Bird hunting with smooth bores probably got its start shortly after the gun was invented, when someone discovered how easy it was to knock over a covey of birds with a cloud of small shot. By 1650 the art of wildfowling in England was well developed, and arms were cheap enough that even the common folk could afford the new sporting guns.
The hunter of that day is pictured in long frock and full length hose, carrying a matchlock gun with an immensely long barrel which he would thrust through the shield he used to camouflage himself from the birds as he approached them.
He used loosely mixed black powder, weak by modern standards, because there wasn’t any better. His barrel was necessarily long because the burning rate of the powder was slow and needed plenty of length to develop decent velocity. Later on he traded his by then obsolete matchlock for one of the newer wheel-locks, if he were wealthy, or for an English Doglock, a variety of flintlock with a ‘dog’, or hooked catch that acted as a safety. His flintlock was large and clumsy as the greatly improved French lock, which combined all the best features of the various styles of flintlock then available, the same one that we moderns use, hadn’t yet come from the Continent. He was still chipping crude shot off a lead block then rounding it between metal plates, and gunpowder, although eventually improved by ‘corning’ was more readily available, it was still quite expensive. His armament was just clumsy enough, and shot and powder hard enough to come by, that taking a shot “on the ground” was considered very sporting.
At about the turn of the 19th century, bird shooting got a sudden boost. Henry Nock developed his famous patent breech, which promoted faster ignition and made it possible to join two barrels together in side-by-side form and still get a slim wrist that handled efficiently. Steels had improved to the point that much lighter yet stronger barrels were available and powders had been improved to the point that they would produce good velocity in shorter barrels. Shot towers had also been invented with vast improvement in the roundness of shot and uniformity of pattern and ammunition was not nearly so hard to obtain. This culminated in the sudden appearance of the double flintlock fowler and in the rising popularity of “shooting flying.”
Within 25 years, highly competitive English gunsmiths had developed the flintlock fowler into the epitome of shotgun perfection. Except for the flintlocks, the English shotgun of 1815 is barely discernible in form or function from the modern “Best” double produced by the world’s finest craftsman.
Relatively few were made as they appeared only shortly before the percussion system was developed in 1815, and percussion doubles displaced them rather quickly once the high hat type cap was successfully marketed. By 1840, the double barreled side by side flintlock shotgun was a thing of the past.
I was lucky enough to be offered a flintlock double in 1961 and purchased it with considerable sacrifice. This gun was made by Staudenmeyer, a London-based Austrian, in about 1800-30. It sported double 16-gauge rose pattern Damascus barrels (fine for black powder pressures) 28 inches in length, a finely checkered Circaussian walnut stock and double flintlocks with both water-proof and self-priming features. Both barrels were cylinder choked and weight was less than 7 Ibis. The little gun was a delight to handle and literally flew to the shoulder.
Late in a 1970’s November, my good friend Greg Roberts, who was manager of Green River Rifleworks in my hometown of Roosevelt , Utah , came over for a visit. As usual, the subject got around to muzzleloading guns, and the Staudenmeyer found its way into his hands. The day was a fine one and the look on his face as he handled it made an invitation to do some pheasant shooting well nigh irresistible. He accepted with pleasure and we headed for some private property near home where the ringneck rooster was known to hang out.
Greg was adept with any flintlock. I’d never known him to shoot anything else. He quickly loaded each barrel of the little double with 75 grains ffg Curtis & Harvey black powder, a 1/2 inch fiberwad and 1 ounce of #5 shot. He didn’t use a plastic shot collar as we expected close shooting. .I’d brought along both my German shorthair pointer and black Lab bitch. After he checked then sharpened the flints and primed the flintlocks we struck out, dogs ahead, Greg following and me behind with a camera. I have every bit as much fun seeing other shooters fall in love with the flintlock as shooting it myself.
