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The Flintlock Mechanism

The flintlock is the most venerable of the lock technologies. The flintlock mechanism, like the pendulum clock mechanism is amazing from an innovation standpoint. This single device solved so many of the problems of the time, and it did it using the fairly primitive tools and technology available at that time. The flintlock was quite an accomplishment.

The basic goal of the flintlock is simple. The flintlock needs to create a spark that can light the gunpowder that is stored in the barrel of the gun. To create this spark, the flintlock uses the “flint and steel” approach. The idea behind flint and steel is straightforward — Flint is an amazingly hard form of rock. If you strike iron or steel with flint, the flint actually flakes off tiny particles of iron. The force of the blow and the friction it creates actually ignites the iron, so it burns rapidly to form Fe3O4. The sparks that you see are the hot specks of iron burning! If these sparks come near gunpowder, they will ignite the gunpowder.

The flintlock therefore needs a piece of flint, a piece of steel and a place for the sparks to touch gunpowder. The flint needs to move at high speed and strike the steel in such a way that the sparks fall into some gunpowder. The four parts that make this happen are:


  • The hammer, which holds and accelerates a piece of flint.
  • The mainspring, which powers the hammer.
  • The frizzen, which is the piece of steel the flint strikes.
  • The pan, which is the place where a small quantity of gunpowder waits to receive the sparks.


These four pieces are all that the flintlock actually needs to accomplish its goal, but all flintlocks also solve the problems of loading the pan, protecting the pan from the weather and triggering the hammer, so there are three additional parts:

  • The tumbler, which holds and releases the power of the mainspring and transmits it to the hammer
  • The sear and sear spring, which engage the tumbler and release it when someone pulls the trigger.
  • The frizzen spring, which holds the cover attached to the frizzen over the pan to make the flintlock weatherproof.

The mainspring presses against the tumbler and is able to rotate the hammer with a great deal of force. The sear engages the tumbler when the gun is cocked and holds the force of the mainspring. When you pull the trigger, it pushes the sear enough to release the tumbler and allows the hammer to drive the flint forward. You can see all of these parts in the images at the right and below:

In addition, the frizzen has the ability to move. In the cocked position the frizzen is down covering the pan. When the flint strikes it, the frizzen pops out of the way to expose the pan. The frizzen spring holds the frizzen in both positions.

To use a flintlock you load the gun as follows (see much more detailed instructions):

  1. You half-cock the hammer.
  2. You pour a measure of gunpowder down the barrel
  3. You wrap a lead ball (the bullet) is a small piece of cloth or paper and ram it down the barrel on top of the gunpowder. The bullet/cloth combination will have a good tight fit.
  4. You place a small amount of gunpowder in the flintlock’s pan.
  5. You snap the frizzen in place over the pan.
  6. You fully cock the hammer.
  7. You pull the trigger to fire the gun.

When you fire the gun, the flint strikes the frizzen and shaves off iron to create sparks. The hammer’s blow also snaps the frizzen back to expose the gunpowder in the pan. The pan’s gunpowder ignites, and it flashes through a small hole in the side of the barrel to ignite the gunpowder inside the barrel. The gun fires!