More About Collectible Wheel-lock Pistols


It is not surprising that the invention of the wheel-lock pistol came not from gun makers but from the creative genius of clockmakers. Not only were clockmakers the most advanced mechanics of the 15th century they uniquely grasped the problem of storing mechanical energy in springs.

Leonardo da Vinci drew a wheel-lock mechanism in 1485. It one of thousands of drawings Leonardo made of military equipment. His picture is the earliest record of the wheel-lock pistol and some take this as evidence that Leonardo da Vinci invented it.

In any case, the wheel lock freed gunners from the incredibly dangerous matchlock firearm and its accidental misfires, burns, and explosions. The burning match also made it practically impossible to sneak up on an enemy or fire from a hidden position. The smell of the burning match was unmistakable. Of course the match was nearly useless when it rained.

The wheel-lock mechanism was complicated; it was made up of more than 40 parts, and sometimes many more. It was however, very simple in that it operated much like a cigarette lighter. A lighter has a wheel that is spun, by the thumb, against a small piece of flint. This action hurls tiny fragments of very hot steel against the flammable surface of the wick.

The wheel-lock used a heavy key to wind a spring in the same manner that one used to wind a clock. The key produced tension in a spring that could be released by pulling the trigger. The spring spins with incredible speed and like the lighter hurled sparks into a tiny pan primed with gunpowder. The powder in the pan ignites and in turn ignites the powder in the chamber firing the gun. A mere fraction of a second passes between pulling the trigger and the ball exiting the barrel.

As complicated as the machinery of the wheel-lock started it became more so over time as gunsmiths improved it. They added an additional spring to push the cover from the priming pan, which previously had been exposed to rain and dampness. They also added a set of leaf springs that reduced the pressure needed to pull the trigger giving it a hair trigger. Other added complications included advances that allowed the gun to fire more than one shot and eventually a device called a “self-spanner”. That is, the pressure to the spring could be applied by merely cocking the gun ridding the users of the necessity of the key.

Ironically, the more advanced and improved the gun became the fewer people could afford to use one. The intricacy of the weapon made it so only the very best of gunsmiths could produce or repair them. The higher the skill required to make and repair the more expensive the pistol became.

Expense wasn’t the only problem with the wheel-lock. As the number of moveable parts in the pistol increased so did the likelihood of something going wrong with them. Not only did they simply break more often they also could become jammed when spring or wheels became off kilter.

These factors combined to ensure that the wheel-lock never replaced the matchlock as the primary firearm of the infantry man. It was popular however with gentlemen and officers. They being the only ones who could afford the expense and complication of the wheel-lock, made it the weapon of choice of the upper class.

The misfortune of the common soldier has proven a boon to the antique firearm collector. Because only the wealthy could afford the wheel-lock most existing examples are beautiful objects that transcend their utility to be regarded as works of art. The craftsmanship of most collectible wheel-locks is extraordinary; delicate metal work, rich woods, and exquisite balance are all hallmarks of these marvelous firearms.

It would not be until the development of the flintlock and its much simpler mechanism that the common foot soldier would get free from the dangers and misadventures of the matchlock. Curiously, there was a version of the flintlock, called the snaphaunce, that had been around for almost as long as the wheel-lock but for some reason was very slow to catch on.

Posted on April 20, 2006

Loretta Crawford is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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