400-Year-Old Technology; We Try A Trio of .54-Caliber Flintlocks
Cabelaís Hawken is a Best Buy, in our view; and Lymanís Great Plains is our huntersí pick. But Donít Buy the 1803 Harperís Ferry, unless you are willing to fix it.
They’re all about fire and brimstone, noise, smoke, and tremendous gobs of fun. We’re talking about flintlocks, of course, the longest-lasting form of firearm ignition the world has ever seen. The heyday of flint firearms spanned 200 years. Percussion firearms lasted maybe 50, and our current self-contained cartridges are now about 150 years old. But the idea of banging a stone onto a piece of steel and producing fire was, and still is, a very good one, when not much can go wrong in the process. With a flint firearm all you need is good black powder, a projectile and some wadding and your gun will keep on going bang until you get tired. With percussion and cartridge firearms, you need fulminates, i.e., something which when struck, detonates to ignite the powder. When you run out of caps, you’re out of luck. Perhaps that crude simplicity is the great draw of flinters.
For this report we chose three modern .54-caliber rifles as offered by Cabela’s in that company’s shooting catalog. They were the Traditional Hawken ($225), the Lyman Great Plains Rifle ($395), and the 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle ($650). We had the loan of a nearly two-century-old English flintlock double smoothbore, which we used to evaluate the lock quality, setup, and ignition time of the new rifles. To get ahead of ourselves a bit, the English gun had by far the fastest lock time, and that’s why we brought it in. We discuss it first to set the table for the others.
The Barton Flinter
Our English flint gun was a double 20-bore “fowler” made by J. Barton in London just after the War of 1812. That means it was made in the country that produced the world’s finest flint guns, and was produced near the close of the flint era, when the system had two centuries of development behind it. We expected the English gun to be about as good an example of the flintlock system as we could get. In spite of its disastrous stock and obvious signs of age, the Barton proved us right. It had rain-proof pans, roller hammer-springs, platinum flash holes, perfect trigger pulls, gold inlay, and other signs of its having been a best-quality firearm when new. We shot it with the same .54-caliber lead balls used in the three test rifles, using two patches to get a snug fit into the side-by-side bores. The weight of this ball, 225 grains, was quite a bit short of the 400-grain charge of shot the gun’s owner normally loads, and we used its normal 70-grain powder charge. Thus we were well within safe chamber pressure for the piece. We were interested in its lock setup and ignition time, not patterns or accuracy, and the old gun taught us many things.
Chief among those things was the amount of spring tension needed within the various parts of the mechanism to achieve a balanced system. The spring tension of the Barton’s pan-cover, which is called the hammer or frizzen, was well balanced against the spring of the part that held the flint, which is called the cock (not the hammer). By comparing the new locks with the grand example of the old Barton, we found the locks of two of the Cabela’s rifles to be well set up, but the third was a disaster, in our view.
Firing the Barton resulted in a sound that resembled “kabang.” The “ka” was our barely being able to hear the flint fall before the gun fired. That told us what good flinters can do, and it gave us a frame of reference from which to judge the other guns.
Shooting Preparation and Loading
Our pretest preparation for the three firearms in this report involved swabbing the barrels and locks inside and out with naphtha, drying them, and anointing them with Ox-Yoke’s Wonder Lube 1000 Plus grease. Cleanup was then frightfully easy, with either Ox-Yoke’s or Cabela’s black-powder solvent, followed by drying and recoating with Ox-Yoke’s yellow lube. There was no need for hot water, soap, or any other mess. These products also seem to be easy on the skin, though we can’t vouch for that. Some of our testers declared they’d rather clean four black-powder rifles than one modern rifle because of the bad effect of nasty modern solvents on skin and lungs.
All shooting was with Ox-Yoke’s pre-lubed patches, generally 0.015-inch thick, and either Speer or Hornady 0.530-inch-diameter swaged lead balls. We used GOEX FFg powder for all loads, and FFFFg to prime the pans. Priming with FFg can be done, but 4-F gives (at least theoretically) faster and more reliable ignition.
We did no swabbing of the barrels between loads. It was shoot, reload, shoot again, etc. With a smooth barrel, it’s possible to shoot maximum loads for at least ten shots, sometimes many more, with zero attention to the barrel between shots, and that’s another reason we use Ox-Yoke’s products.
We did no testing with sabots, not wanting to put plastic into these barrels. Somehow, a load that uses a plastic sabot to sling a (usually) jacketed pistol bullet at high velocity seems wrong with a traditional flint firearm.
