Curator’s Choice – The Flintlock Flint

Posted: 26th May 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – The Flintlock Flint

This little object is a gunflint. They were an important part of an early type of gun known as a flintlock, which was in use between the 17th and 19th centuries. The gunflint would be inserted into a part of the gun which was known as the cock, because it was said to resemble the shape of a bird’s beak. The cock was spring-mounted, so when the trigger was pulled it would swing forward and the flint would hit a piece of steel called the frizzen. This produced sparks, which ignited a charge of gunpowder and fired the gun.

Gunflints are made by striking flakes off a core and trimming them into their distinctive square shape, a process known as knapping.

This is similar to the way a number of prehistoric flint tools were made, the main difference being that modern knappers tend to work the flint with metal tools rather than ones made of stone or antler. Each gunflint could only be used for a limited amount of shots, as the flint rapidly became blunt and stopped producing sparks. There was also the danger of it breaking within the gun. Because of this, a continuous supply of gunflints was necessary and, at the peak of the industry, millions of them were made and transported all over the world.

For me, the really interesting thing about gunflints is the mixture of old and new technology that they represent. While a gun would probably have been an unimaginable concept to a prehistoric person, the gunflint itself, and the way it was made, would have been familiar to them. People were making and using stone tools millions of years ago, and I love the thought that even as recently as the 19th century they still had a role to play.