As a child of the ’80s, I grew up hunting with a no-frills, break-action Savage 12-gauge from Kmart. Like many folks, my only exposure to old firearms was in film: Westerns with six-shooters and lever guns, or movies about mountain men with flintlocks.
Flintlock muskets, rifles, and pistols conjure up a very distinct time period, one that’s a great setting for movies. These guns’ presence spans history—from pirates on the high seas with pistols stuffed in their belts to tales of frontiersmen and their adventures in untamed wilderness. Flintlocks were also used by famed American sharpshooters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These marksmen shot some of the first rifles ever made, a crucial tool in achieving independence from Britain in the American Revolution.
So, while there’s no shortage of flintlocks in movies, here are five of the most memorable.
“Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” (1954)
Lots of hunters and muzzleloader fans will name “Jeremiah Johnson” (1976) as the movie that had the most lasting effect on them. Heck, Pat Durkin even named it the greatest hunting movie of all time. But instead of Liver-Eating Johnson, I was obsessed with Davy Crockett.
Fess Parker made the legendary frontiersman from Tennessee famous in the 1950s, along with his flintlock rifle named “Old Betsy.” The extremely popular Disney movies inspired kids across the country to wear coonskin caps and sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” at a time when movies and television were saturated with Westerns.
These Technicolor frontier adventures might seem pretty cheesy by today’s standards, though. There are plenty of on-the-nose morality lessons, corny jokes, and characters occasionally breaking out into song, but they have an undeniable charm. Parker’s portrayal of a soft-spoken frontiersman who lives by the maxim “make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” is endlessly endearing.
I still remember wanting to shoot like Davy. He bested Bigfoot Mason in a Robin Hood-style shooting competition, winning with a flintlock version of Robin Hood’s famous split arrow shot. “Look at that! One bullet right on top of the other!”
Crockett’s real-life Old Betsy rifle was a gun he owned later in life. The .40-caliber flintlock made by James Graham in 1822 was given to him by his constituents in Tennessee for recognition of his service as a U.S. Congressman. Crockett also wasn’t carrying Old Betsy when he died at the Alamo as Disney led us to believe. In 1835, he gave the rifle to his son, one year before the 13-day siege.
Fess Parker’s on-screen gun was a vintage flintlock dating back to the 1820s with the maker’s mark on the lock plate scripted “Jas. Golcher.” It was a Pennsylvania-style double-set trigger rifle with a .40-caliber bore. The stock was curly maple featuring half-moon inlays on the cheekpiece with additional silver inlays.
“The Patriot” (2000)
How do you create an exciting battle scene when everyone is using guns that take 30 seconds to reload? An ambush with a bunch of pre-loaded flintlock rifles stashed in strategic locations, that’s how.
“The Patriot” catches a lot of flak from historians and people who are generally not fans of Mel Gibson. Some think the tomahawk rampage at the end of this particular scene goes too far. However, it’s difficult to deny that this historically relevant, fictional tale features some of the most badass use of flintlock rifles, muskets, and pistols ever put on film. They capture how American militia were so successful using guerilla tactics, and how shooting skills developed into hunting skills. It’s a Revolutionary War action movie, and if you view it with that in mind, it’s a lot of fun.
Benjamin Martin (Gibson) uses a number of Kentucky flintlock rifles throughout the movie. These were custom-made reproductions created for the film by Frank House. He taught Gibson the marksman’s adage, “aim small, miss small.” Gibson liked this so much he worked it into the aforementioned scene’s dialog.
Additionally, several of Martin’s militia members use Charleville 1766 flintlock muskets, and the venerable Brown Bess flintlock musket is accurately seen in the hands of the British Army.
“The Revenant” (2015)
The Hugh Glass Legend is a remarkable survival story. After Glass was mauled by a grizzly, his trapping partners abandoned him and stole his beloved flintlock hunting rifle. His survival tale included setting his own broken leg, using maggots to keep his wounds from festering, and crawling back to Fort Kiowa over the course of six weeks.
