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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Flintlocks in the American Civil War

This is a sketch of a flintlock musket, the height of weapons technology in the late 18th century. When the trigger was pulled, the lock snapped down, bringing a piece of flint against a plate of steel. This made sparks fly into a pan filled with gunpowder. A hole between the pan and the inside of the barrel set off a larger charge of powder that shot the bullet out the barrel.

By 1861, the flintlock was old tech. All modern armies used the percussion cap, an explosive cap struck by a hammer that replaced the unwieldy and often unreliable flint and pan. The problem was, many people hadn't caught up. Underfunded local militias, who hadn't heard a shot fired in anger in a generation, often still carried flintlocks. Many rural farmers also had flintlocks as family heirlooms. Modern guns were pricey and the flintlock was still good enough for hunting.

But not good enough for the modern battlefield. Armies on both sides scrambled to supply enough percussion lock rifles for their troops. The industrial North soon had this sorted out, and government contractors got rich selling modern weapons or refitting flintlocks into percussion locks.

The South, however, lagged behind. Many regiments required individuals to bring their own guns and were thus a motley collection of flintlocks, shotguns, and percussion rifles scrounged from dead Yankees.

An account of the 1861 Battle of Lexington, Missouri tells how one old farmer approached the Union fortification every morning with a flintlock and a lunch his wife had packed him. He'd sit behind a tree and take potshots at the Union troops all morning, take a break for lunch, then fire at them all afternoon before going home to his wife. He doesn't appear to have hit anyone!

Even more primitive weapons appeared on the battlefield. Check out my post on Medieval weapons in the Civil War.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I had to chuckle about the farmer taking shots at the Union troops, breaks for lunch, but never hitting anyone. Sounds like he's as good a shot as I am, lol!

    A-Z participant blogging from Elise Fallson

  2. My great grandfather traded his flintlock rifle for a piece of property. He used it in the civil war. As he turned to walk away, he was shot and killed by his own rifle. They were pretty accurate at close range.

  3. My father had a gorgeous antique flintlock hanging over the mantle-piece. I loved the story about the old man; that's just a hoot!
    Great post! :-)

  4. "To do today:

    Hide behind tree.
    Shoot rebels.
    Eat lunch.
    Shoot more rebels."

    Ha ha ha


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