As autumn approaches, and thousands of Chesapeake citizens clean rifles and shotguns in preparation for the hunting season, I’m brought to muse upon the complicated role firearms have played in the Bay’s history. Men have hunted, killed each other, modified and traded weapons as long as we’ve been social animals, but the impact of guns and gunpowder are profound in the march of mankind through the Bay basin.
On the Fourth of July weekend, my yawl, “Nimble” sailed south in the Bay, then up the Potomac, heading for Nomini Bay. But the wind and tide were against us, and the likelihood of making landfall at Nomini was diminishing.
On a whim, we fell off, feeling our way across the shallows and into one of many small rivers digitating the Virginia shoreline of the Potomac. John Smith had been in the Potomac on that very date about 390 years ago, exploring these same creeks for the first time. I like coincidences like that.
Smith took a census of Native American populations when he encountered them. Not a count of people, but of potential fighting men. He and his crew were in constant danger of attack. Even cordial and welcoming groups could — and did — lure Englishmen into a trap and massacre them.
We anchored off a point near where archaeologist Steve Potter did research on the pre-colonial Yeocomico Indians. The Yeocomicos were Late Woodland period Indians, whose culture had been stable for several hundred years since the adoption of maize, bean and squash agriculture had led them to form semipermanent villages. Upland game and waterfowl provided protein and hides, sinew and bone as manufacturing materials Fishing weirs provided seasonally abundant catches from these small rivers and along the mainstem Potomac. The Chesapeake’s once abundant oysters were there for the gathering. Villages, and their dwellings, were not necessarily long term and were moved or abandoned when resource needs dictated, or conflict with other tribal “septs,” family or clan divisions, caused trouble.
There was a low, eroding cliff near our anchor point, with sandy overburden breaking off in chunks and falling to the beach. We took the dinghy ashore and walked along the shoreline. Interspersed were stones and cobbles of quartz, rolled by the streams that flowed here when the region was an upland during the last Ice Age.
Along this coastal plain, these quartz cobbles were the only indigenous rock that Native Americans could “knap” or flake to make sharp tools or projectile points for a spear or arrow. Points, arrow shaft straightening and fletching with feathers took hours, making arrows valuable items. With a wooden bow, bent and strung with animal sinew or twisted vegetable fiber cord, quartz point arrows brought down deer, birds and other game.
They were also the long-range weapon of intertribal combat, and were used by Powhatan Confederation tribes to wound or kill many Jamestown colonists. On the 1608 voyage that took Smith up the Potomac, one encounter with the “Salvages” left his barge surrounded by a ring of captured Indian shields that were bristled with a hundred arrows.
The English colonists came in ships armed with sakers — what we call cannons — and some were taken ashore and mounted at the Jamestown fort. They amazed the Native Americans. In the of winter 1607, the colonists fired one saker into a large tree heavily coated from a recent ice storm. The resulting crash of gun and falling ice sent the terrified Native Americans fleeing into the forest. Powhatan was not pleased.
Meanwhile, the colonists officially sought to keep all guns out of native hands as long as possible. John Smith, after his legendary escape from death by Pocahontas’ intervention, actually agreed to give two of them to Powhatan, fully knowing the men sent to retrieve them could neither lift nor transport these weapons weighing thousands of pounds.
Most shoulder weapons carried by soldier and gentleman in the 17th century were matchlocks. These guns were smooth bore steel tubes, fitted to a wooden stock. They were charged with a couple of teaspoonfuls of gunpowder per lead ball. These guns were fired using a “match,” essentially a loose cord that had been soaked in niter, which when dried and lit, would smolder like an idle cigarette for many hours.
Held in a clamp, with the excess dangling, this match fired the gun when a trigger was pulled, tipping the burning end into a small amount of gunpowder — the priming charge — placed in a flash pan adjacent to the breech, or rear end, of the barrel. This flash, through a small vent drilled into the main barrel ignited (usually!) the charge, expelling the ball at about 900 feet per second, faster than the natives’ arrows. It was hard not to flinch when that flash occurred, and these guns were often held on their aim by supporting the muzzle end of the barrel in an iron crutch at the end of a long rod to the ground.
Native Americans were as eager to have these devices in their hands as the colonists were eager to deny them! Aside from political objectives — such as driving out the English — it was an extraordinary tool for hunting. But even when they got guns, Native Americans found them useless without gunpowder, which they did not understand at first. Colonists tell of watching them “plant” grains of stolen gunpowder, presuming it would sprout like seed and give them an unlimited supply. Sorry, guys.
Gunpowder is a relatively simple blend of charcoal, yellow sulfur and nitrate, usually potassium nitrate, which can be leached from animal manures and crystallized. George Washington’s troops used this method when the British navy blockaded the fledgling United States during the Revolutionary War.
Later, animal wastes, in the form of bird guano on Chilean “nitrate ships” would be shipped here to be used for agricultural fertilizer. Lately, chemically synthesized nitrate fertilizer has been used by terrorists to create fertilizer-based bombs, reminiscent of its early ties to explosives.
The matchlock fired very quickly because the ignition of the priming charge by a smoldering fuse was immediate. Match was kept burning at all times when men were in the field with prospect of using their weapons. This was difficult to do in humid or wet weather.
