Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Shooting your way out . . . with a flintlock

Hello folks,

A treat for you today.  I've invited an expert in antique firearms to talk about a subject near-and-dear to my heart -- pistol packing spies.

Random armed person of the Eighteenth Century
The problem with carrying dueling pistols and military ordinance in 1789 or in 1811 is that the general run of turn-of-the-Eighteenth-Century weaponry was big.
And heavy.

Not the sort of thing you could comfortably cart around in a purpose-sewn pocket in your jacket or cloak.

Not this small
Recognizing this sad fact, gunsmiths of the time made smaller weapons, intended for sneakier people.

It is those guns that I want to look at today.  So let me introduce my guest, 'Arizona'. 

Jo:  Welcome, Arizona.  We're glad to have you and your expertise with us.  Tell me about sneaky little guns in the era of the French Revolution and Regency.  These would have been ladies' guns?

Arizona:  Yes, they were.  Ladies had some firearms built specifically for them in the 1700's to early 1800's.  They were called "Muff Pistols".  These were small handguns which were easily hidden in a lady's muff, or handwarmer.  They were also small enough to hide within the voluminous clothing women wore in those days.

Jo: Did men carry them?

Arizona:  Though they were called ladies', or muff, pistols, many men carried them as they were considered to be what our small .380's and such are today.

Jo:  I notice men called them 'pocket pistols' when they carried them.  *g*  They weren't like modern guns, right?

Arizona:  These were flintlock pistols.  Percussion caps were designed in 1805, so it would be unlikely an actual percussion firearm would have been immediately available.

You will note, as you consider the various designs below, that firearms don't seem to have changed much since the early 1700's through the early 1800's.  That is true, though the "lines" of the firearms became more elegant and less "blocky". 

A little aside here, what we, today, would consider too large for one's pocket was indeed a "pocket pistol" during the period we are talking about.  Men wore greatcoats which had rather large pockets.  Thus, a pistol we would consider far too large for a pocket today would indeed fit into a man's greatcoat pocket.

Jo:  Can you show us some examples of these small Regency-era pistols?

Arizona: Here's a VERY good description of muff pistols, and the pocket type in particular.
Lady's muff pistol
From the 18th century small concealable pistols for self protection, were manufactured in Europe in large numbers. The picture shows a flintlock example manufactured in 1820 from Birmingham England.

While there were several notable firearms manufacturers, there were far more "cottage industry" gunsmiths who would make pretty much anything you requested.  Almost every medium to large city had several such gunsmiths.  The only comparable situation today is Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, where everything from matchlock firearms to AK-47's are made in home workshops.  Ammunition is made in the same way.

Measuring just over 4 inches (11.8cm) these lightweight guns were intended mainly for women. As they could easily be concealed in a Ladies hand warmer, they gained the name of Muff pistols.

Like many of this type of weapon it is fitted with a sliding safety catch to prevent accidental discharge.

Jo:  Ok.  How does my heroine load her pistol?

Arizona:  The shooter loads the firearm with black powder followed by a round lead ball.

This is usually done from the muzzle end, though, with some muff pistols, you unscrewed the barrel, seated the powder and ball, then screwed the barrel back on.
The ball was normally wrapped with a cloth patch, (though a piece of paper could be used in a pinch).

Once the powder was measured and poured down the barrel and the patched ball placed on the crown of the muzzle, a ramrod was used to force the ball down to the chamber where it was tamped against the powder, creating the charge. 

On larger pistols the ramrod was in it's familiar place under the barrel, for those who have seen "Kentucky Rifles" and other muzzle loaders.  In the case of smaller pistols, such as muff pistols, they generally came in a case, with a small powder flask, some balls, and a ramrod, which was generally kept in the case.

Remember, these were not thought to be used in a battle.  Rather, they were a last ditch self protection instrument, to be used when all else had failed.  You generally wouldn't have time to reload them, thus there was no need to keep the ramrod with the pistol.

Jo:  This took a while, this business of loading a pistol?
A three-barrel flintlock pistol

Arizona: Muzzle loading firearms were extremely slow to reload. Even experts were reported to need 15 seconds to reload a smooth-bore musket, with a much longer reload time for any rifled firearm. 
So some flintlock pistols were produced with anywhere from two, three, or four to as many as 24 barrels.  (The larger capacity firearms were of later manufacturer.) 

