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Many consider the development of semi-automatic firearms in the 20th and late 19th centuries to be the last great boom of gun design, and until the development of the next viable technology or ignition system, those people may very well be right. Unfortunately, all current contenders such as caseless ammunition, lasers, and rail guns, all seem distant prospects at best. However, to not acknowledge a coming technology that will eventually usurp the semi-automatic, cartridge-firing firearm as we know it is short-sighted, but I digress.
I write not to talk about the most recent evolution in firearms, but one of the oldest. While semi-automatics have given rise to the most recent bounty in gun design, said bounty is far from the first. Not even half a century earlier, inventors were clamoring over themselves to create the next best cartridge loading firearms, and prior to that people had been coming up with a nearly inexhaustible array of ideas to carry more firepower using a percussion firing system.
Before any of those revolutions or innovations could occur many prerequisite steps had to be taken, one of which is the nearly forgotten wheellock mechanism. In the grand scheme of firearm development, wheellocks find their origins in the 15th century, just after the matchlock and before the snaplock (and the other many versions of flintlock arms). All of this pistols are considered antique firearms.
Matchlocks, as you may know, set a standard for centuries to come. In a matchlock ammunition system, a spring loaded “arm” (which has gone by many names), slams the ignition source, a lit “match,” into a small, waiting pan of gunpowder located outside the barrel. This ignites the powder charge in the pan, the flames of which carry through a small hole in the barrel which leads to a larger charge of propellant situated behind a projectile. Then comes the fun part.
The match or “slow match,” was essentially a burning rope saturated with potassium nitrate. It had to be kept burning and when one desired to fire the gun, they could manually expose the priming pan, pull a lever (and eventually some newfangled device called a “trigger”), and the match would be rapidly lowered into the waiting gunpowder. This system had numerous drawbacks, and nearly all revolved around the match. As mentioned earlier, it had to be kept burning, lest the user end up with little more than a big stick at the moment of truth. This made the weapons especially susceptible to inclement weather. The ever-smoldering match also had numerous ways to give away the position of the user: it glowed at night, sent up smoke during the day, and gave a distinct burning aroma that could warn those not able to see the user.
As if that weren’t enough, the presence of lit, smoldering matches around the large amounts of required gunpowder was far from ideal. Matchlocks also required large amounts of their namesake match. Frequently, a lit match end would be extinguished in the violent motion of firing, so both ends were kept lit. To keep men armed with matchlocks ready to fire for any length of time necessitated a great deal of match, which was one more supply that would need to be transported, stored, kept dry, and carried by the user. The alternative was to not have the matches lit at all times, which was an obvious determent to quickly bringing the weapon to bear. Matchlocks could also not be concealed under garments or carried safely in a belt. A great number of people would benefit if that burning match weren’t required to operate the gun. Enter the wheellock mechanism.
The wheellock mechanism was the first firearm ignition system to self-ignite its propellant. Removing nearly every disadvantage of the matchlock, but greatly increasing the complexity of the gun, the wheellock mechanism was incredibly time consuming and expensive to produce, thus limiting its spread and prevalence. These guns were made well before the advent of modern machining and thus most guns were painstakingly handmade with each part being forged or chiseled from scratch. It all but ensured only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the new technological developments. These guns were not only tools, they were status symbols, a fact easy to observe in the fine embellishments present in these early pistols. These ornamentations, occurring in the Late Renaissance period, were indicative of the emphasis on art and advances in technique that had recently swept Europe. Their artistry and beauty is also a primary reason for their survival to the current day.
In short, a wheellock mechanism works by pressing a piece of pyrite (not flint as indicated below) against a spinning, serrated steel wheel to generate sparks and ignite gun powder.
This wheellock mechanism diagram is hosted multiple places online, so we are unable to credit the original creator.
To fire a wheellock mechanism pistol, one would first need to load it as with any muzzle loading arm. Then the wheel must be charged. In the photos already shown, note that a large square lug projects out of the center of each wheel. Using a special wrench or “spanner” to act on the lug, one turned the wheel against spring tension until it caught a sear, which secured the now taut wheel.
