Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The 'Kalashnikov' of the Renaissance, matchlock development until 1550.


This is a huge topic that one could write a book about (and I'm sure multiple people have). There are many gunsmiths, manufacturing centres and styles of weapons to talk about and I'm not even going to try to do that. What I am going to try to do is trace the history of the matchlock in the Holy Roman Empire in broad terms. I will begin with the fist hand cannon with a simple swivelling, 'Z' shaped, match holding serpentine lever nailed to its wooden stick-stock and end with fully stocked mechanically linked matchlock and snap matchlock arquebuses of the early 16th century. For this purpose I have chosen to trace the development of the stock and lockwork in separately since these two features seem to have evolved somewhat independently of each other. Also, there is no discussing stock and matchlock evolution without including some discussion of hand cannon. There are guns which are quite primitive hand cannon that have some semblance of a mechanical lock and there are guns with quite advanced looking stocks that still appear to have been touched off by hand and show no attempt at a the installation of even the simplest form of mechanical ignition system.

Nota Bene: I reserve the right to change my mind and re write this entire post as my research progresses and new data comes to light.


Thanks to the variety of museums that decided to make their object collections available online to hairy, unwashed, badly groomed and uncultured members of the general public such as myself. Also thanks to the guys on the vikingsword.com discussion forum, a decidedly strange place to find information on early firearms, and most of all the late but great Michael 'Matchlock man' Trömner whose forum posts helped me immensely to put together this rough and imperfect overview of matchlock development.


Because this post concentrates largely on the evolution of the matchlock in the German speaking lands am going to use German terms in this post as they appear in period arsenal inventories and other documents because they give one a better idea of how these weapons were categorised by the authors of these documents rather than the categories these weapons are placed into by modern people. To avoid any confusion I will try to draw parallels between these terms and modern English ones.

Handtpuchse, (handgonne) A single man portable hand cannon that can be aimed and shot by a single soldier. It has no semblance of a lock mechanism beyond possibly an 'S' or 'Z' shaped serpentine lever. It should be noted that there was significant overlap between the Handtpuchsen and the heavier Hagknpuchse in that both could have a recoil mitigating hook regardless of calibre. During the late 15th century the lighter Handtpuchse progressively lost the hook. By the early 16th century hooks were mostly seen on long, unwieldy and heavy caliber heavy arquebuses, i.e. the hook was mostly only seen on guns were it was truly needed for recoil mitigation.

Hagknpuchse, (hackbut) A heavy man portable hand cannon that can be shot by one person but is bulky and heavy enough that it is best used a crew served weapon. It is of heavier calibre than a Handtpuchse and has a significantly higher recoil which is why it is fitted with a hook under the barrel that can be hooked over battlement, a firing slit, a tripod of some sort or a fork which also serves to relieve the shooter from having to manage the weight of the weapon to improve his accuracy. 

Arkebuse, (arquebus) A long barrelled weapon with a stock that basically similar to that of modern rifles and shotguns. It is meant to be held by the grip and forestock and has a butt that is meant to be pulled into the shoulder. This weapon can be considered the successor of the Handtpuchse although both were used in parallel for decades. It has a mechanical lock and some form of trigger mechanism as well as an optional safety. The calibre of these weapons ranged from 10-15 mm and the length from 80-130 cm. An Arkebuse normally did not have a hook under the barrel for recoil mitigation. These guns are the forerunners of the later Muskete (eng: Musket).

Schwere Arkebuse, (Heavy Arquebus) This term may not be entirely historical, these weapons seem to have been called Hagknpuchse/hackbut but I feel it is necessary to avoid confusion. This weapons is like the Arkebuse in layout but longer and of heavier construction and caliber to the point that can be considered to be the replacement for the Hagknpuchse. Due to the heavy caliber and recoil these guns usually had a hook under the barrel for recoil mitigation. Therefore it needs to be clearly distinguished from the normal Arkebuse. The caliber of these weapons varied from 20mm to 30mm or more and the length could be up to around 2 meters. This weapon is a forerunner of what later became known as a Wallbüchse  (eng: wall gun) although these successors were bigger and heavier than the Schwere Arkebuse.

The earliest known attempt at a mechanical lock

The earliest example of a Handtpuchse with any semblance of a lock mechanism that I know of comes from a German ''Büchsenmeisterbuch' (Master gunner's book) dating to 1411. This weapon consists of a simple Handtpuchse with a 'Z' shaped serpentine that passes through a slot in the stick-stock (either that or it is nailed to the left side) and swivels on a nail driven through the stock. Primitive though this may look it is a massive improvement on the earlier Handtpuchse where the shooter could either:

  • Ignite the gun himself which distracted him from the task of aiming.
  • Aim properly and enlist an assistant to ignite the gun.
With the serpentine the Handtpuchse became a truly man portable firearm capable of quite accurate aiming while no longer being a crew served weapon, and contrary to popular opinion a Handtpuchse could be surprisingly accurate in the hands of a practiced gunner despite the lack of a mechanical ignition system. 

Figure 1. A serpentine equipped Handtpuchse from a German 'Büchsenmeisterbuch' (Master gunner's book) dating to 1411. Note the way the serpentine appears to be mounted on the left side of (or pass through) the stick-stock and that the serpentine appears to hold a length of tinder rather than a slow-match.

Strangely enough this remarkable upgrade to the normal stick-stocked Handtpuchse does not seem to have caught on all that much. Images from the 1480s and into the 1490s show large formations of hand gunners still using the old low-tech non mechanically ignited Handtpuchse.  In fact Handtpuchsen remained in use in Europe well into the 16th century. One can only speculate about the reason why the serpentine equipped Handtpuchse did not catch on. Possibly this was because aiming instinctively and setting off a Handtpuchse with a match was not sufficiently difficult for a single hand gunner engaged in volley fire as to necessitate the use of a serpentine lever. However, once firearms emerged which had longer barrels and were capable of accurate shooting at longer ranges the accuracy of instinctive shooting was no longer enough to hit even a formation of oncoming soldiers at such ranges. Thus sighting along the barrel became necessary which in turn necessitated the use of a mechanical ignition system and a better stock.

Figure 2. A gaggle of hand gunners on the march from a German manuscript of the 1480s or 1490s (1482 by one estimate). None of them seem to have opted for the upgraded high-tech Handtpuchse from Codex Germ. 3069 since there isn't a serpentine lever in sight. Nor do have any of these Handtpuchsen exhibit a stock design more sophisticated than a simple stick. Unsophisticated though these things look they are easy to mass manufacture.

Figure 3. An actual surviving Handtpuchse with a serpentine. The gun itself reportedly dates to the first half 15th century. Note the spring on the stick-stock. The serpentine and the hook were added at some time during the gun's service life which is likely to have been lengthy and there is no guarantee the modifications were done at the same time. Even so the modification likely dates to the 15th century. I am not sure if the barrel is copper alloy or iron but according to the source it had traces of red led base paint which usually indicates iron or mild steel. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this gun but I have no reason to distrust the source of the images. 

Source: Michael Trömner, [source]

Stock designs

The earliest firmly dated example of stock designs I have been able to find so far and that go beyond the stick-stock of the classic Handtpuchse is a series of images from an illustrated armoury inventory of the city of Landshut in Germany.

In this book, among the lists of equipment, are some extremely interesting illustrations of all manner of military equipment including a number of Handtpuchse with surprisingly advanced looking stocks. Interestingly enough the compiler of this inventory labeled some of the guns as 'Alt Hagknpuchsen' (eng. literally: old hook-guns) and 'Aeltere Handtpuchsen' (eng. literally: older hand-cannon). However other models of Handtpuchse or Hagknpuchsen are not thus labeled which gives one an indication of what the writer though modern and what he thought obsolescent.

Figure 4. Guns the author of the Landshut armoury inventory deemed 'Alt Hagknpuchsen' (top) and 'Aeltere Handtpuchsen' (bottom), i.e. old hook-guns and hand-guns. Note the red bands on the barrel of the upper gun. These are probably iron barrel bands which were routinely painted in red led based paint for rust protection. This can be seen on iron components of artillery gun carriages and limbers.

Source: Codex Pal. germ. 130 via the University of Heidelberg.

As one can see the upper guns in the above image are clearly somewhat heavy and intended to be shot from fortifications or inside a war waggon as indicated by the recoil absorbing hook attached to the barrel. This is not speculation on my part since a number of similar weapons are explicitly described on the codex as being intended for use in war wagons. The lower guns are clearly man portable weapons and look very similar to the ones being carried by the gunners in the Hausbuch Wolfegg. Clearly, by the 1480s, both of these weapons types were considered rather old fashioned but still not so old as to be entirely unacceptable for service serviceable. There is no hint of a serpentine lever or mechanical locks on either of these weapons gun types.

There are, however, more firearms depicted in the Landshut inventory. It also contains weapons that are not labelled 'Alt' or 'Aeltere' (eng: 'Old' or 'Older'). These are the heavier type of Hagknpuchsen, the hook-guns of heavier construction. 

Figure 5. These guns are simply labeled 'Hagknpuchsen' and are sometimes described as being intended for use in war wagons and presumably also for use from fortifications.