“The Revenant” has its critics, and fairly so. For one, the scenery of the movie isn’t at all accurate. Although the real Hugh Glass was mauled on the prairie in South Dakota, the movie was shot in densely timbered regions of Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana.
But before it was even released, “The Revenant” received tons of buzz about Leonardo DiCaprio’s feats of method acting. DiCaprio was eating raw meat, sleeping in real animal carcasses, and filming in freezing temperatures to really get into character. Two bear attack scenes that are solved with flintlocks are probably the most memorable moments in the movie.
Ron Luckenbill made two custom Pennsylvania flintlock rifles used by DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in the movie. He based them on a surviving example of an original rifle from the period made by John Shuler of Bucks County. The production cut the barrels down for easier use on horseback, the way Glass reportedly did. DiCaprio and others also use Brown Bess carbine flintlocks in the movie along with flintlock pistols, which were staggeringly accurate for the time period.
Historically, Glass’ revenge story didn’t play out at all like it did in the movie. By the time he tracked down John Fitzgerald, Glass had joined the U.S. Army. Glass was warned by his captain that if he killed Fitzgerald, he’d be hanged for killing a soldier. However, after hearing Glass’ story, the Army captain ordered Fitzgerald to return the flintlock rifle he’d stolen.
“The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
The hunting scenes with Daniel Day Lewis running full speed through a forest while tracking a deer are absolutely ludicrous. But the dude sure does make flintlocks look cool as hell.
Lewis takes on the role Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe. It is an adaptation of the name, “Natty Bumppo” from James Fenimore Cooper’s historical fiction novel “Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757.” In the book, he was the child of white settlers raised by Delaware Indians. By the time he is caught up in the French and Indian War of 1757, he’s known as Hawkeye by the British and “La Longue Carabine” (The Long Rifle) by the French. This nickname came from his reputation as an exceptionally skilled marksman and hunter with a Pennsylvania long rifle in .40 caliber.
The film features the British using Brown Bess flintlock muskets and the French using Charleville muskets. There are also a number of muskets in the movie meant to represent “trade guns.” These lesser-quality flintlocks were produced to trade with Native Americans during the war and were issued to those allied with the British Army. There’s even a rare depiction of a short flintlock grenade launcher made from a cut-down Brown Bess musket in the hands of a British soldier.
Other than rubber stunt guns, all the firearms in this movie were working flintlocks and hundreds were reportedly destroyed during the film’s production.
“Rob Roy” (1995)
In another example of historical fiction, Liam Neeson stars as Rob Roy MacGregor, a famous Scottish outlaw and folk hero from the 18th century. In the film, he is the chief of a Scottish clan battling unscrupulous local noblemen and landowners.
“Rob Roy” has a unique setting which allowed it to showcase flintlocks you don’t see very often. Many characters, including MacGregor, carry Scottish Christie & Murdoch flintlock pistols. These distinct handguns were status symbols of the time. First produced in the 1740s, the all-steel pistols (yep, even the grip) included a distinguishing scroll or rams-horn butt and fluted barrels that ended in a flared octagonal muzzle. The steel pistols were used in ranks of the Royal Highland Regiments into the 1780s, typically worn hanging from the belt under the left arm.
Flintlocks weren’t all long rifles and pirate pistols. We see Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) use a compact, pocket-sized flintlock as a surprise defensive gun in this movie. The gun is what’s known as a Queen Anne Pistol, a type of flintlock in which the lock plate is forged as one piece with the breech and trigger plate. Interestingly, these were usually a type of breech-loading flintlock known as a turn-off pistol. They became popular under the reign of Anne, Queen of Great Britain, hence the name. Most were made as coat-pocket pistols designed for concealment. The smallest versions were known as muff pistols, because they could be concealed in a woman’s hand warmer.
Again, the British are shown using Brown Bess flintlock muskets, and cavalrymen are correctly shown using shorter carbine versions of the muskets.
We also see Alasdair MacGregor (Brian McCardie) and some of the cattle thieves armed with flintlock fowlers. These were versatile hunting guns with long smoothbore barrels designed to shoot either bird shot for birds and small game, or patched, round musket balls for large game. They were also very popular with hunters in the new world.