This photo and some of the information are from the Flintlock wiki, here.

Jo:  Wow.  Not something to carry around with you like a handkerchief, those bigger guns.

Arizona:  No, they were generally pretty heavy and rather large and bulky.

Most of the flintlock pepperboxes and multi-barrel pistols were of six or fewer barrels.  This was more due to the method of ignition (powder in the pan, which could be easily ignited by sparks from another barrel) than inability to design and build such a handgun. These designs tended to be costly to make and were often unreliable and dangerous.

While weapons like double barreled shotguns were reasonably safe, weapons like the pepperbox revolver would sometimes fire all barrels simultaneously, or would sometimes just explode in the user's hand.

It was therefore often less expensive, safer, and more reliable to carry several single-shot weapons instead.

Jo:  Right.  Carry a couple guns.  This sounds like such excellent advice I will have to have Doyle give it to somebody one of these days.
You have some audio-visuals for us?

Arizona:  The first You-Tube video shows how the flintlock works. Here.

This video shows the loading and firing sequence of a flintlock pistol.  Here.
And this one is an excellent example of loading and firing a flintlock musket through the use of paper cartridges.  Here.

Here to the side is the firing sequence for a flintlock.

Jo:  Let me add some more excitement --
See and hear the action of a frizzen, here
See and hear the action of the hammer here.
See and hear the gun fire here.

And some more interesting firing of period weapons here.

Now, Arizona, you have some pictures of the actual period pistols.

Arizona:  Here is a link to a small(er) double barreled French Flintlock Coat Pistol, ca 1750.  Another link to a French "Greatcoat Pistol" here.  And another small pistol.  Here.  This one shows some of the markings a royal arms dealer would have placed on their wares.  Here.

Jo:  That's beautiful workmanship on those.  And we see how the double barrels work.

I know there are number of folks who want details on the anatomy of a flintlock and the exact firing sequence.  I've put this below the cut . . .

Delve down below the cut and you will learn the origin of phrases like, 'flash in the pan,' and, 'to go off half-cocked'.  When we talk about 'lock, stock, and barrel', the 'lock' is the flintlock.
Cool, huh?

You will also become acquainted with the word 'frizzen' -  which is not the past perfect of an unfortunate day at the hairdressers.

Photos and basic information can be found at How Stuff Works.

See the front and back of a flintlock mechanism, with all the parts labeled.

The main parts of a flintlock are:

    * The hammer.  This holds a piece of flint via a small screw type vise.
    * The mainspring.  Though small, this powers the hammer.
    * The frizzen.  This is a piece of steel which is struck by the flint to produce the sparks needed to ignite the powder in the pan.
    * The pan.  This is the receptacle where a small amount of fine (what is termed fffg) gunpowder is placed prior to firing to receive the sparks to ignite the charge inside the chamber itself.

These four pieces are all that the flintlock actually needs to accomplish its goal, but all flintlocks also solve the problems of loading the pan, protecting the pan from the weather and triggering the hammer, so there are three additional parts:

    * The tumbler.  This holds and releases the power of the mainspring, allowing the hammer to do it's job.
    * The sear and sear spring.  These engage the tumbler and allow the shooter to release it when the trigger is pulled.
    * The frizzen spring.  This part holds the cover attached to the frizzen over the pan to make the flintlock weatherproof.  Some earlier flintlocks didn't have the frizzen spring and cover attached to the frizzen.  They made the flintlock only slightly more reliable than the matchlock.  It was the addition of the cover to the frizzen which made the flintlock a true all weather firearm.

Though it appears to be a simple piece of metal which has been bent into a narrow V-shape, the mainspring has a great deal of strength.  It presses against the tumbler where, upon "tripping the trigger", it rotates the hammer with a great deal of force.

