Which is better, Percussion or Flintlock?
As with all shooting related decisions, it will rest mainly on what kind of shooting you intend on doing.
A brief history of a muzzle loading percussion gun
The invention of the scent bottle percussion system, using fulminates of mercury, by Rev. Forsyth revolutionised firearms manufacture in the very early 19th century, and this was quickly evolved into the more convenient percussion lock system (allegedly) by the renown firearms manufacturer Joseph Egg.
This simple, convenient, and more self-contained method of ignition paved the way for repeating firearms such as Colt's single action revolvers, military rifles, and target rifles manufactured up until the very late 19th century. Percussion fell out of favour with military and commercial markets in the late 1860s/early 1870s, as fully self-contained cartridges became more viable.
A brief history of the flintlock
The flintlock system is one of the earliest ignition methods of guns. The very earliest form of flint ignited gun was the very complicated and expensive wheellock mechanism, invented around the start of the 16th century (debatably by Leonardo Da Vinci), which used a piece of pyrite held against a spring loaded roughened steel barrel, similar to a cigarette lighter, which required rewinding after each shot. Due to the difficulty and great expense of manufacture, these were only found on very high quality firearms, and were therefore not suitable for military adoption.
Where adopted, militaries were, until the mid-17th century primarily using matchlock muskets, but developments in arms technology before and during the English Civil War led to the adoption of the doglock musket. Flintlock development continued with the adoption of the Brown Bess in 1722, which remained in service (with British forces at least) until 1854, a staggering 132 years, before finally rendered obsolete by the percussion system. As with percussion, flintlock is now exclusively the province of enthusiasts and re-enactors, though Soviet forces during the Soviet-Afghan War reported being fired upon by tribesmen, well into the 20th century.
Percussion guns for competition use
Percussion continues today as an enthusiast's hobby, it is now long obsolete, though this is not to suggest it is not fun to shoot!
Percussion rifles are still very capable, guns such as the .451 Whitworth rifle is capable of 1000 yard shooting, and is probably a more accurate rifle than the shooter. The advantages of percussion over flintlock are profound. Percussion lock guns are less complicated, faster to load, have a quicker lock time, and are more reliable.
This gives percussion significant advantages over flintlock in pretty much all shooting disciplines. Competition shooters will wish to use percussion guns, unless the competition specifies otherwise, as the handicap flintlock guns impose on the shooter are difficult to overcome by skill.
As a non-scientific example, in our club, we shoot for a flintlock clays competition, and a percussion competition separately. The differences in average scores between the two are significant.
Flintlock guns in competitions
Musket competitions are fun, shooting 13 shots within 30 minutes. Given how flintlocks are loaded, this kind of competition is a real exercise in concentration and repetition.
Loading flintlocks can be more frustrating than percussion. Loading from the muzzle is the same, though ideally a separate (finer) powder will charge the priming pan. It is essential the flint is decently sharp, and the frizzen sparks well. An expedient method of getting some more life out of a blunt flint is to tap the striking surface with a penknife blade, chipping off small pieces of flint and bringing the edge back to a useable condition. Some might argue the process is long and laborious, but this is part of the joy of shooting muzzle loading guns.
Flintlocks aren't much used outside of flintlock only competitions, as the lock time puts it at a serious disadvantage and handicaps shooters, compared to those using percussion guns.
Introduction to percussion guns for new shooters
As the lock time of percussion guns is still far slower than breech loading guns, shooting with a percussion gun at either clays or targets can still be a challenge, and loading takes care and attention to detail.
For new shooters, looking to get into muzzle loading guns, I would recommend a percussion gun first. It takes away the frustration that flintlock can sometimes have, and is the easier foray into the world of muzzle loading.
Loading a percussion gun is as simple as loading the main charge, wad and shot, drawing the hammer to half cock, and placing a percussion cap on the nipple. The shooter must still be vigilant to ensure no double load or air gap, but with diligence, the practised hand can accurately fire a round every two minutes.
Introduction to flintlock guns for new shooters
Shooters new to black powder muzzle loading guns may wish to start on flintlock, if they are prepared to work to achieve good results, it is foolhardy to expect a flintlock gun of any kind to shoot perfectly straight out of the box.
Along with the usual considerations of the correct charge and ball size, flintlock shooters may wish to try different priming powders, or shapes of flint, which can make all the difference in terms of consistent ignition. The trick to shooting flintlock guns, along with any guns really, is consistency, and with careful loading and consistent practise, this can be achieved, and flintlock guns can be made to shoot very well.
Loading and shooting a percussion muzzle loading gun
For new shooters, looking to get into muzzle loading guns, I would recommend a percussion gun first. It takes away the frustration that flintlock can sometimes have, and is the easier foray into the world of muzzle loading. Given the reliability and consistency of the percussion action over flintlock, percussion guns give new shooters less to worry about and control, there is therefore less to go wrong. Once the correct powder charge and ball combination is found, a new shooter should be able, with diligence and attention when loading, to put up a respectable group without much bother. This is not to say this is comparably easy as breech loading guns.
Loading and shooting a muzzle loading flintlock gun
As mentioned previously, flintlock is onerous and unreliable in comparison to percussion, so is not terribly well suited to general muzzle loading competitions, but I would argue it is just as fun, if not more so, to shoot. The lock time on flintlocks is slow, as two separate detonations take place, this means a lot of lead is required to hit clays consistently. Target shooting is less of a problem, though some may argue the detonation of the priming charge may cause some slight wobble and distraction, which is a fair argument, though not really a consideration when shooting recreationally over a fairly short distance.
Things to consider when buying a muzzle loading gun
- Price: flintlock is generally a little more expensive than percussion, as it is more complicated.
- Model: some models of gun are offered as either a flintlock or percussion
- Manufacturers: Pedersoli, Uberti, Ardesa, Indian, all offer vastly different guns at every price.
What variation to apply for to buy a percussion or flintlock gun.
For a muzzle loading rifle, the variation should read Muzzle loading rifle, calibre X. For pistols (revolvers included), substitute rifle for pistol. There is no need to specify flintlock or percussion.