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The Matchless Matchlock

This simple, yet effective longarm ignition system became a military staple somewhere in the world longer than any other.

The Matchless Matchlock

(Photo by Philip Schrier)

Due to quaint period illustrations of be-­plumed soldiers striking formal poses and garbed in what seems to the modern eye to be outlandish, impractical costumes, it is not unusual to find many present-­day military history enthusiasts dismissing matchlock longarms as curious, cumbersome and ineffective. Nothing could be further from the truth! During its heyday, which lasted for a considerable time, the matchlock evolved as the preeminent infantry battlefield weapon, even though more sophisticated wheellocks and flintlocks intruded on much of the precursor’s history.

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In mass-­produced matchlocks, it is common to find the buttplate nailed to the stock. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

Matchlocks were critical components in numerous European conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, most notably the Thirty Years’ War (1618-­1648) in continental Europe and the English Civil War (1642-­1651) in the British Isles. In Japan, India and other Asian locales, they remained martial staples well into the 1800s. Matchlocks were among the earliest small arms seen in the New World, brought by the Spanish into New Spain and the English and Dutch into the eastern regions of North America. Despite depictions on Thanksgiving greeting cards, the Massachusetts Plymouth Colony was not reliant for its defense on cartoonish, funnel-­barreled blunderbusses, but with sturdy, reliable matchlocks, wheellocks and snaphaunces. The matchlock was likely the most common piece in the Pilgrims’ arsenal.

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The furniture on military matchlocks was spartan, as shown by this simple hammered-steel triggerguard, lack of lockplate screw washers and no-­frills trigger, lockplate and cock. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

Gunpowder was developed in China by alchemists, probably as early as the 10th century AD. In addition to being used for amusement and ceremonial purposes, the Chinese found ways to divert this “fire drug” to machines of war, primarily in such things as fire arrows, rockets, bombs and formative projectile expelling devices.

By the mid-­13th century, gunpowder was being written about in Europe. How the knowledge eventually wended its way westward is conjectural, though a likely avenue would have been through Arab sources. Unlike the Chinese, whose written records establish an evolution in the formulation and employment of gunpowder, the component proportions of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal noted in Western texts describes it in its latest, most efficient form. A few decades later, writings refer to its use in early firearms, generally cannons of indeterminate size and style arrayed in static positions such as town fortifications.

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The musket’s flashpan was covered by a manually operated cover. It is not uncommon to see raised or incised patterns of the pan’s floor. This was used for snuffing out a lit match. The pan was dovetailed into the barrel. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

At the Battle of Crécy, France, in 1346, England’s King Edward III created a sensation by having about a half-dozen small guns alongside of his longbowmen. Considerably outnumbered by the French and their allies, Edward employed his surprise at just the right moment, the “gonnes” spitting fire and smoke and emitting thunderous sounds that unnerved the approaching enemy, particularly frightening the steeds of advancing mounted troops. After repelling numerous charges by the demoralized foe, Edward emerged triumphant. Though it was the English longbow that carried the day, the artillery pieces had enough of a role in the affray to justify their presence on the field.

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Flash shields were practical features, and common on matchlocks. This musket employs a simple notch rear sight, though other types were also seen. Some had no sights at all! (Photo by Philip Schrier)

Primitive guns were produced in a variety of styles and sizes with little standardization in caliber or size. Huge rampart-­battering “bombards” firing huge stone balls, often quarried and formed on-­site, were employed alongside more diminutive “ribauldequin” organ batteries which discharged arrows and grape shot. Bombards often were constructed using iron staves held together by rings, like casks. Their appearance caused them to be referred to as “barrels.” The name stuck and has comes down to us to this day as a principal firearms component. As well as large pieces, “handgonnes” — smaller tubes of inventive design — were being wielded by individual soldiers on the battlefield and in fortified positions. These arms, depending upon where and when they were made, had barrels of different styles and were variously stocked with wooden or iron tillers. Many had large hooks which could be rested over timber or stone walls to steady the pieces and reduce recoil.

