Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Guns Don't Fire

In my last post, I wrote about how flintlocks work. Today I will give details about how they don’t work.

Although they are sturdy, they are not reliable. In the mid-1700’s the British Army did a study, and found that a gun fired in the field had an 85% chance of actually going off. That leaves a 15% chance that when you pulled the trigger, nothing was going to happen. What got in the way?

If the powder isn’t dry, nothing will happen. High humidity might be enough to keep a spark from igniting the flash pan. Or the flint might not be sharp enough or set at the proper angle. To get a good spark, the flint needed a sharpened strike point. Flints were purchased with correct faces, but flint is a rock, which chips and breaks, so the flint must be cared for, re-sharpened, and replaced regularly.
Another problem was that the frizzen strike plate might not be the best grade of steel. These were individually produced parts, and if the frizzen was not properly tempered, the spark would be inferior or nonexistent, and might not ignite the powder.

Holding the pistol incorrectly could prevent firing. You couldn’t “go gangsta” and hold your flintlock sideways. Gravity needed to guide the spark into the flash pan. Holding the weapon upside down made it useless, and might spill the powder from the flashpan, preventing firing altogether until the pan was refilled.

Rain reduced chances of success. Wind might blow the spark out. If the touchhole had carbon buildup, or the load had not been tamped down properly, or the flint was not positioned correctly, then the pistol would not fire. It is a telling fact that the makers of pistols did not also provide holsters. They made wooden cases for their product.

But pirates loved pistols, and evidence surfaces that many pirates collected them. Pistols were terror weapons. They were loud. They made smoke and inspired chaos. Pistols were, moreover, the weapon of a “gentleman,” and such a weapon in the hands of a dirty, uneducated criminal sent a message that rules of society were being turned upside down. And setting the world on its ear was a pirate’s goal.

Unlike navy pistols, pirate weapons were private property. This was important, since each pistol had its own individual quirks, and close study of it could reveal the way to produce maximum reliability. If some weapons responded to use of a particular grade of flint, or dropped a spark more reliably when held at a slight angle, the longtime owner would know. The rules of most pirate ships required weapons to be cleaned, maintained and ready for use at all times, and circumstances indicate the pirates cared for their weapons enthusiastically.

Pirates also modified pistols to suit them. For example, the smooth hardwood grips made to appeal to gentleman purchasers did not work well for a pirate, whose hands might be sweaty, wet, or covered in blood. Pirates wrapped their pistol grips in cloth, favoring silk ribbon for the purpose.

They also carried as many guns as possible. Though belt holsters had not been invented, pirates used over-the-shoulder bandoliers, rigged to carry up to three weapons. Two of these provided six shots. Another pirate invention was a sort of V-shaped neck-bandolier, also holding six weapons, and featuring a pouch in front for powder and shot.

If this sort of fancy leather- work wasn’t available, braces of pistols were tied together by the butts and simply slung around the neck. Three pairs were about all a person could carry, and may have been the conceptual ancestor of the six-shooter. More pistols could be crammed into coat pockets, More is better, especially when you have only an 85% chance of getting a shot off.

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