Source: Codex Pal. germ. 130 via the University of Heidelberg.

Note that while the upper gun in the above image still has a socketed stock the stock nevertheless is taking on a shape familiar to the modern eye as a gun stock. The stock is no longer a simple stick. There is now some attempt to shape it even if it is meant to be clamped under the arm rather than braced against the shoulder. The lower two guns have a stock shape that is more familiar to the modern shooter where the barrel is inletted into the stock. However, once again there is no visible attempt at a mechanical ignition mechanism. The barrel shape seen in the two lower guns would become quite widespread and is seen in smaller Arkebusen of fully modern design with mechanical locks in the modernised arsenal of Maximilian I and can be seen in use by the armies of Maximilan's grandson Holy Roman Emperor Karl V at the battle of Pavia in 1525. By that time weapons with this style of stock and barrel were getting old fashioned but by no means obsolete to the point of being unfit for active field service.

Figure 6. Method of firing a heavy Hagknpuchse from the Maximilanisches Zeugbuch. While the stock of this gun looks like that of man portable long arms modern people are used to it was more like a kind of wall gun or light artillery. It could be fired from a crenel, a firing slot in a wall or a war wagon or from a light folding tripod such as this one. It was a crew served weapon much like an anti-tank rifle of the WWI and WWII.

Source: (BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 222) Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum

Figure 7. There were many of different stick-stock shapes for Handtpuchsen other than just a straight stick. This illumination from an Italian manuscript from between 1457-1468 shows no fewer than three different variations being used alongside crossbows. But Handtpuchsem barrels were not just attached to the stock by a socket at the breech. The barrel of a simple Handtpuchse (hand cannon) could also be inletted into the stock as the right hand illumination demonstrates.

Source: (MS. Canon. Class. Lat. 81) Bodleian Library via Spiridonov

Figure 8. A Halberd, Arkebuse and Hagknpuchse depicted together gives us a rough relative size comparison. A halberd was normally around 2,5-3 meters long by the beginning of the 16th century. Assuming 2,5 meters, which is consistent with contemporary engravings showing short halberds similar to this one, the smaller Arkebuse is about a 1,2 m long, the heavy Hagknpuchse is 1,8 meters long. The artist who created the Zeugbuch did not busy himself trying to get proportions right so this image should be taken with a grain of salt. A surviving Arkebuse of this type that survives in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg is a mere 78 cm long and the Hagknpuchse was likely closer to 2 meters.

Source: (BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 222) Münchener DigitalisierungZentum

Early mechanical matchlock designs

Apart from the serpentine lever, which hardly qualifies as a mechanical lock, there were two types of matchlock, the mechanically linked matchlock lock and the snap matchlock.

The snap matchlock

This appears to be the older type of lock unless one counts the simple serpentine lever as the most primitive type of mechanically linked lock. It seems to have been the more common type of lock mechanism into the middle of the 16th century and it was widely copied in many parts of the world, particularly Asia where it remained in use into the 19th and even 20th century. The snap matchlock progressively lost ground to the mechanically linked lock towards the end of the 16th century. By the 17th century the mechanically linked lock had become the dominant form in Europe. The snap matchlock consisted of a gracefully 'S' shaped serpentine actuated by a serpentine spring and usually fired with a button trigger that consisted of a simple spring or a spring powered sear with a serpentine retention tab on it that protruded out of the lock plate (if a lock plate was even fitted) and released the serpentine to be plunged into the ignition pan by the serpentine spring.

Figure 9. A snap matchlock in its simplest completely externally mounted form. Pushing the serpentine forward caused it to get hooked on the little metal tab just underneath the forward end of the serpentine. Once the tinder had been placed in the jaws of the serpentine the pan cover was swivelled out of the way by hand and the prominent round trigger button at the right hand end of the image was pressed. This pulled the serpentine retention tab into the stock, released the serpentine which was then plunged into the ignition pan by the sickle shaped serpentine actuation spring.

Source: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

The mechanically linked matchlock

The mechanically linked matchlock differed from the snap matchlock largely in that it did not have a serpentine spring that plunged the serpentine into the ignition pan and the lockwork was usually inside the gun sheltered behind a lock plate. In this type of lock an L shaped trigger lever similar to that used on medieval crossbows or a short trigger more familiar to modern shooters acted on a spring powered sear that in turn rotated the serpentine into the ignition pan. Thus, there was a direct relationship between how far back you pulled the trigger and how close the serpentine moved towards the ignition pan. The serpentine could be eased very slowly into the pan by pulling the trigger back slowly unlike the snap matchlock where pulling or pushing the trigger caused the serpentine to plunge rapidly into the pan by the serpentine actuation spring. By the 17th century this had become the dominant form of matchlock in European militaries.

Figure 10. An early mechanically linked matchlock of c.a.1515 with a slow-match fitted. The crossbow style trigger lever is directly mechanically linked to the serpentine. Any movement of the trigger lever results in a directly proportional rotational movement of the serpentine. Pulling the trigger lever half way back will result in the serpentine being rotated half way towards the ignition pan. Relaxing your grip on the trigger lever will return the serpentine to its normal resting place as far away form the ignition pan as possible. Even when compared to a flintlock of the Napoleonic wars this mechanism is simplicity itself.

Source: Michael Trömner, [source]

Lock, ... meet stock

When exactly was the first mechanically linked matchlock lock or snap matchlock, i.e. something more sophisticated than a simple serpentine lever, built into a modern looking gun stock for the first time? Better scholars than me have written volumes on this (Robert Elgood and Arnold Thomas to name a few). There is a general consensus that the Holy Roman Empire and other German speaking lands were among the first to make this transition to firearms with a modern stock and a mechanical lock and that this happened around 1475. However, it is also worth noting that but rarely did technological innovation happen on either side of the Alps Germany or Italy without such innovation passing over the Alps in either direction in a relatively short time. It is therefore beyond likely that the Italians may have had a major influence on firearms development in Germany and vice versa. This technological cross-pollination often took place so rapidly that we will never know who invented what or who made which improvement to any technology. But, I am not going to embark on an expedition into the nationalism tainted minefield of who invented what first, just provide an approximate timeline on how the matchlock developed in the Holy Roman Empire and other German speaking lands.

There is a small number of sources that show these very early Arkebusen but few of them show any unambiguous detail. One early source is the Amtliche Berner Chronik (Mss.h.h.I.2,). This is a three volume illustrated chronicle that was created between its commission on the 31st of January 1474 and 1483. The remarkable thing about the Berner Chronik is that it contains numerous illuminations showing what are clearly Arkebusen with a modern stock and matchlock of some kind throughout all three volumes and these weapons are clearly general issue. The illustrations are simplified but it is nevertheless clear, especially from the way the guns are being held and fired, that these are not Handtpuchsen. They must have had a lock since the gunners are always depicted firing them alone and there are no assistants anywhere in sight to ignite the guns. The Arkebusiere hold their weapons in the familiar way a modern long arm is held, by the grip just behind the breech of the barrel and the forestock. Some of them still put the stock on top of their shoulder in the way Handtpuchsen were fired but some also pull the stock into the shoulder in the modern way. This indicates that Arkebusen with modern stocks and mechanical matchlocks were already fairly familiar weapons in 1474-1475 when work on the chronicle began meaning that the invention of the mechanical matchlock Arkebuse can be pushed back as far as 1470 or perhaps even earlier. However, hastily drawn as they are, the images in the Berner Chronik are not conclusive evidence. The first unambiguous image that I have been able to find of an Arkebuse with a mechanical lock and distinctly modern stock comes from a Feuerwerks- und Büchsenmeisterbuch, (BSB Cgm 734) dated to the last third of the 15th century.

Figure 11. This image is dated to the last third of the 15th century by the Bavarian National Library. However, judging by the armour and equipment of the men in the cart it may date to the very late 1470s or early 1480s. Note the archer who is wearing a helmet and elbow cops with besagews as well a skirt of 'Zaddeln' that are probably attached to a padded jack similar to the well known Stendal 'gambesons' show in the right hand image. All of this is armour that was decidedly out of fashion by the 1470s but was probably still in arsenal inventories and likely to have been issued to a lower ranking but valuable soldier like an archer as old-fashioned but still functional equipment. The soldier behind the driver is clearly holding an Arkebuse which clearly has a snapping matchlock judging by the shape of the serpentine. As such it is the earliest depiction of an Arkebuse that I have been able to find.

Source: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB Cgm 734) via Spiridonov

Figure 12. This image from the Amtliche Berher Chronik is dated to between 1474 and 1483 shows two soldiers marching in column. This is one of the less ambiguous images from this manuscript and shows what appears to be a snapping matchlock mechanism. While not complete accurate it does throw some weight behind the dating of the above picture from BSB Cgm. 734.