This is what allows the hammer and flint to strike the frizzen with enough force to create the sparks needed to ignite the powder in the pan (anyone remember the term "flash in the pan"?  It means there were enough sparks to ignite the powder in the pan, but not enough powder/sparks/heat to allow the fire from the flash to travel through the vent, or touch hole, to ignite the powder in the chamber). The sear engages the tumbler when the gun is cocked and holds the force of the mainspring. When you pull the trigger, it pushes the sear, which then releases the tumbler allowing the hammer to strike the frizzen with the flint.
When you work with a flintlock and watch a flintlock in action you can see how all of these pieces work together. A flintlock has three positions for the hammer: uncocked, half-cocked and fully cocked.
The fully cocked position places the firearm in a ready to fire condition. By pulling the trigger the sear releases the tumbler.
The half-cocked position is used for loading the firearm. In this position the trigger is locked and cannot be tripped.
The firearm is in the un-cocked position after you fire.
The following images show you these three positions from both sides of the lock, which allows you to understand how the sear and tumbler work together:

The flintlock in the uncocked position here.

And the back of the flintlock in the uncocked position here.
Note how the shape of the tumbler locks the half-cocked position:

The flintlock in the half-cocked position here.

The back of the flintlock in the half-cocked position here.

The flintlock in the fully cocked position here.

The back of the flintlock in the fully cocked position here.

The frizzen at the flint's point of impact here.

In addition, the frizzen has the ability to move. In the cocked position the frizzen is down, covering the pan. When the flint strikes it, the frizzen pops out of the way to expose the pan. The frizzen spring holds the frizzen in both positions.

Operating a Flintlock:
To use a flintlock, you follow these steps:

    * Half-cock the hammer, where the sear falls into a safety notch on the tumbler, preventing an accidental discharge.
    * Pour a measure of gunpowder down the barrel.
    * Wrap a lead ball (the bullet) in a small piece of cloth or paper and ram it down the barrel on top of the gunpowder. The bullet/cloth combination will have a nice, tight fit.
    * Place a small amount of gunpowder in the flintlock's pan.
    * Snap the frizzen in place over the pan.
    * Fully cock the hammer.
    * Pull the trigger to fire the gun.

When you fire the gun, the flint strikes the frizzen and shaves off iron to create sparks. The hammer's blow also snaps the frizzen back to expose the gunpowder in the pan. The pan's gunpowder ignites, and it flashes through a small hole (the vent or touch hole) in the side of the barrel to ignite the gunpowder inside the barrel. The gun fires!
Once loaded and primed the gun is in a "primed and ready" state, and this is how it would typically be carried while hunting or if going into battle.
To fire:

    * The cock is further rotated from half-cock to full-cock, releasing the safety lock on the cock.
    * The gun is aimed and the trigger is pulled, releasing the cock holding the flint.
    * The flint strikes the frizzen, a piece of steel on the priming pan lid, opening it and exposing the priming powder.
    * The contact between flint and frizzen produces a shower of sparks that is directed into the gunpowder in the flashpan.
    * The powder ignites, and the flash passes through a small hole in the barrel (called a vent or touchhole) that leads to the combustion chamber where it ignites the main powder charge, and the gun discharges.

The British army used paper cartridges to load their weapons. The powder charge and ball were instantly available to the soldier inside this small paper envelope. To load a flintlock weapon using a paper cartridge, a soldier would

    * move the cock to the half-cock position;
    * tear the cartridge open with his teeth;
    * pour a small amount of powder into the flashpan;
    * close the frizzen to keep the priming charge in the pan;
    * pour the rest of the powder in the cartridge down the muzzle and stuffed the cartridge in after it;
    * take out his ramrod and ram the ball (still in the cartridge) all the way to the breech;
    * replace the ramrod; and
    * shoulder the weapon.

Now he is ready to place the weapon on full cock and fire on command.
[link to the utube here.  It is also placed above the cut]

Jo:  I am now anxious to go have my characters shoot somebody.

Thank you so much, Arizona.  You have contributed to much lethal Regency fun.
(cue for a big round of applause.)

all material contributed to this post remains the copyright of the contributor, not Jo Bourne's


  1. Wow! Super informative and interesting post. I can't wait to read about your characters shooting each other. lol

  2. It's official. I'm broken. A wonderful, informative post and I couldn't stop giggling every time I saw "muff pistol."

  3. Hi Sandy --

    I am going to admit that my characters mostly don't tote guns around. Period pistolry was unreliable and fiercely noisy.

