A History of Black Powder Guns Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A History of Black Powder Guns

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Black powder gunners in action.

The European inventors of the black powder gun include a monk, Berthold Schwarz, in around 1330, and Roger Bacon, a friar from Ilchester, Somerset, in 1214. Both are credited with coming up with the idea of the gun. It is interesting to note the unfortunate coincidence that the most efficient killing apparatus in the last 700 years was thought up by churchmen.

The use of these weapons is similar regardless of the firing mechanism. So it is worth separating the weapons into the basic types, in approximate historical order (although there are massive overlapping periods of use). This is based upon the particle use of all the weapons, which are tested methods used over the last ten years including research from many areas.

As time progressed, guns became easier to use and it was simple to train the men who used them. On the battlefield, accuracy was not the issue; efficient mass fire was the key to winning (not much different to the rain of arrows fired at Agincourt). Accuracy was down to the individual and came to the fore with skirmishers and snipers. The flintlock is general considered the most accurate gun due to the speed of the lock and it also made a good sporting gun for the gentry.


A cannon is any large, smooth-bored, muzzle-loading gun that can not be held and fired in hand by one person.

Classification Cannon by Size up to 1700; After 1700 by Weight of Shot

  • Cannon royal
  • Cannon
  • Demi cannon
  • Culverin
  • Demi-Culverin
  • Falcon
  • Falconet
  • Minion

At first, some cannons were made from oak with metal hoops, just like a barrel. Some were wood covered with leather. These were one-shot weapons. The next method was using strips of iron hammer welded around a core or former to make a barrel. Rings of iron were put over the barrel to keep it from splitting. It is speculated that the similarity to the making of a wooden barrel may have given the name to this part of all guns. These all had one thing in common: they were dangerous to use, as they were likely to split when fired and injure the user. The first cast iron English cannon appeared in about 1550.

The Main Types

  • The Touchlock: This is the oldest and the one used for the longest period of time, from Agincourt to Waterloo1. Almost all cannons were touch-lock until the American Civil War.

    The biggest difference between a cannon and a hand-held weapon was the positioning of the pan or touch-hole. On the larger weapons, the touch-hole migrates from the side to the top of the barrel. Some say that a touch-hole is more effective if it is sited towards the top of the barrel; that is why pistols were often fired with the hand turned so the lock was toward the top of the barrel, especially with the wheel lock as it improved reliability.

    For the purpose of this entry the touch-lock hand gun was replaced by the match-lock in about 1400.

  • The Wheellock: Developed in Germany in about 1510, this works like a lighter - throwing sparks into the powder. It was an elegant device but expensive and easily damaged, and it did not stand up well to the battlefield. However, the cavalry liked it and used it into the 1640s.

  • The Snaphaunce: The Snaphaunce first appeared In the 1470s, and is really a crude form of the flintlock. A big problem was that the pan was uncovered and if it was windy it blew the sparks or the powder away before you could fire.

  • The Flintlock: First developed in the 1500s and accepted into military service in 1590, the basic weapon remained in common use until 1855. As it was reliable, robust and cost next to nothing, it was very popular in British colonies around the world. It became the most respected gun in the Americas, where it developed into a variety of styles unique to America.

  • The Percussion Lock: This lock was made possible in 1805 when a Scot invented the percussion cap. Virtually waterproof, it allowed the development of the modern gun when the cap was put into the base of the bullet. This lock saw the end of the muzzle-loading gun within 100 years of its invention.

  • Rifling: The invention of rifling is impossible to trace, though many claim to know who invented the idea. Rifling dates from about the mid-1400s, but production was difficult and limited to very expensive guns. It would take nearly 400 years for rifles to become common on the battlefield.

    A rifled musket led to an advance in the range at which you could kill your opponent. This, combined with the mass production of the military musket and, later, the bullet, led men to find cover. Even the Generals were forced to abandon the mass slaughter and re-think combat methods. The last throes of the traditional style can be found in the mass advance in World War One.

  • The Beginnings of Mass Production: Nobody was ready for the American Civil War. Peace meant that the guns available were private defensive weapons or sporting guns. As men joined up to fight they simply ran out of guns. Men were sent out by both sides to buy up surplus weapons and send them home. Men could end up using any old gun and some were 50 or 60 years old. The American makers soon stepped in and production increased to fulfil demand.

  • The Springfield: The most frequently used rifle of the Civil War was the American-made Springfield rifle musket, a single-shot, muzzle-loading percussion lock. It was the first rifle to fire a bullet-shaped projectile rather than a round ball, and it had a rifled barrel which increased range and accuracy. The rifled barrel made it possible to hit a man at 400 to 500 yards. Around 1.5 million Springfield muskets were made.

  • The Enfield: The second most widely-used weapon of the Civil War was the British Enfield single-shot, muzzle-loading musket. It was also the standard weapon for the British army between 1853 and 1867. Originally produced at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, England, approximately 900,000 of these muskets were exported to the Americas during the Civil War.

