Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.
The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.
Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”
With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.
The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.
Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.
The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.
Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.
The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.
“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.
At least that was the plan.
With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.
Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.
Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements justified.
The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.
Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.
When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.
Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”
As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.
In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.
Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.