Managing the Flintlock Dueling Pistol, by Michael L. McDaniel
Pistols for two, coffee for one…the flintlock dueling pistol is one of the most romantic of all antique firearms. And one of the least understood. They are capable of astonishing accuracy, but wringing world-class accuracy out of a smoothbore flintlock pistol demands both flawless shooting technique and knowledge of every trick of the trade. It’s a challenge – a challenge worth accepting.
The first true dueling pistols appeared in Great Britain around 1770. British gentlemen were quick to adopt the pistol as a means of settling affairs of honor, instead of the sword. And while other countries, notably the United States and France, had gunsmiths who made flintlock duelers, it was British gunsmiths like Twigg, Mortimer, the Manton brothers, and above all Robert Wogdon whose reputations would be made by these guns.
By around 1780, designs had stabilized into a standard. Flintlock, of course. Smoothbore. Around .55 caliber, but that was not an ironclad rule. Set triggers were normal. These first-generation guns were designed for a fast snap-shot from a low ready position.
Around 1795, a second generation of flintlock duelers arose. These guns were designed for an aimed shot. Heavier barrels, sometimes smaller calibers, and almost always set triggers were the norm. And although it was quite against the rules of the Code Duello, very shallow rifling was not unheard of. These guns would be the standard for as long as the flintlock pistols ruled the field of honor.
Gentlemen had been settling disputes by personal combat since around 1600. The duel had grown out of the older customs of trial by combat, but where a trial by combat was a legal proceeding authorized by a court, a duel was a private affair. Libel, slander, allegations of dishonesty, and above all a blow being struck – these were considered legitimate grounds to demand “the satisfaction customary among gentlemen.”
The “take ten paces, turn, and fire” business so popular in films was uncommon. It makes for dramatic movies, but a real duel was run on lines much closer to modern International Centerfire Pistol. The duelists stood at fixed marks, a signal was given, and they had three seconds to raise the pistol and fire. The usual range was ten to twelve yards, but this was very much at the discretion of the seconds.
The Modern Revival of the Flintlock Dueler
When the Muzzle Loading Associations International Confederations (MLAIC) got organized in the 1970s, one of the very first matches organized was for flintlock dueling pistols. This match, ultimately named “Cominazzo”, had the following rules:
a. 13 shots at 25 meters on the B17 Free Pistol target (which is standard for almost all MLAIC events). Shots are scored to center-of-impact.
b. Smoothbore. While there were a handful of rifled flintlock pistols made, the vast majority were smoothbores.
c. Bore diameter of at least 11 mm (.43 caliber). This would become important when replica arms were allowed, as it prohibited target pistols with smaller bores.
d. Fixed rear sight with a U or V sight notch profile. Front sights may be drift adjustable.
In the early years, the MLAIC limited competition to original antique arms, but this rapidly gave way to the current policy of having original and replica arms shoot in separate classes. There were not that many original flintlock duelers made, and fewer had survived 180+ years in shootable condition. Today, most competitors are shooting replica arms…and even those who shoot original guns in competition train with a replica.
Getting Started – Choosing Your Pistol
For someone starting out with the flintlock dueler, it’s best to begin with a replica gun. Original firearms are scarce and expensive, a novice will often spend money on something completely unsuitable for competition. Trust me, I’ve done it myself.
If you can find one, the replica Manton pistol made by Hege is the best repro short of a custom gun. That’s a large “if”, as they are no longer made and used guns routinely sell for over $2,000. Having said that, the Pedersoli Le Page pistol has a good track record. If it fits your hand, I’d go with the Le Page…it’s a largish “if”, the Le Page is well-suited to a shooter with a large hand. By contrast, the Pedersoli Continental pistol is better suited to the small-handed shooter, it has a very good set trigger and sold at very reasonable price. Other options are the Pedersoli Tatham & Egg.
Developing a Load
The only hard-and-fast rule for loading a smoothbore pistol is that there are no rules. None. Tricks of the trade that have been used include:
a. Patched and unpatched round balls.
b. Smooth and stippled (use rasp files) round balls.
c. Ball on the powder, and an inert filler over the powder. Commonly used fillers include Cream of Wheat, semolina, grits, and corn meal.
d. Any and all combinations of the above.
For example, the three-man team that won the 2014 World Championship for original flintlock pistol for the USA had one shooter shooting a patched smooth ball over powder, another shooting a stippled bare ball over a filler and powder, and a third shooting a stippled patched ball over filler and powder. The smoothbore flintlock duelers are cantankerous, you have to work with them.
With regard to powder charges loads anywhere from 15 to 25 grains are quite common. Bob Peloquin, three-time World Champion in the original division of Cominazzo, has done quite well with 18-20 grain charges.
