musket:
1. Bite down on the paper cartridge and tear it open with your teeth.
2. Push the striker (called a frissen) forward and pour a small amount of powder into the flash pan.
The powder in the pan was intended to ignite the main powder charge inside the firing chamber of the barrel, which would then propel the lead ball out of the barrel. However, the spark struck from the flint often caused a quick explosion in the pan which failed to ignite the main charge. This is where we get our expression, a “flash in the pan.”
3. Push the frissen back into position to cover the flash pan.
4. Hold the musket with the muzzle pointing up.
5. Pour the rest of the powder into the barrel from the muzzle.
6. Insert a lead ball into the barrel.
7. Push the cartridge paper into the barrel (called the “wadding”).
8. Remove the ramrod from its storage pipe beneath the barrel and use it to push the wadding and the ball down the barrel.
This was easier to do with a musket than with a rifle. The musket barrel had a slightly larger diameter, and its interior surface was polished smooth. A rifle had spiral grooves cut into the metal inside the barrel, which made the ball spin as it exited the barrel, thus increasing the accuracy of its flight. The fit of the bullet inside the barrel had to be tighter to impart the spin, so the grooves and smaller diameter made it more difficult to ram the wadding and ball all the way down to the firing chamber.
Rifles would shoot farther and more accurately, but their slower rate of fire was the primary reason muskets continued to be used by military units until the late 1800s. In a battle, where the time to reload and fire was a matter of life and death, rate of fire was an important consideration. The invention of metal cartridges and breech loading (loading the bullet through an opening at the rear of the barrel near the firing chamber) finally put an end to the musket’s dominance in military use.
9. Replace the ramrod in the storage pipe.
10. Raise the musket to a firing position, bracing the butt against the shoulder.
11. Pull back the hammer.
12. Aim and fire.
We’ve all seen scenes in movies where an intrepid early frontiersman, pressed for time by an approaching danger, simply left the ramrod in the barrel and fired,rather than taking the precious extra seconds to remove it from the barrel and replace it in the storage pipe. The ramrod then became part of the ammunition propelled out of the barrel when the charge fired.
In an extreme situation where those extra few seconds were a matter of life or death, this may well have been done. But unless you had time to recover the ramrod from wherever it flew, the loss of it would render the weapon useless, and a replacement would be hard to come by on the frontier, so it seems unlikely frontiersmen made a habit of the practice, unless it really was a matter of life and death.
Whatever became of the ramrod once it was used, though, it is clear from the steps above that loading and firing a flintlock was far from a simple proposition. Daniel Boone with his Kentucky Rifle and countless other frontiersmen and soldiers who used flintlock weapons certainly deserve our admiration for being able to do it with such a high degree of dexterity and skill!