June 14, 2021
By Seth Isaacson
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In the simplest terms, a matchlock is a firearm that uses a piece of lit slow match (also known as match cord) to ignite gunpowder and thus fire a firearm.
The slow match/match cord that gives the matchlock its name can be made from different cord materials treated with chemicals to make it burn slowly. Soaking cotton or linen cord in saltpeter or wet gunpowder was one method. When the slow burning match comes into contact with the powder in the pan, the resulting explosion ignites the main powder charge through a hole in the barrel known as a vent or touch hole. The gasses from the exploding main powder charge propel the projectile(s) out of the barrel. In ideal situations, the slow match will remain lit, and can be used to ignite the next shot, but fairly regularly the end would go out. Therefore, it was not uncommon to have both ends of the slow match lit so that one end could relight the other. No matter the case, the match would have to be removed for safety during reloading.
The matchlock was the first firearm to use a mechanical gunlock. Previous firearms were manually ignited similar to how many cannons were fired using a linstock. The precise origins of the earliest matchlock designs remain unclear. They may have been designed in the Ottoman Empire. Matchlocks were also the longest-serving muzzleloading firearms and were used from the 15th century to the early 18th century in Europe and the European colonies. They remained in use into the mid-19th century in places such as the Ottoman Empire and many parts of Asia. They became one of the dominant military arms in part because it was much easier to train an infantryman to load and fire a matchlock harquebus or musket in mass formation than it was to train a longbowman or crossbowman.
Though some matchlocks can be pretty accurate, enough to be used for hunting or targeting individual enemy soldiers, the military harquebuses and muskets were designed for mass volley fire. Surviving examples have been noted with bent barrels, irregular bores, and other deficiencies from an accuracy standpoint, but this was of little concern at the time since coordinated volleys and rapidity of reloading were of far more concern than individual accuracy. Shooters often turned their faces away at the moment of ignition, a problem far worse than a flinch if accuracy is the goal.
The main disadvantage that led to the matchlock being replaced was the component central to its design: the match. In order to shoot a matchlock, the match had to be pre-lit and ready. Thus, a matchlock required more preparation than later self-igniting gunlocks. A sentry on guard could burn a large quantity of match during a shift on guard duty. A match that extinguished in battle would also have to be relit before the gun could be fired again, and lighting a fire in that period was far more difficult than pulling out a Zippo or striking a match.
A basic matchlock is constructed of a lock, stock, and barrel. Most were very plain. Earlier examples lack much of the furniture or mounts we are accustomed to seeing on muzzleloading firearms. Matchlock firearms came in a variety of forms, including pistols, rifles, and even revolvers, but single shot smoothbore harquebuses and muskets were by far the most common. The stock and lock designs varied considerably by period and location. Some of the various designs in Europe were rather cumbersome, but many of the Asian designs are gracefully shaped.
Early matchlocks utilized the serpentine lock. This involves a serpentine (the arm that holds the slow match similar to a later hammer) and lever or trigger that pulls the serpentine down to the pan to ignite the priming powder when pulled. Early examples had this formed as one piece that was basically just pivoted on a pin into the stock or sometimes fitted within a slot in the stock. Later matchlocks used a spring that returned the serpentine and lever/trigger to the resting position after firing. In these designs, releasing the tension on the trigger or lever automatically brings the serpentine back away from the pan.
In a snap matchlock, the lock is constructed more similarly to later gunlocks. The serpentine is manually "cocked" and placed under a relatively small amount of spring tension compared to the cock of a flintlock or hammer of a percussion caplock. Pulling the trigger presses against the sear and frees the serpentine to drop under the spring pressure bringing the slow match into contact with the pan and igniting the priming charge. As with a serpentine lock, the priming powder's explosion ignites the main powder charge in the barrel and fires the gun. The slow match stays in contact with the pan until it is pulled back manually and it often is extinguished in the process of firing a snap matchlock, one of the main drawbacks.
Though most matchlocks were plain, the matchlock variety most often seen at Rock Island Auction is the Japanese tanegashima snap matchlocks, which can be quite ornate. They were the primary firearms of Japan until the introduction of more modern firearms in the mid-19th century following U.S. gunboat diplomacy led by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854. Some are inlaid with mons, dragons, and other Japanese symbols on the barrels and have decoration on their stocks as well.
Wheellocks were invented in the late 15th century and used alongside matchlocks. The wheellock was the first widely used self-igniting gunlock. However, a wheellock is much more complicated and thus more expensive to manufacture compared to a matchlock. They were so complicated that many of the early producers of wheellocks were actually mainly employed as makers of clocks and other complicated instruments. Given this, wheellocks never became widely issued standard military firearms like matchlocks, but were instead carried by certain specialized units and wealthy individuals who could afford them.
One interesting exception to wheellocks being excluded from widespread military use is the late 17th-century combination wheellock and matchlock muskets manufactured in Suhl for the Imperial Austrian Army. The dual mechanism is a clever solution to the problem of needing to have a matchlock pre-lit in order to bring it into action quickly since the wheellock could be ready to go instantly if preloaded. Retaining the matchlock reduced the risk of having the firearm put out of action if the complicated wheellock mechanism failed or became too worn since the matchlock could be brought into use as fast as the shooter could get the match lit.
Rock Island Auction Company regularly features matchlock and other early and antique firearms in our Premier, Sporting & Collector, and Arms & Accessories Sales each year. Any given sale may include matchlock firearms of varying ages from very early antiques to even modern made replicas and of varying designs from around the world.
If you are interested in buying a matchlock firearm, check out our various auctions throughout the year. If you are looking to sell a one, we are the #1 auction house in the world for antique and collectible firearms and are happy to help you sell individual or entire collections of firearms.
Flintlocks were the next major widespread evolution of firearms, and we cover them in depth in this article, "What is a Flintlock?". Keep an eye on our blog for more in depth articles on wheellocks, percussion firearms, and more!
As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company. Our 2021 auction schedule is now posted on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to visit. All our events adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here.
· M. L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology, 1492-1792.
· Merrill Lindsay, One Hundred Great Guns: An Illustrated History of Firearms.
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