The aforementioned pyrite is held in a clamp atop a spring-charged arm called the “dog” that extends from the lock plate (Note: On the preceding matchlocks this lever was referred to as a “serpentine” and in later flintlock designs as a “cock” or hammer). While loading, the dog would be pulled muzzle-ward to the “safe” position – the idea of a “safety”position for this arm was another innovation that took place during the life of the wheellock mechanism. Unlike the more ubiquitous flintlock “cock” designs we see today, dogs differed in two significant ways. The first is that the dog does not spring back to slam the pyrite against the steel. Instead, the dog is placed atop of the flash pan cover under tension, so that the moment the pan cover is removed the pyrite will contact the spinning steel. The second is that the dog operates in the reverse direction one is perhaps accustomed to seeing, by swinging from the muzzle toward the user.
As shown in the moving diagram above, it was when the dog was pressing the pyrite on to the flash pan cover that it was ready to fire. Presuming that flash pan was primed with powder, pulling the trigger of a wheellock released the tension on the serrated wheel, allowing it to spin. Then, nearly instantaneously, the gun cammed back the flash pan cover, allowing the pyrite to fall onto the already spinning steel, sending the desired sparks into the flash pan.
Short answer: Flintlocks.
Long Answer: The numerous designs of firearms that featured an ignition system that operated by striking flint onto a piece of steel. While most folks simply call these “flintlocks,” there are numerous designs with even more numerous small yet important innovations. They go by names such as snaplock, snaphance or snaphaunce, miquelet, doglock, Baltic lock, a “true” flintlock, and others. In common parlance, they are all “flintlocks,” even though many of those designs lack all the features of what is technically considered a true flintlock.
Flintlocks were simpler machines, and therefore, easier and cheaper to produce. From the early 1600s until the early 1800s flintlocks dominated the globe as the weapon of choice to the world’s most powerful armies. After that, Forsyth’s invention of a rudimentary percussion based ignition system marked the beginning of the end for the fearsome flintlock
Wheellock mechanism pistols produced a large number of innovations that surpassed their own ignition system and would continue to affect firearms for the next three centuries. That’s an incredible legacy that remains untouchable save for the inventions of gunpowder and the barrel. Due to their ability to be concealed, wheellocks also hold the dubious distinction of being the earliest firearm to have documented gun control laws passed against it. In 1517, laws that banned the wheellock were decreed by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and by 1584 they were used in several early high profile assassinations including what is popularly known as the first assassination of a head of state by a handgun. However, even the earliest recorded assassination by firearm, that of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, on January 23, 1570 by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, while not specifically noted in history as a gun with a wheellock mechanism, is depicted as such in at least one instance, shown below. In full disclosure, it is also inaccurately reported as a “firelock” (a.k.a. matchlock), and seen in one 1890 illustration as a flintlock.
Considering their significance, these firearms are relatively unknown to many gun enthusiasts today. Most of their acclaim today is virtue of their incredible visual appeal owed to the exhaustive levels of artistry present. The guns’ dogs were carved into any number of animals, mythical creatures, gods, or deceptively difficult geometric shapes. Plates were meticulously engraved and inlaid or plated with precious metals. Stocks were decorated using almost any materials available to the gunsmith: antler, bone, pearl, ivory, coral, silver, gold, wire, mixed woods such as fruit trees or ebony, and more. Scrimshaw was also extensively used and stocks were carved into a myriad of shapes that were often more aesthetically pleasing than they were ergonomic or functional.
The wheellock mechanisms in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2016 April Premiere Firearms Auction are no exception to these high levels of craftsmanship and beauty. Many are above and beyond what would be considered outstanding examples. We leave you with more photos of the fine wheellock arms appearing in this sale.
Hugh Lowther, the fifth Earl of Lonsdale, squandered a massive fortune through his generosity and out-sized reputation as a womanizer, horseman
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