Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/Portable fire-arms of the olden time


The use of gunpowder as an agent of projection became general throughout Europe early in the fourteenth century, for we find an ordinance of Florence, dated 1326, which directs the manufacture of “Canones de Metallo” in that city; and again, in 1338, in the enumeration of implements and stores, supposed to have been collected for a French attack upon Southampton, a list preserved in the Imperial Library at Paris recites, amongst others, “un pot de fer à traire garros à feu, xlviii garros ferrés et empanez en deux cassez, une livre de salpetre, et demie livre de souffre vif pour faire poudre pour traire les-diz garros.”[1] Moreover, guns are said to have been used at Algesiras, by the Moors, in 1342, and by Edward III. at the Battle of Creçy in 1346.

Thus, without discussing the question of the date of the origin of gunpowder—without inquiring whether it was invented by the Chinese, the Arabs, or the monks; whether it is, or is not, a descendant of “Greek Fire;” or whether it can only claim a descent from the ninth century, and not, as some allege, from the time of Moses—we certainly do find it adapted to warlike purposes by the Moors of Spain and our own countrymen in the middle of the fourteenth century, and hence we may say that it was in general use throughout Europe at that time.

The first implements to use gunpowder as an agent of projection were probably of a medium size, mechanical art being at the time insufficient either to reduce them efficiently to a small scale or to put together the enormous guns we find mentioned at a later period. Moreover the dread of holding in the hand a novel instrument of destruction of whose powers exaggerated notions were entertained, would at first prevent the use of the hand-gun. As this fear wore off, and men became accustomed to the loud explosion and flame, and more skilled in the use of the new weapon, the advantage of using it by the hand would become evident, and they would be adapted accordingly.

It is much to be regretted that while armour, swords, and other offensive and defensive weapons of dates much anterior to the introduction of the hand-gun have been preserved, we are obliged to depend upon drawings for an idea of the weapon which, in an improved condition, eventually produced such immense changes in warfare, which gave civilisation so great a superiority over the savage, and by means of which Spaniard and Englishman have carried the flag of their country from Peru to Pekin.

Hewitt, in his “Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe,” gives the figure of a hand-gunner from the Burney MS., who appears to be holding with his right hand and arm a simple iron tube fastened to a pole, whilst he fires the charge by means of a match held in his left hand. This appears to be the earliest form of “hande-gonne” on record, and will probably be of the end of the fourteenth, or beginning of the fifteenth century.

Portable fire-arms of olden time - Burney MS (1).png

No fastenings to attach the tube to the stock appear in the picture, but we may reasonably conclude that they were held together by rude iron bands, thus—

Portable fire-arms of olden time - Burney MS (2).png

The touch-hole was placed at the top, the priming exposed to rain and wind, and from the way it was held; viz., the pole or stock under the arm, no correct aim could be taken.

The next appears a decided improvement, as it is regularly stocked, although but rudely; still its general form is not unlike that of its modern descendant. The stock is, however, straight, and therefore difficult to aim with, although the holder appears to be aiming, and he, curiously enough, has both his arms in tolerably correct position, according to the “School of Musketry.”

Portable fire-arms of olden time - 15th century.png

Still there is no attempt at a lock, and the touchhole is on the top of the barrel.

The step which followed was simply to place the touchhole at the side, as a slight protection to the priming.

It seems that the arm remained in this rude condition about one hundred years, and that then an attempt was made to produce ignition by means of a lock, called the “Serpentine,” at the same time that the stock was bent for the purpose of aiming more easily, and fitted the shoulder better. There were also at this time two kinds of hand-gun, now called “Harquebus,”—one fired from the shoulder, the other from a rest; of the latter Hewitt gives the following drawing—

Portable fire-arms of olden time - Early harquebus.png

The sketch gives no trigger, and there is a rudeness about the serpentine lock which seems incompatible with the fact that, at the beginning of the sixteenth century the wheel-lock, a complicated piece of machinery, hereafter described, was invented in Germany. It is therefore probable that this form of harquebus was of rather earlier date than that usually assigned—probably the last quarter of the fifteenth century. At this time the charge was ignited by means of a rope lighted at the end, and called the match, and which was held in the mouth of the serpentine.

