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Flintlocks and sayings

Flash in the pan  –  Going off half-cocked  –  Lock, stock and barrel

The kind of gun you see in western films, where the gunman can quickly load a set of metal cartridges into his handgun, only came into use in around the 1830s. In Regency times, guns were fired using a flintlock mechanism. Our heros (or heroines) would have used a pistol something like this.

The stock is the handle and other wooden parts, the barrel is the tube the pistol ball travels down when it is fired, and the ‘lock’ is the firing mechanism. Each part was made by a different craftsman, so ‘lock, stock and barrel’ means having the whole thing, complete with all its parts.

18th Century English flintlock pistol.


The little jaws in the ‘lock’ held a piece of flint. When the gun was fired, a spring moved the flint so that it struck a metal plate called the frizzen. The sparks caused ignited power in the pan, and the flame travelled to the powder inside the barrel of the pistol.


Flintlock pistol ignition animation

By BBODO (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


A ‘flash in the pan’ is when the sparks ignite the powder in the pan without setting off the pistol. It looks showy, but achieves nothing.

Loading and priming

Loading the pistol was far more complicated than with modern guns. First, pour the correct amount of powder down the barrel and tamp it down. In the photo, you can see the ramrod stored just under the barrel of the pistol. Then wrap the ball in a small piece of cloth or paper and push it down the barrel, using the ramrod to tamp it down. The cloth stops the ball just rolling out of the barrel.

Then the pistol had to be primed. Start by pulling back the cock (the part holding the flint) a little way – to the half-cock position. ‘Going off half-cocked’ means doing something before preparations are complete. The half-cock position allows the frizzen to be pulled back so you can put powder into the pan. Then close the frizzen and gently release the cock if you are not about to fire the pistol.

When ready to fire, pull the cock back to the full cock position, then release it by pulling the trigger. There are videos on the internet showing the loading and firing of flintlock pistols and muskets – what seems surprising to anyone used to seeing modern guns fired in films, is the small delay between the flash of the powder in the pan igniting and the actual firing of the pistol.

Wet weather

Wet gunpowder does not go off. As you can imagine, firing flintlock pistols in wet weather could be problematic. If the cloth around the pistol ball was waxed and fit tightly, the powder inside the barrel would be protected from the rain. Powder in the pan could be protected by rubbing beeswax around the edge of the pan – as long as the edge of the pan and the bottom part of the frizzen fitted together well without any gaps.

So, if our heros/heroines are accosted in the rain, defending themselves with a pistol may not work…

2 thoughts on “Flintlocks and sayings

  1. Christopher Kirk says:

    Thank you for drafting and posting this description of how flintlocks were loaded and fired.

    P.S. There’s a word missing.  “Then wrap the ball in a small piece of cloth or [paper?] and push it down the barrel, using the ramrod to tamp it down.”

  2. jaynedavisromance says:

    Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve fixed it now.



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