Thursday, January 4, 2018

An Extraordinary Wheellock from the 16th Century by Brian Godwin

The invention of the wheellock in the early 16th century brought many subsequent advances and improvements in the development of hand firearms. One of the important developments was that it used a mechanical spark generating device which meant the gun could be fired instantly. No longer did the shooter have to rely on the use of a slow burning match-cord or "live fire" to discharge the gun or to risk the danger that the proximity to gunpowder brought with it.

The wheellock mechanism, for those who are not familiar with it, consists of a rotating steel wheel with a grooved or serrated edge. It is mounted on a spindle which is connected, via a small bicycle-like chain, to a large V-spring. [Fig.2 below] The wheel is wound up with a key or spanner for every shot, the chain wrapping itself around the spindle as it winds. A piece of iron pyrites is held against the grooved edge of the wheel, which spins when the trigger is released. The wheel turns through a hole cut in the base of the flashpan and generates sparks from the pyrites, so igniting the priming powder and firing the gun. The mechanism is complex with many levers, links and springs, and on average contains as many as 35 separate parts. It required new skills from the gunmaker to make them fit and work together properly.

Figure 2 - The wheel, pan,  spindle and chain and mainspring: not the subject lock

the chain wound around the spindle

The wheellock allowed hand firearms to develop in ways that the previous ignition system could not. Previously guns had been simple devices made by blacksmiths but now, with the advent of the wheellock, gunmaking became a highly skilled art and one that saw the establishment of the "gunmaker" as a separate craft in its own right.
More importantly the invention allowed the evolution of the pistol. The mechanism could be made in almost any size, from large locks to fit military guns, to very small locks to fit small pistols, staff weapons and even daggers. Numerous accounts show that wheellock guns, in particular pistols, quickly became widespread and for those who could afford them they were very popular. A small wheellock pistol could easily be concealed about the person, then drawn and fired, perhaps with criminal intent by an assassin, in an instant. So concerned was the Duke of Ferrara, for instance, that in 1522 he issued a ban on "little stone or dead fire guns" forbidding anyone to carry one of these self-igniting guns on the street after dark without a licence. However, it would be wrong to give the impression that everyone could afford such a weapon. Wheellocks were complex devices, expensive to produce and at this early period, generally the "toys" of the rich.

By the 1540s, the wheellock was fully developed and gunmakers were keen to find a way of creating firearms that would provide more than one shot. To achieve this, complicated revolvers and multi-barrelled guns were produced, but these were often sizeable and impractical weapons. A simpler idea was to have two barrels, one on top of the other, and to design a double wheellock arranged so that a single lockplate contained two mechanisms, one placed slightly lower than the other, in order to align with the upper and lower touch-holes. A second system used just one barrel in which one charge was loaded on top of the other in a superimposed fashion. The barrel therefore had two touch-holes, each in a position relative to the charge. To fire these charges also required a double lock, the two pans and two wheels arranged one behind the other, "in-line", and designed so that the front or forward lock, fired first.

The detached double wheellock shown above that is the subject of this article was found recently at auction. At some earlier period in the past it had been mounted onto a wooden "pistol-like" stock, perhaps so that the workings of the lock could be demonstrated. It was in a dirty and untouched condition, but upon removal of the lock  was found to be complete and the mechanism intact.

The mechanism is 11 inches in length and weighs 1lb 14oz and was made for a single-barrelled "superimposed load" pistol. It has two complete wheellock actions mounted on one lockplate comprised of 74 separate parts [Fig.3 below].

It is quite incredible that so many parts could be squeezed into such a confined space and a real test of skill for the lockmaker. Remarkably, the mechanism is also designed so that the single trigger fires the front lock first. A long sear bar attached to the forward sear is connected to the back sear. As pressure is applied to the trigger, the long sear bar is pushed back sufficiently to release the sear of the front lock, so firing the first or forward charge. Continued pressure on the trigger continues the rearward movement of the long sear bar, connecting with the back sear and so releasing it and firing the rear lock.

Internally, the lock is a mechanics nightmare! [Fig.4 below]

Each component fits precisely into its allotted space and many are specially shaped to fit around each other [Fig.5 below].

The mainspring for the forward lock is in a reverse position and its enlarge curved hook is designed to fit around the spindle axel when the lock is wound up [Fig.6 below].

