Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The matchlock

The 15th century saw improvements in firearm design such as the matchlock, which looked less like a miniature cannon and more like our familiar rifle with a butt and trigger. Further developments in design produced the arquebus, some versions of which were fitted with snapping matchlocks or sear-lock matchlocks.

The first design improvement came in about 1411 with the first matchlock; a simple trigger was linked into a curved metal clamp called a serpentine, which held a match. When the trigger was pressed, the serpentine tipped forwards and pushed the match into the priming pan containing gunpowder. The flash passed through the touchhole to the main charge and the shot was fired. Refinements included a hinged cover for the pan that kept the powder dry and reduced the risk of an accidental discharge. By the late 15th century, these weapons were being fitted with shoulder stocks.

The English idiom "a flash in the pan", to describe an event that looks spectacular but is of no consequence, probably dates from the time of flintlocks (16th century), although men armed with matchlocks would also have been familiar with the phenomenon. Although there would be a flash of exploding powder and a cloud of smoke, the burning gas would not pass into the barrel and set off the main charge because the touchhole was fouled with burned gunpowder residue. It would be a "flash in the pan" or non-event.

The arquebus
The hackbut was the first gun fired from the shoulder. It was a smoothbore matchlock (without rifling) and had a stock resembling that of a modern rifle. The arquebus, invented in Spain in the mid-15th century, was a medium-weight gun that evolved from the heavy and awkward hackbut. Instead of the recoil from firing being directed against the soldier's shoulder, some of it was absorbed by the support; however the hook was needed to prevent the gun sliding off the support. (The name "arquebus" may come from the Low German for "hooked gun".)

The arquebus was the first firearm to resemble a modern gun, with lock, stock and barrel. As technology advanced, the arquebus was fitted with more advanced forms of ignition. There were three major types of arquebus: those with serpentine locks, those with snapping matchlocks and those with sear-lock matchlocks. The caliver was a more advanced form of arquebus with a standardized bore size. The caliver used either a trigger lever or a conventional trigger to operate the matchlock mechanism.

A good idea of the very short effective range of an arquebus can be gauged from this 15th-century German woodcut. The knights equipped with firearms have sensibly retained their swords. Reloading an arquebus would take up too much time, which would have been in short supply during close combat.

The snapping matchlock
By about 1475 the snapping matchlock had appeared. It was operated by cocking a spring-powered serpentine and pushing a button on the lock plate (a trigger was used on later guns) to release the serpentine, allowing it to snap into the priming pan. This type of matchlock lost popularity in Europe because the slow match was often extinguished when it was snapped hard into the powder. The sear-lock matchlock operated by squeezing a trigger attached to a sprung sear inside the lock, allowing the serpentine to be lowered into the priming pan as the hand squeezed, then retracted when pressure was released.

The slow match smoulders, ready to be lowered into the pan of a caliver. The caliver was an advanced version of the arquebus, which was an improvement on the inaccurate hand cannon.

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