Posted On October 3, 2012 by Print This Post

Late Regency Period Technology: Flintlock, Percussion Lock and Your Plot

Weapons expert Adam Firestone returns with another of his regular columns. If you haven’t seen Adam’s previous posts you may wonder what a weapons expert might be able to contribute to a blog aimed at romance writers. As it turns out, Adam’s expertise can help A LOT! Today he tackles the late Regency period – read on!

Timing, as they say, is everything.  For works of historical fiction, setting a novel’s story a few years back or forward can create technical nuances that serve as a linchpin for a work of historical fiction, allowing an author to bend and shape the fate of her characters in a manner that is both dramatic and believable.  One of the more useful mechanisms an author can use in a dramatic scene is the effect, or lack thereof, of moisture on firearms in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Television, movies and poorly researched literature have left many people – both readers and authors – with the impression that until the development of metallic cartridge technology in the latter half of the century, firearms simply couldn’t be used in damp or rainy conditions, as the water content would prevent the black powder propellant from igniting.  The historical accuracy of this impression comes down to a difference of just a few years.  An unexpected downpour can have dramatically different effects on a story, depending on whether it takes place during the late Regency era (circa 1836 – 1837) or the early Victorian era (circa 1839 – 1842).  To understand why this is, a bit of background on nineteenth century firearms technology is needed.

 

Until the mid to late 1860s, most firearms were both muzzle loading and externally primed.  That is to say, the propellant and projectile were rammed down the barrel from the front, and an ignition mechanism external to the barrel was used to create a spark, which was communicated to the main propellant charge through a hole bored in the rear of the barrel.  Obviously, if either the propellant or the ignition/priming compound was subjected to atmospheric moisture (or, for that matter, a dunking in the ocean), the probability of a successful discharge drops significantly.  It is useful to take a closer look at how muzzle loader ammunition was protected from the elements.

 

In the early nineteenth century, muzzle loading muskets and pistols were generally smoothbores (i.e., the interior surface of the barrel was not cut with spiral grooves to impart a stabilizing spin to the projectiles).  While there was rifling technology available, it was expensive, slow to load and relatively rare.  Ammunition for muskets was typically carried in the form of cartridges.  Cartridges were not of the metallic, one-piece type that we know today, where all components (i.e., projectile, propellant and primer) are packaged within a brass or steel case, and generally impervious to the elements.  Instead, a cartridge consisted of a measured amount of powder and a projectile, wrapped in a paper tube.  The tubes were usually tied off at one end to prevent the projectile from moving, and creased with a long “tail” at the rear to prevent the propellant from leaking out.  They were stored in a leather covered wooden cartridge box to provide a measure of protection from the elements.   When used, the paper was torn, the powder poured down the barrel, and then the paper patched bullet rammed home on top of the powder.  Ammunition for pistols was typically carried loose, with projectiles being stored in a pouch or box, and powder in a horn or flask.

 

Cartridges during the Regency and Victorian eras were substantially similar, as were the firearms.  The primary difference was in the ignition mechanisms used by firearms.  Regency era firearms were typically flintlocks.  The flintlock was developed in France in the early 17th century. Credit for the development of the flintlock is usually given to Marin le Bourgeoys, an artist, gunsmith, luthier (maker of stringed musical instruments) and inventor from Normandy.  Bourgeoys’ basic design became the standard for flintlocks and weapons based on this design were used for over two centuries, until they were rendered obsolete by percussion locks in the 1840s.

 

A typical flintlock mechanism uses a piece of flint which is held between a set of jaws on the end of a short hammer. This hammer (sometimes called the cock – Hey!  Stop giggling!) is pulled back into the “cocked” position. When released by the trigger, the spring-loaded hammer moves forward, causing the flint to strike a knurled piece of steel called the “frizzen”. At the same time, the motion of the flint and hammer pushes the hinged frizzen back, which opens the cover to a shallow pan containing a small amount of gunpowder. As the flint strikes the frizzen it creates a spark, which falls into the pan and ignites the powder. The flame from this ignition reaches the main powder charge through a small hole I the barrel and ignites the main powder charge in the barrel, causing the weapon to fire.