    The American Civil War was the conflict that marked the beginning of the change in the way wars were fought. This experimentation took the lives of many brave men. The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, 1870 – 71, between France and Prussia finished the process of change.

    They were used to test the new theories and practices and the changes from mass ranks at the start to a style of fighting that World War II veterans would recognise.

British Laws on Gun Ownership

The basic rules for the UK are (correct at time of writing):

Gun ownership is legal only if you comply with the following...

Shotguns and Shotgun Certificates

If you are granted a shotgun certificate, you and your gun(s) must comply with the following. Any smooth-bore gun with a barrel length over 24 inches is a shotgun and can be held by anyone over 18 years with a reasonable use (needed to justify the grant of a shotgun certificate). If you have a shotgun certificate in your possession and the gun is in a case you can carry the gun through the streets providing the cartridges are in your pocket.

A shotgun that is loaded with fewer than five pieces of shot becomes a class 1 firearm under the terms of the act.

Oddly enough a cannon on the HMS Victory is a shotgun in the eyes of the act.

All other guns that have a barrel length under 24 inches or those that have a rifled barrel are class 1 weapons or a firearm and need a firearms certificate. This can be obtained from your local police HQ providing you have a watertight reason to have one and can store the weapon 100% safely.

How to Load and Fire a Black Powder Weapon

This is how to fire a black powder musket (as long as you are legally able to do so):

To load any black powder weapon, the basic procedure is the same; powder wadding and ball inserted down the barrel in that order.

To use this guide, you will need some knowledge or be with someone who has. If so start at 1.

  1. If you do not know the weapon, check the proof marks. It will be proofed for blank or ball (live firing). Proof marks have been on European guns since about 1500. If there are no marks or if the weapon looks old and worn do not fire it, it's your life! NB: If you do not know what a proof mark is or you are not with someone who can tell you, put the gun down and walk away.

  2. Check the barrel for obstructions (rubbish old wadding or previous unfired charges). Do not forget to check the touch-hole at this time and make sure it is clear. The best way is to drop the ramrod down the barrel and listen for a metallic click as the end hits the end. If there is no click, do not load. When you know that the barrel is empty put the ramrod in the barrel and put a mark on it - this will be useful later.

  3. Prepare the charge of powder. Do not overcharge (it will be on the proof-mark or the gun seller will have told you don't fire an old gun or unmarked gun, but have it re-proofed), close the pan-cover and tip the charge down the barrel.

  4. Insert wadding (paper is best, not tissue as it is much too fine) - use the ramrod and ram down firmly. Get into the habit of holding the ramrod with your fingers from the side, as if by accident the charge ignites, the ramrod will not then pass through your hand on the way out of the barrel.

  5. If you are live firing put the ball/shot in. If the ball is loose in the barrel, top with wadding. Ram down firmly as in the point above.

  6. From now on the gun is in its most dangerous mode, so you must be aware at all times where you are pointing the barrel. Now prime the pan. Put a small measure of powder in the pan and close the pan lid or cover if the gun has one. A percussion lock will differ at this point as there is no pan; you will simply put a percussion cap on the firing nipple.


    Some people insist on priming the pan prior to the loading, but for safety reasons it is best to prime it after loading. If, by accident, the powder in the pan ignites while you are loading you will at best lose a finger or part of your hand. In any case, it's always advisable to use a priming flask.

    If you are using paper cartridges or pre-measured charges, be careful as you may have to prime the pan first. Do this only if the lock has a reliable safety catch.

    Matchlocks should be safe enough if treated with respect and the drill manuals of the time recommend to prime or charge the pan prior to loading.

    From this point on, the weapon should be pointed at only two things: the sky or the target.

  7. Aim at your target, check the ramrod is not in the barrel (you will be amazed how many people forget) cock the weapon and fire the weapon. NOW do three things: Look for smoke from the barrel; Look for a thin wisp of light grey smoke from the touch hole (these will confirm a clean firing); and point the weapon at the sky. Do the first and second things whilst doing the third. This will be very important if you are firing with others as it is very easy to assume you have fired if other guns are going off around you. Always check, then check again.

  8. If you are to re-fire, start at point 2 and go again. Remember if there is any smoke still coming from the barrel there are embers still smouldering (this is why tissue paper is a bad idea). Embers will ignite the powder as you put it down the barrel and you will say goodbye to your fingers...

Safety Note

If at any time there is a mis-fire (it has not fired and the charge is still in the barrel) tell all your companions what has happened and get out of everyone's way. Prick out the touch-hole, re-prime and re-fire.

