Some time back I wrote of our visit to the Government Small Arms Factory Museum at Lithgow. Besides being able to view a huge collection of contemporary and antique firearms in the museum we were also treated to a guided tour which explained a lot about the weapons and their origins. I was particularly interested in ‘Armoury expressions’ which have found their way into everyday use in today’s language.
The origins of many expressions we use today can be interesting. Expressions such as:
• 'lock, stock and barrel',
• 'straight as a ramrod',
• 'flash in the pan',
• 'caught napping' and
have their roots in practices and equipment used by the military from the 1700’s.
A Short Land Pattern 'Brown Bess' Musket
The British Marines standard issue was the short land pattern of the 'Brown Bess' musket. The musket consisted of a forged iron tube of three-quarter inch bore attached to a wooden stock and a mechanical firing device called a ‘lock’. Therefore, a complete musket could be described as ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which we use today to describe a complete item – the ‘whole thing’!
Sea Service Pattern of the 'Brown Bess'
used by British Marines 1778–1854
The lock consisted of a jaw arrangement (the ‘cock’) which holds a piece of flint, a ‘steel’ or ‘frizzen’ which is a hardened steel plate from which the sparks are produced when the flint strikes it, and the ‘pan’, a depression below the frizzen containing a gunpowder priming charge.
The gunpowder in the pan is ignited by a spark from the frizzen and the flint which in turn flashes through a hole in the side of the barrel (the 'touch hole') to set off the main powder charge and expel the ball . If the powder in the pan burns but fails to set of the main charge we have a 'flash in the pan'. In today’s terms we would use this analogy to describe an event that has a lot of fanfare but is of no consequence.
The proper functioning of the flintlock musket depends on a lot of strong sparks being produced when the flint strikes the ‘frizzen’. Through repeated use the flint becomes dull and a new edge must be put on the flint to restore its efficiency at producing spark. This is done by gently tapping the edge of the flint with a small tool .T he process is called' knapping'. A soldier in battle depends on his musket for survival, so to be ‘caught knapping’ by his enemy could have fatal consequences – you will notice that this term has nothing to do with falling asleep.
The military employed professional 'knappers' whose job involved chipping flints out of large flint boulders. The knappers were very skilled tradesmen and were in great demand as you can imagine. Very high quality flints were produced for use in flint lock musket and pistols. The poorer quality discarded flints were called ‘skins’ and the people who gathered them up for their own use were called ‘skin flints’ – someone not willing to pay their fair costs for purchasing an essential item.
The ramrod is a steel with a flanged end which is used to push the cartridge containing the gun powder, wadding and a lead ball down the barrel of the musket when loading it. When it is not in use the ramrod is kept in a channel under the barrel. The ramrod must be straight otherwise it will not fit into the ramrod channel. A very straight object may then be described as being as 'straight as a ramrod'.
I find it fascinating that many terms we use to express ourselves with today can have their origins in something that was so mechanically exact and designed for a different application when applied to their original use 300 to 400 years past. I doubt if our forefathers ever saw the essential 'life skills/survival' terms they used everyday would be used as 'expressive terms in our generation.