My own opinion is that 4F in the American nomenclature (Swiss #1, in the European nomenclature) is the right powder. The British have gotten excellent results in competition, my own experience with it has been that shot development is significantly faster than with Swiss #2 (3F) powder. Which charge is really up to the shooter…I think the heavier charges are more accurate from a purely mechanical standpoint, but tend to be flinch-inducing and knock the gun loose in the shooter’s hand. And once the grip begins to shift under recoil, really accurate shooting becomes impossible.
For that reason, it’s probably prudent to start out with a charge around 20 grains, build up in 5 grain increments until you have the best-shooting load bracketed, and then fine-tune the load from there.
I’ve tried both knapped and cut flints, and while both work, different guns will work better with different flints. Most shooters of the Cominazzo event have had the best luck with the black English flints, but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. My Hege-Manton works quite well with knapped English flints, but my original Wogdon & Barton works magnificently with the cut flints. As with just about everything else, try them both.
One tip – try both bevel up and bevel down. Bevel up is usually the best, but not always. And do not hesitate to reknap or adjust the flint as needed.
Also, use leather to hold the flint – lead is too heavy and lacks the gripping power for a pistol lock.
Loading begins with inserting the touchhole pick into the touchhole. This both blocks the escape of powder (Swiss #1 will get out if you give it a chance) and creates a cavity into which the flash can penetrate. Then load normally.
When priming, I strongly recommend the use of Swiss Null B, unless the weather is very humid. Null B is not graphite-coated, it will absorb the damp. But if the weather is dry, Null B is about 7F…and lightning-quick to ignite. The “foosh…whoom” that people associate with a flintlock just doesn’t happen if you use Null B.
As for the arguments over whether to pile priming powder close to or far from the touchhole, I have one thing to say. Both are wrong. You want a thin layer of priming powder over the entire pan, so that the first spark that falls into the pan hits powder. To emphasize the point: A key to accuracy with a flintlock is to have a virtually instantaneous ignition of the main charge as the sparks come off the frizzen and ignite your flash pan “primer”. You don’t want “foosh…whoom”, you want as near to “fwoom” as you can get.
The flintlock pistol is a demanding, unforgiving gun to shoot. Dry fire is essential. For this, get a piece of hard wood or horn about the size of a flint, and use it as a substitute for dry fire. This will preserve both flints and frizzens for actual shooting. And it’s period-correct, soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars were issued these dummy flints for training.
Then dry fire. Dry fire more. Make certain that there is no movement of the sights when the shot is released. You’ll find it helpful to dry fire against a blank white background to do this.
Dry firing also lets you work on your grip until the shot can be released consistently and with minimal movement. This will require a firm, consistent grasp of the gun. A tip…if a gun has a spur on the trigger guard, try shooting using it – but also without using that spur. Often, that middle finger is better used to grip the gun than to pull on a spur.
In competition, it’s usually required to have pre-measured powder charges. Even if the rules don’t require it, the normal time limit for a match is 30 minutes to fire 13 shots…and you must have a reserve of time to cope with problems. Pre-measured charges should be used for all competitions.
Also, it’s helpful to have all equipment laid out in a consistent manner. Exactly how is a matter of personal preference, but you will need to have powder charges, filler (if used), balls, patches (if used), reserve flints, and priming powder laid out ready on hand…and know precisely where they can be found.
I personally prefer to use a new flint for every match. Take your time, get it aligned properly. When the flint sparks poorly, turning it slightly will often restore fast ignition. But if problems persist, do not hesitate to discard the old flint and replace it with a fresh one.
What Performance Can You Expect?
A good smoothbore flint dueler, with the right load, can be astonishingly accurate. Groups of 3 inches are easily achieved, groups of 2 inches can be done…and you’ll need to shoot that well to win a World Championship. But I own a repro made by Andreas Baumkircher that the prior owner tested off a machine rest…and put 13 shots into a group just over 1 inch center-to-center. The current World Record in the repro division of Cominazzo is a 97…a score that would reliably win the match for rifled percussion target pistols.
Why Bother With All This?
The smoothbore flintlock dueling pistol will drive a shooter to distraction. Cantankerous, demanding, and unforgiving. But it’s also a firearm that drips romance. Pistols for two enemies on the field of honor…or perhaps for two friends in a contest of skill. Master it, and you have truly mastered one of the most difficult of all firearms to shoot well. It’s an achievement worth striving for.
Michael McDaniel is the current (as of 2018) World Champion in the original divisions of the 50 meter “Malson” revolver match, and the “Remington” revolver aggregate. He was also a member of the U.S. 3-man team that won the “Egg” original flintlock pistol match at the 2014 World Championships. He has 44 years of competitive experience with muzzle-loading arms, and has shot on the U.S. International Muzzle-Loading Team since 1996. He currently serves as Vice-Chairman of the USIMLC, and on the MLAIC Executive Committee and Small Arms Committee.