Source: Amtliche Berner Cronik Vol. 3, via Burgerbibliothek Bern

Figure 13. There seem to have been two methods of holding and firing these Arkebusen  The two uppermost soldiers on the left standing behind the wagon and the one in the right hand image hold the Arkebuse by the grip and forestock and aim along the barrel but they rest the butt of the stock on top of the shoulder. This is one of the ways stick-stocked Handtpuchsen were fired. However, the soldier in the foreground in the left hand image wearing the pink hose and doublet seems to have picked up on what a modern shooter would consider the obvious way of holding this weapon. He holds it by the grip and the forestock, pulls it into his shoulder and aims along the barrel. None of these men are holding a match and there are no assistants in sight to touch the weapon off for them. These are most likely Arkebusen with mechanical snapping matchlocks.

Source: Amtliche Berner Cronik Vol. 3, via Burgerbibliothek Bern

As the above images testify to, and if they are correctly dated, the better scholars than me which I mentioned earlier, would seem to be in the right ballpark when they state that the first Arkebuse with a mechanical lock and a recognisably modern stock made its debut in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1470s. But it is also a fact, as the Landshut inventory, the Hausbuch Wolfegg, and other contemporary documents demonstrate, that these modern firearm did not instantly sweep the Handtpuchse off of the stage. Furthermore, fairly modern looking stocks appeared on Handtpuchsen and Hagknpuchsen before the mechanical lock became commonplace. Feuerwerks and  Büchsenmeister books are after all a good place to find the cutting edge in development at the time of publication so it is perhaps not all that unusual to find that Handtpuchsen still outnumbered the more modern Arkebuse in the field at this time and for some years afterwards. City, town, castle, private, royal and imperial armouries had racks full of the older stick-stocked Handtpuchsen and many arsenal administrators, military commanders and civilian leaders would not have seen a reason to retire these stick-stocked handguns. The Handtpuchsen were perfectly serviceable for volley fire in open field battles and could still be used to lay down suppressive saturation fire during sieges. This is the same lethargy born of conservatism and penny-pinching that caused US Civil war generals to prefer muzzle loading percussion rifles over more modern arms and why some of them had to literally have revolutionary firearms like the Spencer Repeating rifles  forcibly shoved down their throat by the civilian leadership. What I think is more likely is that as the time came to renew or expand the firearms inventory, enterprising gunsmiths convinced the procurement officials of an increasing number of arsenals to buy the newer long barrelled Arkebusen with the newfangled mechanical lock, new stock designs and *ghasp* sights rather than more Handtpuchsen  When the glowing reports about these new guns came in from the troops the need to replace the old stick-stocked Handtpuchsen eventually became obvious. Any ultra-conservative hold outs would eventually have been convinced, however grudgingly, after suffering the indignity of having their ass handed to them on the battlefield by armies with more modern equipment.

Some examples of very early Arkebusen

So what did these early Arkebusen actually look like up close? There are several surviving very early Arkebusen of the type seen in the above manuscript illumination in BSB Cgm 734 although most of them date to the late 1490s and the first quarter of the 16th century. Recall that very similar guns were still being used in 1525 at the battle of Pavia, this design stuck around for quite a long time.

Figure 14. Two surviving Arkebuses of c.a. 1500 that are very similar to the weapons seen in the Maximilianisches Zeugbuch (BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 222). The upper one is suitable for a right handed user is in the Hermitage Museum. It is 78 cm long and the caliber is 10,9 mm. The lower gun suitable for a left handed user is currently in the Hofjagd und Rüstkammer. Images from the late 15th and early 16th century seem to indicate that both left and right handed versions were fairly common so there is no reason to believe that this was a systemic effort to account for left handers but left handers must nevertheless have appreciated this. The serpentine of the gun in the Hofjagd und Rüstkammer is a modern replacement but the original would have been generally similar though possibly made of copper alloy. The hole in the butt of the stock is for a wooden pin on an arsenal rack. These guns were stored horizontally in a rack which had a pair of two pins for each gun. One pin went through the hole in the butt of the gun stock while the forestock of the gun rested on the second pin. Another hypothesis posits that the slow match was threaded through the hole in the stock.

Source: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
Source: Hofjagd und Rüstkammer in Vienna, Austria

Figure 15. This is a Schwere Arkebuse that is roughly equivalent to the heavy Hagknpuchsen in the Landshut armoury inventory. It is around 137 cm long and and the caliber is a massive 32 mm. The weapon must have had hefty recoil which also accounts for the barrel mounted hook. It was reportedly made in Bohemia. Note the narrow slot for the missing trigger of a snap matchlock mechanism. The round end of this slot was where the trigger button was located. The swivel point of the serpentine is above the trigger slot about 2/3rds of the way two the front of it. Also note the compartment in the butt of the stock for accessories.

Source: Tøjhusmuseet Copenhagen

Figure 16. Speaking of accessories, we don't often get a look at the complete collection paraphernalia that came with one of these early Arkebusen but here, just for once, we have what looks like all of it. This includes a ramrod with numerous screw-in tips, of whom I don't know what even half of them do. Some that I do recognise include a cleaning patch holder, a worm for removing bullets, a bore scraper and a ramrod head. This kit doesn't look all that different from cleaning rods you can buy in any sporting goods store today although a number of the replaceable tips are obsolete. The ramrod was usually (though not always) stored under the barrel. The various screw-in tips were often kept in a compartment in the butt of the gun stock but this weapon does not appear to have one. Other important kit is the powder flask and the bullet mould at the centre right of the picture. Finally, notice that this seems to be a trigger button fired snapping matchlock with an internally mounted spring and all the components fixed to a lock plate which is an improvement over the external locks of the guns in Figure 9.

Source: Unfortunately Unknown

The early 16th century 'Kalashnikov'

While the early Arkebuse was an entirely serviceable weapons the early models were unnecessarily ornate. As demand for these weapons grew and mass manufacture of Arkebusen began, gunsmiths stripped away anything that was not strictly necessary and simplified the design drastically to ease production and lower costs. The matchlock itself was already about as simple as it could be made. The stock was simplified to the point where it could be roughed out by a man with a drawknife and an adze and finished with a file and a pair of woodcarving chisels in the minimum possible time. The finishing touch was a coat of paint or boiled linseed oil. Barrels lost any hint of the ornate decoration seen on the examples in the Maximilianisches Zeugbuch (BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 222) and numerous artworks of the time. Copper alloy barrels usually became simple tubes rather than the ornate miniature cannon barrels seen on earlier Arkebusen while iron and steel barrels also lost any ornamentation and were usually made octagonal (though occasionally also round). 

Figure 17. A rack of Arkebusen from the armoury of Maximilian I. Note the ornateness of the barrels which are essentially miniaturised copper alloy cannon barrels. In the coming decades after some spectacular victories had been won on the battlefields of Europe either solely by firearms or to a large extent because off firearms, demand for these weapons grew any attempt at ornamentation on general issue man portable firearms vanished although the expense of ornate decorations was still lavished on artillery.

Source: (BSB-Hss Cod.icon. 222) Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum 

What caused the matchlock Arkebuse to be recognised as a war winning weapon is hard to say. The early 16th century saw a cluster of battles that were won to a large extent or even completely due to the use of firearms: Cerignola (1503), Wenzensbach (1504), Marignano (1515), Bicocca (1522) to name the most famous ones. It is more likely that all of them cumulatively rather than any one of these battles in particular caused firearms to be recognised as an essential battle winning weapon. If there was a 'Plevna moment' (1) of renaissance warfare it is most likely the battle of PaviaIn this monumental battle the cream of the French heavy cavalry and the cream of the French nobility with it was shot to pieces by lowly Arkebusiers. Furthermore King Francis I of France came within a whisker of being unceremoniously despatched by some unknown foot-soldier, possibly an Arkebusier, had not a group of imperial officers (whose identities are disputed) intervened at the last second and captured the King alive. The fact that the noblest and best equipped heavy cavalry in Europe, dressed in full plate harnesses riding fully barded horses, had been utterly annihilated by lowly Arkebusiers, sent a shock wave through the nobility of Europe. Meanwhile the continent's grizzled and pragmatic field commanders that hadn't already done so already, drew the obvious conclusions. As a consequence the demand for matchlock Arkebusen of all sizes and weights increased dramatically.

Figure 19. I don't have the time or the space to embark on an analysis of all the different gun manufacturing traditions of early 16th century Germany so a few examples of German Arkebusen from the 1530s will have to suffice. From the top: 
  1. Arkebuse, Nürnberg, c.a. 1530. Západocéske Musezeum Pilsen via Michael Trömner, [source]
  2. Close up of the same weapon's lock. Západocéske Musezeum Pilsen via Michael Trömner[source]
  3. A Nürnberg Schwere Arkebuse, this weapon is 153 cm long, caliber 19mm. Private collection via Michael Trömner, [source]
  4. Arkebuse, barrel dated 1539, 108 cm long. Germanisches National Museum, [source]
  5. Schwere Arkebuse, c.a. 1550, 168,5 cm long. Germanisches National Museum, [source]
These weapons have a cleaner and quicker to make stock than the earlier models (Figure 14) and barrels are at best minimally decorated. The uppermost two weapons in particular are extremely simple weapons that would have been very efficient and quick to produce and they do indeed seem to have been made in large quantities. The lower two guns both have mechanically linked matchlocks and exhibit the two trigger types that were to become the most common going into the 17th century, the modern trigger and the lever trigger.

