This post was originally written in 2009 for the now defunct American Survival Blog
I was reading the current issue of The Backwoodsman magazine when I came across an article by David Langerman called The Ultimate Bug Out Gun and How to Feed It in which he makes the not unconvincing argument that his preference for a survival weapon (the flintlock rifle) has several advantages over modern firearms in a true TEOTWAWKI situation. He has a point in that should we really slide into even Second World status the ability to buy ammunition or even reload modern ammunition using smokeless powder and modern components will be severely curtailed. With that in mind the flintlock mechanism is a low-tech solution that provides anyone who can tinker around with naturally occurring substances (sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate) a viable shooting platform they can feed themselves without overly specialized knowledge.
Black powder can be (for the most part) safely made following a recipe easily available on the Internet and lead balls can be fabricated using equipment purchased through many sporting goods catalogs now. The Flintlock rifle certainly has saved the lives of many men and put food on millions of tables over the years, of that I have no doubt. But while David Langerman may be ready for anything with his flintlock does that mean “primitive” weapons are a good idea for the modern survivalist?
Short answer: no. While I encourage everyone to learn some primitive skills there has been an unfortunate mythology surrounding primitive skills that lead people to believe that they are both simpler and better than modern equivalent. This somewhat naive mindset can lead to tragedy when people assume that they can, after reading some books and attending a few primitive living classes, live out their Grizzly Adams fantasy in some unheated cabin in the middle of the woods.
If you are like David Langerman and are familiar with flintlocks and can operate one, fix one when it needs to be repaired, and truly understand how complex and delicate the flintlock is then including one in your survival plan is an excellent idea. But if you are just starting out getting prepared or have only a passing familiarity with muzzle loading in general or flintlocks in particular then my advice is to keep things simple. And flintlock rifles are anything but simple.
Primitive does not equal simple, often primitive technology is more complex and harder to use for the average person. Take starting a fire. The primitive way often involves using devices that take many months to truly master, and even when you’ve become expert at the use of hand bows or flint and steel fire making the techniques are prone to failure. A light drizzle or errant gust of wind could mean several extra hours of tedious and frustrating work to start a fire, if you can get one going at all.
In my bug out bag I have lighters, matches and film canisters stuffed with Vaseline soaked cotton balls. Primitive? No. But I can light a fire when I need one and as of now I can stock up on all the materials I need. What I can’t do is spend all my waking hours honing primitive skills because I work and so do many of you. Primitive skills take a long period of time to master, and if you’re still (hopefully) a 9-5er with a family your preparedness hours are better spent stocking up on modern equipment and preparing to be self-sufficient than learning ancient skills. There will be plenty of hours in the day for you to perfect your primitive skills after TEOTWAWKI and after you’ve provided food and shelter for your family.
The same goes for the flintlock, but while buying a flint and steel set to mess around with is a small investment the several hundred dollars you drop on a good flintlock is better spent on Ramen, powdered eggs and heirloom tomatoes, all of which you could order from Amazon right now at 1/10th the cost of a flintlock rifle and that’s without the powder and accessories needed to operate one.
A good flintlock rifle runs anywhere between $400 for a sale model in a Cabelas catalog to a couple of grand for a hand made one. A single shot shotgun from N.E.F. or Rossi comes in under $200 and in some cases you can get them for under $100. Best yet the single shot shotgun is one of the most versatile, rugged and reliable firearms there is. Yes ammunition will be scarce to say the least after TEOTWAWKI but it isn’t TEOTWAWKI yet. Ammunition can be stockpiled easily through mail order and the Internet.
But more importantly the single shot shotgun can be mastered faster and maintained easier than any primitive weapons system. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say they broke their flintlock the first time they cleaned it (you need a special spring vice apparently) or how many misfires cost them their buck during muzzle loading season. Learning to properly shoot and maintain a flintlock is a long and arduous process requiring hours of trial and error. The survivalist has no time for this. You need to maximize your time at the range by becoming proficient enough with your firearm that the ammo you have stockpiled will last a lifetime, and the gun itself can be passed down for generations.
In other words, you need to think like the people that traded in their flintlocks in the first place. The flintlock still may have limited use to a limited amount of people (re-enactors who have put in years of practice to master the arm) but most people should use the time and money it takes to master primitive arms to ensure they are prepared to survive. If flintlocks appeal to you and you have the money and time then having one is great, but I’ll stick to my shotguns and Bic lighters and anyone new to preparedness should do the same.