I fired the first three shots through my kit-built, .54 caliber flintlock Pedersoli Kentucky Pistol from Dixie Gun Works this past Sunday.
Boy, that’s different!
I finished the kit months ago but couldn’t get the black powder, especially the FFFF (or 4F) that’s recommended for the pan. That stuff is rare!
I was told that contemporary black powder substitutes aren’t effective with “rock lockers”. Today’s substitutes are harder to ignite and, for the small shower of sparks coming down from the frizzen in a flintlock, you need real black powder, and you need the very fine grains called 4F.
Listening to my lamentations about black powder availability one Tuesday evening with the Bullseye guys, Mario said he’d bring me some from his supply.
And he did.
So, this past Sunday I had all the parts, all the powders and a bright sunny day. Time to make smoke!
At the range, the first thing I had to do was unbox all the goodies. There was the big brass reservoir for the 3F powder and the little one with the spring-loaded nozzle for the 4F. There are cleaning jags, a CO2 kit to blow out everything if a load must be aborted, flints, a leather strip, lubed cotton circles to seal the round ball tightly into the chamber and, I don’t know, maybe another half dozen doo-dads, all of which have been sitting in their boxes inside the big toolbox I got for the whole kit and kaboodle.
Unboxing went fast and that big toolbox doesn’t look so crowded anymore.
Installing and positioning the flint was the first real job.
When the trigger releases the hammer, the flint that is attached to the hammer scrapes across the steel “frizzen” and shaves off some red hot sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushes back the spring-loaded frizzen exposing the “pan” which has 4F gunpowder. Hopefully the sparks ignite the pan-charge which flashes through the “flash hole” and into the barrel where it, in turn, ignites the main charge and fires the ball out the barrel.
And it all starts with the flint.
But the flints I purchased at the store were a too large for this pistol even though they were marked for pistols.
Hmmm, time for a “field adjustment” to a piece of rock.
What do you use? Why, a hammer, of course!
In this picture, you can see the “knapping” hammer which is used to shape the flint. I purchased this one along with the attached tools two weeks ago from a blacksmith at the NMLRA Western Shoot. I used it to chip away a little from the back of the flint so it would sort of wrap-around the screw post.
Now it fits into the needed space but, when I added a strip of leather on each side to pad it, the jaws were too wide.
After some finagling, I figured out that leather on one side only seemed to hold it just fine. I “dry-fired” a couple of times to make sure it would stay put.
And I also checked to be sure I was getting plenty of sparks down into the pan.
Yep, that’s ready.
On to the next stage, loading the barrel with gunpowder, patch and bullet.
Thirty grains of FFF (3F) black powder for the main charge sounds like a lot. I’m accustomed to 4 or 5 grains of modern propellant in my 45 ACP cartridges but, after double-checking a couple of books, that’s what they recommend for this pistol.
That charge is loaded using an adjustable, clear plastic measure that, when closed, strikes off the top of the charge cleanly and turns into a small funnel for pouring into the barrel.
Down the barrel went the main charge followed by a couple of taps on the side to make sure it all went to the bottom.
Next step, get the ball into the barrel with the patch underneath.
For this, you place a lubricated piece of fabric over the end of the barrel, put the 54 caliber (half inch plus) ball on top, and then use a “starter” to get it going. The starter is a big round ball with a knob sticking out a half inch. You put the knob on top of the bullet and push on the ball and, supposedly, ball and patch are pressed into the barrel which you then seat the rest of the way with the ram rod.
But not in my case.
That ball refused to go!
I pushed with the starter firmly, then harder, then really hard but it would not go. I even pounded the starter with the back of my hand but still, no-go.
At this point, I had pushed so hard that the ball looked more like an M&M, all squished out, instead of a sphere.
I took the deformed ball off and set aside the patch.
Did I have the wrong size balls? (Er, make that, did I purchase the wrong size round projectiles?)
To find out, I set a new ball without a patch on the end of the barrel and tapped it with my finger.
Down it went.
Good, I thought. The ball fits the barrel. It’s the right size.
And then, “Oh crap.”