Portable fire-arms of olden time - 16th-century musket.png

The next step is clearly shown by Hewitt in the sketch of “A Muskater,” which he takes from the “Roll of the Funeral Procession of Sir Philip Sydney,” in 1586; but the fire-arms in this case also may probably be antedated to the middle of the sixteenth century.

We here see the first trigger, which is well worth a comparison with the hair-trigger of the present day. Grasped by the whole hand, with the thumb having a firm hold by means of the circular cut upon the stock, a strong pressure brought back the cock to the priming. This arm was also fired from a rest, which, in fact, continued in use up to the time of James II., the weight of muskets being usually from fourteen to twenty pounds. At the same period a smaller weapon, called a “Caliver,” or “Arquebuse de Calibre,” from all being made the same bore, so that the same bullet would fit them, came into use, and was an important step in the right direction. This arm differed only from the “Muskett” just given in size, and in being fired without a rest: the mode of ignition was the same.

In the early part of the sixteenth century, another way of firing was invented, namely, the wheel-lock. Its mechanism is so well described in a note to Grose’s “History of the English Army,” vol. xiii. p. 154, that I quote it at length. “It is,” he says, “by Father Daniel, who had collected various particulars about different sorts of arms:—

“It was a little solid wheel of steel, fixed against the plate of the lock of the harquebuze or pistol; it had an axis that pierced it in its centre; at the interior end of this axis, which went into the lock, a chain was fastened, which twisted round it on the wheel being turned, and bent the spring by which it was held: to bend this spring a key was made use of, into which the exterior end of the axis was inserted. By turning this key from left to right the wheel was made to revolve, and, by this movement, a little slider of copper, which covered the pan with the priming, retired from over it; and, by the same movement, the cock, armed with a flint, was in a state to be discharged on pulling the ‘tricker’ with the finger, as in ordinary pistols; the cock then falling on the wheel, produced fire, and communicated it to the priming.”

The sketch here given is taken from a pistol in the possession of Mr. Townley Parker, Cuerden Hall, Lancashire; the key of which Father Daniel speaks, is called the spanner;
it would also act as a turnscrew, and, being hollow, contained the priming-powder.

The wheel-lock being the immediate predecessor of the flint-lock, so well-known to us, and only discontinued in the English army in 1840, is well worth careful study.

It appears, however, that the wheel-lock easily got out of order, and was difficult to repair in the field; hence their use was not general, and we find the match-lock still the usual mode of firing in the seventeenth century.

In Grose’s “English Army” there are figures of the manual exercise of the Musketeers at the end of the seventeenth century, showing but little improvement upon the harquebus or caliver of the previous one; the trigger, indeed, is improved, and covered by a trigger-guard, but the rest—the match and the musket—are almost the same.

Portable fire-arms of olden time - 17th-century musket.png

An invention which doubled the use of the musket now was introduced. To Germany we owe the flint-lock, as well as the wheel-lock. Rude and clumsy indeed at first, with its upright steel, the “Schnapp-hahn,” or literally snap-cock, when it once gained a footing, drove the match lock completely out of the field, and held its ground for upwards of 150 years.

The drawing is from Hewitt, and he says “it is of German manufacture, and has the Nuremberg stamp on the barrel: its date about 1640.”

The improvement of causing the steel to cover the priming, and to fly open by the striking of the cock against it, was soon made; and at the beginning of the eighteenth century the flint-lock was in general use in the English army, and differed but little from that with which our troops were armed up to 1840: it was a little heavier, and a little clumsier, perhaps, but that was all the difference, considered only as a fire-arm. It was not till the latter year that English soldiers of the line were armed with a percussion-musket, which, however, only held its place for about a dozen years, when the advance of science and the better arms of our neighbours compelled us to replace it; first, partially by the Minié, and afterwards entirely by the Enfield.

Our subject, however, ends with the introduction of the flint-lock: the subsequent improvements belong to modern times.

The various theories of gunnery introduced by Tartaglia, Leonardo da Vinci, Robbins, and others, and more recently developed by Delvigne, Minié, and Whitworth, are deeply interesting to a nation of Riflemen; and when the watchword of our rifle-makers and rifle-users seems to be “Forward and onward,” a fuller study of the several steps from the rude “hande-gonne” of the fourteenth century to the Whitworth of to-day cannot fail to be amusing and instructive to all who love the rifle.

P. L.

  1. Hewitt, “Ancient Armour and Weapons in Europe.” Vol. ii., p. 287.