Antique Glossary: Firearms


As intrinsically pleasing and attractive on visceral level as antique weaponry is, if you want to collect them or evaluate grandma’s collection you have to know a fair amount of jargon. Understanding the basic description of a gun sold on Ebay or similar online auction will help the fledgling arms collector make a wise purchase and enjoy their hobby all the more.

Below you will find a fantastically incomplete list of some of the terms any antique gun collector should know. However, we must start somewhere. There will certainly be additions made in future articles but, as flawed as it is, I hope the answer to some basic questions can be found within.

Arquebus- A term for firearms that predate the true musket. Usually a smaller weapon as well. An arquebus could be a matchlock or even a hand cannon.

Bluing- The process of protecting steel gun parts by conversion coating. The process protects the gun from rust, to a degree, without adding to the precise thicknesses of the parts. The name is derived from the blue-black finish the process leaves on the gun metal.

Combination Weapon- Any antique gun that was made to serve as a hand-to-hand fighting weapon as well. When pistol fired only one shot it was useful to have an axe or spearhead to turn to.

Flintlock- A vast improvement over both the matchlock and the wheel lock. Lacking the dangerous match of the former and the complicated mechanism of the later. French gunsmiths laboring for their king developed the true flintlock in the early part of the 17th century. The simple firing mechanism opened the primer pan smoothly and most importantly it was durable.

Furniture- When applied to antique fire arms the term describes artful carvings or other decorations not part of the stock but affixed to it. Furniture, when not original, is often used to hide bad restoration or attempts at faking.

Hand Cannon- The simplest and oldest of handheld firearms. Surviving examples date back to the 1350s and descriptions exist from somewhat earlier. The used no mechanism to fire. As the name suggests they fired by igniting the powder within through a small hole, like an old fashioned cannon.

Matchlock- A common type of infantry musket in use from the 15th century until, rather surprisingly, the 18th century. Any firearm in which a burning cord or ‘match’ is held by a mechanism that will bring the match into contact with a pan of powder can be called a matchlock. The older the weapon, the simpler the mechanism that fires it. The earliest lacked a trigger but simply used a ‘S’ shaped holder, one end held the match, and the other was pressed to the firing pan by the shooter’s finger. As time passed they become more and more complicated, gaining improvements to the trigger and even a spring loader.

Miquelet Lock- A Spanish flintlock named for bandits of that country that enjoyed a rather romantic public image. It was a simplified version of the wheel lock improved upon by Spanish gunsmiths. When the flint hit the steel it opened a lid from the firing pan as well as throwing sparks.

Snaphaunce- An early Dutch version of the flintlock. It may have been first built as early as 1540 but probably a little later. The name comes from a Dutch word for a pecking hen. After Peter the Great’s famous exploration of Europe the Snaphaunce came into use in Russia.

Spanner- The key-like device used to wind wheel lock pistols. Spanners were often as ornate as the pistols they went with and were works of art. They were also small, used in fast moving situations, and often lost. For this reason possessing the original spanner makes a wheel lock all the more valuable. Even a spanner by itself, without the gun, is a very desirable collectible.

Wheel Lock- A firing mechanism in fairly common use from the 15th century through the 17th. It was a contemporary of the matchlock and most ways superior it was the better of the two. It didn’t have a burning match that caused unwanted explosions and was useless in the rain. A clock-like mechanism would, when the trigger was pulled, fire it. It was wound with a key and pulling the trigger would release the tension and spin a disc very quickly. Sparks were produced in manner much like a cigarette lighter. Expensive to build and difficult to maintain they never replaced the matchlock.

—-Posted on May 10, 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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