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On Cap Poppers and Flintskinners

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On Cap Poppers and Flintskinners
Phil Jose

If by the title of this article you think that it's going to be about miserly gang members, then read on, you need all the help you can get. What it refers to are the two major types of muzzleloading firearms you'll be handling.

I'm going to be giving you a lot to think about here. And think carefully-- your gun is going to be the single biggest purchase you make for this hobby. If you're an experienced "smokepole" (muzzleloader) shooter, great. Your main concern will be fitting something appropraite to your persona. If this is your first adventure into black powder shooting, then you're going to have some extra work ahead of you. Not only are you going to be using what's outlined here to start your own research, you should also start talking to every experienced black powder shooter you know. The more insight and experience you can draw on, the better.

Also remember that it's not mandatory to attend rendezvous with a gun. If you don't have the money or experience to pick one up for the time being, or if you're just not interested in shooting right now, that's fine. It's something you can always come back to.

Ladies, you're not getting out of anything here. Some of the most ardent shooters I know are of the female persausion. Be prepared to strike a blow against stereotypes and give black powder shooting a try. Also consider that depending on your persona's station on life, a gun is another tool to learn how to properly use.

That being said, let's go on to the very basics:

They're called "black powder" firearms because of the type of gunpowder they use. It's an old and hellacious blend of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter. It's old but effective-- be prepared to use as much caution and common sense around it as you would around any other form of explosive.

They're also called "muzzleloaders" because of the way they're loaded. These guns were around before the self-contained cartridge was invented. In order to load a round, you must pour a measured amount of gunpowder down the "muzzle" (front end) of the barrel, and then the projectile.

The types of muzzleloaders that you will be getting familiar with can be broken down into two major categories: flintlock and percussion. These terms refer to the method by which the powder is ignited. The flintlock uses a piece of filnt striking a piece of steel (the "frizzen") to ignite a small charge of powder on the outside of the gun. The "flash" that results travels through the "touchhole" (small hole bored on the side of the barrel), causing the powder inside the barrel to ignite. The percussion lock uses a small cap with the inside top treated with a combustable compound. The "hammer" of the lock falls onto the cap. The sudden compression causes the compound to throw a small flame onto the powder charge in the barrel, igniting it.

Don't be too overwhelmed by all this. We'll go into terms and the parts that make up a smopkepole step-by-step as needed. Right now, just keep in mind that flintlocks predate percussion.

Now let's increase the RPM at which your head is spinning. To complicate matter, black powder firearms can further be broken down, depending on what kind of barrel is used. The two categories here are rifle and smoothbore.

"Rifled" means that there are grooves cut on the inside of the barrel in a long twisting pattern down its length. This puts a spin on the bullet as it leaves the barrel, giving it better accuracy. The "wall" (thickness of the side) of a rifled barrel is usually thicker than a smoothbore, and is often octagonal. "Smoothbore" means that the barrel does not have rifling grooves on the inside.

Which barrel goes with which lock? Let's just stick to broad generalities. With flintlocks, almost any military firearm, or any F&I Era gun at all should have a smoothbore barrel. The later you go into the eighteenth century, the more acceptable a rifled barrel is for civilian flintlocks. "Caplocks" (percussion guns) will almost always have rifled barrels, unless you want a shotgun.

Be prepared to do a lot of further research. What's going to finally determine the appropriate kind of firearm is the same thing I've been preaching incessantly-- your persona. A French Marine wouldn't know about the Hawken plains rifle; it was seventy years in his future. A poor man on the Ohio frontier probably wouldn't carry anything fabulously ornate. Remember, of all the mistakes you can make from improperly matching possessions to persona, this will be your costliest.

That was the fun stuff. Let's talk briefly about the not-so-fun stuff: prices. With a little luck and scrounging, your might get by with dropping a couple hundred dollars for a used, mass-produced gun. The numbers go up to a thousand plus for a one-of- a-kind, incredibly ornate Kentucky rifle made by an honest-to-pete gunsmith. Right now, consider the high end of the price range out of your league. What you're looking for now is a "shooter"-- a gun that's not too pretty, perhaps not too authentic, but is safe to shoot and is allowed in the matches you'll be attending.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of "accouterments" (accessories needed for shooting) that go along with that first smokepole. The list includes the proper gunpowder (they come in different grades based on fineness), priming powder if you're shooting a "flinter" (flintlock), a powder horn to put your powder in, a priming horn for the priming powder, a powder measure, a ball starter, patch material, patch knife, lead balls, a pouch to put everything in, and a cleaning kit for later. Don't worry too much about the terms I've just thrown at you; there's a short glossary at the end of this article.

When you've done your research and are ready to go looking for that first shooter, follow this one piece of advice if at all possible: Have an experienced buddy go along with you. You can pick up general advice from reading, but for the actual purchase there's nothing that can take the place of a once-over of the gun by someone who knows what he's doing. You'll also be getting input as to whether the gun is in shootable condition, and if the asking price is fair.

Of all the resources available to help you find your gun, I've found the best one has been good old fashioned networking. Start putting the word out that you're ready to buy. A lot of times there's going to be a friend or a friend of a friend that has one he wants to get rid of for a reasonable price. If folks know you're looking and they see something at a black powder shop when you're not with them, you may get a phone call that will connect you with your first shooter. Just be sure to let everyone know what you're looking for (flint vs percussion, smoothbore vs rifle) and an upper price range.