A few brazed repairs can be seen where some of the internal components have fractured or broken. This is not surprising considering the delicacy of some of the smaller parts and the great strain that they were put under.

Externally, each lock has its own safety catch. They can be seen mounted on the rear half of the lockplate [Fig.7 below].

Each catch is under tension from a small spring and when engaged they block any movement of the separate release sears. The two wheels are quite small, being only 1 inch in diameter [Fig.8 below].

 Each wheel is enclosed by a circular cover that help to protect the delicate mechanism. They make approximately one complete turn when they are released. An unusual feature can be seen on the top of each pan cover, where what appears to be the grooved wheel comes through the cover. In fact this is not the case and it may have been designed like this so that the pyrites slips down into the pan more easily when the cover opens. The wheellock is designed so that when it is wound up, primed and ready to fire, the dog-head and pyrites is pulled over onto the top of the pan-cover. The pan-cover automatically opens when the wheel starts to revolve and the pyrites snaps down onto the spinning wheel. Decoration to the exterior parts of the lock is minimal and mainly confined to each dog-head and to the sliding pan covers.

Although now worn, the "human face" engravings to the dog-heads can still be seen [Fig.9 below].

On the lockplate is a makers mark, the initials BK over a pair of spectacles [Fig.10 below]. This is considered to be the mark of Balthazar Klein of Nuremburg.

He is recorded between 1555 and 1566, although from its design this lock probably dates closer to 1570. Little more is known of Klein although a number of firearms with locks having the same mark are known and some of these locks are double wheellocks. One example is on a double barrelled over and under pistol in the Liverpool Museum (M4708) [Fig.11 below].

Another example is a carbine in the Royal Armouries (Livrustkammaren), Stockholm (LRK-3187) [Fig.12 below]. This is another over and under version of the double lock.

The city of Nuremburg in Germany has a long association with the production of metal goods. Situated on the trade routes for eastern and southern Europe, the city was well positioned to provide all manner of metal goods to much of the Continent and beyond from the late Middle Ages onwards. The production of armour, swords and other edged weapons began in the 14th century but was over-taken in the mid-16th century by the making of firearms. Other complex metal objects, such as door locks, were also produced from this time, hence the close association with the making of gun locks. Since the late 1400s the city had produced some of the finest metal spectacle frames in Europe, and in 1535 the Nuremburg spectacle makers guild was founded. Considering the city's fame for metal spectacle frames, it is not surprising that Klein choose the use of this image for his makers mark.

Two other members of the Klein family that used a similar "initials and spectacles" mark are recorded: M Klein in Augsburg around 1590, and H Klein, also in Augsburg around 1612. The relationship of these Klein's to one another is unknown but are almost certainly related. Augsburg is another German city renowned for it arms production during the 16th century.

A large number of double wheellocks, of either the under and over, or superimposed type are known. They were produced from the 1540s through to about 1620 and are mainly found today in what remains of old royal collections that are now scattered throughout various museums in Europe. One well publicised example is a pistol by Peter Pech of Munich, made for Emperor Charles V in the 1540s. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. This has 2 barrels in an over and under formation and has a double wheellock that is designed to fire the upper and lower barrels separately (See R.Held, "The Age of Firearms", London 1959, page 54).

These unusual and complex firearms were effectively the playthings of the rich and although fully functioning they were perhaps made more to impress than to be of practical use. Their sheer complexity and cost would always confine them to the elite and for today's gun enthusiast they are a rare and ingenious curiosity.
The story of the superimposed-load firearm did not stop with the demise of the wheellock in the mid-17th century, as the system can be found on both flintlock and percussion guns, such as the American Walch 10-shot revolver of the 1860s. The full story of the superimposed-load firearm can be found in D.R.Baxter's book, "Superimposed Load Firearms 1360-1860" (Hong Kong 1966).

Wheellock Firearms by G. Rimer, 2001
Pollards History of Firearms by C. Blair (Ed.), 1983
Der Neue Stockel by E. Heer, 1982
Early European Hand-Firearms by M.Spencer & A.Philpott, 1982
Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes by V.Ilardi, 2007
Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg 1300-1550, Exhibition Catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986

Header illustration: The City of Nuremberg by Hans Weigel, dated 1572

The subject wheellock as found in 2016

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