Here’s how the individual guns performed with this loading regimen:
Cabela’s Traditional Hawken, $225
We liked the looks of this Italian-made rifle. We also liked its relatively light weight (8.2 pounds), and up to a point, its performance. Its 29-inch barrel had 1 twist in 48 inches, the fastest of the three rifles tested. The barrel had nice sharp edges to its octagonal sides, and the flats were left with fine grinding marks that bestowed a matte finish after bluing. The flats were straight and very flat, as they should have been. The barrel attached to the stock via a hook breech and one brass cross pin through the forend. There was a fully adjustable rear sight that didn’t look out of place, and a bead-topped fore-sight that was dovetailed into the barrel. The sight picture, with the bead nestled into the bottom of the wide-angle-vee rear, was excellent.
The rifle had shiny brass furniture, which was not our first choice for hunting, but fine for play. All the brass work was well made and well polished, and its inletting into the very nice walnut stock was uniformly excellent, as was the barrel-to-stock fit. A large and ornate patchbox was inletted into the right side of this right-hand-only rifle, and a rattle in the stock was traced to a proper-size cleaning jag stowed within the patch box. The left side of the butt stock had a large cheek piece. The crescent-shaped butt plate was perfectly shaped, well polished, and perfectly inletted into the walnut. This stock had much less drop than the Lyman rifle, the latter being more suited to those with long necks.
There were double set-triggers. The front trigger alone could fire the rifle, but only after about 8 pounds of pressure. With the rear trigger set, the front broke at a slightly creepy 2.5 pounds. One slight problem with this rifle was that there was no provision for retaining the ramrod securely in place within its thimbles. Pointing the rifle at the ground resulted in the ramrod falling out, and the owner would have to come up with a fix for that, before taking this rifle hunting.
The case-hardened, coil-sprung lock mechanism was identical with that on the Lyman. The case color was a muted gray, and there was some cast-in “engraving.” The rifle came with a flint installed, as did the Lyman, and both flints sustained us through all our test firing, until they got dull and needed slight napping to give a fresh, sharp edge. The hammer, or frizzen, had a cam, not a roller, contacting its spring. Spring forces throughout these two locks were well regulated and perfectly balanced. There was enough tension in the pan’s external leaf spring to hold the pan firmly closed until struck by the cock, and the cock in turn had enough force in its coil spring to make reliable sparks when the flint was sharp and properly adjusted.
The pans, including the one on the Lyman’s lock, were emphatically not “rain-proof.” A rain-proof pan is set by itself onto the lock plate so that rain striking the closed pan cover runs past the pan onto the ground. With these two locks, rain would be directed straight into the pan to soak the priming charge, and would almost certainly result in misfires in wet weather. There was a good side to this, though. The design of the pan kept flash residue off the main face of the lock plate and made it much easier to clean. We’d prefer a dirty lock plate and wet-weather ignition.
On the range, we found a slight adjustment to the rear sight got us centered on the 50-yard target. Our first load was with 70 grains of FFg, and the Cabela’s Traditional Hawken proved more than adequately accurate. Groups were around 2 inches. We shot one group with this rifle at 100 yards that measured 4.5 inches. The barrel was very smooth inside, and we were able to continue loading and shooting this 70-grain load throughout all our testing with very little increase in loading force on the ramrod after the first few shots.
That story changed when we tried 100 grains of powder. First, the accuracy went to pot, and after only three shots the loading resistance got so high we had to swab the barrel. That told us something was drastically wrong. With our limited testing we’d recommend sticking with around 70 grains of powder in this rifle, at least with conventional patched round lead balls.
Ignition time was sluggish. On each shot we heard the flint strike, heard the pan powder burn, had almost enough time to think about it, and then heard the main charge go off. The delay would have been nearly enough to flinch the rifle off target. We had one failure to fire, though there was a flash in the pan. A second priming charge gave us the big bang. We didn’t like this, so we decided to fix it.
We pulled the barrel from the stock and unscrewed the stainless-steel flash-hole insert. Its hole was about 0.060 inch, too small for fast, reliable ignition. Also, there was a relatively small hole leading from the inside edge of the flash hole to the main powder chamber. We enlarged the lead-in hole, and bored the flash hole to nearly 0.080 inch, about a 35-percent increase in area. We also cleaned up the screwdriver slot so the external flame would have easier access to the flash hole. Then we polished the bottom of the pan, more to ease cleanup than to help ignition. The flash hole was near the top edge of the pan, which is where it belonged. Fire goes up, and with the flash hole near the bottom of the pan, ignition can be slowed. With our improvements we got a very noticeable increase in ignition speed, and perfect reliability. We had no more failures to fire throughout our testing. It worked so well that we did similar things to the other two rifles. However, none ended up being as fast as the ancient Barton.
Lyman Great Plains Rifle, $395
Lyman’s Italian-made Great Plains Rifle was very attractive to us, more so than the brass-mounted Traditional Hawken because the Lyman was all dark. The steel was semi-matte blued, and the excellent-quality walnut stock was flat-finished in very dark oil. Nothing was the least bit shiny, and we liked that a lot.
