Thursday, June 23, 2011

Classic 16th century designs

In 1517 and 1518, the first gun-control laws were introduced by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, when he attempted to ban the manufacture or possession of matchlocks; being compact and more reliable than earlier firearms, they were seen as an ideal assassin's weapon. The matchlock nevertheless remained popular as a sporting arm and weapon. Meanwhile, the new Spanish musket became a common weapon of war for nearly a century.

Spanish muskets
Around 1521 the Spaniards constructed the large and heavy musket, which gave them military superiority. The Spanish musket quickly gained popularity throughout Europe owing to its power and reliability. Early types fired a ball about 160m/175yd and were no more accurate than the arquebus. However, later types of Spanish musket proved to be far more lethal weapons than the arquebus at long range, with the ability to reliably penetrate armour at 90m/100yd and kill an unprotected man or horse at 460m/500yd.
A Spanish wheel-lock arquebus made around 1615. The Spanish already had a tradition for making fine armour and edged weapons, and these skills were employed to create functional and elegant firearms.

This advantage was to some extent gained by sheer size. A 16th-century arquebus was big, weighing around 4.5kg/10lb with a bore diameter of about 60 calibre (sixty-hundredths of an inch). Spanish muskets, however, were even bigger, weighing at least 8.2kg/181b and with a bore diameter of 70-85 calibre, with some virtually the size of a cannon at 90 calibre. The large calibres meant that the ammunition was proportionately bigger; while an arquebus fired a ball that weighed about 12g/0.5oz, the musket fired a full 50g/2oz lead ball.
Big men were needed to carry and fire the Spanish musket. It required a forked rest to spread the weight when the musketeer moved it into the aim. The musketeer has gunpowder reloads slung in a bandolier across his chest.

The penalty for firing such a powerful weapon was a huge recoil. Some of this was absorbed by the weight of the weapon. However, to be effective, these muskets required big, muscular men to fire them. This restricted their use and produced a new military elite -the musketeer. The Spanish musket was excellent in siege warfare and aboard ships, where the weight presented less of a problem. (Ottoman shoulder arms, similar in proportion to Spanish muskets, proved very effective in sieges.) The Spanish musket soon came into general use throughout Europe and was introduced into England in the early 16th century.

Elegant wheel locks
The wheel lock was first used in action at the siege of Parma in 1521 and was brought to England in 1530, where it continued in partial use until the reign of Charles II (1660-85). It had actually been developed for hunting, and some elegant weapons were made for wealthy clients.
The Metropolitan Museum, New York has an early multi-shot wheel-lock pistol made by Peter Peck of Munich, who worked as a watchmaker and gunsmith between 1503 and 1596. It was made for Emperor Charles V c. 1540-45. Each barrel had separate ignition which was achieved by two locks being combined in one mechanism. Made from cherry wood, staghorn and steel, the .46-calibre pistol was decorated by Ambrosius Gemlich with the emperor's dynastic and personal emblems: the pillars of Hercules with the Latin motto Plus ultra ("More beyond") and the double-headed imperial eagle.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England has an elegant wheel-lock rifle made in Dresden, Germany in 1664. The stock is made from dark brown wood, partially decorated with inset ivory or bone panels, and the calibre is approximately .33. Utility combines with beauty where, on the right side of the rifle, a sliding trap covers a patch or toolbox let into the side of the butt. The rifle has a horn butt plate and is decorated with pieces of bone or ivory.

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