Rock Island Auction Company

March 13, 2019

Guide to Pistols: The Over 200 Year Evolution

By Danielle Hollembaek

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The Extraordinary History of the Pistol

Pistols are essential to any gun enthusiast’s collection. From their ease of use to their readily concealable nature, pistols are champions of practicality. For centuries, groundbreaking pistol designs have paved their way into the hearts and hands of military personnel and civilians alike. The earliest invented pistols for sale come at a high price point due to their rarity, but the collectible nature of the guns is incredible. The different mechanisms and designs adapted for hand held antique guns vary, with each offering different challenges and advantages to the user. With that said, pistols are a crucial addition to the firearm family and innovated the world of guns.

The evolution of pistols is centuries in the making. Brilliant minded firearm inventors have been designing and redesigning the guns since the 1200s. The ability to wield a hand held weapon as a side arm appeals to a wide range of people whether its the 13th century or the 21st. As the mechanisms and accuracy of pistols improved over time, so did the collector firearm’s popularity.

Historic Overview of Pistols for Sale

Hand guns date back as early as the 11th century. The mechanism used on early pistols was the cannon lock. Essentially a hole into which a flame or fuse was applied, this form of pistol was a hand cannon and functioned similarly to the large stationary cannons we know today. They were muzzleloaders and fired one single shot at a time. Since the hand cannon was such a primitive design for a firearm, they left much to be desired in terms of rapidity of fire, ease of use, and overall safety. Despite its risky nature, there are numerous books that place the hand cannon in use from the 1200s to the 1400s in places like China, Italy, Germany, and England. If you ever find a hand cannon pistol for sale at an auction, go and see it in person. They are some of the most interesting and strange antique guns you will ever lay your eyes on.

A cased, exhibition grade Japanese matchlock pistol. It sold at auction in December of 2017 for $10,350.

The first recorded traditional pistol came about in the 14th century and used the popularized matchlock mechanism. The matchlock pistol is the first hand held gun to resemble modern day pistols. The development of the gun started as early as the 1380s according to written records, but did not get popularized until the mid to late 15th century. The way of igniting the gun powder became much easier and quicker for the user. The gun operator had a smoldering wick, which was lowered into a small priming charge of powder. Once ignited, the flame would travel through a small touch hole near the breech end of the pistol and ignite the main charge.  Finding a good conditioned matchlock pistol for sale is a truly great find. A historic hand gun collection is not complete without at least one matchlock pistol.

The next pistol mechanism was a wheellock and it revolutionized the art of war. Arriving in the late 15th century, the innovation took concepts introduced in the matchlock, but made them more practical and introduced a spring-loaded wheel. Users would no longer have to maintain a lit match or worry about its smoke and glow giving away their location. Upon pulling the trigger, the steel wheel would release its spring pressure and spin against a piece of iron pyrite that was held against it via a small arm called the “dog.” That friction created sparks that ignited the gunpowder. After that, the process was largely the same as the matchlock before it: the priming charge in the flash pan would ignite, travel through the touch hole, and ignite the primary charge at the rear of the gun barrel. The wheellock was a genius innovation that allowed guns to be concealed and carried ready to fire. It also removed many of the issues caused by having a lit match such as: wet weather, having a lit match around a necessary supply of gunpowder, the sight and aroma of smoke giving away troop positions, smoldering wicks being easily spotted in low light conditions, and running out of match.

Here is a historic cased pair of exhibition quality Nicolas Noel Boutet flintlock pistols connected to French Revolution military commander and directoire member General Paul Francois Jean Nicolas de Barras. The pair sold for $172,500 at auction in December of 2016.

Not long after wheellocks, the flintlock mechanism was introduced and changed firearms forever. A jaw on the cock (or hammer) holds a piece of flint and when the trigger is pulled, the flint is slammed forward and strikes a piece of steel called the “frizzen.”  The sparks showered into the flash pan, and from there the process is the same to previous designs. Flintlocks were remarkably simple mechanisms, especially compared to the complex wheellocks. This simplicity made them cheap to produce, maintain, and operate – leading to over two centuries of use! Thanks to this lengthy reign as the peak of firearms technology, flintlocks exist in a myriad of variations and from every corner of the earth. Longarms, pistols, rifles, muskets, multiple barrels, military weapons, high art presentation pieces, dueling pistols, and hunting pieces can all be found with flintlocks in their various iterations. This wide variety of styles means you can find flintlock longarms and flintlock pistols for sale in our auctions year round.

The Percussion Ignition

The next and perhaps most significant pistol development came with the percussion or “cap” lock system.  It was dependent on the invention of the “percussion cap.” In its most common and final form, the percussion cap came to represent a tiny metal cup half filled with mercury fulminate – a chemical compound that would explode when struck. After loading the firearm, a percussion cap would be placed upon a protrusion called a nipple. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer springs forward and smashes the percussion cap against the nipple. This ignites the percussion cap, the sparks from which travel down the center of the nipple via a fire channel. This functions much like the touch hole of previous mechanisms. It travels through this fire channel and reaches the primary charge of powder which then ignites and propels the bullet. By the 1830s, numerous armies were using the percussion cap, and Samuel Colt had designed his first revolvers to utilize the new technology. It was widely used, but was eventually overtaken by the self-contained cartridge in the mid-19th century. Finding original percussion pistols for sale is not that hard if you look at a reliable auction house. The mechanism was highly popular for decades in the United States and around the world.

Self-Contained Ammunition

The final evolution that changed pistol design for the better came about in the late 1850s. The invention of self-contained ammo changed the way people used guns. Self-contained ammunition houses the case, primer, powder, and projectile all in a single cartridge. It requires no additional loading work by the user. A pin hits the primer at the pull of the trigger and the gun fires. Needless to say, loading time, ease of use, and overall safety was increased because of this crucial design change. This advancement made possible other firearms innovations such as repeaters, semi-automatics, and machine guns.

Semi-automatic Pistols

Semi-automatic pistols are the majority of what you will find when purchasing a new gun. Invented in the late 1800s, they function by using the recoil of the fired round to automatically extract the empty brass casing, eject it from the gun, and load the next round. Finding a modern semi-automatic pistol is easy, we have them in our Regional and Online Only auction throughout the year, and you find them in all gun shops. When looking for modern pistols for sale, your selection will be quite large and varied.

Here we have an outstanding early 1912 production Colt Model 1911 U.S. Army contract Pistol with a Colt factory letter. Sold in April of 2016 for $57,500.

Modern Pistols

There are essentially three types of cartridge firing handguns for sale: revolvers, single shot pistols, and semi-automatics. Others, such as bolt action or break action, do exist but are rare. If you were to go into a gun shop and look at any of the pistols for sale, you would find that some are made of metal, but many now also involve parts made from polymer or plastic. The majority of the new pistols available are mass produced with the possibility of customization available upon request. Modern day pistols are almost hassle-free when compared to old time muzzleloaders, but do still require periodic cleaning and maintenance.

Explore Different Types of Pistols for Sale

With a basic understanding of the mechanisms used in the pistol, you will be able to understand the way different types of pistols for sale work. At Rock Island Auction Company, we offer every kind of pistol for sale that you can imagine. We have sold some of the most collectible and magnificent pistols at auction. From ornate wheellocks to military cartridge style, we have classic pistols for sale for all different types of collectors.

As you begin your search for a new pistol, look no further than Rock Island Auction Company. From antique muzzleloaders to semi-automatic pistols, we have experienced expert that can help you find the exact pistol for sale you are looking for. Check out our catalog online today to start your search for your next pistol.

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