Flintlock mechanisms generally follow Bourgeoys’ design, and have a “half cock” position.  This is the “safe” position since pulling the trigger from this position does not cause the gun to fire. From this position, the frizzen can be opened, and powder can be placed in the pan. Then the frizzen is closed, and the hammer is pulled back into the “full cocked” position, from which it is fired.  On a side note, the phrase “a flash in the pan” refers to a condition when the gunpowder in the “pan” ignites, but fails to ignite the main powder charge in the barrel.

 

Flintlocks, and in particular, the Land Pattern Musket (“Brown Bess”) of American Revolutionary and Napoleonic War fame,  were the primary armament of the British Empire from the late 17th century to about 1838.  In late 1838, the Royal Army decided to produce 30,000 flintlock muskets to alleviate a shortage of arms until suitable numbers of percussion arms were available.  This decision was modified in May 1839, and percussion arms were brought into service using a combination of flintlock parts already available and dedicated percussion components. The result was the Pattern 1839 Musket.  (These are often referred to as percussion ‘conversions’ as many examples show signs of the lockplates originally being drilled for flintlock mechanisms before being plugged and the percussion system installed.

 

The percussion lock or “cap lock” was the successor to the flintlock in firearm ignition technology, and used a percussion cap struck by the hammer to set off the main charge.  The first percussion system was developed by a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman, Reverend Alexander John Forsyth in 1807.  Forsyth’s invention of a fulminate-primed firing mechanism eliminated the initial puff of smoke from the flintlock powder pan and shortened the interval between the trigger pull and the shot leaving the muzzle.  The percussion lock offered many improvements over the flintlock.  It was easier to load, more resistant to weather, and was much more reliable. Many older flintlock weapons were later converted into percussion locks.

 

The percussion lock mechanism consists of a hammer, similar to that of a flintlock, and a nipple (sometimes referred to as a “cone”), which holds a small percussion cap. The nipple contains a tube which leads into the barrel. The cap itself is a small cylinder, usually of brass or copper which is open at one end.  It contains a chemical compound called mercuric fulminate or fulminate of mercury (HgONC2). HgONC2 is made from mercury, nitric acid and alcohol. When the trigger releases the hammer, it strikes the cap, causing the mercuric fulminate to detonate. The flames from this detonation travel down the tube in the nipple and enter the barrel, where they ignite the main powder charge.  Of importance is the fact that the chemical compound in the percussion cap is covered by a thin disc of waxed paper.  This waxed paper renders the cap waterproof against all but long term immersion.

 

So what does all of this mean for the author?  It means that when your story is set earlier than about 1839, your protagonists will have a great deal of difficulty fighting in damp conditions.  It means that you can have  your heroine cornered, have the antagonist pull the trigger, only to have a dramatic misfire.  Conversely it means that you can take advantage of the fact that the two technologies overlapped for a considerable amount of time (some units in the early part of the American Civil War were armed with smoothbore flintlock muskets!).  In such situations, one or more characters may assume that weather or other environmental conditions may preclude the use of firearms, only to be shocked and disappointed when their adversaries successfully use percussion lock firearms.

In the final analysis, the interplay between evolving firearm ignition mechanisms is emblematic of the general interplay between evolving technologies.  Authors should not see technology as a shackle or constraint, but rather as a springboard that can be used to launch their stories and plots.

 

 

 

 

***

Do you have any questions for Adam about late Regency firearms – or firearms from other periods? 

Join us Friday when author NANCY NAIGLE returns to Romance University!

***

Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/

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14 Responses to “Late Regency Period Technology: Flintlock, Percussion Lock and Your Plot”

  1. Thanks for another fascinating post, Adam! I never knew how much I DIDN’T know about firearms until I met you! When I was going through our photo file, looking for an image to accompany your post, I noticed we had one of an old pistol. Then I realized it wasn’t a flintlock and knew it wouldn’t work! A year ago I wouldn’t have spotted the difference!

    Adam – Would you tell us about your recent trip to Italy and the conference you spoke at? Thank you!!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | October 3, 2012, 7:45 am
  2. Morning Adam!

    Excellent post! I don’t write historicals, but I sure do read them!

    Have there been any major battles won or lost because of a rainstorm? That’s something I simply never thought about!

    Thanks for joining us again Adam – it’s a delight as always!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 3, 2012, 8:21 am
    • Hi Carrie,

      Weather has always played a role in warfare, not just during the time of external ignition firearms.

