Flintlocks and muzzleloaders

I recently found myself in an animated discussion with my husband about what kind of guns my settlers in Dark and Deep would have taken with them. I have never hunted in my life and my husband hasn’t done it for years, so our knowledge is broad rather than deep. Let me share what we came up with, though.

The settlers came from approximately the same time we do, so they would have been used to modern guns and the hunters would probably prefer a .30-06 rifle for general purpose stalking and shotguns loaded with bird shot for, well, hunting birds.

Keep in mind, however, that the settlers have to make everything they need, or do without. While both of those guns use cartridges that can be re-filled and re-used, there’s the problematic question of what to refill them with. Both need bullets, powder, and primer caps. While the settlers could have a fair expectation of being able to make bullets and a middling expectation of making or trading for gunpowder, the primer caps were a problem. Those would run out and probably not be replaced. Even percussion caps, an early form of primer caps, are made with brass or copper filled with fulminate of mercury, and would probably be too complicated to make in the new world.

The guns of choice in the new world, I decided, are probably flintlock muzzleloaders.

Flintlocks literally knock a piece of flint against a piece of metal to ignite the gunpowder. Flint would be plentiful and easy to replace. Flintlocks have problems; they’re prone to misfire and to not fire at all in wet weather, but they would have remained useful indefinitely.

I also think that the guns of choice would have been muzzleloaders. Muzzleloaders are structurally simpler than breech-loading guns. Fewer moving parts means that there are fewer parts to break, which is an advantage in the long haul. They would also be easier for new world gunsmiths to replicate.

The biggest risk the settlers face, with these primitive guns, is that there wouldn’t be a way to obtain gunpowder. The manufacture of gunpowder requires three ingredients: charcoal (easy to obtain), a source of nitrate for saltpeter such as bat guano (easy to obtain), and elemental sulfur (very hard to obtain). In Dark and Deep the settlers at Rivergate are making gunpowder, and I’ve silently decided that they’re getting elemental sulfur from the people at the shore, who get it from other people to the south. If the settlement is located in a place approximately like Appalachia, then it isn’t very far from a place approximately like Louisiana, where there are sulfur mines.

Had gunpowder been unavailable, the settlers would have eventually had to hunt with bows and arrows, snares, or spear-throwers. They were prepared to do that, but they’re relieved that they don’t have to.

Firearms are for more than just hunting. They’re also for self-defense, and while the settlers may have set out with high hopes and starry eyes, there would have been plenty among them who knew that skirmishes were a possibility and that they needed to be prepared. A slow-loading, slow-firing flintlock would seem frustrating and clumsy with the enemy coming at you, however, let me make three points:

1) The enemy wouldn’t have anything better.
2) Every war from the early 17th century to the mid 19th century was fought with flintlocks. That includes the American Revolution.
3) The percentage of a population that dies in combat annually drops with every advance in weapon technology. One of the most dramatic drops occurs when both sides acquire firearms, however primitive. The fact of having any guns at all makes people less likely to fight. Given that cartridges aren’t a viable long-term alternative, flintlocks will do.

The firing of a flintlock is a dramatic thing to see. Here’s a slow-motion YouTube video of it:


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