Mass production

As the above photographs show (the ones from the Pilsen collection in particular) is some of the  measures had been taken to reduce the cost and increase the rapidity of Arkebuse production. Compare these guns to the ones in the arsenal of Maximilian I and we see that these later guns make no concession to the time consuming decorations lavished on the older style of Arkebuse. Completely gone are the elaborate decoration on the barrels. The stocks are even simpler pieces of carpentry than before. What decorations there are, are reduced to simple filed and stamped geometric patterns and a flared barrel. These are weapons designed for mass production hence the reference to the Kalashnikov assault rifle in the section title since the Kalashnikov is also a robust weapon designed to be made fast and efficiently in large quantities and it does its job very efficiently. Even the fancy looking brass heraldic disc of the Schwere Arkebuse from the GNM collection is a cheap to make item mass produced by stamping or casting. 

The lockwork of the guns in Figure 19 is unitary, i.e. the components are mostly (Figure 19.2-3) or completely (Figure 19.4-5) attached to a single lock plate which simplifies assembly. The two guns from the GNM collection Figure 19.4 and 19.5 have what looks like mechanically linked locks with the lockwork on the inside. This is likely due to negative experiences with early externally mounted snap matchlock mechanisms not standing up to hard military use all that well. Making the lock in pieces and screwing the separate components to the wooden stock without a lock plate as on the weapon in Figure 9 is also inefficient. Attaching all the parts of the lock to the lock plate thus making the lock a single unit achieved a further cost saving. The already simple mechanically linked and snapping matchlocks could now be mass produced in a separate workshop by specialists working from standard templates to make key lock components. The finished standard(ish) sized and shaped locks were then delivered to the assembly workshop by the box where the locks would be installed without any significant extra carpentry. Take another look at the early Arkebuse from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg,  Figure 9. The lock components are attached separately directly to the wooden stock. Apart from causing the lock to be vulnerable to damage, this also results in inconsistent assembly which may result in some locks working better than others. How well the lock works depends on the skill and meticulous nature of the person assembling the gun components, i.e. the stock maker who is has to assemble the lock. Compare the lock of the St. Petersburg gun to the locks of guns number two and five in Figure 19. Note that the lock of the gun in Figure 19.2, the 1530 Nürnberg Arkebuse from the Západocéske Musezeum in Pilsen, has already partly implemented a unitary lock but still has a separate brass spring. The gun in Figure 19.5, from the Germanisches National Museum in Nürnberg, which was made nine years later in 1539 already has a fully unitary lock, i.e. all the lock components of its mechanically linked matchlock are fitted to the lock plate including the only spring in the lock. All the craftsman doing the inletting needs to do is carve a simple cavity for the lock, inlet the lock plate, cut a slot for the trigger, drop the lock in and screw it in place. There is far less hand fitting involved. He does not have to fit a bunch of lock components and make sure they work well together because that has already been done by lock making specialists. Guns with locks basically similar to the one in Figure 10 would remain in continuous use on mass manufactured European military long arms beyond the end of the 17th century.

Figure 20. Racks of Arkebusen from the 1530s at the Západocéske Musezeum Pilsen. By the 2nd quarter of the 16th century the writing was on the wall and these weapons were starting to be ordered by the case and the cart load by customers all over Europe from armament producers in Germany and Italy. Akebusen like like these who are very similar to those made the cities of southern Germany, particularly Nuremberg, dating to the 1530s, exist in museums as far afield as Romania.

Source: Západocéske Musezeum Pilsen, via Michael Trömner, [source]


There are several obvious advantages of Arkebusen over longbows, crossbows and even Handtpuchsen and they are not always what people often think they are. The Arkebuse is capable of practical accuracy at longer ranges than a Handtpuchse for a variety of reasons starting with its longer barrel and better method of aiming. However, the Arkebuse is comfortably outranged by longbows and crossbows. The big war winning advantage of the matchlock Arkebuse is not its range advantage over longbows and crossbows. Both longbows and crossbows are longer ranged and more accurate than the arkebus. It is the fact that the Arkebuse delivers much more surplus projectile energy than the longbow and crossbow, enough projectile energy to penetrate full plate armour. Longbows and crossbows of the type used in medieval field battles delivered a kinetic projectile energy of around 160-200 joules. Some of the biggest crossbows of the era could deliver somewhat more kinetic projectile energy than this. However, the bow had to get quite large before it could deliver a projectile at something approaching the kinds of kinetic projectile energy levels that an Arkebuse could.

A huge lafette mounted crossbow that survives in the collection of Schloss Quedlinburg and dates to the early 14th century that has a 2,75 m long stock and originally had a composite prod some 3,5 meters long was capable of shooting javelin sized quarrels capable of delivering some 640 joules. To put that into perspective, this is how big a bow would have to get to deliver the same kinetic projectile energy as a modern 9mm Parabellum pistol round. To get a feeling for the relative power of a normal Arkebus of the early 16th century: 

  • An Arkebuse with a caliber of 15 mm fires a ball of about 20 grams. If it has a  muzzle velocity of 300 m/s it will deliver a kinetic projectile energy of 900 joules. That is 28% more than the Quedlinburg ballista.
  • Assuming a more anaemic 250 m/s for the above gun we still get 625 joules of kinetic projectile energy.
  • A Schwere Arkebuse of 20 mm caliber (a 47,5 gram ball) with a  muzzle velocity of 300 m/s will deliver a kinetic projectile energy of 2115 joules. This is about three times more kinetic energy than the Quedlinburg ballista could deliver and an order of magnitude more than a longbow. 

Thus an Arkebuse of the 1530s with an anaemic powder load could deliver the same kinetic energy as the Quedlinburg ballista compressed into in a roughly 1 meter long man portable package weighing 4 kg that was capable of being fired by a single soldier. However, there is reason to believe that the muzzle velocity of these early Arkebuses was considerably higher than the conservative figures I gave above. Increase the muzzle velocity of the 15mm Arkebus to 400 m/s raises the kinetic projectile energy to 1600 joules. But kinetic energy is not the only factor at play here. The geometry and the material the projectile is made of also matters, as does the angle of impact. However, judging by the slaughter of the French heavy horse at Pavia, it seems that at ranges of at least 25-35 meters even these earliest Arkebuses were able to wound or even kill knights and barded horses whose armour could completely defeat longbow and crossbow projectiles at any range (siege crossbows and monstrosities like the Quedlinburg Ballista excepted). To quote a biography of Fernando Francesco d'Ávalos, marquis of Pescara, one of the commanders at Pavia, which seems to have been written within 25 years of the events:

"For this reason, Lannoy, being in trouble and only withstanding the fury of the royal [French] artillery with difficulty, Pescara who with marvellous prudence and always alert and prepared for all contingencies, immediately sent him help in in the form of about eight hundred Spanish arquebusiers who, pouring in from the rear and the flanks, unleashed a terrible storm of arquebus fire killing a great number of men and horses ... But the lightly armed Spanish soon withdrew back [to the shelter of the pikes?], and from there they mocked the fury of the [French] horse, steadily increasing in number, these were veterans trained in Pescara's new tactics. Without order they [the French cavalry] spread all over the field. It was a way of fighting that is longer used, ... many honoured captains and knights often, without being able to strike back, were shot down by ignoble foot soldiers ... It was a battle that was very dangerous and greatly disadvantageous to the French horse, because the Spanish who had surrounded them on all sides threw an endless fusillade of lead balls at them. These were discharged not from hand cannons [scoppietti] (as were used a short time ago) but by larger pieces, which are called harquebuses. Not just one man-at-arms but often two soldiers and two horses were shot through, so many that the countryside was covered by a miserable killing field of noble knights and horses, which died together ..."

Source:  'Le vite del Gran Capitano e del Marchese di Pescara' , P424-5. (Italian translation from the latin of  'Vitae illustrium virorum' by Paolo Giovio, 1551)

My Italian sucks but this is in line with other translations of this text that I have seen. Pavia must have been a major game changer both technologically and tactically simply because of the shock value of so many nobles in full plate being unceremoniously gunned down. It seems that even early Arkebusen could simply put a such a superabundance of kinetic energy behind a lead ball that it could achieve armour penetration despite its shortcomings as an armour piercing projectile at ranges where arrows and quarrels could not. Of course armourers responded by thickening armour, making it of better steel and for the high end customers, heat treating it, which led to a fierce arms race between armourers and gunsmiths.

A giant crossbow/ballista preserved in the museum at Schloss Quedlinburg, Germany. The weapon was created in 1334/35 and is of uncertain origin. It was either captured by the citizen militia of Quedlinburg when they stormed and captured Count Albrecht II. von Regenstein's castle of Gersdorf in 1336 or it may have been made for the Quedlinburg city arsenal. The stock of the crossbow is 2,75 meters long and it would have had a prod a little over 3,5 meters long. It shot quarrels around 1,5-1,6 meters long. The weapon was likely mounted on a portable lafette on a castle wall but could also have been mounted on a cart for battlefield use or a tripod of some kind for use in a siege. This massive weapon delivers roughly the same amount of kinetic energy as an Arkebuse of the early 16th century and a modern 9mm Parabellum pistol cartridge.