    Doyle carries a gun. Justine does. Grey does when he's working -- he's a really good shot -- but they keep him trapped behind a desk a lot of the time.

    Useful as guns were for armies, I don't see my spies falling in love with them till percussion pistols became common.

  4. Hi LL --

    "Muff pistol" in Not My Fault. That's what they were CALLED.

    *jo sulks at the unkindness of linguistic history*

    If I can get through an entire post on 'pistols' without inadvertantly saying something much worse than 'muff pistol' I will count myself lucky.

    It's a minefield out there.

    (Did you know they had mines in 1800?)

  5. Jo and Arizona, thank you for this fascinating post. I'll have to watch the videos, as even C18th technology poses huge challenges for me. I need visual aids. Tumblers? And I've now said everything I can say about this post without descending into adolescent humor.

  6. Hi Annie --

    For some reason the whole topic of . . . pistols brings out the worst in writerly types.

    Yes. The visual aids on this are first rate for anyone who needs to figure out how a flintlock works.

    And that firing sequence up above -- we just don't REALIZE how much smoke this all generated.

    (jo, thinking, in a vice versa fashion, 'where there's firing, there's smoke.'

  7. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Believe it or not, Jo, that was one reason many continued to pursue archery for many years, as well as carrying a blade. Another reason was the attitude amongst the gentry that firearms were the tools of rapscallions and lower class, while the blade was the tool of the upper class. This is why officers often carried only a sword into battle rather than a firelock (another name for a flintlock firearm).

    As to terminology, there are many terms which had vastly different meanings then as compared to today. For example a WW-II British soldier asking for a "Fag" would be asking for a cigarette. An individual in the era y'all are talking about, when asking for a "Fag" or "Faggot" would be asking for a burning coal or ember.


  8. Anonymous10:41 PM

    I think fag still means a cigarette in England today. And "knock up the postmistress" means something different there too....

  9. Hi Arizona --

    If the officers were on horseback, I'd think they'd have trouble dealing with a flintlock rifle or musket. Don't know quite how you'd reload.

    But they had saddle pistols all along. Big ole things suitable for pointing and calling out, "Stand and deliver." If I were an officer I would have carried one of them even if it did mean I was a rapscallion.

    The sword duel was very much the province of the upperclass in Europe, as opposed to the Old West where blowing your opponent to Kingdom Come was a more democratic institution. I'm a great believer in democratic institutions.

    It is said that in the House of Commons the gap between the Government and Opposition benches is four meters wide -- two swords' distance.

  10. Anonymous11:19 PM

    Actually, Jo, that is why Dragoons were not considered to be cavalry. They were actually considered to be mounted infantry. They would ride into the battle and then dismount to fight like infantry. The only real difference was they were trained in the use of sabers, while infantry weren't-they had bayonets instead.

    Men on horseback normally had several "horse" pistols. Some had as many as 6 secreted about their horse, along with their sword.

    *chuckling* Like yourself, I too believe in democratic institutions. Or, as they used to say in the old west, "God created men, Samuel Colt made them equal."


  11. Hi Arizona --

    Horse pistols in the Regency Period and Napoleonic Wars. Yes.

    Many of our fictional military types would have been officers. (Though there's Sean Bean, of course.) In civilian life, there won't be so much opportunity for the hero to demonstrate his prowess with a saber. (We're talking military armament here, folks. cough.) But he might find use for a pistol.

    I've never researched this, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume officers would sometimes have owned these horse pistols they carried into battle.

    I believe the army and navy issued official pistols to officers. Yes. But sometimes -- I'm theorizing without data here -- the officer's weapon would have been private property he commissioned himself from a gunsmith in London.

    It occurs to me that such private weapons would have been expensive, individual, distinctive. Maybe engraved with a name or initials. And they'd be prizes of war.

    Now, a sensible man in 1817 might have no no reason to own dueling pistols. The chance he'd ever fight a duel out on Doctor's Common was kinda limited. By 1800 it was not only illegal. It was, (gasp,) unfashionable.

    But a man might well keep his horse pistols from the army. He might even carry them, ready for use, when travelling.

    I can see my spies owning and carrying horse pistols when they had the opportunity.