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Matchlock cocks are normally equipped with small thumb screws to allow the jaws to be adjusted to the appropriate diameter. Once the span is fixed, matchcord can be pressed into the cock for each shot without having to re­set it. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

Gunpowder was initially produced in a mechanical mixture of sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal. This proved to be inefficient and difficult to transport as it tended to separate during transportation. By the mid-­to-­late 15th century, corned powder became commonplace. Its components were mixed, combined water or some other suitable liquid (wine and bishop’s urine were voguish) and formed into cakes that were then milled and sieved to provide various uniform sizes. Powder so concocted was easier to transport, less hygroscopic and not prone to separating or becoming dusty.

Handgonnes were initially discharged manually through touchholes drilled at the tops of the breeches with necessary flames, embers or heat being provided by a slow match (more about this later), iron wire with tips heated to red hot (only practical in static, fortified positions), or perhaps some sort of tallow-­soaked reed, similar to a rushlight. Eventually, the touchhole was moved to the side of the weapon and embellished with a pan into which a small amount power could be held to improve ignition. As it was important for the shooter to look down at his firearm in order to properly locate the touchhole or pan, actually aiming a handgonne was not an easy thing to do.

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The lock mechanism is simple in the extreme. It involves a linkage activated by a trigger (seen here) or sear bar. The small, single-­leaf “mainspring” actually kept the cock in the rearward position. It was brought forward mechanically by the trigger’s action. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

By the mid-­14th century, slow match became the primary source of ignition for firearms, artillery and explosives. It was cheap and simple to make. A braided cord of materials such as hemp, linen, cotton, or flax was soaked in a solution containing lye and saltpeter and then rinsed and dried. As treated, such a cord kept an ember glowing efficiently in all but the most adverse conditions. The ideal burning rate was about one foot per hour, which meant that in a battle lasting several hours an infantryman would have cords of considerable length. These would normally be lit on both ends to ensure the user always had a glowing tip at the ready.




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The musket’s “skowring stick” was normally held in place by a piece of sheet steel. This one, however, employs a steel “U” secured by a screw through the stock. The threaded hole in the tip of the stick was for attaching bore service implements. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

The location of a handgonne’s touchhole/pan on the side of its breech more easily allowed the addition to the arm of a formative “serpentine”-style cock. This was nothing more than a pivoting “S”-­shaped match holder that allowed an arquebusier to shoulder and aim his piece more efficiently. Once the match had been properly adjusted and fixed in the jaws of the cock, all that was necessary was to uncover the pan and rotate the serpentine forward and downward. The “arquebus” shoulder arm derived its name from the Dutch haakbut, or “hook gun,” and was variously called by other names such as “hackbut,” “hagbut,” “hackbus” and “haakenbusche.” “Snap”-type matchlocks also evolved not long after the appearance of the serpentine, the spring-­action cock being activated by a button on the side of the stock. Used for a modest time in Europe, the snap lock, introduced by the Dutch into Japan around 1550, provided the model for the tanageshema-­style matchlocks that were used by the Japanese until the middle part of the 19th century.

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A typical German “mass-­produced” light musket from the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-­1648). This style was common in north-­western continental Europe and Britain. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

It was only a small jump to improve the whole arrangement by means of a linkage system, the “lock” — the term derived from the employment of some features of security locks — is operated by a sear or “tiller” now sited beneath the wrist portion of the stock. Squeezing up on the bar moved up the rear portion of a sear bar against spring pressure, lowering the forward part, which was connected to the cock by a tumbler and bringing the latter’s down into the priming pan. As time progressed, the bars were replaced with triggers, or “trickers,” making the operation even more efficient.