I have no idea how embattled colonists, surrounded by furious Native Americans, ever managed the process of reloading a matchlock. Men in combat or anticipating combat often carried several prepared charges hanging from their belt in little bags which they would dump down the barrel, follow it with a wad of thin cloth and a pre-molded lead ball of the proper diameter.
These were formidable weapons when you were in the way of a ball. At James Fort, recently rediscovered and excavated, the skeleton of a young Englishman is displayed with a lead ball embedded in his shattered knee. It was an agonizing end, but was it the result of an accident? Dissension? Attack?
The powder constantly in loose bags at one’s waist was also a hazard. John Smith, in a small boat returning to Jamestown, somehow let a spark into one which exploded, burning instantly through his clothes and hideously into his flesh. Though he leapt overboard in agony, he was so badly injured that he was sent back to England, ending his career in Virginia. He lived to return to the New World, but never Virginia, and the colony nearly foundered without his hard, steady, practical management.
Some of the early colonial military men had been issued “flintlocks” a term most of us are familiar with as these were the muskets and rifles used from from American Revolution into the 19th century. Early flintlocks in the Virginia Colony, says Historian Edward Wright Haile, were usually pistols, or handguns.
In the flintlock configuration, the “hammer” has jaws like a tiny vise, which are clamped to hold a chip of flint nested — so it does not chip — in a piece of soft lead. The hammer is cocked back against a strong steel “leaf” spring, much like those under our automobiles, and released by a trigger. When the hammer snaps forward, the exposed flint strikes a little curved steel plate called a “frizzen”.
The result is much like striking a cigarette lighter spark. The force of the hammer’s descent flips the frizzen up so the spark flies into the priming charge, which has been protected beneath it. The gun usually fires, but because of the mechanical and ignition sequence, it is actually a slower process than the matchlock, and the chance of a misfire is greater. There’s a significant delay — a substantial fraction of a second, although it seems much longer — between the trigger pull and the emerging ball. Holding one’s aim on a running deer or flying bird requires discipline, while the spark, flash and smoke precede charge ignition.
The steel frizzen, repeatedly struck by hard flint with bits of metal chipped off at each shot, is a part subject to wear, and over time, the striking face is worn away into a groove the shape of the impinging flint. Flints are also often broken, and are found on period archaeological sites, where they were “knapped” from parent stone, or discarded as replaced.
As technology and reliability improved, the flintlock — which could be loaded, was set aside while one hoed a crop, stood in a corner overnight or carried stuck through one’s belt — eventually became the preferred weapon for hunting, defense or aggression. It was, in theory, always ready to fire IF you “kept your powder dry” as the saying still goes.
I thought of this standing in the shallows of that Virginia tributary on the Fourth of July, and as I looked down absently, there was a small rusted steel object rolling about in the shallows. Bit of some farm implement, I thought, looking up on the bluff at old farm fields, maybe some thumb-latch from a tobacco planter. Once I picked it up, I knew it was something different and aboard “Nimble” that night, with distant flashes of fireworks across the Potomac, I wrote that it was a flintlock frizzen.
There had been a 17th century fort near this river, intended for Virginia’s perimeter defenses, although it is unclear whether it was ever manned and armed. During the War of 1812, though, 500 British troops had marched and barged up to attack the village of Kinsale.
The frizzen had the marks of serious wear on its striking face. Many sparks had come off this steel. Could this have been a lost or replaced piece from skirmishers, flanking the Kinsale action?
I met later with Scott Sheads, weapons and black powder officer at the Fort McHenry National Monument. It was not an American musket. He put me in touch with Redcoat re-enactors who carried replica “standard issue Tower (of London) muskets.” My frizzen was a different pattern. “Perhaps,” said one of them, “this was an East India Company pattern. Many colonial troops were issued these weapons.” What a story this interesting piece of steel could tell!
In the 19th century, the sometime uncertainty of flintlock ignition stimulated the development of the musket percussion cap, which relied on compounds like the salts of fulminic acid - an unstable isomer of cyanic acid - which is shock sensitive and explodes when sharply struck. A bit of this in a metal or foil “cap,” placed over a steel nipple, replaced the vent, flash pan, flint, lead and frizzen. The hammer became just that, and striking the cap, sent fire directly to the main charge, for an almost instant response from trigger pull to departing bullet, the latter being another development. As “rifling,” the slow spiral grooving of the barrel’s interior was developed, the round ball was replaced by the familiar bullet shape, which, fitting the lands and grooves of the barrel in its outward travel, emerged spinning like a thrown football on a true, not tumbling, course. The “minie-ball” which killed tens of thousands of men in Civil War was actually a “bullet” in this sense, far more accurate than the spherical musket ball. Hundreds have been found in the Bay at the Point Lookout, MD, site of a prison for Confederate soldiers, and a target range for Union troops.
It remained only with mid-19th century machine engineering to package the bullet, the charge in its casing and the fulminate percussion cap into a single package. The rifle (or pistol) was precision re-engineered to open so the cartridge could be introduced into a chamber at the breech, or butt, of the barrel then closed over it.
Next were multiple barrels, which meant that guns increased in weight with double, or even six barrels, then magazines, which held several - and eventually dozens - of cartridges.
The question of the old flintlock musket frizzen is unresolved, but it is being treated to stop the degradation of its crumbling metal by the Maryland Historic Trust’s Archeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Southern Maryland. I hope it can someday be fit logically into the long history of this part of the Potomac.