Matchlock and Wheellock Antique Firearms

Out of the rough and tumble world of medieval warfare emerged the firearm. Rockets had been attempted in various parts of the world over the centuries but early guidance systems were disappointing and the weapon was declared impractical. Gunpowder began to seriously influence warfare late in the middle ages as the first cannons began to appear. Initially used solely to destroy fortifications the application of gunpowder to killing individuals quickly occurred to medieval strongmen.

The earliest handguns were hand cannons in the most literal sense. They were tubes; closed at one end, with a tiny hole drilled in them to allow the application of a small quantity of powder and ultimately to alight the fuse. The fuses were lengths of slow burning rope but an ember of other sorts could easily substitute.

Only the most rudimentary attempts were made to make the weapon comfortable for the gunner. These early firearms were fired from the waist with little opportunity for aiming. The life of an early gunner was thankless and fraught with danger. Knights drenched in outdated notions of chivalry despised them. The handguns, like their cannon counterparts, were prone to exploding. The necessity of holding burning rope in your hand while also handling gunpowder led to many gunners being wounded or killed by the explosion.

Examples of surviving antique firearms from this period of history are extremely rare museum pieces and essentially unobtainable for the average weapon collector.

Before long the obvious advantages of shoulder aiming became apparent and wooden stocks were added to the weapons. As stocks were added barrels became longer. What started as something faintly resembling a modern handgun was now a musket.

At the end of the 1400s weapon makers made a significant step forward when they invented the match. They took a piece of densely wound rope and soaked it in a saltpeter solution. The match would keep a glowing tip for extended periods and burned very slowly.

The matchlock firearm that followed this invention took that match and attached it to a gun by means of a mechanical arm that held it firmly in place. A trigger activated the arm causing it to swing forward bringing the lit match in contact with a tiny amount of powder in a small pan. The ignited powder carried flame to the powder charge within the gun.

The matchlock changed everything. It came to be the most widely used infantry weapon in Europe. Useless and expensive armor disappeared and the knight dwindled in significance leaving the lowing infantry man as the king of the battlefield.

It is possible although rare to find early matchlock firearms available at auction. The chances of finding such a collectible whose value is not fully appreciated by its owner are extremely small. Antique matchlocks are extremely expensive and collectors who purchase them as an investment had better do so for the long haul. They are so costly that only a patient strategy with no hope of a quick turn around will make the investment pay off.

Matchlocks, although far superior to the guns it followed, had a number of serious drawbacks. The match would not function in the rain and blow sparks presented a very real danger of unintended explosions.

The next significant development in firearms was the invention of the wheellock. The firing mechanism consisted of a rough edged wheel mounted on an axel. The wheel was attached to a powerful spring, usually v-shaped. The wheel formed the floor of the touch pan that held the small ignition charge. An arm held a tiny fragment of pyrite in a vise-like grip. By means of turning a specially fitted key the spring could be tensioned.

Once the trigger was pulled the metal arm was brought into contact with the wheel. Releasing the tension from the spring caused the wheel to spin while in contact with the piece of pyrite. Friction created sparks which ignited the powder held in the pan firing the weapon.

The wheellock firearm had a number of advantages over the old match lock. It was largely immune to weather conditions and less prone to accidental ignition. However, they were complicated device and thus expensive to produce. They never caught on as standard issue weapons for armies for that very reason.

For those who could afford them wheellocks were very popular and a fair number of them survive. They were in general use for about a hundred years and since they primarily belonged to the wealthy many surviving wheellocks are ornate pieces of art made by master craftsmen. A good wheel lock pistol or musket is a thing of tremendous beauty and a joy to behold. They are, like their predecessors, very expensive and difficult to find.

In the next installment on firearms we will take a look at the flintlock and more modern collectible firearms. Fear not, we will soon get to guns that can be found in some abundance and at more accessible prices.

Loretta Crawford is a free-lance writer on a variety of topics including: food, wine and antiques. She can be reached at Content and

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