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Below, a hand-­made replica of a circa-1620 German/Dutch-­style caliver made by Dale Shinn and used in G&A shooting evaluation. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

It was felt arquebuses and “calivers” — the latter a sometime alternate name for an arquebus occasionally of larger caliber — for all of its efficiency and increasing popularity, could be augmented by something even more formidable. Hence, around 1500 the “musket” was born. These heavy arms, some having barrels as long as 4-feet long, eventually became the mainstay of most European infantry. Muskets were initially used as a supplement to pikemen who presented 18-­foot-­long polearms as primary deterrents. Soon, however, the roles were reversed and the pikemen provided cover for the musketeers by allowing them to maneuver and reload. Muskets were so heavy — as much as 20 pounds — that they had to be supported by a rest, which also became known in some places as a “swine feather.” Many very effective maneuvers using a combination of musket and pike were devised during the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the most effective were contrived by the Spanish and Dutch. Calivers were also seen in some numbers as they did not require rests, thus being easier and faster to load. By around 1620 or so, a light musket was introduced — probably by Swedish king and military commander Gustavus Adolphus — which reduced the musket’s caliber and weight enough that it did not require a rest. Calivers normally had calibers ranging in the .50s and .60s, while muskets ranged from .70 to .90.

Recommended


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Reconstruction of a typical Thirty Years’ War- and English Civil War-style bandolier. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

By the 17th century — the heyday of the European matchlock — several stocking styles evolved. The most common one seen during the Thirty Years’ War and English Civil War was the fishtail butt pattern. Its exaggerated, flared shape allowed for good shoulder purchase and a solid platform for reloading. Also, rounded and fish-­belly models were not unusual, especially during the matchlock’s latter days.

Initially, powder and ball were carried in separate flasks and bags, but by the late 1500s a bandolier arrangement came into vogue. It involved a looping shoulder belt that terminated in a ball pouch at its lower end, augmented along the way upwards by an array of strung wooden or tin powder containers to allow a soldier to efficiently load his musket with pre-­measured powder charges. Twelve was a common number — leading to the modern, anachronistic nickname “Twelve Apostles” — though this compliment was not standard; larger or lesser numbers were also seen. Calivers, befitting the more portable nature, were usually serviced by a simple flask. The bandolier also incorporated a priming “touchbox,” or modified charge container and an oil bottle. Cleaning and servicing attachments that could be screwed on the end of the scouring stick were also provided to the musketeer, or “smallshot” (caliverman), and carried in various places on his person.

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A Dutch musketeer blowing his match as depicted by Jacob de Gheyn in Wapenhandelinghe, “The Exercise of Armes” (1607).

Bayonets had not yet been devised, so depending on the period and purse of a commander, a 15th- or 16-­century infantryman might also be armed with a sword and/or dagger for close-­in work. One fascinating period woodcut even shows soldiers using everything from clubbed muskets to helmets, swords and bandoliers as weapons for close combat.

During the matchlock’s reign, many musket, light musket, and caliver loading methods were devised, but these generally differed only in minor details. The most renowned and oft-­quoted system was that depicted by Dutchman Jacob de Gheyn in his beautifully produced 1608 volume, Wapenhandelinghe, “The Exercise of Armes.” The drills for musket, caliver and pike depicted in a series of elaborate engravings were devised principally by Johann Lodewijk and were based on his experiences and those of others during the period of the wars between Spain and the Dutch Republic. It was often copied or used as a model to be modified or refined by other authors.

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A serpentine-­style matchlock, possibly Asian. No lock mechanism is employed, just a simple combination cock and lever. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

“The Exercise of Armes” instructions for loading a musket contain 43 separate movements, and only one less for a caliver. Unless subject to direct command, it is likely an experienced soldier edited the regimen himself somewhat. It was not uncommon for an experienced musketeer — especially with a light musket —­ to loose two or three shots per minute, about the same as could be achieved with a flintlock.

As early as the latter part of the 16th century, matchlocks were accompanied on many battlefields by more intricate and sophisticated wheellocks, snaphances and flintlocks. However, because they were cheaper to produce, matchlocks remained preeminent, while other ignition systems were distributed more sparingly to troops such as cavalry or artillery crewmen.

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German arquebusiers shooting and loading serpentine-­lock style matchlocks circa 1510.

Reduced to the basics, loading a matchlock was not all that complicated. It went thusly: Prime the flashpan from the touchbox suspended from the bandolier and then close the pan cover; drop the musket; remove the scouring stick; pour a charge of powder down the barrel; remove a ball from its pouch and place it in the barrel; ram the charge; return the scouring stick; place the musket in its rest and shoulder it; take the match from the left hand and blow on it; cock the match; try the match; uncover the pan; aim; and give fire. During loading, the rest was held captive, dangling from a cord on the shooter’s left wrist. If one were firing a caliver — which followed a similar loading procedure, but used a flask instead bandolier charge — the rest was dispensed with, as it was in a light-musket drill.

