Matchlocks, Wheellocks and Flintlocks: How Early Small Arms Were Fired
How could the charge be fired?
In the centuries before the invention of the percussion cap, which came into use in the 1830s and 1840s, small arms had to be fired by the cumbersome (and often dangerous) means of igniting a primer charge of gunpowder in the weapon’s “pan,” which then ignited the main charge in the barrel.
There were three basic methods of so doing, namely the matchlock, wheellock, and flintlock. Wheellock and flintlock weapons were devised to overcome the problems presented by the matchlock method.
The matchlock ignition system was developed around the end of the 15th century, and was clearly copied from the means used to fire larger artillery pieces. The idea was that a piece of cord was kept smouldering and used many times to fire charges of gunpowder. This avoided the need to “strike a light” each time, which was itself a tricky and uncertain procedure in the days before friction matches had been invented.
The match was essentially a fuse, comprising a length of cord that was soaked in a very strong solution of saltpetre (potassium nitrate, one of the components of gunpowder) and allowed to dry. Once ignited, the cord would burn very slowly.
With a handheld weapon, as opposed to a fixed artillery piece, it was obviously impractical for the soldier to hold the weapon steady at the same time as applying the end of a piece of cord to a firing pan. A trigger mechanism was therefore devised that allowed the user to concentrate on holding and aiming the weapon as it was fired.
A short length of match was therefore attached to a mechanical, S-shaped arm which was fitted to a plate set into the stock of the weapon, which was held against the shoulder. Pressing the trigger, which was usually set underneath the stock, would swing the arm forward, bringing the glowing end of the match into contact with the primer powder in the pan of the weapon, which in turn set off the main charge.
The procedure for firing such a weapon, be it an arquebus or early musket, was a clumsy affair, involving the insertion of powder, ball and wadding into the barrel, ramming them home, then priming the pan. A soldier would do well to get more than one shot off in a minute, and he would be vulnerable to attack between shots. The usual procedure was for soldiers to fall back after they had fired, to be replaced by others whose weapons were primed and ready
The matchlock method had a number of disadvantages, as well as its slow operation. In wet or damp conditions the match could be extinguished and need to be relit, using a tinderbox, or replaced. Sometimes this would be impossible, making the weapons completely useless.
In a strong wind the match could do more than just smoulder, producing sparks that were highly dangerous when gunpowder was being handled. A spark could ignite the powder in a neighbouring gun, which might be pointing anywhere at the time.
Early matchlock weapons required the user to carry charges of gunpowder on his person, as well as spare lit matches. The combination of the two was clearly highly dangerous
Despite these disadvantages, matchlock weapons were in general military use in Asia and Europe for several hundred years. The Chinese used such weapons as early as the 14th century, and they were common in Europe from the late 15th century. It was only from the mid 16th century onwards that other firing methods, namely the wheellock and flintlock, superseded the matchlock.
The picture shows members of the Sealed Knot, who re-enact battles from the English Civil War, in various stages of firing matchlock weapons. The photographer has caught the moment of a priming charge being ignited but before the main charge has been fired. Should the latter fail to happen, this would be an instance of a “flash in the pan”, which is how that expression originated.
The “matchlock” system, in which heat was supplied by a naked flame in the form of a smouldering piece of cord brought into direct contact with gunpowder in an open pan, was a process that was not only dangerous but unreliable. The way forward was to use friction as the heat source, and the first method to do so was the wheellock, which was used on weapons from around 1550 to 1650, although weapons from both before and after these dates can be found.
The idea of the wheellock was a simple one, although the mechanism was quite complicated, and later versions of muskets and pistols developed in various directions. What is described here is the fundamental operating principle of the wheellock.
The wheel was made of steel, with a roughened edge, set on a square spindle. The edge of the wheel, which was set vertically to the stock of the weapon, met the pan beside the touchhole that conveyed heat to the main charge inside the barrel. The wheel was also linked to a powerful V-spring.
Another vital part of the mechanism was a metal arm that held in its jaws a piece of pyrites, a commonly found mineral which was renowned for its ability to strike sparks when in contact with steel. Indeed, the word derives from the Greek for “fire”.
In order to fire a wheellock weapon, the wheel needed to be wound against the spring, which was done by fitting a key to the square spindle and turning it until the spring was fully compressed. The wheel would then be held in place by a “sear”, a small arm that engaged with a hole in the side of the wheel, thus locking it in place. The piece of pyrites then had to be placed against the edge of the wheel and held firmly against it by a ratchet device of some kind. Finally, after a pinch of powder was placed in the pan, the weapon was ready to be fired.