Source: Me via the Schloßmuseum Quedlinburg

During the course of the 16th century the Arkebuse would grow in size, calibre and barrel length until by the Thirty Years War it had grown to be around 1,6 meters long, sported a caliber of around 20 mm and was so heavy it could not be easily fired without a forked monopod to rest the barrel on. These are the same basic specs as the Schwere Arkebuse in Figure 19.3. The wall gun of the early 16th century had become the general issue musket of the 17th century. The ease and economy of manufacture of the matchlock gun has been discussed above. This factor contributed to keeping matchlocks in military service long after more advanced self igniting lock mechanisms had been developed. As militaries moved into the 18th century and better steel became available the calibre of long arms went down and muzzle velocity went up which made the weapon more portable again. 


Cheap and powerful a weapon though it was the matchlock had some glaring shortcomings. First among them was the match. In rainy or damp conditions the matches were hard to keep lit. Matches also gave away the position of pickets and guards, if not by the light of the glowing match, then by the smell of it. Furthermore, in order to be ready to fire at all times, the match had to be kept constantly lit. However, if every match of every Arkebusier in an army was kept lit at all times they would have burned through enormous amounts of slow-match. To economise on slow-matches it was common practice to have only part of a force, every 10th man in a column perhaps, carry a lit match. This cut down on slow-match consumption but it made it almost impossible for Arkebusiers to react quickly if they were caught by surprise by cavalry in a vulnerable state such as during a march. Arkebusiers needed the protection of pikemen under such circumstances while the time consuming process of lighting everybody's match was completed. Normally special troops were kept on strength whose only role was to run from soldier to soldier with a lantern for this purpose. The lit match also constituted a safety hazard. It was not unknown for Arkebusers to lose track of the glowing match in the heat of battle, bring it too close to a powder flask and blowing themselves or one of their comrades up. 


Even though it has been neglected by historians and dismissed as primitive, the matchlock nevertheless changed history. It made the one-man portable firearm a truly practical weapon that, given the protection of pikemen, could make cavalry charges on infantry formations a very costly affair. Similarly small forces of entrenched Arkebusiers backed up by melee troops could see off massive frontal attacks by forces made of pure melee troops with very few losses to themselves as the battle of Battle of Bicocca demonstrates. 

The matchlock was quickly perfected to be easy and efficient to produce. By the 1530s all ornamentation on mass made military issue matchlocks had been stripped away. Copper alloy barrels were giving way to iron and steel barrels and locks were being made as consistently shaped and in standard(ish) sized units for ease, speed and economy of assembly. The Arkebuse compressed penetration power previously only to be found in very large crossbows and ballistas into a man portable weapon that at ranges of at least 25-35 meters could pierce late 15th and early 16th century plate armour which was proof against crossbow and longbow projectiles. This led to the thickening of armour and the constant enlargement of the Arkebuse until it had morphed into the familiar unwieldy musket of the 30 years war. The musket eventually more or less won the guns vs. armour race in that all infantry and most cavalry had shed their armour by the 18th century except for specialist heavy shock cavalry that retained breastplates and helmets.

The matchlock has outlasted a long line of technologies that took a stab at consigning it to oblivion. This includes the snaplock, snaphaunce, miquelet, doglock and the flintlock, wheellock, the percussion lock and a whole plethora of paper and metal breech loader cartridge technologies. Matchlocks were still in use in remote areas of the world until quite recently in a world of centre fire cartridge fed assault rifles and high performance hunting rifles. That is quite an achievement.

(1)The siege of Plevna demonstrated spectacularly the superiority of repeating rifles over the single shot military breechloader causing a mad scramble all over Europe to arm militaries with magazine fed repeating rifles

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Peter Peck, Des Kaisers Büchsenmacher, and early pistol designs.


The first pistols we were made somewhere in southern Germany or Northern Italy in the first two decades of the 16th century. Of the two surviving ones that I know of, one is in the Royal Armouries in Leeds, UK this one being tentatively dated to 1520. The other one is in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg, Germany and is also tentatively dated to about 1525. Of the two, the one in the GNM is of better construction and seems to be of somewhat superior design (this assessment being subject to change on my part in the light of new data). Both of these pistols are fairly primitive wheel locks but they still represent a quantum leap over the hand cannon of the 1480s, no 30-40 years earlier. What is remarkable about pistol development is how quickly the sophistication of the designs progressed both in terms of the design of the wheellock itself and the design sophistication of the pistol it self. By the 1540s wooden stocked wheellock pistols with one and two barrels, a three shot hand rotated wheellock pepperbox and a steel cartridge fed single shot pistol-carbine with a side hinged breech block and a self spanning wheellock had seen the light of day. This breechloading system developed in the 1530s was later copied and put into military service with some refinements by various countries in the mid 19th century to convert muzzle loading percussion rifles into single shot cartridge firing breechloaders. This, to me at least, is quite remarkable and so I've decided to conduct a little research into one of the innovators at the root of this technological explosion, Munich gunsmith Peter Peck (sometime written Peter Pech).

The earliest pistols

I do not intent to dive into a detailed analysis of when the first self igniting firearm might have been invented or whether Leonard Da Vinchi, Martin Löffelholz or others should be credited with inventing self igniting firearms. Suffice it to say that early records of self igniting firearms come from Germany and Italy. The earliest reference to a self igniting firearm seems date to 1507 when Cardinal, Ippolito d'Este I, commissioned a "gun of a type that is kindled by stone". Eight years later in 1515, an Augsburg chronicler reports an incident where a prostitute was accidentally shot by her customer who was playing around with his "self-igniting gun". By 1517, Emperor Maximilian I had issued an imperial decree banning civilian use of such weapons (which was widely ignored). Thus it would seem that the self igniting firearm was invented at some time between c.a. 1500, give or take a few years, and 1507.

As I mentioned above there are two surviving pistols from this era, one in the Royal Armouries in Leeds and one in the Germanisches National Museum in Nürnberg. What follows is a short description of the latter since that is the one I'm most familiar with.

The pistol is entirely made of metal which probably included the ramrod which unfortunately seems to have been lost. The wheel lock lock is attached to the barrel of the gun and is mostly open to the elements. The gun has a large curved protruding trigger that looks like an accidental discharge waiting to happen since there is no trigger guard and no immediately visible attempt at at providing a mechanical safety. The grip is made of sheet metal and is almost in line with the barrel. In fact, both these pistols look very similar to combination war hammer/make and pistol weapons of the first half of the 16th century that have had their hammer/mace heads sawn off although both weapons are clearly built from the ground up as pure pistols. Thus, like the very similar pistol in the the Royal Armouries, the GNM pistol is very much optimised for the point and shoot, the 'instinctive', school of aiming that remained popular right into the 19th century. 

While it is some 40 cm long this pistol is surprisingly gracile by virtue of the fact that it has no wooden stock and the relatively small calibre of only 10-11 mm. This compares favourably with the the later 16th century 'puffers' which could be around 50-60 cm long and very bulky and certainly  the enormously long holster pistols of the 17th century which are routinely between 70-80 cm long.

The GNM pistol. Note the enormous ignition wheel spring and the scary exposed trigger. Note also the slot in the ignition wheel just in front of the chain link. The ignition pan cover has a little tail underneath it that fits into this slot. When the wheel rotates it kicks the tail which rotates the pan cover open.

Source: Me, via Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

The exposed lock work of the GNM pistol. The wheel is held in place by the the L-shaped end of a flat spring that slots into a hole in the ignition wheel visible peeking out of the gun's grip. The mechanism is activated when the wedge on the trigger lever (located just before the trigger lever) bends downward slips under this spring and lifts it up. This is a feature this lock has in common with snapping matchlocks of the time. This causes the end of the L-shaped flat spring to slip out of the retention hole in the ignition wheel thus releasing the ignition wheel, kicking the pan out of the way and dropping the pyrite held in the dog's jaws onto the ignition wheel. Visible here also is the slot in the wheel that the pan cover opening arm fits into when the gun is spanned. Along with the absent trigger guard this is enough to give safety conscious modern shooters frightening visions of accidental foot shooting.

Source: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

The pan cover rotates on this gun rather than slide backwards as became the norm later. Attached to the rotational axis of the pan cover that goes through the pan is a small arm which fits into a slot in the ignition wheel when the wheel is under tension and the gun is ready to fire. When the wheel is released the arm is kicked out of the slot in the ingiton wheel, the pan cover is rotates out of the way and the pyrite held in the dog's jaws falls onto the already rotating ignition wheel.

Source: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

For more detailed information on the Royal Armouries Pistol (1520) see here.

For more detailed  information on the  GNM pistol (1525) see here

Improvements to the wheellock mechanism by 1550

The period from 1510 when the mechanism of the GNM pistol was developed and up until 1550 was a formative time for the wheellock mechanism. The first improvement along with a general miniaturisation of the mechanism was the replacement with the combination spring and ignition wheel retention pin with a sprung sear and trigger lever. This was more secure and easier to fit with a safety catch that allowed the gun to be carried spanned, primed and loaded with little risk of accidental discharge. The rotating pan cover of the GNM gun also went away and was replaced with a sliding pan cover. One final refinement was the development of a self spanning wheel lock where the action of pushing the dog forward also spanned the ignition wheel. This simplified and shortened the procedure required to ready the gun for a second shot.

