Q&A With Flintlock Enthusiast Sean Williamson
Loving the 17th Century
Photo by John Hession
If it weren’t for the international orange hunting vest, Sean Williamson — with his flintlock rifle, powder horn and other long-ago gear —could be a frontiersman out to put food on the table. An avid hunter, the Newbury resident from time to time puts aside his present-day firearms to face the forest with a rifle that takes a long time to load, a long time to fire and has explosive black powder inches away from his face. Why? He loves the tradition of flintlocks and all that their use signifies, especially the skill of the frontiersmen that used them. “I read accounts of men like Simon Kenton and Lewis Wetzel and wonder if I could have survived back then,” Williamson says. “They were tough. I see myself these days more like a New England farmer of old and his relationship with his gun. I too do not have to use it on a daily basis.”
He got his first flintlock in 1976 when he was 14. That year he hunted in the first deer season in the nation specifically dedicated to flintlocks. And he’s been doing it ever since. Flintlocks, he says, are built to last generations and he’ll be passing his along one day: “I’ll be handing the rifle to my youngest son. My oldest son already has his granddad’s gun.”
Why are you drawn to shooting flintlocks?
I love the looks of a fine flintlock, the way they feel when you hold and carry one, and once I shot my first one I was hooked. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, the son of a high school U.S. History teacher; so I guess with Pennsylvania’s flintlock heritage dating back to the early colonial days and my dad’s influence my interest in them came naturally. I got my first flintlock in 1976 when I was 14. I hunted that same year with it in the first deer season in the nation specifically dedicated to flintlocks. My dad had a rifle built by a gentleman named Edwin Barber of Mercer, Pa. After he finished dad’s gun he said that he would build me a gun for the cost of the materials if I came and assisted and kept him company. During that summer, I would ride my bike 6 miles to his house at least 3 days a week to “assist.” Actually the only thing I assisted with was to talk with him and listen to his stories. I did make my first powder horn while with him. That gun cost me $200 of my lawn mowing money. I shot my first deer with that rifle and will be handing it down to my youngest son some day. My oldest son already has his granddad’s gun.
Do you feel a kinship with long-ago hunters who used flintlocks?
Yes, however I can only hope to become as proficient with mine as I am sure they were with yours. I am talking about the frontiersmen when I say that. Those men carried and used them daily, often to stay alive. I read accounts of men like Simon Kenton and Lewis Wetzel and wonder if I could have survived back then. They were tough. I see myself these days more like a New England farmer and his relationship with his gun, I do not get a chance to use it as much as I would like.
How far do they go back?
The early 17th century.
When did people stop using them and why?
I guess they never have stopped using them, look at me! Flintlocks are like any other tool or devise, man’s innovation made them obsolete and over time less used. In the flintlock’s case it was the invention of the cap lock ignition system. The cap lock has a faster ignition and is more weather proof; at least that is what they say. My personal experience is that I have had fewer issues with a flintlock than with a cap lock, or a modern in-line for that matter. Then again, I rarely use a cap lock and have only shot an in-line once. The cap lock came to be in the 1820’s and by the time of the Civil War (and probably earlier) it was the standard.
When did you start hunting with them?
The first flintlock deer season in the country was in 1976 in Pennsylvania. There was a 10,000 + state Game Lands, #39, where you could hunt. That was not far from our home and my dad and I participated in that season. If you go to that Game Lands during the regular deer season there would be hundreds of people there and the parking lots are full. I remember there may have been 20 guys there that first season and a friend of our family I think got the first deer with a flintlock out of that area; at least his was the first I saw taken.
I hear shooting them is part art, part science. True?
I guess that is true. When my dad and I started shooting them we called them “flinchlocks,” because when the flash pan that ignites the main powder charge goes off right by your face, you have a tendency to close your eyes and turn your head. Once you shoot one for a while you get use to it, kind of like a how baseball batters get use to a 90 mph fast ball zinging past them! If you want to see classic examples of true flintlock shooters and nimrods, watch the modern version of Last of the Mohegan and the Patriot. When they show the close ups of the soldiers shooting, you will see them turn their heads away when they pull the trigger. It bugs the heck out of me and my friends that shoot a lot. The ones that don’t flinch away from the shot are probably guys like my one friend who was an extra in the Patriot, a real flintlock shooter.
How much more skill does it take to shoot a flintlock than present-day rifles?
Not really that much. The basics are all the same, like proper trigger squeeze, breathing, and follow through. What makes and breaks flintlock shooters is the follow through. From the time the trigger is pulled and the bullet leaves the barrel is much greater than with a modern center fire rifle. What most people have trouble with, besides getting use to a fire going off next to their face with the lock, is the follow through; you have to hold the rifle on target until the bullet clears the barrel. The same is with bow shooting, follow through, follow through, follow through! What I have learned over the years is that most people do not want to dedicate the time to learn to shoot one.
What is the biggest challenge?
Besides the things mentioned above, I would say finding the right combination of components that make your gun shoot its best and the weather. Just like a modern gun, it takes time to develop the best load for the gun. Bullet diameter, patch thickness, type of patch lubrication, and the brand of gun powder are all factors that make a difference. But, like with everything you can get carried away with over analyze thing. Finding good flints can some times be a challenge. I don’t order them through the mail. I go to events where there will be vendors selling flintlock supplies so I can pick through them. The one exception is if my one friend, who also shoots flintlocks, is at an event, I trust him to pick out flints for me.
