October 31, 2018
By Seth Isaacson
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The various forms of locks used on antique flintlock pistols and other early muzzle-loading antique firearms can be very confusing, but they also create a plethora of distinct variations for collectors. Entire books have been written on antique flintlock pistol identification and the evolution of early firearms, but shown and discussed below are several of the main variations seen on antique firearms in our auctions.
Matchlocks were adopted in the mid to late 15th century and were the earliest firearms with mechanical devices for ignition and the first widely issued man portable firearms. Previously guns were ignited by hand, sometimes by an assistant, and weren’t a significant part of battles. A matchlock uses its namesake slow match, a piece of cord chemically treated to burn slowly, to ignite the primer in the pan.
This design helped establish firearms as a key part of battlefields going forward. Earlier serpentine matchlocks used a lever to lower a slow match into the pan via an arm holding the match, and later snap matchlocks used a sear mechanism and dropped the match onto the pan when the trigger was pulled. Snap matchlocks remained in use well into the 19th century in some parts of the world, such as Eastern Asia. Most examples we see today come out of Japan.
Wheellocks are believed to have been invented around 1515 in Nuremberg. A rather complex, difficult to manufacture mechanism was at its center and included a wheel that is wound under spring tension. The wheel is cocked by turning a lug at its center using a tool called a spanner and then placing the dog on this toothed wheel under strong spring tension. When the trigger is pulled, the wheel spins rapidly and a piece of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) held in the jaw of the dog (the arm that holds the pyrite and can be swung away from the pan. Not to be confused with the dog catch on the doglock) grinds against the wheel creating sparks that ignite the powder.
Wheellocks were more reliable than matchlocks since there was no concern about the match getting extinguished or wholly consumed, and their ignition time or “lock time” was very fast. In fact, high quality wheellocks can be faster than even many high end flintlocks of later periods. They could be kept constantly at the ready and quickly brought to action when needed, which made them particularly useful for hunters and personal guards. Because they were more expensive than other ignition systems before and after them, they were not as widely used. Some were used by specialized units in European militaries, but they are more commonly associated with the nobility who used them for hunting as well as combat. They remained in use for over 200 years.
The snaphance, also known as a snaphaunce, was mainly used from the mid-16th century until the late 17th century but remained fairly popular in the region around Brescia in northern Italy until the mid-18th century. Unlike both the miquelet (defined later in this article) and the “true” flintlock, a snaphance uses a pan cover separate from the frizzen. Like the “true” flintlock they were eventually replaced by, the sears are internal. The flintlock which was simpler and more reliable and thus relatively quickly replaced them.
This pair of pistols is from the latter portion of the snaphance's period of use. The multi-stage barrels have slightly flared cannon style muzzles, smooth midsections, girdled transition points, and floral vine engraving on the breech sections.
The miquelet lock was invented around the mid-16th century and widely used from the late 16th century into the early 19th century, particularly in the Spanish Empire, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Like the more well-known flintlocks, they use a piece of flint held in the jaw of the cock that strikes a frizzen (a battery face and integral pan cover). When the flint hits the frizzen, it creates sparks/shavings of hot steel that ignite the powder in the pan. They are readily identified by their external half and full cock sears and the “feet” that extend down underneath the cock to engage them.
The most familiar form of firearm ignition for most people prior to the invention and adoption of the metallic cartridges in the second half of the 19th century is by far the “true” flintlock. It was introduced in the early 17th century and was probably invented around 1610-1615 by a French royal gunmaker named Marin le Bourgeoys; thus, it is also known as the French flintlock.
Antique flintlock pistol identification is one of the most common questions for vintage arms collectors. This example is an extraordinarily rare relief carved and inlaid 17th century flintlock pistol with a carved bust pommel attributed to master carver Johann Michael Maucher.
Flintlocks became the standard lock used on firearms into the 19th century. The internal lock mechanisms of many later percussion guns and even many later side lock metallic cartridge shotguns and rifles remained relatively unchanged. Antique flintlock pistol identification is especially important for collectors, and our free gun catalogs provide in-depth descriptions on each firearm.
The doglock was also invented in the early 17th century and is readily identified by the catch at the tail of the lock known as the dog. Earlier versions have different tumbler and sear arrangements. They are also known as the English lock, but they were also used in other parts of Europe in the 17th century. They remained in use into the early 18th century, especially on military arms, but were largely replaced by the “true” flintlock by the end of the first quarter of the century as safety improved thanks to more secure half-cock notches.
This large blunderbuss features a true doglock with a horizontally acting sear and only a full-cock notch on the tumbler. It has a dog catch behind the cock and a beveled edge on the tail terminating in a teat. The lock is secured by three screws. The trigger bar extends up through the lock mortise and pivots on a pin through the stock above the lock mortise.
Boxlock flintlock and percussion guns have their internal mechanisms located within a breech section of the gun. These actions are often box shaped, hence the name. The hammers/cocks are often centrally located. This style was particularly popular for flintlock and percussion pocket pistols of the late 18th century and early 19th century since the cock and frizzen blocking the shooters line of sight was less of a concern on a gun meant to be used up close. Mounting the hammers on the outside was used on some percussion rifles and other guns needing more accuracy.
There were several variations of percussion ignition systems developed in the early 19th century, but the invention of the percussion cap around 1820 brought about the first significant change to firearms ignition since the invention of the flintlock. The locks themselves are generally the same as flintlocks internally, but instead of having a cock gripping a piece of flint, the guns have a hammer that strikes a cap fitted to a nipple at the breech.
The cap contains mercury fulminate which explodes when struck sending a flame through the nipple to the main charge within the barrel. This decreases the risk of misfires from worn flints and other malfunctions common with flintlocks. Since the front of the lock no longer holds a frizzen, some locks are “back action” with the mechanism behind the hammer extending back down the wrist.
Whether you're curious about antique flintlock pistol identification, percussion, matchlock, wheellocks, or any other antique firearm types, keep an eye on our upcoming auctions as RIAC always has a diverse mix of pieces from various time periods.
The author's antique rifle from John Krider's shop in Philadelphia c. 1840-1850 utilizes a back action lock. The internal mechanisms of a back action lock are very similar to a standard sidelock, but they are relocated behind the hammer as demonstrated on this lock by L&R.
If you are looking for muzzle loaders you can shoot, be sure to check out our Regional and Online Auctions as well as they regularly have modern reproductions from both name-brand companies and individual contemporary gunmakers.
The Flintlock: Its Origin and Development by Torsten Lenk
European Hand Firearms of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Herbert Jackson
Royal Armory Collection
NRA National Firearms Museum
Cody Firearms Museum
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