Apart from being smaller and more compact than the mechanism of the GNM pistol the mechanism has been upgraded with a sear and trigger lever. This arrangement was safer than the one on the GNM pistol and could be secured with a better safety than the earlier mechanisms.

Source: Unfortunately Unknown

Question: So what the hell does all this have to do with our friend Peter Peck? 

Answer: Nothing really, but the title of the article does say "... and early pistol design". For that reason I felt it necessary to set up a comparative baseline for further discussion to fully illustrate the extent of technological development over the following quarter of a century after the invention of the wheellock mechanism.

Enter Peter Peck, Des Kaisers Büchsenmacher

I don't want to play Mr. Peck up as some sort of Wunderkind. He was an innovative designer of firearms and he certainly stood out to the point where Holy Roman Emperor Karl V, a noted firearms enthusiast seems to have been a regular customer of Peck's workshop. Peck seems to have begun his career as a clock maker which perhaps explains the degree to which he seems to have contributed to an increase in wheellock design improvements during the early years of his long career. Imperial patronage has also led to a good selection of Peck's work surviving in collections in Germany, Italy, the US and particularly in the Real Armería de Madrid in Spain. I picked Peck out because I like his designs and they are a good representative example of what was going on in terms of cutting edge firearms design in the first half of the 16th century. However it should be noted that there were many other gun makers in Germany, Italy and France who also did very innovative work during the formative years of the wheellock mechanism between 1530-1540. What follows are a few picked examples of Pecks work during this period accompanied by a short discussion of each weapon.

A matched pair of single shot pistols

This is one of a matched pair of surprisingly plain single shot pistols made by Peck for His Most Catholic Holy Roman Imperial Majesty Karl V around 1535. The most remarkable feature of this pistol are technical. Firstly note the compactness of the wheel lock compared to the GNM pistol described above. The ignition wheel spring is now internal and much smaller and the pan cover is now sliding rather than rotating. The internals of this lock are probably also much improved over the GNM pistol and highly probably of the sear and trigger lever type which is much more safe than the combination spring and retention tab arrangement of the GNM pistol, even when not fitted with a safety. The sear and trigger lever arrangement can also be fitted with a much more reliable safety than the GNM pistol could be fitted with. Note the fishtailed 'saw handle' grip which is quite characteristic of many pistols of this period. The saw-handle grip looks awkward to the modern shooter who is used to obsessing about sights but these pistols were intended for rapid deployment at a practical range of no greater than 10 meters, they were instinctively aimed and users were happy if they could hit a torso sized target at perhaps 6-7 meters consistently.  For the point-and-shoot school of aiming this is a pretty practical shape. The wooden post behind the trigger is something of a constant in Peck's early designs (though not necessarily a feature limited to Pecks guns). It is intended to give the shooter an improved grip. Some contemporary guns have this wooden post but no trigger guard so on those weapons the wooden post probably also served as a kind of limited trigger protection for customers who felt a trigger guard got in the way. One such example is a fine and well preserved breechloading pistol made by Simon Arnold of Augsburg around 1540 (now in the Hofjagd und Rüstkammer in Vienna). This is a design philosophy too very dissimilar to that of a FitzGerald special. However, to continue the discussion of the pistol depicted below, it looks smaller than it actually is. According to the Real Armeria it is 48 cm long. For comparison, a Mauser C96 'broomhandle' is only about 27 cm long and yet it is very clunky by modern standards while the Desert Eagle which even by US American standards qualifies as light light artillery is just under 27 cm long. Typically a pistol like this was one of a pair. The pair would spend most of their service lives in bulky leather holsters slung from a saddle although one or both might be occasionally be unholstered by the rider and clipped into his belt when on foot and under immediate threat of attack.

While this picture is of fairly low resolution it actually looks as if this gun has an external safety that acts on the internal sear release pivot which protrudes through the lock plate above the trigger.

Source: Real Armería de Madrid

A snub nosed 'detective special' ...😈

This pistol is another one made for Holy Roman Emperor Karl V around 1540-45. It is an example of a fairly 'compact' wheel lock. This pistol is 'only' some 38,3 cm long. The word 'compact' is a relative term here, 'compact' Wheellock pistols were still beefy weapons. While I'm pretty sure these weren't standard issue to the witch hunters and exorcists of the Holy Inquisition, when fitted with a belt clip, this pistol approaches being a 16th century candidate for what the US Americans like to call a 'concealed carry' weapon. While still ridiculously beefy by modern standards and hiding it under clothing may seem ridiculous to modern readers, this pistol could easily have been hidden inside one of the bulky fur lined coats that were so popular in the early 16th century. It would have made an excellent self defence weapon for merchant travellers, wealthy pilgrims or imperial knights and other lower nobility who were under constant threat of being robbed, kidnapped and held for ransom or worse but who could not afford a large retinue of bodyguards. But even those who could afford large bodyguards were vulnerable to assassination. One of the most famous cases is probably Protestant leader William the Silent who was shot with wheellock pistols by a Catholic fanatic named Balthasar Gérard who managed to hide no fewer than two of these pistols under his clothing. The enormous size of his pistols not withstanding, Gérard managed get past by William's guards carrying both pistols without being searched and got close enough to William to shoot him twice. The bullet holes can still be seen in the wall of the hallway in Prinsenhof in Delft where the murder occurred.

Compared to the previous pistol, the grip has been shortened, some effort has been made to shorten the lock mechanism and, obviously, the barrel. This yielded a length saving of some 10 cm. The wooden stock has also been slimmed down. Altogether this is a pretty sleek and compact weapon for a 16th century pistol.

Source: Real Armeria de Madrid

William the Silent was a protestant leader of the Dutch States in rebellion against his most Catholic Spanish Majesty Phillip II. He was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic named Balthasar Gérard using two wheellock pistols although to be fair to Gérard he was probably also motivated by the 25,000 gold crowns offered by his Most Catholic Majesty for William's assassination. Willam became the first public figure in history to be assassinated with a pistol (Scottish regent James Stewart the first public figure to be assassinated by a firearm was shot with a carbine). Note William's voluminous coat. Hiding even a 38 cm long wheellock in there was quite feasible. There are several inaccuracies in this image but the length of Gérard's pistol is not one of them. In fact Gérard bought his guns from a soldier so Gérard's guns were quite long cavalry holster pistols. All in all it seems Emperor Maximilian I was quite prescient when he tried to ban self igniting guns in 1517.

Source: Unfortunately unknown

One of the pistols Gérard used to assassinate William the Silent now in the Prinsenhof museum in Delft. It is a long barrelled cavalry pistol in the German 'puffer' style. Unfortunately the Prinsenhof collection is offline. However a somewhat shorter barrelled pistol in the Royal Armouries collection is some 57,2 cm long so this one is probably closer to 65 cm, that's 70% longer than Peter Peck's 'Detective Special' 😈. Gérard hid two of these things away under his cloak and seems to have aroused no suspicion in any of Williams guards or civilians that passed him as he skulked about in the Prinsenhof looking for a place to ambush William. But, putting this weapon's infamous history aside for a moment, most of the pistols from the 16th century that survive in modern collections are luxury items completely covered with kitschy decorations. This pistol was bought by Gérard from a soldier and it gives one a good idea of what a 'plain' example of one of the pistols used by your average Schwarzer Reiter/Curassier would have looked like. 

Source: Prinsenhof Museum Delft via Reformatorisch Dagblad

A Zwilling with a trigger locking safety

This pistol dates to 1540-45 and was made for Holy Roman Emperor Karl V. The basic over/under twin trigger layout of this gun can still be seen in modern shotguns. It has two independent wheellocks, two triggers, a trigger locking safety on the forward trigger and the characteristic wooden post behind the rear trigger. The gun is 49.2 cm long, it weighs 2,55 Kg and the caliber is 11.7 mm. The gun is quite heavy. Zwillings made as little as 10 years later weigh significantly less. This may be because people were still insecure about the homogeneity  of the steel in the barrels they were using. Research by Alan Williams into the quality of steel used in 15th and 16th century armour has shown that steel could be of extremely heterogeneous quality even within the same breastplate for example. There is no reason to believe barrel makes weren't plagued by this problem as well so worrying about ruptured barrels was a valid concern. Peck may have added extra weight to this pistol since taking the risk of blowing up his most Catholic Holy Roman Imperial Majesty Karl V by making your barrel walls too thin in a quest for lower weight would, after all, not have been a good career move for any gunsmith.

The gun is reportedly quite clumsy to handle and badly balanced. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin states that the gun is heavy and unbalanced to the point where one has to hold it with both hands to achieve any accuracy. However, as we have seen other Zwillings, of not that much later a date, were significantly lighter and probably had better handling characteristics so this Zwilling is probably not quite representative of this entire class of pistols in terms of weight. Of all the pistols reviewed here (including the next two to be discussed) this one is the only one capable of any real rapidity of fire without drawing a second pistol and even then it only offers a rapid second shot. The firing procedure is simple in the extreme:

  1. Draw your spanned, primed and loaded Zwilling.
  2. Fire first barrel.
  3. Move finger to second trigger
  4. Flip trigger lock out of the way.
  5. Fire second barrel.

