The First Foot Guards

We are a Revolutionary War reenactment group based in Boston MA,
accurately portraying the royal household regiment that is now known as
The Grenadier Guards



Brown Bess
The parts of the Brown Bess

Three main components make up the whole:
The Lock or mechanism
The Stock or wooden part
The Barrel or steel tube

The whole weapon is "Lock, stock and barrel", which is where 
the familiar phrase comes from.

The "Lock" or mechanism

The Brown Bess is a flintlock. In the old days, the word 'lock' applied to mechanical contrivances of any kind, including the lock that was fitted on the doors of houses of wealthy people, and to the lock of a gun. Historically it was preceded by other mechanisms: the matchlock which was simple, relatively inexpensive, but difficult and hazardous to use; and the wheellock, which was expensive (and was therefore was used only by the wealthy).

The wheellock was a clockwork mechanism that could be wound, and when released would spin a wheel which would give a shower of sparks. The matchlock used a burning fuse (or 'slow match') which by operating a simple lever, touched off the charge. It wasn't far removed from the linstock that was used with cannon. You can imagine how difficult it was to keep the match alight, and to keep it away from your black powder!

How the flintlock operates

A priming charge of gunpowder is added to the pan, then the main charge of gunpowder is dropped down the barrel from the muzzle end, followed by the ball (or 'bullet'). The trigger releases a spring-loaded mechanism that causes a flint to strike against steel, which throws sparks into a priming charge, which in turn ignites the main charge of gunpowder in the barrel. The whole mechanism is cunningly contrived.

See an animated diagram (Massachusetts Firearms Seminars site) Offsite link

All the names of the parts of a lock
Offsite link

The Cock
This closes in an arc. There are three positions:

Released: the position just after discharge. The sharp edge of the flint almost touches the pan.

Full cock: The cock is drawn completely back in the position where the lock is ready to fire. It can be released by the trigger only in this position.

Half cock: A position halfway between Released and Full Cock. The gun is ready to be used, but cannot be operated by the trigger. After charging the weapon, the gun could be shouldered for future use. If the lock mechanism is faulty, it could allow the cock to release, causing premature ignition, and injury to the musketeer. This is a situation known as "Going off at half cock", a phrase that is used figuratively to this day. You are probably familiar with its picturesque allusion to ineffectual action.

The JAWS hold the FLINT securely into the COCK. The TRIGGER or TRICKER, as you would expect, releases the spring mechanism, causing the lock to operate.

The Flint
This is a hard, brittle vitreous stone that can be shaped to a sharp edge. Because it is so hard, it can be struck against steel to create sparks. In use in the flintlock, it is unpredictable. You might be able to get dozens of strikes from the same flint, or you might soon have to replace it. Although the flintlock was more effective than any gun which had preceded it, a major contributory factor to its unreliable operation was the flint. If you are able to closely observe a reenacted battle, you will see musketeers occasionally replacing their flints, exactly as in real combat. They carry a tool to do this that operates like a screwdriver, but doesn't look like its modern counterpart. When you talk to a reenactor, ask to see this tool. You might see different kinds, such as the Pickering tool.

Before the advent of matches (or the Zippo lighter!), flint and steel were the usual means of starting a fire. An eighteenth century workman might carry around with him a tinder box containing a flint, a steel, and tinder. Tinder is carefully-charred linen fibers usually prepared from old worn-out clothing. The tinder-box kept it dry and ready to use. The sparks would ignite the tinder, and the flame produced would ignite a candle (or a fire). The flame in the tinder would be extinguished, and returned to the tinder box for further use.

Flint has been mined since Neolithic times. It was of great value in arrows, spear heads, and as a cutting edge. It was widely traded across Europe in those times as a very valuable and portable commodity. Such Neolithic mines still exist today, and can be visited as at Grimes Graves in England. Flint was mined (originally using antlers as a digging tool) as palm-sized rocks. It needed to be shaped or "knapped" by a skilled craftsman who could create the requisite tool, or flint. By a series of carefully controlled blows to the flintstone, the knapper creates an edge. If you visit Grimes Graves, you can have lunch and a pint of beer in the nearby "Flintknappers Arms" in Brandon. There can't be many pubs with that name!

The Hammer
This is the curved striking plate that projects up above the BARREL.
It is made from hardened steel that will cause a spark. It is contrived to have two functions, both of which work together when the trigger is released. First it closes over the PRIMING CHARGE in the pan that protects the charge from the weather (wind, rain or snow), and it confines the priming charge so that it doesn't fall out. This is of great importance, as it allows the weapon to be brought vertical, yet ready to fire. Secondly, the face is a striking plate against which the edge of the flint strikes, throwing a shower of sparks into the priming charge in the pan. As the flint strikes, the hammer moves out of its way, exposing the priming charge to the sparks.

The Pan
is the shallow depression which holds the PRIMING CHARGE, and butts close to the barrel, at the point where there is a small TOUCH HOLE through the wall of the barrel.

The lock contains three springs. 
One to hold the HAMMER in its two positions.
One to hold the COCK in its three positions.
One large one to power the closing stroke of the COCK to make sure the flint strikes firmly and rapidly against the HAMMER, to create a spark.

This is a term used to describe the Cock. Seemingly "frizzen" is an anachronistic usage, as "frizzen cover" would also be. The latter was known (and is cited by Cuthbertson) as a hammer-stall.The only other contemporary terminology was a "steel" used in referring to the hammer, but usually in reference to civilian weapons.

For a scholarly, brief treatment of this controversy, read Mark Tully's article on the NWTA pages.


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