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A quality Sind-­style Indian matchlock is shown. Matchlocks of a wide variety were used on the sub-­continent into the 19th century. The trigger is at the midpoint of the wrist of the stock. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

A long length of matchcord — both ends lit — was looped and held between the middle finger and index fingers and ring finger and pinky of the left hand where either end could be easily retrieved. For rapidity of fire, bullets were normally loaded unpatched. However, if one charged his peece prior to a battle and expected to keep it in that condition for a time, patching with paper or cloth to keep the ball in position was not unknown. Paper cartridges themselves, which had been known as early as the handcannon era, were also occasionally used.

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A Manchu ni?aoqi¯ang matchlock musketman photographed around 1871. The Chinese used matchlocks widely, even as late as the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

Infantrymen could be arrayed in a variety of formations, some used alongside pikemen, others without them. Both lines and columns were seen depending upon numbers, a commander’s philosophy, the terrain and whether one was in a defensive or offensive position.

Shooting A Matchlock

While we had access to a fine example of a circa-1620 German matchlock light musket to illustrate this article, the owner was understandably reluctant to allow it to be fired. Fortunately, I have a fine custom-­made matchlock caliver, correct in every detail, built by Dale Shinn close to a half-­century ago. It has long been one of my favorite shooters, and I have become reasonably proficient in using it. Measuring 53 inches overall with a 37-­inch smoothbore .682-caliber barrel, the gun weighs 11 pounds. Though alien to most modern shooter’s — and despite its ungainly appearance — it handles and balances nicely.

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Managing a matchlock caliver (shown) or musket was not complicated, though the former was easier to handle because it was lighter, shorter and did not require a rest. Calivers were loaded from a bandolier or a flask. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

My loading procedure, employing a bandolier, is as outlined above. I used an unpatched .665-caliber, 440-­grain round lead bullet backed by 100 grains of 11/2 Fg Swiss blackpowder. Matchcord is braided cotton cord that has been steeped in a saltpeter solution. Priming powder is FFFFg.

With a little practice, a matchlock is easy and simple to fire. I have competed against shooters armed with Brown Bess flintlock muskets, and once I get the rhythm worked out, I’m almost able to match them shot-­for-­shot. Assuming decent weather conditions, a matchlock is every bit as reliable — if not a bit more so — than flint and steel.

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The caliver firing drill goes as follows: Prime and drop the piece; load the charge; load the ball; withdraw scouring stick and tamp the charge; raise the piece and affix match; try the match; blow the match; uncover the pan ; shoulder the piece and fire. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

My shooting session for this piece involved the Shinn caliver being fired offhand at 25 and 50 yards. Even with a 100-­grain charge, recoil was minimal. Once the match was properly cocked and tried, and the pan cover opened, a smart pull on the trigger results in a very fast lock time. There were no surprises in the accuracy department. Like most smoothbores, my 25-­yard targets came in at an average of 9½ inches. Those at 50 spread out to 123/4 inches with an occasional flyer or two.

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This target represents the typical results from shooting at 35 ­yards offhand using the Shinn caliver. It measured 8 inches with an off-­the-­target flyer that spread the final result to 9½ inches. (Photo by Philip Schrier)

The detail that takes the most getting used to is the proper handling of the matchcord. In my early matchlock shooting days, it was usual to go home with a burn or two on one or both of my hands, as well as a few scorched holes in my attire! Now, however, I rarely have more mishaps than I would normally experience with a flintlock.

The efficiency and improved manufacturing methods of the flintlock caused the demise of the matchlock in Europe and North America by the first couple of decades in the 18th century. In Asia, the Middle East and Africa, though, matchlocks soldiered on for a considerable spell, not falling into total disuse until the latter part of the 19th century. It is hard to find any arm with a longer or more distinguished lineage than that.

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