The inletting was, like that of the Hawken, excellent throughout. The barrel was just a touch more polished than the previously tested rifle, and the corners of the flats were just as sharp. There was no waviness to the barrel flats, and bluing was excellent. The barrel was held to the stock with a hook at the breech and two cross pins through the forend. Again there were double set triggers. Though there was an adjustment on the trigger plate, we were only able to make the set pull worse. The trigger broke at 7.5 pounds, or 2 pounds when set.
Although the lock was apparently identical to that on the Hawken — the cast-in engraving on the lock plates was identical — this one seemed a slight bit smoother. They performed equally well.
The Lyman had a large, adjustable-for-elevation buckhorn rear sight on it when we got it. It was drifted into a dovetail cut in the barrel. The front sight was a flat-top blued-steel blade, again mounted in a dovetail. The ramrod was held firmly in place by a simple spring arrangement beneath the rib, something that could easily be added by the home gunsmith to the Traditional Hawken.
In the Lyman box was a cleaning jag and a simple non-adjustable rear sight. We found we could not get the rifle to hit the paper with the adjustable sight, and changed to the fixed sight. With that one the rifle was perfectly centered at 50 yards with our lighter load of 70 grains.
Having fallen in love with the looks of the Lyman, we took it shooting. The first thing we noticed, in our attempts to get it on the paper, was that its barrel was nowhere near as smooth as that of the Hawken. The twist rate was given by Cabela’s at one turn in 60 inches, more to our liking for heavy loads with round ball. However, the bore was rough, and fouled badly after only two shots. We broke out our NECO fire-lapping kit, available from Brownells. Following NECO’s instructions, we lapped the bore with only a half-dozen shots, being pressed for time. This eased loading, and we proceeded with our testing. The barrel needs more lapping, but next time we’ll do it our own way instead of NECO’s, following our success (below) with the 1803 rifle.
We liked the ignition speed of the Lyman, but decided that we’d like it better if it were faster, so we did things to it similar to what we did to the Cabela’s Hawken. Using a lathe, we drilled the face of the touch-hole insert with a .140-inch diameter bit, going just below the bottom of the screwdriver slot. This permitted the plug to be withdrawn as usual, yet gave a relatively clean path for the pan flame.
This time we enlarged the flash hole to 0.070 inch, and again opened the back of the insert with a drill as large and as deep as we dared, leaving lots of steel to ensure strength. Then we polished the inside of the pan, as we had the other rifle. When we were done, ignition time was much quicker, and we never had a misfire with this rifle.
With our light load of 70 grains, the Lyman made sub-2-inch groups reliably at 50 yards. Per our expectations, considering its slower twist, the Lyman liked the 100-grain load also, making similar-size groups, but it shot the hotter load six inches higher at 50 yards. Clearly the hunter would need to carefully zero with his chosen load. With this slower rifling twist, that best load could be significantly hotter — with round ball, at least — than the hottest loads with the Traditional Hawken.
Within the Lyman packing box was an excellent manual detailing how to get the most out of the rifle. The manual was filled with information that beginners will find extremely useful. The other material inside the box told us that the flint Lyman is available in a left-hand version, and in .50-caliber as well. Also, there are barrels available with 1:32 twist for better performance with conical or sabot bullets. And, if you have a .54, you can swap the barrel for a .50, or vice versa. You cannot change percussion to flint, nor the other way around.
1803 Harper’s Ferry, $650
This rifle was a close copy of the original 1803 U.S. military rifle that, according to our best research, was carried by 15 of the men President Thomas Jefferson sent west on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-1806. This Cabela’s rendition of that rare weapon gave a good indication of what those hardy men had in their hands on their two-year trek across this country. For their sake, we hope they had the details of their (at that time) state-of-the-art, brand-new rifle design worked out a lot better than ours was.
From what we’ve been able to tell from photographs of existing specimens of the 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle, our Cabela’s version is a reasonably accurate copy. Our 1803 had the same half-octagon, half-round, browned (not blued) barrel, with in-the-white ramrod. We understand the lock plate was in the white on original 1803s. Ours was case-colored.
The barrel was held to the walnut stock by a tang (no hook) at the rear, and a single cross bolt in the forend. The lock was held by two large bolts that passed through the stock from the left. There was a brass bolster there to support the bolt heads.
Our sample had a brass patch box on the right side of the butt stock, opened by a button on top of the butt plate, as on originals. This worked very well, and the whole thing was well inletted and well executed. The left side of the stock had a cheek piece formed into the walnut. The stock wood appeared to be excellent walnut, well chosen for strength.
The 35-inch browned barrel had 1 in 72-inch twist rate, which promised good accuracy with heavy loads and the round ball. Unfortunately that was not the case.
