Flash in the pan: The archaeology of gunflints in Alberta

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Regional Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Did you know that for over 200 years, guns around the world had a specific part made of stone that archaeologists have found evidence of in Alberta? Gunflints are chunks of rock that generated sparks to ignite gunpowder. Their use in guns first appeared in Europe in the early 1600s. Most of Alberta’s earliest guns were muskets, which began replacing bows and arrows in the province in the late 1700s.

Gunflints reveal lots of information about fur trade life in Alberta and they tell archaeologists important details about when guns first arrived and who first brought them. Patterns of gunflints at archaeological sites can show where gun repairs took place or where the flints were stored. Historic records of the number of traded gunflints can tell us which forts were specializing in certain tasks and how many hunters or trappers they were supplying. In general, gunflints are interesting historic artifacts that are often the only preserved record of a weapon technology, flintlock firearms, that ultimately changed the West.

Muskets had a metal piece called the flash pan that was mounted on the outside of the gun and held a small pile of gunpowder protected from wind and rain by a movable lid (a ‘frizzen’). When the trigger was pulled, the gunflint pushed the frizzen, opened the flash pan, and created a spark. A small explosion of gunpowder on the outside of the gun (the ‘flash in the pan’) was then sent through a hole to a larger load of powder inside the musket barrel. This explosion then launched the musket ball towards future food or enemies.

Diagram of how flintlock guns worked (by Todd Kristensen).

Flintlock guns were used in North America before 1650, and, in parts of the West, gunflints were used well into the late 1800s. While a technology called percussion caps began replacing the flintlock in the mid-1800s in North America, guns were still hard to come by and flintlocks had a certain durability that kept them in use.

Gunflints are the most common gun-related artifact found at fur trade sites in Alberta (see table below). Historic records tell us that forts needed large numbers of gunflints each year because each gunflint only lasted for about 30 shots. For example, in 1797, the Hudson’s Bay Company shipped 6,700 flints west towards Alberta from York Fort in Manitoba. At northern posts, gunflints were commonly given to trappers as gifts in the hopes that they would return to the post.

Archaeological records of gunflints recovered from trade posts in northern Alberta (Pyszczyk, 2015).

 

A gunflint collection from the Peace Region of northwest Alberta (by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale).

Gunflints in Alberta are not easy to identify; the odd museum collection in Western Canada has gunflints grouped along with arrowheads and stone scrapers because they are easy to mistake for a pre-contact stone tool. But archaeologists tell the difference using some key features and by paying close attention to raw materials and patterns of use (‘usewear’).

Diagram comparing features of pre-contact thumbnail scrapers (used to scrape hair and tissue off of animal hides) and historic gunflints (by Todd Kristensen).

Where did gunflints come from and who made them? Gunflints were made and bought in bulk from Europe. Some small towns in France and England had special workers or guilds of people called flintknappers who were devoted to making gunflints. The average lifespan of a flintknapper in 19th century England was 46 years compared to the 64 year life expectancy of non-knappers because they worked in closed rooms with harmful rock dust. Knappers wetted stones before cracking them so that tiny rock pieces (silica) didn’t float in the air, but ‘silicosis’ or ‘knapper’s rot’ was still common and led to early deaths.

Man and boy flintknapping in Brandon, England in the mid-1800s with inset drawings of the different flintknapping tools. Images from Skertchly 1879 compiled by Todd Kristensen with permission from the British Geological Survey, 2015.

To give a sense of how many flints were made, 13 flintmasters in England were contracted in just one year (1813) to make 1,140,000 gunflints for the British army. The French and British had different ways of making flints, and some archaeologists in Alberta have tried to identify where Alberta gunflints came from based on this. Early British flints were often made on rough spalls (oval or semi-circular flakes of rock) while French flints were made on advanced blades (long rectangular flakes with specific ridges). The English adopted different methods of making flint, and some believe they sent spies to copy the French method of blade production.

Diagram comparing the general stages of making gunflints developed by the English and French (by Todd Kristensen based partially on Skertchly 1879).
This compilation of images shows how the flints were made and the different types of gunflints. The flints at right are a small sample of the roughly 30 varieties of gunflints produced by knappers in Brandon, England in the 1800s. Images from Skertchly 1879 compiled by Todd Kristensen with permission from the British Geological Survey, 2015.

