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In the hands of men like Boone, Kenton, and Wetzel, the flintlock rifle helped shape North America as we know it today. Flintlock rifles won our War of Independence and went west with Lewis and Clark. Because of this, many sportsmen and women want to own, shoot, and hunt, with a flintlock rifle. But most modern outdoorsmen know little about them or even where to find the best example. Johnny Walker is a fourth-generation rifle maker and knows as much or more than anyone when it comes to the flintlock rifle.
Joseph Carper, Walker’s ancestor, settled in middle Virginia in 1802, and he and his son became famous because of the long rifles they made. Today Walker carries on that tradition; he’s been building muzzleloading rifles for nearly a half-century. With the help of his daughter, an engraver trained by Hershel House—one of the most famous living flintlock rifle craftsmen—Walker specializes in flintlock rifles replicating those originally made in the East Tennessee hills.
Walker lives in Kodiak, Alaska, but he grew up in West Virginia not far from me. I have two of his flintlock rifles and he taught me everything I know about them. In the 1980s, he and I founded a muzzleloading rifle club, and using rifles he built we both won the West Virginia off-hand muzzleloading championship. Walker recently visited, so I asked him for some advice for those who might crave a flintlock.
Table of Contents
- Flintlock Rifle Basics
- The Four Types of Flintlock Rifles You Can Buy Today
- What Does a Flintlock Rifle Cost?
- Hunting & Shooting Flintlock Rifles
Flintlock Rifle Basics
Walker says to first determine what you want to do with your flintlock rifle. Do you want it for recreational shooting, hunting, or just decoration? Then decide what style you want by selecting a period and geographical location for its origin. Do you want a flintlock embellished with brass and silver like those made in Pennsylvania, or something plainer, fitted with iron furniture like the rifles made in East Tennessee? You must then select a caliber. For recreational shooting, .45-caliber rifles are comfortable to shoot. For small game hunting, .40-caliber or less is best. For big game, .50-caliber and larger work well, and are legal in most states. Finally, you must decide where to get your flintlock rifle.
The Four Types of Flintlock Rifles You Can Buy Today
Factory Reproduction/Modern Rifles
According to Walkern, you have four options. First, you can buy what is known as a factory reproduction, which is a modern-made, mass-produced rifle, replicating various periods and geographic styles. The Traditions Deluxe Kentucky Rifle represents an 1800s rifle, but Traditions also offers a very modernized flintlock with a camouflage stock and a fast twist barrel. It can fire modern projectiles and black powder substitute, pelletized powder. For the more discerning flintlock aficionado, Pedersoli offers some of the best quality, factory-made flintlocks. They’re made in Italy but are distributed in America.
Flintlock Rifle Kits
The second option Walker suggested is a flintlock rifle kit. In the latter part of the 20th century, these were very popular. Some will require a good bit of final fitting and even then, might look a bit rough. Others, like those from Kibler, only need minimal fitting, assembling, and finishing, and make a very nice shootable and period-correct flintlock rifle. Kits breed a bit of ownership into the rifle, but they do require patience. Putting together and finishing a flintlock rifle kit is not the same as building and assembling a rifle like an AR15 at home.
The third option is to buy an original flintlock rifle, but Walker strongly urges against it unless you just want to own a piece of American history and use it as home décor or to impress your buddies. “The problem with originals is that it’s near impossible to determine how safe they are to shoot,” he says. “The steel used was not the greatest back then, and you can never know if it’s one, two, or ten shots, away from blowing up. Original flintlocks are for looking at, not shooting.”
The fourth, final, and best option Walker suggests is to commission a custom flintlock rifle from a respected maker. This ensures you’ll get quality parts, good workmanship, and a rifle that’s historically correct. There are builders like Ian Pratt, Mike Keller, and David Rase, who can replicate a Bean Tennessee flintlock, a Fordney Pennsylvania flintlock, or even a Mylin flintlock rifle, which is considered the progenitor of rifles used by Daniel Boone.
This gives you options too. The rifle can be custom fit to your length of pull, have a barrel the exact length you desire, and be as fancy or plain as you like. You can go with a walnut stock or a high-end curly maple stock as striped as a Bengal tiger. You can also opt for a rifle that looks brand new or one like Walker crafts that’s been antiqued. Walker says, “Most of today’s serious flintlock shooters prefer the latter because it gives the sensation they’re shooting or hunting with an original.”
You can also pick the barrel you want, which is the heart of a muzzleloader. Walker rifles his own barrels the way his ancestors did, using the actual guide they used. This type of cut-rifle barrel will shoot patched round balls much better than modern reproductions because of the rifling geometry. It’ll even deliver conical bullets with exceptional accuracy. If you can shoot, with a Walker barrel, you can hit a snuff can every time at 100 yards and even further. But a Walker barrel will cost you $650—if you can beg your way onto his list.
What Does a Flintlock Rifle Cost?
Factory reproductions can cost from $500 up to three times that much. Walker says to expect to pay about a grand for a good one. A flintlock rifle kit is about the same price but can increase substantially if you select high-grade wood or a top-end barrel. The price of original rifles can go from as little as near nothing to ridiculous. Walker says, “It all depends on the condition, the maker, and the provenance.”
As for full custom rifles, prices range from a couple thousand up to a hell of a lot more. As part of a fundraiser, a Hershel House rifle once raised $140,000. Walker says the price for a good quality custom flintlock rifle, like from him or other talented makers, will start at around $3,000. But he also says because the wait can be so long—up to five years—the value increases as soon as you take possession.
Hunting & Shooting Flintlock Rifles
Walker’s final advice: “If you want to truly enjoy a flintlock, you need to shoot it.” That requires learning how to properly load it, what type of powder to use, and how to read a patch to determine the proper ball diameter and patch thickness. There are also special skills and techniques, like flint knapping, the use of hornet’s nest for wadding, and tools, like vent pics, you should become familiar with. If you select the best of the master flintlock makers to build your rifle, they have this knowledge and will share it.
The flintlock was America’s first rifle. And nothing ever has or ever will symbolize American patriotism and freedom like a flintlock. My advice? If you can order a custom flintlock, do it. And while you’re waiting to get yours, download Sturgill Simpon’s album, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita. It tells a story about a mountain man, his dog, his mule, and his flintlock rifle. It’ll keep you company until your rifle arrives.