We found many small items that had been done tastefully and cleverly to give the correct configuration for this historic piece. Unfortunately that didn’t include the inner quality of the lock, and that was not our only problem.
The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle had a big problem right out of the box. There was no flint. Neither was there a cleaning jag, but that wasn’t a big problem for us — though it would be a nuisance if this were your only rifle in this caliber. Our Tech Editor had a selection of flints on hand, and some thin leather, so in short order we had a flint mounted. But the cock spring was much too stiff, and on the second drop of the flint to check the spark (which was extraordinary), the flint shattered. We actually photographed it in the act of breaking, though that detail may not be obvious in the photo.
We stuck in a second flint, but the first drop of the cock broke a big chunk off the second flint. We pulled the lock to see if we could reduce the spring’s power. We wanted to reduce its force by a third, or even by half. The lock had a huge, thick mainspring that could only be weakened by careful grinding. We used a Dremel tool to grind the surface of the spring and succeeded in reducing its power to an acceptable level.
By contrast, the hammer (frizzen) spring seemed weak. A gentle push would open the pan to the elements. This pan was partially protected from rain, in that the pan stood slightly above the adjacent steel. At least some of the rain would run off.
The lock springs of the other two rifles (identical locks) were well balanced and far lighter in force than this one. Yet they had more than enough power to do the job. We also had the great “teacher,” the 20-bore Barton flinter, to tell us how things ought to have felt. We thought this 1803 was in need of a higher-quality lock. However, the appearance and markings of this lock were attractive, and looked wholly authentic.
The sights were poor at best for testing the rifle, though they were probably copied from an original. The rear sight was a deep U nearly a quarter-inch wide, with thin flats on top. The front was a brass blade attached directly to the barrel. The sight picture was not really bad, just coarse. But regulation was very bad. The rifle shot about a foot low at 50 yards.
We ground down the front sight until we got on the paper, and then discovered the rifle had poor accuracy. Our best 50-yard group was four inches for three shots. The barrel was rough inside. Loading was very difficult after the first shot, and got progressively worse. We fire-lapped the barrel, but this time used 150-grit valve-grinding compound applied directly to the patch, not to the bullet as NECO recommended. We fired ten lapping shots, and ended up with a magnificently easy-to-load rifle. With a slick barrel, the rifle started to perform. Our best three-shot group at 50 yards was 1.4 inches, and averages about 3.5. With great expectations we loaded 100 grains and touched ‘er off. We got a nine-inch group. Subsequent testing didn’t improve much, and we gave up.
Early in our testing we had a couple of flashes in the pan, and took the necessary action to the flash hole, as we had with the other two rifles, and so eliminated all further ignition problems. The trigger pull of the single non-settable trigger was heavy but creep-free, breaking at 7 pounds.
When we were inside the rifle we discovered the tang screw, which had been standing proud on top of the tang, was not supposed to be that way. The hole in the tang had not been properly countersunk, and the screw could not go fully home. Also, the hole in the stock for that screw was too small, and the screw was tight. We fixed those items, not liking the fact that our $650 rifle was fast becoming a preassembled kit. Next, the heavy steel ramrod would not stay in the rifle. We could not see any way to retain it, and ended up distorting the brass strap at the front of the forend to bear against it. The rod still wanted out, so we did most of our testing with it removed.
Except for the guts of the lock, mostly the main- or cock-spring, the rifle was made of high-quality materials. The inletting was excellent, the browning was well done — though there was some polishing waviness to the round portion — and overall workmanship was probably higher than on originals — which were, after all, military rifles.
Gun Tests Recommends
1803 Harper’s Ferry, $650. Don’t Buy. The Cabela’s 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle needed serious work just to get it to shoot without shattering each and every flint you put into it. We put a serious amount of gunsmithing into this rifle to make it usable. Avoid this one unless you have a pressing need for an historically correct rifle and can afford the time/money to make it right.
Lyman Great Plains Rifle, $395. Buy It. We liked the Lyman very much. It actually looked a whole lot more like a real Hawken mountain rifle than the Traditional Hawken did. Mountain men didn’t want a shiny rifle in Indian country, and specified iron hardware over brass when given the choice. Except for the misshapen butt plate — the rifle should rest on the heel when stood upright, not the toe, which was the case here — this was a close-enough copy of one of Jake Hawken’s flint rifles. Because of its dull, dark finish, this rifle would be our first choice for serious hunting.
Cabela’s Traditional Hawken, $225. Best Buy. We thought the Cabela’s Traditional Hawken was an excellent rifle, easily worth its modest cost of $225. It’s also available as a kit for $190, but you’d be hard pressed to do as good an assembly job as the factory did, for the price difference. The loose ramrod was its only flaw, one that would be easy to fix.