  12. Anonymous12:04 AM

    It was common practice in the British army for officers to provide their own livery. This included their sidearms, rifles/muskets, and "blades". Usually, a sword was presented to an officer by someone special in his life or profession, a mentor, father or other relative who had been a member of the same unit the newly commissioned officer was being assigned to. Though the movies I am mentioning are a bit beyond your era of interest, they are still a good background for what was expected of a British officer. They are:

    "The Four Feathers" (2002: Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Starring Wes Bentley, James Cosmo, Djimon Hounsou.) and (1939: Directed by Zoltan Korda. With John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith.)


    "Zulu!" (1964: Directed by Cy Endfield. Starring Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins.)


  13. Anonymous12:06 AM

    I just realized I didn't fully answer your comment/question. Yes, they would have been engraved and often were rather expensive. Of course, remember, most firearms of the time were handcrafted. Not the mass production articles we see today.


  14. Hi Arizona --

    Thank you so much for the movie references. If I recall correctly they're good sources for expected behavior among the officers as well as armament.

    Thanks also for the confirmation that an army officer would have bought and owned his own pistols.

    I don't know how I could use this, exactly. But it's nice to know if I have an ex-officer, he's got a reason to own the gun he might have use for.

  15. Anonymous10:10 PM

    Something else which will probably shock most of y'all...This was a part of British common law called "Hue and Cry". What that meant was, when a crime was committed, whoever saw it, or was the victim, would set up the "hue and cry". Every able bodied male was expected to join in with the chase. The British constabulary, or Bobbies, or Peelers (so named after Sir Robert Peel, considered the father of modern police science) were armed in some locales, and unarmed in others. The British citizenry was actually expected to be able to take care of themselves, AND to join in the chase with personally owned firearms. There are recorded instances of an unarmed Bobby borrowing a sidearm from a citizen in order to arrest a dangerous criminal.


  16. Hi Arizona --

    Peelers would be a bit after the Regency. Those were indeed Robert Peel's boys, and established by the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.

    But that came later.

    So, who were the Regency police?

    Police enforcement was a bit of a grab bag, what with different groups each doing their own thing.

    (London was not like Paris that had professional police from the Eighteenth Century onwards.)

    In London, what you had --

    Well, you had watchmen. From the mid Eighteenth Century, the Watch Acts allowed individual parishes to hire paid watchmen to patrol the streets. In addition -- this was after folks got nervous because of the Gordon Riots -- the City of London created city-wide patrols.
    And some of the wealthier neighborhoods hired their own private watchmen in addition.

    The parish watchmen were supervised by constables.
    Constables are complicated. Just don't ask about constables, okay?

    Or if you're really interested in constables and their sidekicks, the beadles, see


    which is good to see anyway because the whole site is interesting.

    Anyhow . . who else?
    We don't hear much about them in Regency Romances, maybe because they lack a properly heroic name, but the most effective force of the Regency may have been the Thames River Police, (West India Merchants Company Marine Police). They were founded in 1798 -- 50 of them, increased to 88 in 1800. These guys were well trained and armed.
    And they had BOATS.
    They got folded into the London police with the Metropolitan Police Act.

    The reason the Thames River Police don't show up on the Regency Romance radar is they were out there protecting shipping on the Thames. Our heroes and heroines do not encounter them unless they are (a) shippers or (b) marine thieves. Or, y'know, (c) drowning or something.

    Not everyone has a heroine who runs a shipping company.

    What we DO hear about are the Bow Street Runners.

    Thief takers -- folks who locate stolen merchandise and probably even the thief who stole it . . . for a fee -- had been around for a good long time. Remember Peachum in Beggar's Opera (1728)?

    What made the Bow Street Runners different was they weren't freelance. They were supervised by the Bow Street Magistrate's Office. In 1749 this was pretty close to being 'real' police.

    [DIGRESSION} When I worked in London, I sometimes had dealings with the Magistrate's Court in Bow Street that grew out of the old Bow Street Court. Cool Huh?
    It was up the street from where Fielding held court, though. Not the same building. [/DIGRESSION]

    Henry Fielding -- yes, The 'Tom Jones' Henry Fielding -- was the magistrate who set up the Bow Street Runners with 'eight reliable constables'. By 1791, this had become 88 mounted and foot patrol officers.