I realized that the ball is now down the barrel but I don’t know if it’s sitting on the powder or not and, even if it is, there’s no patch to hold it there. If I were to shoot and there’s a gap between powder and ball, I could get a really big explosion. All the black powder books warn about this.
If I can’t get the ball out to do it correctly, I’m stuck with a half-loaded gun.
I’ve got the CO2 kit that’s designed for this very case but, gee whiz, I really don’t want to use that “last resort” before my very first shot.
But I remembered that a few moments ago and after a gentle nudge, the ball had dropped right in. Maybe it’ll come out the same way?
So I turned the gun muzzle down on the table, gave it a couple of firm taps and, voila, the ball came rolling out, immediately followed by thirty grains of 3F black powder all over the table.
Fortunately, this is an outdoor range so I “cleaned up” by brushing the powder into the grass.
(Is this stuff a fertilizer like modern propellants? Hope so.)
With the pistol now empty, I looked around for something to use as a substitute patch, something thinner than the store bought patches.
In my Bullseye gun box, I had some cleaning patches for my 45s. Would they work?
And can I use a dry patch or does it have to be lubricated?
At this point, I had a vision of Davy Crocket in his leather outfit and coonskin cap. (He looked a lot like Fess Parker.) I could almost hear the TV show theme song.
Davy said, “There ain’t no ‘lube’ in the forest. Use what’cha got and kill that bahr!”
OK, I thought, I’ll try a cleaning patch from my gun box.
But will it fit snug? Too loose? Too tight?
I wanted to do a trial fit so in case it got stuck half way down, I wouldn’t have a loaded flintlock, just a jammed one without any gunpowder.
So, I positioned the cleaning patch and then the ball on the end of the barrel and, ever so gently, I pushed with my thumb.
I pushed a little harder, still only with my thumb.
And it moved!
Not all the way in, mind you, but enough that I thought there’s a good chance it’ll go all the way if I push harder, and it’s easy enough that I think I can seat it all the way down with the ram rod, but solid enough it’ll stay put down there.
With the trial fit successful, I pulled the partially-started ball and paused for a moment to reset my thoughts.
Side Note (added later): The packages of lubed patches in the store come in different thicknesses as well as different diameters (for different calibers). The ones I had originally purchased were apparently quite thick. After another trip to Sportsman’s Warehouse and a consultation with Bob, their resident black powder expert, I have a package of 0.010″ and a package of 0.005″ thick lubed patches, all for .50-.59 caliber.
Bob also suggested a soft head mallet would prove useful to bang on the back of the starter. “It’s supposed to be very tight,” he said. So, I’ve added a mallet, a very nice small one from Sears that will hopefully be sufficient — you can never have too many tools, you know — as well as backup patch material from an old thin t-shirt and a sharp knife “just in case”.
OK, it’s time to try a full load again.
Thirty grains of 3F, cleaning patch, ball, push to start …
Cool, it’s working
… and then the full-length ram rod with a comfortable handle added to the end to push it all the way in.
That needed some pressure but, when the ball reached the black powder, it felt spongy. I could tell it was all the way down. The book says to be sure the ball is tight against the black powder but not to overly compress the powder.
Previously, I had marked the ram rod when it was fully inserted into an empty barrel and, with it now sitting on the top of the ball, I could see the difference. To my reckoning of ball thickness and powder amount, it looked about right.
I tested it again. Yep, a little spongy but not too much. (Trapped air will leak out through the flash hole. The “spongy” feeling is not compressed air — as long as the flash hole is clear.)
I think the ball and patch are pressed solidly against the 3F gunpowder.
I took the ram rod out, turned the gun muzzle down, slapped it with my hand a couple of times, turned it back upright and put the ram rod back in — Yep, the ball is in the same place. It is being held snugly in place.
Oh yeah, it’s time to charge the pan.
Move the hammer to half cock and open the spring-loaded frizzen.
“Clean the flash hole” is the next step.
Oh boy, I get to use that little black pick I got from the blacksmith!
But no, it won’t go through the hole. It’s too fat!
Again, I scrounge around and, this time from the pistol division office, I find a “spare” paper clip that’s just the right size!
I wonder what Davy Crockett would’ve used? If he’d been out here in Arizona, I’ll be it would’ve been one of the nettles from a Jumping Cholla cactus.