After that you transition to another pistol and eventually a melee weapon. There is no reloading any of these guns in the heat of melee combat. The weight and handling issues not withstanding the Zwilling clearly beats the single shot pistol for rapidity of getting off a second shot. As we will see it also beats the pepperbox and breechloader described below in rapidity off getting of a second shot since neither can be made ready to fire a second shot quickly enough in the middle of a melee fight. I have made much of this rapid second shot capability but it must be kept in mind that wheellocks were not a 100% reliable ignition mechanism. If you are in a fight with another heavy cavalryman and your single shot pistol does not ignite, your opponent may be able to draw his own pistol and shoot you or pummel you over the head with a war hammer before you can holster the dud pistol, draw your second pistol or ready your pepperbox or breechloader to fire again. In that situation, the ability to simply move your finger and hopefully get a near instant second shot off this time may mean the difference between life and death. For any Reiter able to afford one or more of these Zwillings, I think that any hit in weight and handling penalty would probably have been worth taking.

This gun is quite hefty. Zwillings from only ten years later weigh as little as to two thirds of what this one weighs. Most of that weight would be in the lock and the barrels. Pistols grew lighter as the lockwork was miniaturised and gunsmiths got access to better and more homogenous steel and got a better feel for how thin the barrels could be made without blowing up on their customers.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For more detailed  information see the Metropolitan Museum website here.

Three barrel 'Pepperbox' revolver

Tentatively dated to the 1540s and attributed to Peck because of the similarity it bears to Peck's other known creations this is a hand operated wheellock 'pepperbox' revolver reportedly made for Holy Roman Emperor Karl V. I have not been able to obtain any data on how the revolving mechanism works but it seems relatively safe to hypothesise that the wing-nut at the bottom of the grip is used for this purpose to prevent his most Catholic and God Anointed Holy Roman and Imperial Majesty Karl V from pricking his imperial fingers on the darts this thing shoots. The gun is in a sorry state, originally it was gilded but this has now faded. The grip would have been covered in a luxurious fabric such as padded velvet but this is now missing. It seems likely that the gun was made as an experiment or even novelty for the emperor. The gun shoots darts and a full set of three of whom seem to survive. While it is possible that the barrels were pre-primed I have insufficient information to confirm or deny this. The gun is 41,5 cm long, weighs about 1.8 kg, the darts are 20,5 cm long and weigh 80 grams each.

The gun barrels are rotated via the wing nut at the bottom of the grip. Note the spare dog head.

Source: Musei Reali di Torino

YAY!! Rapid shooting!!!!  ... uhh ... no ... not really ... 

People keep asking why weapons like this pepperbox (but shooting more practical projectiles) weren't more common. This weapon was very expensive to be sure, but not so expensive as to deter large numbers of wealthy people from having one made so cost is not the only answer. Weight certainly is an issue. If you scale this thing up to fire bullets effective against an armoured opponent. Another reason is the time it took to prepare the next shot. You can carry the weapon spanned and ready to fire, but once you have discharged the first shot you have to:

  1. Rotate the barrels.
  2. Locate your spanning tool.
  3. Span the gun.
  4. Stow your spanning tool.
  5. Push the dog forward.
  6. Locate your priming powder bottle.
  7. Prime the pan.
  8. Stow your priming powder bottle.
  9. Pull the dog back onto the pan cover.
  10. You are now ready to fire again.

Once Snaphance lock revolvers became popular steps 2-5 compressed to the simple steps of (1) cocking the weapon and (2) hand rotating the cylinder. This caused revolvers and pepperboxes to become somewhat more popular since not only did they have pre-primed pans which increased rate of fire. By the 1670s revolvers had even evolved a mechanism that indexed the cylinder when the weapon was cocked but revolvers nevertheless remained relatively rare objects until Mr. Colt entered the stage. This was probably due to their cost and complexity and their weight.

For more detailed  information see the Musei Reali Torino website here.

A self spanning metal cartridge fed breechloader with a side hinged breechblock

This gun is attributed to Peter Peck and dates to 1535-45. It was made for Johann Friedrich I called 'der Großmütige' (the forgiving) Kurfürst und Herzog von Sachsen (Elector and Duke of Saxony). Of all of Pecks' guns his breechloaders are probably the most amazing by comparison to the GNM pistol described at the top of this article and it most clearly shows how his background as a clockmaker influenced his work. The gun is a breechloader with a side hinged breech block that is loaded by means of metal cartridges. This becomes even more astonishing if one realises that this is basically same breechloading system as the Snider-Enfield muzzle loader conversion adopted by the British Army some 320 years later. However it is amazing to think that this gun was made only 20 years after the GNM pistol and on top of the breechloading feature this gun also has self spanning lock. Further more it is worth taking into account that within living memory of the time Peck made this gun (say c.a. 1480) the state of the art man portable firearm used by most soldiers was a hand cannon crouched under the shooters arm with a simple unsprung match holding serpentine fixed to the wooden stock of the hand cannon with a nail.

A serpentine equipped hand cannon from a German 'Büchsenmeisterbuch' (Master gunner's book) dating to 1411. The hand cannon was still the most common form of firearm in 1480s Germany and even at that time most hand cannon were still not as high tech as this one in that they did not normally have a match holding serpentine. However, over the next 20 years, thanks in part to Emperor Maximilian I and his marriage to Mary of Burgundy which brought with it Burgundian military influence, matchlock design would take a major leap forward as a part of extensive Burgundian inspired reforms to the firearms arsenal of the imperial Armies.

One question I found myself asking is: Is this a gigantic pistol or short carbine? The gun's length is 70,3 cm, the caliber is 12,25 mm and it weighs  2,765 kg. It is listed as a pistol in the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden catalog but it is also sometimes called a carbine. While it is dimensionally identical to some 17th century holster pistols this gun is also significantly heavier. For comparisons, a holster pistol from 1610 in the Royal Armouries collection in the UK which, at 78 cm long, is actually longer than this gun still weighs in at a mere 1,8 kg. I think I would find this gun tiresome to fire one handed with an outstretched arm as was the custom at the time. I for one would be tempted to shoot this gun like a cheek stocked carbine which, given the length of it, is entirely feasible. Thus, while it is possible to use this weapon as a pistol, I am going to go out on a limb and call this a pistol-carbine hybrid.

YAY!! Rapid shooting!!!!  ... uhh ... sort of ...

This gun is different from Pecks previously described creations in that it has a different stock shape and lacks the wooden trigger guard back post. Apart from the breechloading mechanism and metal cartridges it has some other advanced features. Not only does it appear that it may have a sear locking safety but according to the Staatlichen Kunstsammlung website it also has a self spanning lock that spans the ignition wheel when it is pushed forward to gain access to the priming the pan. The loading procedure is:
  1. Unlock the breechblock by means of a sliding button on the tang.
  2. Swing the breechblock open sideways. 
  3. Remove any spent cartridge and stow it away because you have a finite supply.
  4. Retrieve a new metal cartridge containing powder and ball and inserted it into the breech making sure the tab on the cartridge slots into the cut-out in the breech of the barrel to ensure the alignment of the ignition hole in the cartridge with the ignition hole in the barrel.
  5. Close and thus lock the breechblock.
  6. Push the dog forward which spans the lock.
  7. Locate your priming powder bottle.
  8. Prime the pan.
  9. Stow your priming powder bottle.
  10. Push the dog back onto the pan cover.
  11. You are now ready to fire again.
This is a loading procedure that time-wise is beginning to be able to hold a candle to that of, say, a US Civil War era Sharps Carbine. This mechanism is somewhat faster to reload than a similar smoothbore muzzle loader but most importantly it gives one the option of speedy reloading with a rifled barrel which gives superior accuracy (which is not to say that this specific gun has a rifled barrel, I was unable to find out). However, while it is remarkably advanced for the 1540s and even if this gun was plain and without the decoration, it is is too expensive to make for general military issue due to the complexity of the lock and the cartridges which were impossible to mass manufacture economically before the advent of precision machine tools. That being said, we have gone from the GNM pistol which is little more than barrel with a sheet metal grip and a primitive wheellock that has its guts hanging out riveted to the barrel, a weapons which I would not want to carry loaded and spanned, to a breechloading cartridge fed (though somewhat heavy) pistol-carbine that spans itself automatically during priming and has what looks like an effective safety. All this was achieved in only 20-30 years. I'd call that pretty amazing progress considering the glacial pace of small arms development over the previous two centuries.

This gun was probably intended to be a pistol but it is very heavy at 2,765 Kg but then again it is only 300 grams heavier than the zwilling described above.

Source: Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Detail of the closed breech block. Note the belt clip on the left side of the gun and the remarkably tight fit of the breechblock.

Source: Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Detail of the open breechblock. The locking tab is visible at the back of the cartridge loading tray and the breechblock unlocking button appears to double as a rear sight.

Source: Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden

A wheellock breechloader cartridge of the type that fitted this gun. The tab on the cartridge bottom slotted into a cut-out at the breech of the barrel.

