When I hear or use the word “muzzleloader” it conjures up images of a Swiss Mountaineer scaling the Alps in search of chamois. A German or Austrian Jaeger in pursuit of wild boar or stag, a “stiff upper lipped” Brit in one of England’s many colonies in Africa or the Indian sub-continent or Ceylon chasing elephant or tiger. By no means restricting it to European powers it reminds me of the early German/Austrian/Swiss immigrant gunsmiths to our country. At first they were making their Jaeger rifles, as that’s what they knew, and of their evolution into the first truly American rifle the Pennsylvania/Kentucky rifle so famous in our early history. The New England fowlers are assuredly a part of our firearms history as are the Southern Mountain rifles of Bean in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina with their distinctive “banana” patch box.
That evolution continued as our country grew west and we see the elegant rifles of the Vincent brothers in the Ohio country. There was the huge for the time Leman and Henry factories who supplied firearms for trade, sporting use and western expansion. No thought or discussion of muzzleloaders and their manufacture in our country can possibly leave out those two emigrants from Maryland to Missouri, Sam and Jacob Hawken and their innovation in building a rifle superlative in use on the plains and in the mountains of the west.
It is obvious that the history of muzzleloaders goes back farther than where I started. I’m going to leave out the earliest firearms which mostly consisted of a mere tube with a touch hole near the breech with what was then called a tiller for a means of holding the tube with ignition provided by a hot wire or burning match. Nor will we get into the earliest cannons. For our purposes let’s start at the matchlock.
The matchlock was the most basic of firearms. To our eyes the stock appears unwieldy and ignition of the simplest method. A serpentine was attached to the lock, controlled by a trigger and held literally a piece of rope that had been nitrated so when it lit it would hopefully stay lit. There was a pan with a cover operated manually. To fire the piece the burning “match” was attached to the serpentine, the pan opened and upon pulling the trigger the serpentine dropped the burning match into the pan. Typical of later flintlocks when the pan ignited the flash passed through a touch hole igniting the main charge firing the piece. Being a smoothbore and lacking a patch accuracy at that time was largely a matter of good fortune.
Development continued with the snaphaunce in Holland and the miquelet in Spain. The theory is that some enterprising individual combined the two and came up with what we know as the flintlock. As with any new technology the flintlock had its teething pains and by the late 1600’s had reached a level of usefulness and dependability that it became the standard for well over a hundred years. I don’t believe there’s any question that the flintlock reached its zenith with the improvements of Joseph Manton in the earliest 1800’s.
About the same time Manton was achieving perfection with the flintlock a Scottish reverend was searching for a means of ignition other than the flintlock that would not forewarn the waterfowl he so loved to hunt. Reverend Alexander Forsyth essentially developed what has become the percussion system most are familiar with. That it was an improvement over the flintlock goes without saying. As with most new things it did not catch on immediately and being a foreign development was not actually much used in this country until the 1820’s then only in the “civilized east”. By the 1830’s it was rapidly replacing the flintlock in the US.
The percussion system of ignition heralded the beginning of the end of the muzzle loading era. It is but a short step from a main charge ignited by a cap to a self-contained cartridge.
We will end this first installment on muzzleloaders at this point. Next time out we will examine more closely the various means of ignition and the development of rifling.