ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment
Types of Firearm Ignitions


Serpentines and Matchlocks

Matchlock MechanisimThe makers of early hand-guns, having furnished a means of holding the weapon by fitting wooden stocks, were still faced with the problem of ignition. Using a red-hot iron or wire, or burning tinder, to set off the priming powder made it necessary to have a fire or brazier near at hand.

Shown here is a musketeer, early 17th century. The musket of the period was an unwieldy weapon, weighing some 20lb. It was fired from a rest consisting of a wooden rod topped with a metal fork. Also shown is the matchlock system of ignition.

Late in the 14th century came a solution to this difficulty, with the invention of the slow match. Saltpetre (potassium nitrate), one of the ingredients of gunpowder, was dissolved in water. Lengths of tow, were soaked in the solution and allowed to dry, would smoulder slowly when lit. This match gave the gunner greater freedom movement.Early 17th century musketeer

It remained a difficult task, however, to apply this match to the touch-hole in the heat of battle; and more effective marksmanship would obviously be possible with two hands free to manipulate the gun. So a system of ignition was devised with an S-shaped piece metal, called the "serpentine" or "cock", attached to the side of the gun. The match was held in its upper end, and the serpentine pivoted to lower the match into the priming pan.

This system soon developed into the matchlock mechanism. In this the cock was held clear of the priming pan by a spring. To fire the gun, the spring was released by means of a trigger action

The Wheel-Lock

We have seen the advantage gained by replacing the old hand ignition system for guns by the matchlock. But gun-makers were always on the look-out for improvements. The fact that flint and other minerals could be used to produce sparks had been known from early times. It was this knowledge which led to the introduction, about the end of the 15th century, of what is called the wheel-lock.

A sketch of a wheel-lock mechanism is included in the Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist, scientist and inventor of that period. It is not known, however, whether it was his own design, or copied from an existing wheel-lock.

Wheel-Lock mechanismThe wheel-lock works very much like a modern flint lighter. The priming pan is on the side of the gun and a toothed wheel is situated below, with its top edge protruding through a slot into the pan. The wheel is rotated by a spring, which is wound up with a key. In front of the pan is the cock, or "dog-head", holding a piece of iron pyrites.

When the trigger is pressed, the wheel-spring is released and the cock pivoted down to bring the pyrites into contact with the teeth of the rotating wheel. The resultant sparks ignite the powder in the pan.

Though the principle is simple, the mechanism is in fact very intricate, and may have as many as 50 components. The main advantage of the wheel-lock was that it enabled the user to have his weapon ready for firing at any time. This had not been possible with the matchlock, since the match would smoulder for an indefinite period. The danger of accidental discharge was also reduced.

Roman Candle Guns

Having invented the wheel-lock, the gun-maker next turned his hand to designing guns that could fire two or more rounds without reloading.

Roman Candle GunThe obvious answer to this need was to make guns with two or more barrels, and a lock for each barrel. Many weapons were designed on these lines, including the German 16th century gun illustrated here. It has two barrels one above the other; each barrel has its own wheel-lock.

In another system two or more charges of powder and ball were loaded in a single barrel, separated by wads. These were fired in turn, starting from the front or muzzle end, through a succession of touch-holes, each ignited by a separate lock.Roman Candle Gun

A development of this was the Roman Candle gun. The bullets used in this had holes drilled through them, filled with powder. It was only necessary to fire the front charge to set going a powder-train through the barrel.

A more complicated form of Roman Candle gun is the 17th century pistol shown. It has four barrels. The first is loaded with one round of powder and shot in the normal way; the second with powder only; the third and fourth with a number of bullet and powder charges. When the first barrel is discharged by means of its wheel-lock, it ignites the powder in the second through a touch-hole towards the muzzle. The second barrel is linked alternately to the third and fourth barrels by a row of touch holes. As its powder burns backwards, it sets off these charges one by one. With all such weapons, the discharge, once started, cannot be stopped.

The Snaphaunce

About the time when the wheel-lock was coming into general use, or certainly not long afterwards, yet another form of ignition for guns was introduced. Instead of iron pyrites subjected to friction against a revolving steel wheel, it used flint struck against steel to produce a spark.

The Snaphaunce or FlintlockThese guns may be called the first of the flintlocks; but for convenience of classification they are nowadays generally termed "snaphaunce" guns, to distinguish them from the more sophisticated forms of flintlock introduced in the 17th century.

The snaphaunce gets its name from the Flemish schnapp-hahn, "pecking cock". This refers to the action of the cock which holds the flint. Unlike the dog-head in most wheel-lock weapons, the cock was situated behind the priming pan (also called the flash-pan). In other respects its action was similar. The steel (known as the "battery") was on an arm pivoting over the priming pan from the front.

Pressure on the trigger resulted in the following movements: (1) A lever action opened the sliding cover of the flash-pan. (2) The battery pivoted backward over the pan. (3) The cock pivoted forward so that the flint struck the battery and produced the spark.

The battery-arm bore on an exterior spring in such a way that it could be retained in the "safe" position, forward of the pan, if required. The cock could not then cause a spark if accidentally released.

Our illustration shows a fine example of the snaphaunce. It is a late 16th century German pistol. The diagrams show (A) the exterior and (B) the interior mechanism of a typical snaphaunce.

The Cap

One of the drawbacks of early methods of firing a gun was the "hangfire". This was the delay between igniting the priming and the firing of the main charge. To obtain instantaneous discharge it was necessary to find a faster means of ignition.The Cap Mechanisim

At the beginning of the 19th century, a Scottish clergyman named Alexander Forsyth produced a solution to the problem. It was known that the chemical compounds called fulminates would explode when struck. Forsyth devised a method of using fulminate of mercury for firing a gun. His lock had a hammer instead of the cock of the flintlock. A hollow plug was screwed into the touch-hole. Pivoting on the side of the gun was a magazine, shaped like a scent-bottle, containing the detonating powder.

When the "scent-bottle" was turned it dropped a small quantity of the fulminate into the plug. The trigger released the hammer, which drove a firing-pin into fulminate.

Various improvements followed, but the one which gained general acceptance was the percussion cap, illustrated here. It was generally made of copper, and shaped like a hat, with the fulminate in the "crown". The cap was placed over an iron nipple which was screwed into the breach of the gun. When the hammer fell, it crushed the cap against the top of the nipple, exploding the fulminate and firing the powder through the hole in the nipple. The hammer was hollowed out so that it entirely enclosed the percussion cap. As in the pocket pistol illustrated, hammers were later mounted centrally on top of the gun, instead of at the side.


- Article lifted from an old series of magazines published between 1970 and 1975 by IPC Magazines, called 'World of Wonder'.

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