I brought both dogs because the cover was quite variable. Small fields of short sage and cheat grass were interspersed with areas of willow and tamarack, plus cornfields grown high with sunflowers now dry and brittle with autumn. The Spotted Monster (my pet name for the shorthair) hit her first point within 75 yards of the truck at the edge of a willow thicket. Greg stepped back to where he could get an angle on anything coming out and I sent in the black Lab. She jumped into the brush with tail-wagging enthusiasm and crashed noisily about. There was a sudden crackle and thrashing of wings, and a long tailed rooster came roaring straight up out of the willows, clawing for altitude. I heard the click of a flint hammer cocking, then a scratch-boom.
The air was filled with the “sweet” smell of burnt sulfur as the bird collapsed in midair and plummeted into the brush. More thrashing followed and the Lab appeared in a moment with the rooster in her mouth. I was so excited that I forgot to get a picture.
I had known from the start that the Staudenmeyer would be a natural for upland game but tried it first at skeet. To my consternation I broke only 6 of 25 birds on the initial round, although I did my best to shoot the flintlock as I would my Winchester 101 by swinging through the bird and slapping the trigger as the front sight passed it. The fast and uniform .03 second lock speed of the Winchester had let me do this, but the relatively slower, variable and unreliable .05 – .15 second lock speed of the flintlock would not let me copy the technique. I later found that I had to use the constant lead system in order to hit consistently, being careful to maintain the same lead from when I pulled the trigger, through the punch of recoil to impact of shot on bird or miss. After mastering this technique, my skeet score improved to 23/25.
I had found the same shooting technique advisable for field use, except that I had to learn the compensating angles for the huge variety of shots offered by flushing upland game. We do this when using a modern shotgun too, but the angles are greater and the lead longer because of the variable lock time of the flintlock. Despite that, patterns, velocity and impact energy of the loads are similar to what we are used to in a modern shotgun.
Loading the little double is much like re-loading a shotgun shell at home. Pour in 75 grains of black powder (don’t use any other powder). Ffg is preferable, although fffg is usable as well. Then separate the powder from the shot by ramming down a commercial 1/2 inch felt or fiber 16-gauge wad. Ram it down firmly over the powder then thump it with the ramrod until the ramrod will bounce high out of the barrel. Follow with one ounce of shot and then top off with a 16-gauge overshot wad. A one ounce charge of 7 ½ shot works on quail and chukkars as well as clay birds. Pheasants and duck need #5 or #6 shot but stick with the one ounce charges. If a longer shot than usual is anticipated, then ram down a plastic shot collar on top of the fiber wad and pour the shot into it then top off with overshot wad. I’ll often load the left barrel without and the right with the collar. I’ve found that the collarless load patterns 55-60% while the same load with collar patterns 65-70%.
Greg had seen my frustration at missing a good picture and boomed a laugh at my expense. I took the bird from the lab and looked about for the pointer. She had the awful habit of getting a solid point deep in the brush when I wasn’t looking and getting lost for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. I noted that Greg was careful to open the frizzen of the unfired barrel before he loaded the fired side. He would re-prime both barrels only after the fired one was reloaded.
Priming powder should be ffffg black powder only (that’s 4 f’s), and should be used sparingly. The priming charge should be kept below the top of the pan and not heaped up since compression of the powder slows ignition. I always make sure the touch hole is clear before loading, and shake the prime to the side just before firing. I also check to see that the flint is sharp and free of residue from the last shot. If it isn’t sharp, I take the time to sharpen it with a brass punch and small hammer before loading the barrel. If the flint and frizzen are too dirty, I wipe them off with a finger or rag.
Also make sure that the finest flints are in the gun at all times. Both cut and knapped flints can be used but they must be sharp and tough to last. It’s awfully inconvenient to have to change flints in the middle of a round of skeet or a fast session in the field. It’s easy enough to spot a good flint. It will have a sharp, serrated edge and will throw sparks that dance and sizzle around in the pan before extinguishing. If the edge of a new flint is not serrated, then serrate it with the punch and hammer in your shooting bag. Be sure that the edge of the flint is square with face of the frizzen and that it is tight in the jaws of the cock. Normally, the flint is placed with the long side up, but some few locks fire better the other way round. Be sure you know which way your lock prefers before you ever get into the field. They can be finicky if the lock architecture is incorrect. If the lock is a particularly good one, and few classic English doubles aren’t, then nearly every flint will perform correctly..