Do you have any black powder shops in your area? Find out from the people in your gun club or check the phone book, and be prepared to have a new hangout. Usually they carry lines from major manufacturers as well as taking in consignment pieces. Check those out, you might find a good buy. Black powder shops also will have most of those accouterments that you're going to need.

As well as keeping your eyes open at rendezvous, there's another type of event where you're likely to see some smokepoles for sale: the trade show. Usually, they're billed as "mountain man" or "black powder" trade shows. They're annual events on specific weekends, just like rendezvous, only indoors. You'll find a lot of period-proper goodies for sale or trade, and also a lot of soon-to-be familiar faces.

If you're brand new to black powder, I'd prefer you do your gun shopping in one of the above ways. You'll learn a lot about guns with an experienced buddy and the hands-on approach. However there's another option. Federal regulations concerning the interstate sale of firearms do not pertain to muzzleloaders (yet). That means that anyone is allowed to buy smokepoles through mail order. Some places to consider are:

Dixie Gun Works (800-238-6785, www.dixiegun.com/). Dixie has a line of black powder firearms for any era these articles cover, from many different manufacturers. If nothing else, be sure to get their catalog. It has all sorts of information in it that just may come in handy.

Navy Arms (201-945-2500, www.navyarms.com/index.html).

Lyman (800-22LYMAN, www.lymanproducts.com/firearm.html).

Thompson-Center (603-332-2333, www.tcarmscom/index.html). These folks make some fine black powder firearms, but they have have also made some modern-day improvements to them that could give you authenticity problems. However, their Hawken gun is a classic.

As you were looking through your mail order information, you may have noticed another alternative to paying full price. Just about every major manufacturer of black powder guns offer them in a kit form. Is one for you? Think long and hard about it. If your home includes a basementful of tools, and you've had some projects under your belt, and have a buddy who's willing to bail you out of the mystifying spots, then consider putting a kit together. Otherwise, the frustration you'll encounter isn't worth the money you'll save.

There will come a day when you will gaze at that sentimental favorite, that first black powder firearm, and remember with acute fondness all the wonderful times you've had together. Then you'll say, "Yecch! I'm embarrassed to be seen with this thing! What do I do now?!" Don't panic. That's the time when you use the time-honored 'skinner tactic of trading up. Having both cash and a gun that you're willing to get rid of is a good way to get that second gun. (I've yet to meet a 'skinner worth his mocs that wouldn't rather work a trade than make a straight cash transaction, anyway.) If you don't mind being unarmed for a while, keep in mind that somewhere there's a flatlander/pilgrim wannabe that one day just might have the cash and is willing to do you the favor of taking that old shooter off your hands. Combine that cash with what you've been putting away and that second, nicer smokepole is that much closer.

It's time to wrap up this article. You'll notice I've deliberately not touched on an important subject, namely how to shoot the durn things. I've chosen to stop here because the proper (i.e., "safe") handling of blackpowder firearms is worthy of an article all its own.

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.

As promised, here's a glossary of some handy black powder terms:

Accoutrements- The large pile of accessories that you'll need along with your gun in order to shoot it.

Ball starter- A wooden gadget used to help the ball start down the first 6 inches of the barrel.

Barrel- The part of the gun that holds the main powder charge and the projectile.

Black powder- The explosive used to shoot a muzzleloading firearm.

Breech- The rear of a gun barrel.

Calibre- The inside diameter of a barrel, expressed as hundredths of and inch. (Example: 75 calibre= .75 inch = 3/4 inch diameter.)

Cap popper- A percussion firearm.

Caplock- Another term for percussion.

Flash- The small and anticipated fire caused when the priming powder ignites on a flintlock.

Flinter- A flintlock firearm.

Flintlock- 1. A gunlock that uses flint and steel to ignite the powder charge. 2. Any gun using a flintlock.

Flintskinner- A flintlock firearm.

Frizzen- The steel piece on a flintlock that the flint strikes in order to make sparks.

Gauge- The inside diameter of a shotgun barrel. (Sometimes smoothbores are expressed in gauge.) The larger the mumber of the gauge, the smaller the diameter of the barrel.

Hammer- The part of the lock that provides the force to ignite the priming.

Lock- The mechanism of a gun that actually causes the gun to fire.

Muzzle- The front of a gun barrel.

Muzzleloader- Any firearm that loads at the muzzle.

Patch knife- A small knife used to cut off excess patch material.

Patch material- Cotton material or pillow ticking used between powder charge and ball.

Percussion- Any gun using a percussion lock.

Percussion cap- The small cap that holds the priming charge on percussion lock guns.

Percussion lock- A gun that uses a percussion cap as the ignition source.

Powder horn- A section of cowhorn used to carry gunpowder.

Powder measure- A device used to measure the proper amount of gunpowder for each round fired. They're usually either brass or a hollowed out antler tip.

Primer horn- A smaller version of a powder horn, used to carry priming powder.

Priming powder- A very fine gunpowder used in flintlocks to ignite the main powder charge.

Ramrod- A wooden or metal rod used to seat the ball onto the powder charge.

Rifle- A gun the has a barrel with rifling grooves cut on the inside of the barrel.

Shooter- A gun safe enough to shoot, but of low value.

Shooting pouch- Leather pouch used to carry shooting accoutrements.

Smokepole- A black powder firearm.

Smoothbore- A gun that has an unrifled barrel.

Stock- The wooden part of the gun that the lock and barrel attach to.

Touchhole- The small hole on the side of a flintlock's barrel that conducts the flame caused by igniting the priming powder to the main powder charge.

Wall- The side of a gun barrel.

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.


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