      For example, the German Ardennes Offensive in 1944 (commonly called the “Battle of the Bulge”) was timed for a period of overcast skies and bad weather so as to neutralize the effects of Allied airpower.

      There was more to Regency era warfare than firepower.

      British infantry were trained not not only to load and fire their muskets rapidly, but to follow up their fire with bayonet attacks.

      Additionally, sodden battlefields often slowed down maneuvers because troop formations had to walk through mud – much more difficult than walking on dry, hard packed earth.

      Weather HAS influenced the result of individual battles. Weather played a key role, for example, in the Battle of Waterloo. The battlefield became so soaked by heavy rains that Napoleon delayed his customary early attack so the ground would dry enough for cannonballs to ricochet and for cavalry to have secure footing. That delay of only a few hours provided Marshal Gebhard von Blucher time to rush three Prussian corps forward and strike Napoleon’s flank.

      While firepower was a big part of warfare, it wasn’t the only component; in an era where flashing sabers and bouncing cannonballs mattered, battles were often influenced by weather.

      Does this help?

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | October 4, 2012, 5:23 am
  3. Hi Adam,

    I enjoy the history lesson in all of your posts.

    How often did the chemical (mercuric fulminate) in the percussion cap need to be refilled and was the compound in liquid or powder form?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 3, 2012, 4:06 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Percussion caps were single use items. Think of a brass or copper cup, about 0.25″ in diameter and about as high. The cups held a small amount of priming compound, which, during manufacture, was in paste form. The priming compound was allowed to dry, and then secured and weatherproofed with a waxed paper disc.

      Hope this helps,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | October 4, 2012, 5:27 am
  4. Hi Adam,

    One of my favorite movies “Last of the Mohicans,” stars Daniel Day-Lewis. The rifle marksmanship is really cool.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 3, 2012, 5:26 pm
    • Hi Mary Jo,

      Rifles in the early nineteenth century were very much the exception. While they had been around since the seventeenth century, they were expensive and slow to load, making military procurement officers skeptical about their worth.

      On the frontier, the ability to reliably kill game, and if necessary, people, at ranges approaching 300 yards was prized, and Cooper’s description of Killdeer, Natty Bumppo’s rifle wasn’t inaccurate.

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | October 4, 2012, 5:35 am
  5. Hi Adam,

    I’m chiming in SUPER late, but wanted to stop by and say how much I enjoyed this post. Regency (very early – 1803) is my era!

    One of the odd questions I’ve always had about guns in this era is where do they stash them on their person? :) I’ve never been able to find a solid reference to a holster and they seem rather large to shove into a waist band.

    Plus, what is an historically appropriate term – gun, pistol?? I’ve always used pistol, though I’m not 100%.

    BTW, my heroes are spies, not military. :)

    Thanks!
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 3, 2012, 7:23 pm
  6. Hi Tracey,

    Then, as now, military pistols were not designed for concealment. (That being said, a good modern holster, such as the Alessi MOB Talon can make a full sized .45 service pistol all but disappear.)

    Spies, gentlemen and well prepared ladies approached the problem much as we do now, with small pistols. These were carried in pockets, in waistbands and even in ladies’ muffs. For example, the pistol used to kill President Lincoln was only about six inches long with a 2.5 inch barrel.

    Pistol is the correct term. Gun is less precise, but not incorrect.

    Hope this helps,

    All the best,

    Adam

    Posted by Adam Firestone | October 4, 2012, 5:43 am
  7. I don’t have a reason to use weapons in my stories, but I always enjoy reading your posts. Thanks for sharing, Adam.

    Posted by Mercy | October 4, 2012, 8:54 pm
  8. Adam:

    We are preparing the second edition of the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Pyrotechnics. Is it possible to get permission to use the photo of the paper cartridge from your article?

    KK

    Posted by Ken Kosanke | January 5, 2013, 6:01 pm
  9. How reliable were the lock components of flintlock and percussion guns? Were the designs well-engineered to prevent fatigue and cracks in the lock components, e.g., sear, bridle, spring?
    And was the steel comparable to modern steels or softer or harder?

    Posted by M. Kersey | April 1, 2013, 11:03 pm

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