We headed into a more open area of heavy grass interspersed with sagebrush. When I saw the lab’s tail wagging her whole body I knew she was on the trail of a bird and was ready when she put up a fat hen. Greg let it go and the lab grinned disgustedly. In the meantime the Spotted Monster had another point in some deep grass 40 yards further on. I called the lab to sit while Greg walked into the point. He got to within 15 yards of the shorthair when a rooster thundered out of the cover. The Staudenmeyer was up in a trice and the shot caught the bird in a steep climb. Feathers exploded in the air and the bird tumbled only to right himself with the left wing drooping. I saw Greg cock the second hammer and get off another shot at 40 yards, long range for an open bored flinter. But the bird went down for keeps and the lab charged wildly down the field to make the retrieve.
I was not at all surprised at how easily Greg got off the second shot. The Staudenmeyer is so well designed that cocking the second hammer after a miss is downright easy. The technique is to fire the left barrel first, and if you miss, to rock the right hand up, catch the cock of the right lock with the thumb and click it to the rear as you swing with the bird. The thumb naturally falls back over the wrist as the forefinger slaps the fore-trigger for the second shot. It doesn’t take much practice to become adept. We continued into the grass and brush, getting up several hens and killing two roosters in the process. Both were easy shots over the pointer at relatively close range.
“Hey, Doc,” said Greg, “let’s get into the corn and sunflowers over yonder. The shootin’ here is too easy.” A large field of corn, too infested with sunflowers to harvest, and been left standing. We turned into it, knowing that the shooting would be much more challenging. The sunflowers were so high that I could see only Greg’s head and shoulders sticking out. I couldn’t see the dogs at all but heard them crashing about in the thick undergrowth. There was a sudden cackling and thrashing and thundering of wings and three hens buzzed out to our right. Greg swung on them but dropped the flinter to his side just as two roosters boomed up to the left. Greg swung around at the sound, surprised at the sequence of flushing birds, but recovered enough to pick up the slower bird and bust him with a snap shot. The rooster disappeared into the corn and I sent in the lab while Greg reloaded.
Again, I wasn’t much surprised at how quickly Greg had manhandled the little flinter into position for a snap shot despite being off balance from concentration on another covey of birds. Staudenmeyer had his share of genius and his double handles faster than a man can think. He must have held the opinion that a really good shotgun should not require conscious thought to point the gun where the shooter’s reflexes want it pointed. I have become so used to the Staudenmeyer’s excellent handling, in fact, that I judge all other shotguns by how well they stack up against it.
My reverie was broken as Greg moved off in the corm. I followed his line of motion to where the Spotted Monster was locked into a rigid point, half hidden by a screen of sunflowers. The Lab was not to be seen. For once the angle was about perfect, and I got into position for the flush, camera at eyeball. I watched Greg walk towards the dog through the viewfinder, his bulk miniaturized, by the wide-angle lens. I heard the rooster before I saw him, also miniturized, appear in the viewfinder, climbing steeply out of the sun flowers. I wanted the photo to show the Staudenmeyer wreathed in smoke and the bird plummeting towards the ground. But, as the finger is faster than the eye, I pushed the shutter before Greg got off his shot and captured a picture of a big bird flying away from a man in the weeds. The flinter boomed a mili-fraction of a second after and the bird thumped on the ground another fraction after that. Greg whooped like a Commanche, tickled at his good shooting and the pleasure of the day.
Birdshooting hasn’t changed much, when you get right down to it. Whether you shoot ’em on the ground for meat, like our 17th century ancestor, or whether you delight in the performance of the dogs and the beauty of the day, it truly hasn’t changed. The basic ingredients are all there, whether you do it with a “best” grade modern double, or with a flintlock like the Staudenmeyer, or with a long doglock fowler. As for me, I’ll take the flintlock and lucky I am to have it.