Finally here is a video from Ian McCollum at Forgotten Weapons demonstrating the working of a similar wheellock on his Youtube channel. This weapon was made in 1625, it is a cheek stocked hunting gun fitted with a set trigger but it uses the exact same breechloading cartridge system as Peck's pistol.

For more detailed  information see the Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden website here.

Practical Utility 

So which of these pistols is the one to choose for a Schwarzer Reiter who has decided to forsake the lance in favour of these newfangled firearms and ride off into the wars of the 1530s, 40s and 50s? To a large extent this depends on his economic circumstances. For a professional cavalryman of no great wealth a pair of pistols became an entry level requirement given the battlefield realities that were emerging in the early 16th century from around the time of the Schmalkaldic War. In this context it is worth keeping in mind that the tactics of the time had pistols being used in two ways. Firstly, in a melee fight at very short ranges in combination with swords, maces or war hammers. Secondly, at longer ranges in 'caracole' formation attacks for volley fire to pin down and break up formations of pike armed infantry and render them disorganised enough for an eventual charge and route where the panicking infantry would be slaughtered with melee weapons.

The single shot long barrelled pistols 

These are the obvious choice for a soldier of modest means and this is indeed what happened historically. As we have seen any multi shot gun like the pepperbox and breechloader described above that require you to span and prime them between shots are going to have a similar or even lower rate of fire than you can achieve by simply firing one single shot pistol, holstering it and drawing another and blasting off a second shot. The only exception to this is the Zwilling which delivers an even faster second shot. However, most (though by no means all) cavalrymen seem to have preferred a brace of four or even more single shot wheellock pistols to a pair of double barrelled pistols judging by surviving images and other evidence. This makes sense for reasons other than just the higher cost and the handling qualities of the weapon Zwilling. For example, if you carry a pair of Zwillings and you drop one in the heat of the fight you lose half your firepower. Whereas with four single shot pistols you gain the same firepower but you are only deprived of a quarter of your firepower if you lose one of them for whatever reason and since you are mounted the added bulk of four pistols is usually not a problem.

The single shot short barrelled pistol

A more compact pistol makes more sense for civilians and infantry than it does for cavalry. It being shorter is an advantage for these people and whatever penetration power is lost to the shorter barrel is less of an issue. A civilian seeking protection against thugs and bandits is unlikely to run into a bandit wearing anything heavier than a mail shirt, a brigandine or infantry plate where the brigandine and infantry plate are the only armour likely to give any protection against a pistol shot at close range. This pistol would not necessarily have been guaranteed to penetrate well made full plate armour except perhaps at near point blank range. However, it would have made a proper mess of any lightly armoured highwayman or raider that you encountered on the road. For an infantryman achieving armour penetration is less of a problem than it is for a cavalry man. While cavalry cuirasses of the 16th and 17th centuries could eventually be made up to 8 mm thick for bullet resistance, infantry armour did not get thicker than about 2-3 mm for the simple reason that infantry could not operate for any length of time in bullet proof armour without collapsing from exhaustion. Making infantry armour any thicker than 2-3 mm would result in the infantryman becoming quickly exhausted as Maurice of Nassau found out when he experimented with a bullet proof infantry version of bullet-proof cuirassier armour. Thus a shorter barrelled pistol would still be quite effective in infantry vs. infantry combat as an emergency fallback weapon due to the thinner infantry plate armour. The weapon of choice for infantry vs. heavy cavalry combat is clearly the arquebus/musket deployed in large numbers and in tight well drilled formations capable of sustained fire. Maintaining formation was key to survival for infantry when dealing with cavalry. Any isolated disorganised routing infantry being attacked by any kind of cavalry were in deep, deep trouble that neither an infantryman's musket or a pistol could get him out of. For infantry, maintaining formation equalled by far their best chance of survival, breaking formation was certain death. 

The Zwilling 

This weapon is still a tempting choice even if it is more heavy and clumsy than the single shot pistol since, out of the choices available, it is the only one that gives one the option of a truly rapid second shot. There is no spanning the lock between shots, no priming, no rotating barrels, no replacing a metal cartridge, just move your finger to the second trigger and shoot. This is worth a lot. Cavalry actions have always tended to end up as close quarters fights. In fact some writers on cavalry warfare of the 16th century (Johann van Nassau for example) actually recommend moving as close to your opponent as possible and shooting him in the helmet at point blank range to guarantee armour penetration. Mind you, Nassau was writing during the Dutch-Spanish 80 years war of 1568 to 1648. Armour in the early 16th century hadn't yet become as thick as it was during the 80 years war and pistols did not need to be as powerful in the period from 1540-1550. Nevertheless, even during the 1540s and 50s it was still a fact that the shorter the range, the greater the effect. Thus, heavy and inaccurate thought he Zwilling may be, in a caracole attack and other types of cavalry manoeuvre where ranges are long, accuracy matters far less than well regulated volley fire. At close quarters the rapid second shot is a real advantage, especially if your first shot is a dud. In the end, however, it is very hard to decide between the single shot and the Zwilling without having handled and shot both pistols but I think buying a pair of Zwillings would be worthwhile if you could afford it.

The pepperbox 

Unfortunately the Pepperbox looks to be more trouble than it is worth in its a dart shooter form where it is largely a novelty. Scale this weapon up to the point where it fires bullets that are useful against armour and you have a very front heavy weapon that is even heavier and clumsier than the Zwilling but that that cannot be made to be ready to fire a second shot as quickly as the Zwilling. With the Zwilling one at least gets a truly rapid second shot by the mere movement of a finger and if one of the Zwilling's two locks breaks down, the other one will still work since the locks are independent of each other. The single wheellock of the pepperbox slows down the rate of fire and it is a single point of failure.

The breechloader 

It has the advantage of relatively rapid reloads but then one also has to ask how easily those cartridges are to load into and unload from the gun while wearing a 16th century cavalry gauntlet. You could choose to wear only a gauntlet on your bridal hand but that renders your primary hand vulnerable which brings us to the next question. How easy are the cartridges to drop and lose while trying to reload a breechloader as you bounce around in the saddle? A dropped paper cartridge for a muzzleloader is no great loss. On the other hand, a finely hand fitted reusable metal cartridge for a breechloader is irreplaceable in the field. Furthermore how many metal cartridges do you have? ...ten? ...twenty?  once you have shot your way through your cartridges you are sitting there reloading cartridges. I also doubt one could reload this gun quickly enough for subsequent shots in the middle of a Melee fight. This weapon is also heavy and would probably have benefitted from either being lightened or being built from scratch as a full blown rifled carbine. In the latter role it would certainly be a good choice for a small force of infantry skirmishers with high marksmanship skills due to the accuracy it offers with a rifled barrel and the higher rate of fire than a muzzle loading rifle. A dozen marksmen in a pike square or mixed in with matchlock armed arquebusiers /musketeers could wreak havoc with these guns at ranges where smoothbore guns would be hopelessly inaccurate (assuming no excessive gas bleed from the breech) but that is also 20/20 hindsight. Realistically, the breechloader is complex, hard to maintain and it suffers from the cartridges being expensive to make and hard to replace. Nevertheless, if I could afford one and, say, 30 cartridges I would take it.


Personally I find the amount of progress made in firearms from the crude hand cannon of the 1480s to the GNM pistol quite impressive. However, compare the crude hand cannons of the 1480s to the Peck's breechloader and I'm pretty astounded. The sophistication of gun lock mechanism design went from an S-shaped match holding lever nailed to a stick to a self spanning self igniting wheellock in 60 years. Additionally Peck and his contemporaries developed a practically usable if expensive breechloading system. This breechloading system would remain in small scale use throughout the next 300 years on expensive boutique firearms until the 19th century when metal cartridges that could be mass manufactured on a huge scale finally made this system practical for mass deployment in military and civilian service. Peck and his contemporaries exemplify the inventive spirit of the Renaissance and deserve much credit for having conceived of the metal cartridge firing gun 300 years before precision machine tool technology finally made it truly practical.

In terms of practical utility I can see why a regular Schwarzer Reiter would pick a pair of single shot long pistols or four of them if he could afford them in addition to the original two that he had to own as an entry level requirement for his role as a Reiter (initial Dutch requirements for a cavalry 'pistoleer' in the early stages of the 80 years war actually required only one pistol). For a wealthier Reiter it may make sense to pick a pair of Zwillings even if they are somewhat heavy and unwieldy simply to get the rapid second shot. This did indeed begin to happen in the latter stages of the 80 years war (Osprey, MAA-513, P.14) for those who could afford multi barrel firearms, many solders could still not afford them. The Pepperbox is no more than a novelty. The breechloader, cool though it is, is realistically out of the price range of most except the higher nobility and very wealthy burghers. Furthermore the difficulty in producing the painstakingly hand made cartridges and whatever number of cartridges you can obtain limits your firepower until you can find the time to reload them. Although I suppose you could still muzzle load one of these breechloaders in a pinch. Even so, the breechloader is interesting for very limited military issue especially as a rifled carbine for elite infantry skirmishers but I doubt many soldiers could afford one. All this having been said ... I want one!!