This gunflint was made in Nepal, ca. 1800-1850, and recovered from the Royal Nepalese Armory. The gunflint is made from medisedimentary stone. 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 Nepal from local medisedimentary stone. The gunflint was made on a flake and was unifacially retouched into a rectangular shape. The point of force application and part of the platform are visible on the gunflint’s ventral surface. Locally-produced gunflints are technologically very different from the blade-based gunflints made in England and France.
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.
The gunflint in this model is from the disused Royal Nepalese Armory, and the flints from there date to ca. 1800-1850. Nepal allied itself with the British East India Company from ca. 1816, although many flintlock muskets discovered in the armory had pre-1815 dates. The contents of the historical armory were purchased in 2003 and the gunflints discovered there are sold today to modern enthusiasts who fire flintlock weaponry. A room in the armory, estimated to be the size of a modern single-car garage, was piled up to four feet deep with loose gunflints—estimated to comprise 1.3 million specimens. Archaeologists performed a formal analysis of a representative sample of 1194 of these gunflints and found that they were of mostly English and French manufacture, with a small proportion of locally-made Nepalese gunflints. Many of the flints showed heavy use-wear.