Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Remarkable Early Snaphance Guns of the Roberts by Brian Godwin

The possession of mechanical novelties during the 16th century was seen as prestigious and there was perhaps nothing more esteemed than the firearms produced for the ruling elite of Europe.  Henry VIIIs breech-loading wheellocks are amongst the best known of these firearms. Emperor Charles V of Spain's Armoury which has been preserved at the Royal Palace, Madrid, includes multi-shot and multi-barrelled wheellock guns of great complexity and intrigue. No expense was spared in his quest for magnificent arms and as Holy Roman Emperor he could choose from the best gunmakers of Europe, including Germany, a country renowned for its mechanical inventions. Gunmakers all over Europe were eager to prove their skill and ingenuity in order to obtain the patronage of the ruling elite. The Kings and nobility of Europe were equally keen to own something that their rivals did not have. It is questionable just how functional these weapons were, but at the time their very existence, and ownership of them was to show to others, ominous power, great wealth and possession of the latest fashion.

This was the envious position that the Dukes of Savoy found themselves in when they engaged the services of gunmakers, Jacques and Simon Robert. In the 1570s the Roberts’ were able to make a relatively simple, easy to use and fast firing flintlock, at a time when the alternative firearms were either the archaic matchlock, or the complex and fragile wheellock. The few surviving firearms attributed to the Roberts’ bear witness to a remarkable and quite unique form of flintlock that they had designed and made available to their powerful patrons. This article looks at one example of their work, which is now in the firearms collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Savoy was a small kingdom, formed in the 11th century, which occupied a region of present day south-eastern France and north-west Italy. During the 16th century it was ruled by a succession of Dukes, notably Emmanuel Philibert from 1553 until 1580, and then his son Charles Emmanuel I from 1580 until 1630. Both were accomplished military men, Emmanuel having made a name for himself fighting the French while serving under the leadership of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, where he gained the nickname “Ironhead”. Emmanuel l’s son, Charles, succeeded on the death of his father in 1580. An ambitious and self-confident man, Charles earned himself the nickname “Head of Fire” for his military rashness and attitude. 

Savoy was a country under constant threat from its neighbours. It had been occupied by the French since 1536 and it was Duke Emmanuel who finally drove them out in 1559. Once Emmanuel had rid his country of the French, a supply of arms and armour for defending it became paramount. In 1563 the Duke moved his court to the centrally situated city of Turin. Among the many craftsmen working for him was the gunmaker, Jacques Robert.

The State Archives in Turin keep the records for the House of Savoy, including all the financial transactions made by the ruling Dukes and importantly those relating to the gunmakers’ Robert.  Jacques Robert is first mentioned in 1561 when the Treasurer of Duke Emmanuel was ordered to pay the sum of 80 florins for guns made for him. By 1567 the accounts also record a Simon Robert being paid for work carried out in the previous year.  The accounts also reveal that the Roberts’ came from Franche-Comte, part of the Burgundy region of France, bordering Switzerland and north of the areas of Lorraine and Alsace, the latter countries being renowned for their gunmaking in the 16th and 17th century. A subsequent entry records that Jacques was the son of Simon Robert.

In 1575 the Palace accounts record a payment made “to Simon Robert, of one hundred livre for……the guns and snaphances (archibugi et fucili) supplied by him”.

In Italy the term fucile was used as early as the 14th century to describe a fire-steel or strike-a-light – in other words a piece of steel used with a flint to produce sparks. By the third quarter of the 16th century it was being applied to a gun lock that replicated mechanically the action of striking a flint against a piece of steel to produce sparks. A record of the use of this term at such an early date is rare, as the snaphance lock (fucile), the earliest known form of flint-using gun lock, only pre-dates this period by about 30 years. The Roberts’ were evidently capable of producing a “state of the art” gun lock that could be kept primed and then fired instantly in two quick movements. Additionally it could be reloaded, primed and fired again in quick succession. When compared to the two alternative gun lock mechanisms of the day, the matchlock and the wheellock, the snaphance is seen as far superior.
The matchlock, although simple in its construction, required very careful handling. Its smouldering match cord dangled precariously around the power pan and needed to be kept burning until it was used to fire the gun.

The wheellock, both complex and expensive, a delicate mechanism of levers and springs and very liable to malfunction, needed to be wound up for each shot. It was essential that the winding spanner was not lost or broken and that there was enough left of the pyrites, which was very prone to crumbling, to generate a spark.

While both these mechanisms would work well in the right conditions, they were laborious to use and their use in both war and hunting were potentially lethal to the user.

