|17th Century Spanish Wheellock pistol, Luis Garcia (Wiki)|
So, I've been helping a friend fine-tune her research for a colonial novel due out in October, and one of the topics of conversation has been types and use of colonial firearms. Previously I posted about the American rifle, and a few of the differences between rifles and muskets, but it occurred to me that overall information on the topic of firearms could be useful.
We know that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese about 850 A.D. or before, while trying to formulate an elixir of life. It was quickly developed into use for warfare, and the first known gun dates to the late 13th century. Cannon and rocket warfare was common across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe by the time the colonial era rolled around, as we know it. Handheld firearms, for military and personal use, had an interesting evolution all their own, dating from about 1500.
|Engraving of 17th century musketeers, Thirty Years' War|
Terminology surrounding the earliest firearms is littered with terms like doglock, matchlock, wheellock, snaplock, snapchance, frizzen, pan ... okay, I'll stop now. Basically, though, a gun was comprised of a stock or grip (on a pistol), the barrel, and the firing mechanism. The most well known of these is the matchlock, which held a slow-burning fuse that when touched to the powder, would fire the weapon; and the wheellock, a clever device rather like a modern lighter, where a rotating steel wheel struck a piece of pyrite to provide the spark. Matchlocks were cumbersome and more prone to misfires, not to mention more dangerous with the need for the fuse to stay constantly lit. Wheellocks were more complicated but were so easy to hide, they became famous for their use in assassinations, and were outlawed in several countries.
The matchlock and wheellock were superceded in the 17th century by the most well known of all, the flintlock. Wikipedia's marvelous article on the topic has more information than I can possibly relay here, or even do justice in summarizing, so if you're seriously interested in the history of the weapon whose use spanned a couple of centuries, please visit that link!
The flintlock differed from its predecessors in that a sliver of flint striking steel provided ignition. While the wheellock was actually safer in that the spark could be produced in the pan rather than above the pan, the flintlock was the improved combination of all the technologies before it and rapidly gained popularity over the other types.
A flintlock could be any sort of gun, whether pistol (and these ranged in sizes from small enough to fit inside a lady's muff, or the long, heavy "horse pistols" mounted on a saddle), musket (the cheapest and quickest to manufacture, and thus in favor for military use), or rifle (the best in range and accuracy). Loading time was at least fifteen seconds for a pistol, up to half a minute or so on a musket or rifle, and involved half cocking the firearm, pouring a measure of powder down the barrel, pressing a paper- or cloth-wrapped ball (never a bullet during this time) down after the powder, then priming the "pan" with a bit of powder. The savvy hunter or soldier would always reload his weapon after firing, because you couldn't count on having time to load if you found yourself facing an angry bear or human enemy.
Colonial firearms weren't always reliable and had to be kept in good working condition. Cleaned, oiled, careful measure of the powder, and a healthy dose of respect for what was considered an essential tool of the frontier ... as essential, and ubiquitous, as we'd consider a car or cell phone today. They represented a family's ability to provide and protect, but of course were a source of sporting pleasure as well, as they remain in our time.