Hunting in the rain and snow can be fun. I know a lot of guys that hunt with flintlocks that treat them just like a modern cartridge gun. They will carry them in the rain and snow over their shoulders with a sling and I watch the water run down the barrel and into the lock. They will then get mad when the gun does not go off. A good friend and I did a primitive deer hunt one time where we camped out in the forest for two days. It rained solid from the time we got out of the car, hiked back into the woods a couple of miles, and set up our tent. After two days and nights of rain we decided to call it quits because we had to ford a river to get out and we were in fear of it rising to the point where it would not be safe to cross. We had not shot our guns off in the two days of rain and decided we best unload them before we stared out. Both guns went off without a hitch. You just have to be careful how you carry the things in bad weather.
Carelessness. Keeping the powder away from flames is important, black powder is classified and explosive for a reason. Because of the nature of black powder it is very important that the projectile is seated firmly on top of the powder, there can be no air space. If there is an air space, it goes from being a bullet to being an obstruction in the barrel and this can lead to your barrel rupturing/ bulging on firing, or at the least poor accuracy. Then there is the whole controlling of the muzzle, but that is true of all firearms.
You use black powder. Aren’t there regulations on that?
There is only one modern muzzleloader out there that can utilize modern smokeless powder and I think it is made by Savage Arms. Whether that gun can be used during muzzle loading season depends on the state. In NH I think because the way the wording in the law creating the season, that gun can be used. There are modern black powder substitutes out there that are safe to use in muzzleloaders, however most are not compatible with the flintlock. Like I stated above, black powder is an explosive and ignites at a very low temperature ton modern smokeless powders and most of the black powder substitutes. Cap lock fire arms can use black powder substitutes due to the higher ignition temperature created by the caps.
What kind of bullet do you use?
Pure lead round balls. Rifle barrels have different rates of twist for different bullet types, bullet weights, and velocities. The rifling twist determines how fast a bullet will rotate on its own axis as it flies through the air towards its target. Round balls require a slower rate of twist in order to stabilize its flight. My barrel is a 1:66 twist, which means it will turn one complete revolution in 66-inches of travel.
True the spark and flame are a few inches from your face?
Yes. See above answer.
Don’t you have to get really close to the animal?
Generally speaking, yes. Flintlocks will never give you the knock down power of a modern firearm, but I have shot a number of deer at 75-100 yards. Shot placement is the key. If you practice a lot and can put a properly charged ball into an animals unobstructed vitals, shots at 100 yards are very doable. The trick is knowing your limits and sticking within them.
What if you miss and are threatened, say by a bear?
Run like heck I guess! With the black bears we have in NH I do not worry about it much. There is always the knife or tomahawk to turn to. There is a great book out there, “Forty-Four Years a Hunter – The Life and Times of Meshach Browning.” He was a renowned bear hunter in the border country of Pennsylvania and Maryland in the late 1700’s early 1800’s. His said he liked finishing bear off with his knife after the discharge of his gun. He had more guts than I have!
How long does it take to load? How many steps are there?
A rifle takes longer to load than a musket or smooth bored gun, because for ease of loading and greater accuracy the rifle barrel needs have a cleaning patch run down the barrel between shots. However, if a second shot is needed I have forgone the cleaning. Smooth bore guns can have multiple shots fired through them before the powder fouling make loading difficult. Under hunting conditions where I need to reload in order to get on the trail of the animal, I would say 30 seconds would be fast for me. Back in the day of the frontiersmen, there were many that could load their guns on the run, while being chased by Indians! Lewis Wetzel was renowned for this skill and he plied it often. I am glad that is something I don’t have to worry about today while out hunting!
- Measure out a charge of powder and pour it down the barrel. Never, ever pour powder directly from a powder horn/can in case there is a spark still in the barrel from the last shot.
- Place a greased patch over the muzzle.
- Place the ball on the patch then start it down the barrel, stopping just after the ball goes below the muzzle.
- Cut the excess patch off. (Steps 2-4 can be combined by having a wooden patch board that has holes drilled in it that holds patched round balls with you. After pouring the powder in you take out the board and place a hole containing a patched ball over the muzzle and push it in.)
- Drive the ball down the barrel with the ramrod, making sure the ball is seated firmly on the powder. The best way to insure this has happened is to have a mark on the ramrod that is flush with the muzzle showing when the bullet is seated.
- Remove ramrod from barrel. (You laugh; I have seen a few shot down range because the guy was talking when he was reloading and got distracted. Distractions while loading can also be added to the danger factor.)
- Prime the gun by pulling back the hammer to half cock and putting the priming charge in the flash pan. Close the frizzen, covering the powder in the pan. The frizzen is what the flint strikes, causing the spark.
- Pull the hammer to full cock a, take aim and fire.
When is flintlock season in NH?
There is not a specific flintlock season. The muzzleloader season is Nov. 2 – 12 this year. However, you can use a flintlock in any of the firearms seasons. I use mine for deer and turkey.
The flash in the pan & keep your powder dry question.
A flash in the pan refers to when you pull the trigger, the hammer falls and the priming powder ignites, but does not fire the main charge. This can be caused by a plugged tough hole, the hole leading to the main powder charge, or the powder may be wet; hence the saying, “keep your powder dry”.
Competitions in NH?
Yes there are, but I do not compete so I am not sure when and where they are. The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Assoc would be a good source for that info.
Passing it on to my boys?
You bet. They each have their own rifles. My 14 year old shot his first deer with a flintlock two years ago. He is hooked! My 10 year old keeps eying my first rifle, that he will get some day, wishing he was big enough to shoot it on his own.