Gunflint styles and sources have changed over time. Flint styles of Nordic and Dutch origin have been found in North America, but they were mostly replaced by French and then British gunflints in the 1700s and early 1800s. Both French and British styles are found in Alberta. French flints are usually honey brown while the English flints are often dark grey or mottled grey-black (although there’s lots of variability and these colours are not always reliable). Elsewhere in North America, archaeologists have used advanced geochemical tests on gunflints to more accurately figure out their origins from Netherlands, Denmark, France and England.

The ultimate source of gunflints in Canada related more to economics than relationships with certain countries. In Europe, English armies fighting against the French reportedly used stockpiled French flints, and in North America, archaeologists have yet to tie patterns of French vs. English flints to either the Hudson’s Bay Company or Northwest Company. Gunflints were also made by First Nations that copied European styles. Along the East Coast of the U.S., First Nations reportedly used old stone spear heads to re-work into gunflints because the materials used for spear tips were also good for gunflints.

Thanks to John McIntosh, Maurice Doll, Ainsley Rhynold, Julie Martindale, Heinz Pyszczyk, and Nicole Baughan for help preparing content used in this blog.

For more information see:

Ballin, Torben Bjarke
2012, ‘State of the Art’ of British Gunflint Research, with Special Focus on the Early Gunflint Workshop at Dun Eistean, Lewis. Post-Medieval Archaeology 46(1): 116-142.

Durst, Jeffrey J.

2009    Sourcing Gunflints to Their Country of Manufacture. Historical Archaeology 43(2): 18-29.

Keith, Lloyd
2001, North of Athabasca: Slave Lake and Mackenzie River Documents of the North West Company, 1800-1821. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.

Kristensen, Todd, Emily Parsons, and Julie Martindale
2015, Gunflints in the West: A Collection from Dunvegan in Northwest Alberta. Alberta Archaeological Review 60 & 61:9-15.

Lotbiniere, S. de.
1984, Gunflint Recognition. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 13(3): 206-209.

Luedtke, Barbara E.
1999, What Makes A Good Gunflint? Archaeology of Eastern North America 27: 71-79.

Pyszczyk, Heinz W.
2015, The Last Fort Standing, Fort Vermilion and the Peace River Fur Trade 1798-1830. Occasional Papers of the Archaeological Society of Alberta, No. 14.

Skertchly, Sydney B.J.
1879, On The Manufacture of Gun-Flints, The Methods of Excavating for Flint, The Age of Palaeolithic Man, and The Connexion Between Neolithic Art and the Gun-Flint Trade. Memoirs of the Geological Survey, London.

Witthoft, John
1966, A History of Gunflints. Pennsylvania Archaeology 36(1-2): 12-49.

One thought on “Flash in the pan: The archaeology of gunflints in Alberta

  • Keep these articles coming Todd! For me, a good review and some new stuff too!

    An interesting note: Some aboriginal hunters and trappers preferred flintlock trade guns to percussion locks. In a pinch, a bipolar split river pebble will work in a frizzen and throw enough spark to ignite a powder charge, but not as reliably as european flint. (I have tried this ). With a percussion gun, once you are out of percussion caps you have a gun that is good material for a hide scraper or a club!!

    Incidentally, a colleague of mine told me she observed Dene were still making bipolar split pebbles as expediency tools the 1980s.

    I have noted a number of late 19th century marked HBCo flintlocks and the latest one dated 1901! There has to a good reason for this don’t you think? As percussion firearms began to replace flintlocks in the first third of the 19th century, there is still evidence for its late persistence in the early 20th century. The HBC wouldn’t make them if they couldn’t sell them!

    Gunflints recovered from two Alberta side by each fur-trade posts (ca. 1810-1813) deserve a closer look and are not included in your article. Forts White Earth (Terre Blanche)/Edmonton House III on the North Saskatchewan River south of Smoky Lake and upstream from forts George/ Buckingham House shared a common palisade for mutual security from warring Cree and Blackfoot, while maintaining separate living quarters and trading operations. I worked on both these posts in 1969 under the supervision of John and Trudy Nicks. John was the Historic Sites officer at the PMA at the time and was collecting doctoral dissertation data. Trudy was a U of A Dept of Anthropology M.A candidate. I was an undergraduate.
    I suspect the material is in the Royal Alberta Museum or U of A collections.
    Just some thoughts,

    Maurice

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