Only eight firearms have so far been identified and attributed to the Roberts’. One of them, the subject of this article, is a short snaphance lock gun of fine quality that is now on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (PR.IV.69). It was once the property of the grand-daddy of modern gun collectors, Samuel Rush Meyrick (1783-1848) and a drawing of the lock is shown in Skelton’s Engraved Illustrations of Ancient Armour published in 1830. It is thought that this musket was acquired by Pitt Rivers in the early 1850s as part of his interest in the development of new firearms and his work for the School of Musketry.

The gun is 144.7cm (57 inches) in length, its plain octagonal iron barrel is 107.8cm (42½ inches) and has a calibre of approx 17mm (16 bore). It has a brass blade front sight and a V-shape standing back sight and the breech is inset with a makers’ mark, a brass cartouche with the initial J. The same mark appears on the lockplate between the pan and steel spring.

The wooden full-stock is almost straight in form, reflecting the influence of German wheellock guns of the period. It is inlaid overall with engraved bone, representing foliage, flowers and birds linked by tendrils.

On the left side of the butt is a large inlaid panel of bone surrounded by smaller pieces, which are shaped and engraved and may represent an heraldic crest or coat of arms. It is now considerably worn and so it is difficult to understand its meaning . Unfortunately over the years some damage has been sustained to the delicate stock and its inlays and areas of missing inlay and wood have subsequently been filled. A long angular iron guard protects the trigger.

Although snaphance locks were known from the 1550s, their use and production in Europe seems to have been spasmodic. While the first mention of the mechanism appears in documents dating to 1547, the earliest surviving snaphance dates to the 1550s and seems to be either North German or Swedish in origin. From the late 1560s the snaphance lock was also being produced in Scotland and subsequently in England where it enjoyed particular popularity until the second quarter of the 17th century.  In mainland Europe the history of the lock and production remains vague and only a very few examples from the 16th century have survived. This suggests that its production there was limited and that the wheellock and matchlock remained the dominant gun lock used until at least the 1620s.

The Robert snaphance lock is quite unique and unusual, both in its form and operation. The lock would almost certainly have been regarded as something quite special at the time it was made, although only a few people in Savoy or the surrounding area would have had the privilege of seeing one.

The robustly constructed cock is quite distinctive, being short and straight with a baluster neck. The long cock jaws are set at right angles to this and have a prominent winged jaw-screw which is inserted upwards through the lower jaw. The oblong shaped steel with a serrated striking face is also robustly constructed.

An unusual feature of the lock is the pancover mechanism. A separate pancover, formed with an integral arm, pivots in an arc, and is mounted on the outside of the lockplate. This is activated by an externally mounted single leaf spring. A rocking lever or bar, also spring activated is mounted on the outside of the plate and hooks around the front of the pancover arm to keep it in place and the pancover shut. The rocker bar is activated by the movement of the cock. As the cock moves forward under pressure from the mainspring, a stud on its base depresses the rear end of the bar, moving the front end slightly outwards and releasing the pancover arm, thus exposing the pan.

Internally, the lock is quite simple and consists of a powerful V-shaped mainspring acting on a tumbler, which is held at full cock by a 2-piece sear. While the mainspring and 2-piece sear are not remarkable and could be found on any wheellock mechanism of the day, the tumbler was unique. It is disc-shaped, formed with an integral squared shank that protrudes through the lockplate and onto which is mounted the cock, that is in turn held by a cross-pin. A section of the circumference of the tumbler is notched and the toe of the mainspring fits into this.  The disc-shaped tumbler is cut with a step or ledge across its surface and the primary sear drops into this step to hold the tumbler at full-cock - see below.

There is no half-cock or safety position on the tumbler, although the steel can be moved away from the pan, thereby ensuring an effective safety position. The Robert lock has just 5 internal moving parts compared to an average of 20 internal parts for a contemporary wheel lock.

Drawing showing the tumbler (red) primary and secondary sears (yellow & blue) and mainspring and sear spring (green)

Only three other examples of the peculiar form of snaphance described above are known to exist. These consist of two pistols, one of which is now at the Royal Armouries, Leeds (XII-736) and the other in the Musee de l’Armee, Paris (M.1763), and a gun which was restocked at a later date and was formerly in the William Renwick collection (Sotheby’s sale 19 March 1973 – Lot 38; present whereabouts unknown).

Royal Armouries, Leeds (XII-736)

Musee de l'Armee, Paris (M.1763)

How do we know the snaphance lock described here is one of those made by the Roberts’? The answer to this can be found in a portrait of Filippo of Savoy, Prince of Piedmont (1586-1605) which shows him aged about 5 years. He was the eldest son of Duke Carlo Emmanuel and the portrait is believed to have been painted in about 1590. In his right hand he holds a miniature gun with a snaphance lock which is clearly of the same type discussed above. The detail of the lock mechanism is stunning and precise and even shows the sickle-shaped wings of the cock jaws and the pancover release arm on the outside of the lockplate. The lock is so similar to the Oxford gun that it can only be the work of the Roberts’, and confirms beyond any doubt the link between the Roberts’, their snaphance locks and the Dukes of Savoy. The portrait by artist Jan Kraek and detail of the gun is shown below (Prado Museum, Madrid - No.1264). 

