Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and…flintlock rifles?
It’s hard to deny the ironic status of the flintlock rifle in American culture. Many Europeans came to the New World chasing the promise of inexhaustible game, and even though that promise proved less-than-realistic, their efforts cemented the flintlock as a permanent feature of American life.
Daniel Boone, for example, used “Old Tick Licker” around Kentucky and the Cumberland Gap. Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” earned the nickname “La Longue Carabine” (“The Long Rifle”) for his skill with a flintlock. And everyone knows that the Pennsylvania rifle played a major role in helping the Americans beat the British in the War for Independence.
The MeatEater crew got the chance to test their skill with a Pennsylvania rifle during the state’s unique flintlock season, and in that episode, they participated in a tradition that goes back to the founding of the United States.
Flash in the Pan If you’re unfamiliar with how a flintlock works, check out Episode 4 of MeatEater Season 10 on Netflix or look up a demonstration online. Basically, instead of the primer, powder, and projectile being contained in a metallic case, the ignition process plays out within the lock and breech of the gun.
Hunters load the powder and ball down the barrel, charge the flash pan, and lock a “cock” holding a piece of flint. When the user pulls the trigger, the cock drops the flint, which strikes the frizzen, and the resulting sparks light the priming powder. The fire from the primer travels through the “touch hole” and lights the main charge, which expels the projectile.
The technology dates all the way back to the 16th century, but the early 19th century marked the “golden age” of the flintlock rifle in America, according to Danny Michael, the associate curator at the firearms museum in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
The prototypical American flintlock rifle was lightweight, reliable, and accurate. It featured a long, slender barrel (well over 30 inches) and a bore between .30 and .45 caliber. Flintlocks were affixed to a variety of muzzle-loading firearms, including pistols and shotguns. But the Pennsylvania rifle was a favorite among hunters, and it was used to take game across the new American wilderness.
As you can imagine, the design was more prone to failure than today’s metallic cartridges. But early American hunters would have known their rifles so intimately that misfires would have been less common than you might expect. Michael said that modern-day flintlock reproductions experience a 20% to 25% failure-to-fire rate, but still-operational 19th century rifles are far more reliable. It’s safe to say that an experienced hunter in 1830 would have expected to fire a projectile with every pull of the trigger.
Pennsylvania rifles were also more accurate than you might expect. Unlike smoothbore guns, rifles were designed to closely match the diameter of the projectile, and bores were rifled to impart stabilizing spin on the ball.
Flintlocks in the Field Early 19th century hunters would have felt comfortable taking anything in the 150-yard range, and Michael said they could reach out as far as 400 yards. Today’s flintlock hunters are usually more conservative: most keep shots in the 50- to 80-yard range.
“Set triggers” also helped hunters achieve a high level of accuracy. Much like today’s products of the same name, set triggers on early 19th century flintlock rifles allowed users to “set” the trigger mechanism by pulling the rear trigger blade. This lightened the other blade to just a few ounces, which helped hunters keep the sights on target when they pulled the trigger.
“When folks talk today about having a clean trigger pull or tuning their trigger, that was a common thing back then as well,” Michael said. “They knew how to make a really light trigger and about its impact on accuracy.”
Flintlocks faded in popularity with the advent of the percussion cap and the metallic self-contained cartridge, but flintlock hunting never went away entirely. Michael told us that Northwest Fur Trade Muskets were still being made as flintlocks as late as the 1860s and 70s, and Civil War surplus flintlocks were being sold into the 1900s. The Cody Firearms Museum has a record of a 1906 order from retail company Montgomery Ward for a crate of 50 Model 1822 muskets.
“There have always been people who kept shooting flintlocks and a handful of gunsmiths that could still build and work on them,” Michael said. “The changes in technology from flintlock to percussion wasn’t immediate, the shift to cartridges happened a little faster, but neither was a complete changeover.”
Modern Muzzle-loading Today, flintlock rifles are more of a novelty item than a serious hunting implement—except in Pennsylvania.
Since 1974, Pennsylvania has offered a flintlock-only deer season, which this year runs from December 27 to January 17. That’s over a week after regular firearm season ends, and it gives Pennsylvanians an opportunity to get back into the deer woods.
Other states offer muzzle-loading seasons, and some states like Montana have special seasons designated for “primitive muzzleloaders” like flintlocks, percussion cap locks, and matchlocks. But only Pennsylvania offers a season for flintlock rifles only. These rifles must be original or reproductions of rifles made before 1800, have open or aperture sights, and be .44 caliber or larger.
Hunters participate in the flintlock season primarily to return to the deer woods with unused tags. Though Sunday hunting will soon be legal, for many years whitetail hunters were limited to only 8 days of archery and rifle hunting if they weren’t able to take a day off from work.
“Growing up in Pennsylvania, my attraction to the season was just the extended opportunity to hunt deer,” said MeatEater’s Seth Morris. “If I still had a tag in my pocket after the rifle season, flintlock gave me a few extra weeks to try and fill the freezer.”
Rick Hutton, another Pennsylvania native and community and content manager for FHF Gear, described a festive sense on flintlock hunts, many of which are deer drives. Coal mines and foundries are often shut down in the days after Christmas, and these hunters gather to test their flintlock skills on big deer pushes.
“A lot of camaraderie would come out of that,” Hutton said.
What Could Go Wrong? Hunters are also attracted to the unique challenges of flintlock hunting. So much can go wrong on a flintlock muzzleloader hunt. Flintlocks are less accurate than modern rifles, and open iron sights are less precise. Maybe this goes without saying, but follow-up shots on the same deer aren’t usually in the cards.
Both Morris and Hutton said that their biggest struggle was keeping flash pan powder dry. The week after Christmas is often wet in Pennsylvania, and humidity can soak the powder even if it’s protected from the snow and the rain.
“More often than not, a deer would come by in range and you would pull the trigger but there would be no boom, or the powder in the pan would go off but it wouldn't ignite the powder in the barrel,” Morris said.
Morris isn’t alone. “Hang fires”—when the rifle fires long after the trigger is pulled—are common whenever conditions are wet.
All of this combines to offer hunters a unique and challenging experience. Flintlock hunting may be far less popular than when it was the only game in town, but if other states follow Pennsylvania’s lead, it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.
If you want to see Steve, Seth, and Rick try their hand at flintlock hunting in Pennsylvania, make sure you check out Season 10, Episode 4 of MeatEater on Netflix.