Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Is That a Flintlock in Your Pocket or...

I'm kind of a gun nut. Not like Mr. Howard in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" though. (Remember him? The marine Sergeant that shot Dr. Maturin while trying to take down an albatross on the deck of the moving frigate? Yeah, that guy. Never happened in the books, let me tell you.) No, I like the history of the gun and what it has accomplished for (or against) civilization over the course of its 650 plus year genealogy. So it follows that I have a keen interest in what firearms have meant to pirates and privateers.

In the 16th century the flintlock pistol was developed in Europe, making obsolete the matchlock pistol which required clumsy slow match to ignite the black powder and thereby shoot the ball. Flintlocks were used pretty much around the world until the end of the 19th century. Even such massive movers of technology as the Napoleonic and American Civil wars didn't much change the humble flintlock, and with good reason. Though expensive, flintlocks were light, accurate and easy to shoot with one hand. A man could master shooting a flintlock pistol far more quickly than he could master swordsmanship and, in fact, the flintlock became a bone of cultural contention for just that reason, particularly in the New World. Latin men prided themselves on their ability with the sword and looked down on Teutons and Saxons for their insistence on "crude duels" with pistols. The way pistols killed more readily than dueling swords such as epees and rapiers was considered inelegant, and really what is more cultivated than fighting with some guy you just met because he looked at your girlfriend funny?

Flintlocks as a general rule had a range from three to four yards, depending on their length. They were made with either a long (about twelve inches) or short (about nine) smooth-bore barrel. A flintlock weighed in at no more than six pounds and was rarely longer than eighteen inches. This was a weapon not only for men but for women, requiring only a steady hand, a keen eye and a familiarity with the pistol that would allow the shooter to correct for pull.

Pirates and privateers loved the holy living heck out of good flintlocks and a prize that had small arms aboard was a coveted catch. In fact, among pirates in particular, a man who distinguished himself in the taking of a prize might be given first choice of the captured flintlocks as a reward for his fine work. Thankee Cap'n Roberts. I'll name 'er after you!

Obviously, there were issues. The salt air and threat of dampness could destroy an uncared for flintlock. Wet powder was an unfortunately frequent occurrence, too, and the smart sailor kept his piece well oiled and his powder dry by husbanding his own supply. Still good advice if you ask me. Since the flintlock was made ready for use with the same basic principle as preparing a cannon - but without the hindrance of slow match - it was not uncommon for savvy sailors to wait until action was close at hand to load their personal arms. The flint was the key and the best flint, even today, comes from England and Germany. A good flint in a well maintained pistol could last through fifty firings before it would need to be changed. Pretty progressive coming off the fuse technology on the matchlock that had to be replaced and lit before each discharge.

But how to carry your precious sidearm? I'm glad you asked. Of course there was the classic stuff it in your belt and hope it doesn't go off in your pants (more on that in a minute) but pirates tended to be style mavens and sporting a gun was no exception. The simple - and fashion forward - solution was to tie two pistols to either end of a silk ribbon and drape the whole thing around your neck. Think of the possibilities for contrasting colors and textures! I'm gonna go ahead and speculate that the ladies favored this one whenever possible.

Another option, which has a far more Errol Flynn ring to it, was the baldric. This was a wide band of leather that encircled the body, falling from one shoulder to the opposite hip. There was a loop for holding a sword in its sheath at the hip and holsters could be sewn onto the front panel to hold one or more pistols. Some pirates - like Blackbeard - wore two baldrics crossed over their body with pistols on both, making shooting one after another easy. Once the pistol or pistols were spent their butts could be used as cudgels which earned them the moniker "skull crusher". Whatever gets the job done in close combat, Brethren.

Finally, pirates were notorious for wandering around aboard ship or on land with their loaded pistols in what might ironically be called the "safety" position. A flintlock had two positions for the lock-cock which would eventually strike the flint and cause the spark that would fire the weapon. Two notches back on the lock-cock and the pistol was ready to fire. Only one notch back - "half-cocked" - and the pistol was on "safety". You can see where this is going, can't you? Yep. A jostle by your buddy's annoying pet monkey and your piece goes off half-cocked. Then no amount of protestation that "this never happens to me" is going to replace your unfortunate toe. Or the monkey's hand. Or your friend's eye. And that's where we get that expression that always raises a snicker from a middle school social studies class. Always.
So be careful out there Brethren. Prime and cock only when action is imminent. You (and that monkey) will be glad you did!


Timmy! said...

Very funny post, Pauline. The "half-cocked" thing would have been a good one for "Sailor Mouth Saturday"... Not to quibble with you on your history, since you are far more knowledgable than I on such matters, but I believe that Samuel Colt patented the revolver in the 1830's and by the 1850's Colt and others were producing them en masse. I'm pretty sure that by the Civil War era, the revolver had replaced the flintlock as the handgun of choice for most folks, but maybe not for pirates? The US Navy had their own revolver, the 1851 Colt navy model, which was actually produced from 1850 until 1876 according to these links:

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy, and thankee. You're right, of course. The "gun the won the West" was a revolver - whether Colt or Winchester, take your pick. In many parts of the world, though, the expense of a repeating gun was staggering, and flintlocks were still limping along (not much changed from their heyday in the 1700s) in the early 20th century in some places. True story.

Timmy! said...

Thanks for the clarification, Pauline. Wow, that must have been pretty dangerous... Using a flintlock in the early 20th century, I mean. I would guess that since they stopped making them by the mid 1800's any that were still in use would have to be over 50 years old... Kaboom! Talk about blowing up in your face (or your hand at least)...