Type:  Gunflint

Location: Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia



MoST ID: 3443

Pedestal Link: https://une.pedestal3d.com/r/HodtX3Pwja

Model Author:  Michael Rampe

This gunflint made in Brandon, England, ca. 1790-1850, and was recovered in 2020 during salvage excavations for the Parramatta Light Rail project in Australia.  Gunflints were mounted in gun locks to strike a spark when the trigger was pulled, igniting the black powder in the pan.

This gunflint was made in Brandon, England, from Brandon flint.  It was recovered during salvage excavations in 2020 by archaeologists in advance of the construction of the Parramatta Light Rail infrastructure.  One margin of the gunflint is damaged, resulting in a steep fracture and a notch in the outline.  The damage probably occurred after the gunflint was discarded, and perhaps during excavation.  The working edge of the gunflint shows use-wear microflaking, primarily to the ventral surface.  This suggests that the flint was mounted in the lock with the ventral surface facing upward.

See the annotations for technological details about this stone tool.

Flint and chert are ideal for striking sparks from soft, carbon-rich steel.  Flint is harder than steel, and when a glancing blow is struck with the flint, the sharp edge shaves off a tiny particle of iron.  The friction created in shaving off the tiny particle raises its temperature to above iron’s ignition point.  Combined with oxygen, the iron burns white-hot, which we see as a spark.  The iron continues to burn until fully oxidised, which provides sufficient time to ignite carbonised cloth (‘char cloth’) in the case of fire-making kits, or black powder in the case of flintlock firearms.  Modern fire-lighting ‘flint’, like that found in survival kits or some cigarette and stove lighters, is a specially-designed artificial metal alloy known as ferrocerium, invented by an Austrian chemist in 1903.  Ferrocerium ignites at the surprisingly low temperature of ca. 170℃, compared to ca. 960℃ for iron.  In modern survival kits, the role of the steel is reversed from flint-and-steel kits:  the steel is struck or drug against the ferrocerium to generate the sparks to ignite the char cloth or tinder.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not possible to make a fire by generating sparks from striking two rocks together.  Spark-like effects generated by rubbing or striking two stones together is a form of triboluminescence:  light from electrical charges generated by fracturing crystals.  As such, the light is too fleeting to generate heat sufficient to start fires.  Triboluminescence is sometimes observed in hard-hammer flintknapping, particularly when using quartz-rich hammerstones.  Prior to the use of metals, certain forms of iron pyrite could be used to make sparks for fire-lighting based on the same principle as a flint-and-steel kit.

Gunflints were used on flintlock muskets, rifles, and pistols primarily in the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries.  By 1850 they were mostly replaced by percussion caps and, later, metal cartridges.  Flintlocks were mainly used in European countries and their colonies because the guns were difficult to manufacture.  The gunflint was mounted between the jaws of the lock with the sharp edge facing the frizzen.  The frizzed is an L-shaped piece of steel with a hinge at the front, mounted on the side of the barrel in front of the lock.  The lock is pulled back and locks into place (hence the term ‘locked and loaded’); when the trigger is pulled, the lock is released and it rotates rapidly forward.  The gunflint scrapes along the frizzen to create a shower of sparks, simultaneously forcing the frizzen to rotate back on its hinge, exposing the pan underneath.  The pan is a shallow metal bowl containing a small amount of black powder.  The sparks fall into and ignite the powder, which burns through a tiny touchhole in the side of the barrel and ignites the black powder inside.  This propellant ignites in the confined space inside the barrel and the force propels the lead ball—packed tightly in front of the powder—out of the barrel.  The whole process occurs in less than a second.  A common misfire was called a ‘flash in the pan’, when the powder ignites in the pan but fails to burn through the touchhole.  The edge of the flint wears with use, often by microflaking in contact with the frizzen, but under ideal conditions a flint can last for ca. 200 shots before needing replacement.  Misfires were common due to a dull or poorly mounted flint.  Soldiers were equipped with small metal hammers to retouch and resharpen their gunflints, often as part of a combination tool that included a pick for the touchhole and a screwdriver for the lock.  About three or four firings per minute were possible by soldiers armed with flintlocks.

As armies across Europe switched from matchlock guns to flintlocks in the 17th and 18th centuries, a tremendous demand for flints emerged.  Gunflints were initially made by striking large flakes from nodules of flint, and then striking short, thick flakes from the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the larger flakes.  These smaller flakes were then retouched into rectangular gunflints, referred to as ‘gunspalls’.  Gunspalls were made in various places, including England.  More efficient gunflint manufacture, based on percussion blades, was invented in France by ca. 1710, and the technology was introduced by French prisoners to England ca. 1780-1800.  The need for the British gunflint industry was exacerbated by a ban on export of gunflints from France during the Napoleanic wars.  Gunspall and blade-based gunflint industries arose in many European countries with suitable flint during this period, creating a lively trade, and gunflints were also made locally in European colonies in North America, Africa, and Nepal.  Local industries sometimes made gunflints from flint nodules used as ships’ ballast.

The gunflint industry at Brandon, England, is the best-described; the flintknappers there served as a model for Victorian prehistorians interested in how stone tools were made in prehistory.  The Brandon gunflint industry persisted until the 1980s, when the last traditional gunflint maker, Fred Avery, retired.  At its peak during the Napoleanic Wars, the Brandon gunflint industry employed up to 200 flintknappers and exported 1.5 million flints per month.  At top speed, skilled flintknappers could finish 8 flints per minute.  An experienced knapper could produce an average of 3000 gunflints in a 12-hour day, and 10 tons of flints were exported per week from one Brandon workshop alone.  In the 20th century most gunflints were exported to Africa; in a 1960 interview, the Brandon flintknapper Herbert Edwards claimed that 60,000 gunflints were still being exported per month to Nigeria.  Edwards’ 1967 petition to export gunflints to South Africa was denied by the UK Board of Trade as part of a general ban on the export of arms to that country.

Gunflint manufacture in Brandon involved mining high-quality flint nodules from shafts dug into the flint-bearing chalk.  The nodules were sectioned (‘quartered’) into chunks about six inches square using a heavy flat-ended steel hammer (two sizes of hammers were utilised, depending on the size of the nodules), and the chunks were given to the flakers.  The flakers were considered the most skilled workers in the production process.  The flakers worked the chunks into single-platform cores using a pointed steel hammer (also in two sizes).  The first series of flakes, called ’shives’, removed the cortex from the stone.  The flakers next proceeded to work around each core’s periphery (‘flaking’), rapidly removing elongated blades, ideally with a trapezoidal cross section.  The used-up cores were recycled as building flints.  Next the blades were given to the knapper to work into gunflints.  To do this, the knapper holds the blade against a narrow, flat-topped stake embedded in a block of elm wood, with the blade’s ventral surface facing up.  The stake is cushioned it its hole with leather, allowing it to ‘give’ slightly while in use.  A special flat hammer made from a file was then struck against the blade where it contacted the stake, sectioning it (‘knapping’).  Up to four or five rectangular sections (gunflints) could be produced from one blade.  Three edges were trimmed immediately after the blade was sectioned, with the fourth, functional edge left sharp or retouched by dragging it across the back of the stake.  A common feature of the sectioned blade was a cone of force—called a demicone—created where the dorsal surface of the flake contacted the steel anvil stake.  In these cases, the crack initiated from the anvil, and not from the hammer.  A video from the 1940s shows the Brandon flintknappers at work.