Portrait of Filippo of Savoy, Prince of Piedmont (1586-1605) by Jan Kraek - Prado Museum, Madrid (No.1264)

Both the barrel and the lockplate of the subject gun have a brass shield-shaped makers’ mark containing the initial J, with two cross-bars at the top. This mark has been found on four other guns, all wheellocks, three being of the French-type wheellock, with a separate mainspring housed in the stock, and the fourth of the more conventional German construction, with the mainspring mounted on the lock plate.

Despite being wheellocks, the stocks show such similarities to the subject gun and to the gun shown in the portrait mentioned above, that they must have been made by the same hand. Also, it is considered that, as these firearms display such strong German and French gunmaking characteristics, they must have been made by gunmakers from the regions of Lorraine or Burgundy, the area from where the Roberts’ originated.

It appears that Duke Carlo Emmanuel gave some of the wheellock guns made by the Roberts’ to the Duke of Parma or another member of the Farnese family, as three are now in the collection at the Capodimonte Palace, Naples.

In 1585 the Palace accounts record that “the sum of 78 scudi be given to Jacques Robert, master gunmaker to His Highness, for the remainder of the entire payment for 50 snaphances for guns which he has made for the arquebusiers of the bodyguard of His Highness…”

Speculation surrounds four further snaphance guns that might be connected with the Roberts. These each have curious combined snaphance and matchlock mechanisms. Although the locks differ in shape and quality, they nevertheless have several features in common with those of the subject lock described above, in particular the curious rocking pancover release bar that is mounted on the outside of the lockplate. As far as it is known, this feature has not been found on any other snaphance firearms from the 16th century. Is it possible that these four snaphance locks are part of the fifty supplied by the Roberts in 1585?

Internally these locks have a 2-piece sear that does not engage a ledge or step cut across the tumbler as the subject lock does, but instead engages a hole cut into the flat surface of the tumbler. This is similar in many respects to the engagement of the sear and wheel of a wheellock. The muskets, of which three are in German museums and the other in the Tojhusmuseet, Copenhagen, are variously dated either 1571 or 1572 on their barrels, conveniently placing them within the right time frame. Two are illustrated in Howard Blackmore’s, “Guns & Rifles of the World”, London 1965. At present and until further research is undertaken, we can only hypothesize that these muskets were part of the original fifty made for the Dukes bodyguard.


Tojhusmuseet, Copenhagen

Bavarian Army Museum, Germany

Veste Coburg Castle, Germany

Despite giving some the Robert wheellocks away, Duke Carlo Emmanuel seems to have kept the Roberts and in particular their unique snaphance firearms, very much to himself. Although Emmanuel was involved in various military actions during the 1580s and 1590s, there are no records suggesting that he armed either himself or his troops with snaphance firearms to fight these campaigns. It seems that the highly prized snaphances were kept securely within the Court and for the use of his personnel bodyguards alone. To those within the Court and to Court visitors, these guns would have been seen as something quite extraordinary. The fact that his bodyguards carried firearms with such a fast firing mechanism would undoubtedly provide a powerful message to any who sought to oppose him. 

Father and son, Simon and Jacques Robert, worked for the Dukes of Savoy over a period of thirty years and during that time produced not only guns but also other arms too. The Palace accounts show that in the 1570s, for example, the Roberts set up a water-powered tilt hammer and mill for grinding and that during the 1580s Simon had not only supplied the Duke with firearms, but also corselets and helmets of black armour. The unique snaphance firearms produced by the Roberts could be seen as an extravagant sideline for the Dukes of Savoy to impress their Court and visiting dignitaries, but also arming their bodyguards with these guns would be perceived as a display of power and modernity.

It seems likely that Simon Robert died while still in service to the Duke, as according to the Palace accounts of 1595 his widow Joannine, received “36 ducats for payment to his heirs of the second quarter of the pension assigned to him”. As for Jacques nothing else is recorded in the Palace accounts or is known about him. His unique snaphance lock appears to have slipped into obscurity and apart from the examples mentioned no other records or Robert snaphances are known.

Roberts’ masterpiece can be seen in the Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

This article has drawn heavily on the work of the late Claude Blair, who researched the Robert gunmakers and published his findings in the Italian arms collecting bulletin Armi Antiche in 1988 under the title, “Simon and Jacques Robert and some early snaphance locks”.

In the production of this article the author would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Jeremy Coote, Helen Hales, Elin Bornemann from the Pitt Rivers Museum, and also to Bob Freeman for his help with the photography.