    Those early Runners . . they were called, 'Mr. Fielding's People'.
    I love that.

  17. Christine10:42 AM

    Jo Bourne said "(London was not like Paris that had professional police from the Eighteenth Century onwards.)"

    Actually it was a little earlier than that, 1667 with Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie as the first Lieutenant Chief of Police.

    ( I will confess I only know this because he plays a large supporting role in one of my favorite book "The Oracle Glass" by Judith Merkle Riley)

    I will also confess that I tend to think of La Reynie's police as more Gestapo/KGB like rather than the Bow Street Runner type in England.

    Perhaps this is just a prejudice of mine

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Hi Christine --

    You are entirely correct. The foundation of the Police, and Secret Police, predates C18.

    I never researched it earlier than about 1750. This is one of those, "I only need to know what's happening in the NOW of the story," thingums. The ins and outs of the Police of Paris during the Revolution, Directory, Consulate, and Empire is sufficient to keep my mind quite occupied, thank you.

    You're right in equating the French Secret Police with internal control groups like the savak or the chekists. The monarchies of Europe tended to have secret police, not to watch other spies so much as to keep an eye on radical and reformist elements in their own population.

    France, having one or another cabal of such radical elements in charge of the place during the 1790s, got to keep an eye on both the radicals AND the Royalists.

    The Municipal Police in Paris in the 1790 to 1815 time frame had a couple of parts, though. The largest group were true police. In a very non-political and straightforward way, they fought crime and kept order and handled municipal services. Very 'police like'.

    It was a different, separate group that did internal security and set spies listening to everyday conversations and generated reams of reports still in the files.

    Interestingly enough, the same man was in charge of both sorts of police. For most of my period of interest, that was Fouche.

    Your assumption that a police force would be set to curtail the freedoms of the population is one shared by the average Englishman of my period.

  20. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Joanna Bourne wrote: "Your assumption that a police force would be set to curtail the freedoms of the population is one shared by the average Englishman of my period."
    In fact, that was a common attitude shared by the average British subject. That is why it took so long to have a formal police force, and why the police were unarmed in the beginning. This attitude was one of those shared with the colonies, though not to as great an extent.

    I have to admit I had forgotten about the Thames River police and the Bow Street Runners (part of my initial police academy training on the history of law enforcement in the West.)


  21. Anonymous1:03 PM

    A fascinating discussion-- including digressions.
    We had a member of the Thames River Police join one of the on-line classes. The Thames police have a museum and some old cases.
    Though the Bow Street Police Magistrate and Runners did some good work at the time, Bow Street wasn't the only police office nor the magistrate there the only magistrate. Bow Street didn't automatically handle all crime in Mayfair, and definitely not in the City of London.
    I prefer duels with swords to pistols. I see nothing romantic in one man deliberately shooting another. At least with swords some element of skill is necessary. However, what does boggle the mind is that people were still thinking duels solved anything in 1800.

  22. Thank you for a fantastic and detailed set of instructions. This fits with my research and added detail I didn't know. Thank you!!!

  23. I'm so glad this was useful to you.

    What surprised me was all that cloud of smoke in the air. Not only visibility problems, but if you were being sneaky and hiding, it would give away your position ISTM.

    I did a lot of this research for the scene in Spymaster's Lady where the French agents shoot into the windows of Meeks Street.

  24. A lot of misinformation in this post! The cock held the gun flint. The hammer is what the flint struck to create sparks. Frizzen is a modern term.
    Smoothbores were loaded using wads or wadding, round balls were NOT patched in the 18th century, & the ball was a close fit to the bore. If you did decide to try & use a patch or patch material then the ball would not fit down the barrel, you would need to use an undersized ball.
    Pistols were for self defence, military carried pistols on horseback in bucket holsters. All pistols had a ramrod, though some dueling pistols may not have the ramrod attached, but all self defence & military pistols did have carry their ramrod. That includes pocket pistols other than screw barrels.
    There is also a device known as a hammer cap which is a leather stall which fits over the hammer. This is a safety device. If the trigger should accidently be pulled, or if the cock was released from the half cock position, the flint would strike the leather hammer cap instead of the hammer face & the gun would not fire.
    Good luck with your writing, contact me if you need any help.
    Regards, Keith.