The action of pulling the trigger withdrew the sear from the wheel, causing it to spin rapidly as the pressure of the spring took over. The rubbing of the wheel against the pyrites produced sparks which, when they reached the pan, ignited the powder.
The gunman would then have to reload the weapon and pull the pyrites away from the wheel before repeating the process for the next shot. All in all, it was not a notably faster process than that required for operating a matchlock weapon, but it was somewhat safer and was not as reliant on good weather conditions, given that less powder was needed to prime it and there was therefore less chance of it getting wet or being blown out of the pan by the wind. There was also less risk of a “flash in the pan”, meaning the burning of the powder in the pan without a subsequent firing of the main charge, caused by the touchhole being blocked or the powder trail not being complete.
Despite the advantages of the wheellock it was expensive to produce and tended to be used more for hunting by aristocrats than by armies in the field.
The army soldier had to make do with matchlock weapons for many years after wheellock mechanisms were available. Not only were matchlocks cheaper and less complex, with less to go wrong in terms of their mechanical operation, but their operators were more dispensable, the safety of the common soldier not being a prime consideration.
The wheellock did, however, make possible the development of personal weapons in the form of pistols, which would have been quite impractical under the matchlock system. Again, pistols were the property of rich people, and many became prized possessions with gunsmiths encouraged to produce highly ornate pieces, with inlays of ivory, gold and silver on the stocks and/or barrels (see picture).
The real successor to the matchlock was, therefore, not the wheellock but the simpler, and therefore more enduring, flintlock.
The true successor to the matchlock firearm was the flintlock. The wheellock had its disadvantages, not least being the expense of constructing weapons that incorporated the necessarily complex mechanism. As a result, wheellocks and matchlocks continued to be used in parallel for around 100 years, and it was only when flintlocks came into general use, in the later 17th century, that the matchlock’s days were numbered.
There were several precursors to the flintlock, including the snaplock and snaphance, but the true flintlock could be said to date from the invention, by Marin le Bourgeoys, of a mechanism that enabled a weapon to be loaded in advance of the need to fire it, as opposed to in response to immediate need. This clearly brought huge advantages to the soldier in the field, who was far less likely to be caught by surprise.
Le Bourgeoys was a courtier at the courts of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, and his invention dates from the early years of Louis’s reign (i.e. around 1610-15). Dumas’s “Three Musketeers”, although fictional, could therefore have been early users of Le Bourgeoys flintlocks. The heyday of the flintlock came in the later 17th and 18th centuries.
The basic idea of the flintlock was that a piece of flint was brought into sharp contact with a piece of steel, producing sparks that then ignited gunpowder in a pan, in turn igniting a charge of powder in the barrel of the gun via a touchhole.
The flint was held in the jaws of a cock, which could be pulled back against the force of a strong spring. When released by the trigger being pulled, the cock would be forced forwards so that the flint would strike an upright steel piece, called a frizzen, producing the necessary sparks.
One feature that made the flintlock such an advance on its predecessors was the two-position device invented by Le Bourgeoys. When the cock was pulled half-way back, a metal arm called a sear was able to drop into a slot on the shaped metal block, the tumbler, to which the cock was attached. In this position, the trigger could not be pulled, thus constituting the first ever safety catch. Only when the cock was pulled all the way back was the sear ejected from its slot and the trigger able to be pulled.
A second very useful feature was that the frizzen was L-shaped. The flint struck against the upright long arm of the L, whereas the short arm covered the pan, in which the primer powder had been placed. The act of striking the frizzen forced the pan to be opened at the same time that the sparks were being produced. There was therefore no danger of the powder being affected by the weather, and no danger of its being ignited accidentally, which could easily happen with a matchlock weapon.
The flintlock musket or pistol could therefore be carried in the half-cock position, loaded, in perfect safety. When the owner needed to fire, he only had to aim, pull the cock all the way back, and pull the trigger. He could then reload and prime the pan, even if he had no intention of firing again immediately.
Many improvements were made to the basic flintlock mechanism over the years, with the method being applied to weapons of various types, including multibarreled and breech-loading weapons. They were eventually superseded by percussion cap weapons in the mid-19th century. However, flintlocks are still produced today in some places, for hunting as well as historical re-enactments.