If it still will not fire, flood the pan and touch-hole with water. Carefully pour water down the barrel (fill it if you can) and leave it in a safe place for ten minutes. If in doubt, put the ramrod in the barrel and check the mark suggested in point 2 above. If it is well above the end of the barrel this will confirm a misfire. Then worm (see Essential Tools) the charge out of the barrel. Clean the weapon to sort the problem and try again. If in doubt, call for help.

How to Prime the Lock/Pan on Each Type of Weapon

The only difference between the weapons will be the locks or firing mechanisms. A brief description of each is noted below.

The Touch or Match Lock

A touch-lock is just a simple pan or a hollow at the touch-hole as in a cannon; or a pan mounted at the side of the barrel as in a hand gun or musket. A small heap of powder is placed in the pan and ignited by a match cord (hemp cord soaked in saltpetre) held in the hand or, if firing a cannon, a linstock (a staff that holds the match). A matchlock is a simple trigger mechanism that holds the match and when fitted to a musket, allows for a controlled firing and allows the user to aim.

The rate of fire of a match-lock musket from 1640 was about two rounds per minute.

The Wheel-lock

Wind or span the mechanism and prime and cover the pan. When ready to fire, lower the pyrites to the wheel aim and pull the trigger. Rate of fire is approximately two rounds per minute.

The Flintlock (Also Known as Firelock or Dog-lock)

Set at half-cock, pull back the hammer until you hear the first click. Open the pan by pulling back the frizzen, then put powder in the pan. Close the frizzen, and you are ready to fire. To fire, pull back the hammer to full cock, aim and fire. Rate of fire is approximately three rounds per minute.

The Percussion Lock

This is the same as a flint-lock; however, there is no pan. Instead there is a nipple onto which you put a percussion cap after you have pulled back the hammer to the half-cock position. To fire, pull back the hammer to full-cock, aim and fire. Rate of fire is approximately three rounds per minute.

Common Gun-Related Terms

  • A flash in the pan (the charge in the pan is ignited but the gun did not fire)
  • Lock, stock and barrel (all complete)
  • To hammer it home (to forced a tight-fitting ball down the barrel tapped with a mallet)
  • Spanner (a device to wind up or span a wheel lock, not part of a tool kit)
  • A useless git (to get rid of). NB: 'Git' is a 17th-Century English term for 'gate' (the spare metal from casting a cannon ball from the pouring-hole)

A Note on Accuracy

Accuracy is variable. If you use a loose-fitting ball (commonly called a rolling-fit) you will get very poor results. If a tight-fitting ball is used or the ball is patched, surprisingly good results can be achieved with all weapons. The best result is achieved by a very tight fit with a cloth patch, forced down the barrel and tapped in with a mallet (hence the term 'to hammer it home').

A ball that is a loose fit in a barrel will, when fired, act like the clapper in a bell, and will bounce from side to side as it travels down the barrel. If the ball is loose-fitting it can leave the muzzle at very odd angles. So the tighter the ball fits and the longer the barrel, the more accurate the shot.

In expert hands, a smooth-bore flint-lock musket properly loaded can hit a person at 150 yards or more, so the 'unable to hit a barn door' idea is doing the weapon a huge injustice. If shooting a moving target, you can't beat a flint lock. A good one will even be fast and accurate enough to take down clay pigeons.

So the modern myth that these guns have poor accuracy is wrong and can only be down to the poor individual accuracy of men firing in haste and in massed ranks. Hollywood can help here: the results from the films The Patriot, The Last of the Mohicans and Waterloo give a good picture of the ability of these weapons in skilled hands. It is likely that those who cast doubt upon the quality may not have used the wepons over a long period or lack the skill to get the best from them. As weapons they are easy to use but hard to master.

Essential Basic Tools Required

  1. A screw to remove a ball.
  2. A worm to remove anything else.
  3. A scouring rod to attach and allow the use of 1 and 2.
  4. Water in a bottle.
  5. A tool to prick out the touch-hole.

Cleaning After Use

To get the barrel clean, use boiling water. Block the touch hole if you can and then fill and empty the barrel as many times as it takes for the water you pour out to be clean. The barrel won't rust as all the water will evaporate (that is why you are using boiling water). Stand the gun upright with the muzzle down and leave until barrel is cool. Use cleaning rod and swab out with oil on cleaning cloth; clean and oil pan, lock, outside of barrel and exposed metal parts; oil the stock; put into bag and put away.

Join a society in the UK. They will train you and are great fun. A few (not all by any means) are listed below. If you cannot find what you are looking for or live outside the UK get on the internet. Some of the best are in the USA.

  • The American Civil War Society
  • The English Civil War Society
  • The Napoleonic Society
  • The Sealed Knot
  • The Southern Skirmish Associations
  • If you want to get into real detail and like the big guns try joining The Ordnance Society.

Enjoy using of all your weapons and be careful.

1Historically they were in use before Agincourt on the walls of Stirling Castle in 1304 but for the purpose of this Entry the start point will be from the first recorded battlefield casualty by a hand gun.

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