I think I’ll just use the paper clip, thank you.
Fashioned with one leg out and the remainder as a handle, it worked perfectly. The flash hole was clear and I’d made a small tunnel into the black powder so the “flash” would find a lot of exposed grains to start the main charge.
Next, I put a smidgin’ of 4F into the pan and, tapping the pistol from the side it gets evenly distributed. I then canted the pistol slightly to the right and, after another tap, the igniting charge was distributed in the pan so it was no longer blocking the flash hole.
I gently closed the frizzen.
I then pulled the hammer back to full cock and the flintlock was ready to fire.
My first shot.
All kinds of second guesses flooded my mind.
Did I put in the right amount of powder for the main charge or was there some leftover when I spilled out the first aborted charge?
Was the barrel made correctly or does it have some fatal (gulp!) flaw that will cause it to explode on the first shot?
Taking a deep breath, I knew this was the moment of truth.
In my head, I heard and followed the familiar litany: Raise the pistol, acquire the front sight and line it up in the rear notch. Lower the pistol into the aiming area. Start the trigger. Focus on the front sight — is it gonna blow up? — come on now, FOCUS on the front sight — Is anyone watching? FOCUS ON THE FRONT SIGHT — Will they find my blown apart body today or tomorrow — DAMMIT, FOCUS ON THE …
… … ..
… … …
… … …
Nothing hurts and the pistol looks intact.
And there in the target, in the extreme lower left corner, was a big round hole.
Hooray, I even hit the target!
Who cares if it was a jerk — it works!
Let’s do that again!
But before reloading, you have to clean the barrel with something wet to make sure there are no smouldering embers. Dumping thirty grains of black powder without doing that first is a “real bad idea.”
One shooter I had watched weeks ago was wetting the cleaning patches by putting them in his mouth for a few seconds before swabbing the barrel. I tried that but between what the patch soaked up and my nervousness at “first shot,” I ran dry real fast.
So I used some black powder barrel cleaner I had that is mostly water with a little solvent. I’d wet the patch, squeeze it almost dry and then run it down and back a couple of times using the cleaning jag on the end of the ram rod.
(Boy, that burned sulfur really stinks!)
After that, I’d then run a dry patch down and back a couple of times to remove any leftover moisture and the pistol was ready to be reloaded.
Added Later: A good friend said of the smooth bore’s accuracy, “If you are standing in a phone booth, you could most likely hit anyone else in the same phone booth.”
I fired a total of three shots Sunday as I practiced all those steps.
On one of the shots, I forgot to run the paper clip through the flash hole and it didn’t fire. When that happened, I held the pistol in shooting position for a full count of 30 seconds “just in case.” But, nope, instead of a boom, all I got from that trigger pull was just a flash in the pan. Literally.
I cleaned the flash hole, re-primed the pan and … Click/Whoosh/BOOM! It fired.
“Lock time” or “hang time” with a flintlock is huge compared to contemporary firearms.
I guess it’s actually very quick but I could definitely hear three events. First, there’s the loud “Click!” of that big hammer striking the frizzen, then there’s the “Whoosh!” as the 4F in the pan ignites from the sparks, and finally there’s that authoritative “Boom!” as the big round ball is shoved out by the gasses from the exploding — not burning — 3F main charge.
When I was watching someone else shoot, it all sort of blended together but when you’re pulling the trigger, it seems like that a lot of time from click to “bullet gone.” Indeed, on my third shot, my “jerk” at the same time as the hammer’s click moved the aim point a couple of feet down and left, and the shot hit the dirt berm below the target.
Holding it on the aiming area after the trigger breaks is essential.
And that is why I bought this gun.
I bought it to learn how to follow-through in an extreme case. Once I can do it correctly with a flintlock, I reasoned, then I’ll be that much better with my other guns.
And so, this past Sunday was “first smoke” day.
The flintlock works and I enjoyed the whole process of loading, firing and cleaning. And seeing that really big hole in the target, well, that was neat, too.
I’ll be doing a lot more of this and, over time, putting the holes more into the middle of the target and less into the berm below the target.
And I will learn to follow-through.
Is that cool or what?
Nice looking gun!