Imagine the drama!
You’ve been accused of stealing precious food rations from the ship’s larder and your cohort in crime has just been shot dead by pirate Captain Flynt. Now you watch as he calmly pours powder down the barrel of his still smoking pistol, drops in a ball, pulls back the hammer and fills the primer pan with powder. He aims the pistol at your forehead and pulls the trigger. You watch as the flint strikes the frizzen, making white sparks, and the primer charge flashes, sending flame into the main chamber. The powder ignites and the ball accelerates down the barrel. This is where, for you, in season three of “Black Sails,” the story abruptly ends.
But for me, the story came back vividly as I looked at the details of a real flintlock action, this time on a rifle in Richard Cheney’s small antique gun shop in Bigfork, Short Colt Antique Arms. I had kind of stumbled into the shop on an errand, but once inside I was intrigued by the collection of antique arms I found — and it was a treat to see and study some of the arms I’d only seen in the movies.
Remember Tom Selleck as “Quigley Down Under” and the legendary Sharps long-range rifle? Well, Richard didn’t have one there that day. But he did have several comparable 1,200-yard guns. For me, long range is hitting something the size of a varmint at 50 yards shooting a .22-caliber with 10-power scope. For Quigley and his ilk, it’s hitting something the size of a quarter at well over half a mile away. No scope, just iron sites. And these are the guns they used.
Cheney is a retired electrician and 40-year antique gun hobbyist. I could relate as he told me how his wife had gently suggested maybe he should take his collection of guns out of the house and open a little shop somewhere. I looked at the price tags on the guns. They seemed to range from about $500 to $5,000. Some he owns, some are on consignment.
Why do people buy these weapons?
“Some shoot them, some collect them,” Cheney said. “Probably 99 percent of the guns I sell are fully operational but some folks just hang them on their wall and in their collections.
“People will start out with a single, inexpensive gun and then start adding and upgrading their collections. I’ve brokered collections valued at $80,000.”
I see a matched set of small cap-lock pistols in a silk-lined case on the counter.
“Muff guns,” Cheney said. “From Paris. It’s a lady’s gun; small and meant to conceal in a (hand)muff or her undergarments.”
He shows me how the gun is loaded by unscrewing the barrel, and putting the powder and the ball directly in the chamber. It’s put in the safe position by pulling the hammer halfway back, at which point a spike-shaped, unguarded trigger protrudes from the bottom. I imagine its intended use and think it has discomfort written all over it.
Much of the shop is filled with guns from roughly the civil war era. A few flintlocks, a few cap locks but mostly cartridge weapons.
“I really like the cowboy guns,” Cheney said. “Here’s a Smith & Wesson No. 2 Army. General Custer had one of these. Look how you load it.”
He proceeds to demonstrate how the barrel tilts up, the cylinder falls out and you can fill it with bullets and put it back together. Interesting. But revolvers are revolvers and Richard notices that my gaze has returned to the flintlock.
There’s something Rube Goldberg about it. I see the flint is really a piece of rock held in a clamp shaped like a hammer and it strikes this metal plate that looks like a file. Would this kind of contraption actually work with any reliability?
“So long as you keep the powder dry,” he said.
And right-side up, I notice as he shows me the pan close up.
“If the weather was at all wet, you walked around with your hand over the primer pan to keep the rain out. They even made things that covered the powder.
“But if the powder was dry, it was reliable,” Cheney continued. “Aim small, shoot small.”
I remember the line from Mel Gibson in “The Patriot.” I didn’t really know what it meant, though.
As Cheney explained, “You have to hold it still while the flint strikes, the primer flashes, and the charge ignites. There’s a delay of almost a second in a flintlock between the time you pull the trigger and the time the gun goes off.”
Almost a second. A bit longer than I experience with my Glock or my varmint rifle. But I’m sure to the thieving seaman in “Black Sails,” it must have been an eternity.
David Vale retired from the world of psychology and statistics and now owns the Pocketstone Cafe in Bigfork.