Beautiful Breechloading Wheellock (Video)

Most people think that breechloading arms began with the development of paper or brass cartridges, but this is not strictly true. While not common before that period, there were gunsmiths here and there experimenting with breechloading systems hundreds of years before they became commonplace. The British Ferguson rifle is an example of one that did see some limited production, but even earlier we see examples like this gorgeously embellished 1625 wheel lock. It uses a simple steel cartridge case that would be pre-loaded with powder and ball, and then dropped in through the Snider-style trap door at the breech of the rifle. It is also equipped with relatively nice sights for the time and double set triggers – whoever commissioned this weapon was clearly a serious firearms enthusiast!

You can see another very similar example here – note that it was missing the cartridge which I did not recognize at the time, but you can see the notch where the cartridge’s indexing pin would fit.

Note: The gun in this video was pulled from the RIA auction after I did my video – not sure why, but probably a conflict with the consignor over value estimate.

74 Comments

  1. Ironically, there were at least two rifles like this in the Tower of London collection when the British government bought the rights to the Snider patent breech. They had originally belonged to Henry VIII.

    If the designers back then had thought to make their cartridges from brass or even copper instead of steel, the metallic-cartridge breechloader might have arrived in nearly perfected form three hundred years early.

    Now there would be one for an alternate-history SF write to play with. (But please, not Harry Turtledove!)

    cheers

    eon

    • “brass or even copper instead of steel, the metallic-cartridge breechloader might have arrived in nearly perfected form three hundred years early.”
      Sorry but no. Metallic cartridge is assembled from bullet, case, powder and priming compound, before invention of last component, so some go-around would have to be used, which probably would be complication making weapon more expensive and less reliable.

      • Agreed. Without a chemical primer, the cartridge case itself would be practically useless for a small arm. Artillery was a different story, when breech-loading cannons (usually made for small caliber iron shot) had touch holes for fuses in the breech-blocks (well, I could be wrong). The problem was that there was no effective gas seal for said guns, and if you did things wrong, the whole thing would violently backfire and kill the entire gun crew (which was also true for any overstressed muzzle-loading cannons)!

        So what we can conclude is that this particular gun was made by someone whose idea was centuries ahead of its time. Said gun smith must have asked himself whether it was possible to load a fowling piece without taking a half minute to get powder and shot ready (and without possibly losing the birds). This particular long gun certainly would have worked had it not been for the expensive ignition source and the steel cartridge case. I imagine that powder fouling would eventually cause a jam…

        Did I mess up? SAY SOMETHING!!!!

  2. This is amazing piece of “launcher” given time period; the quick-reloading concept sophistication is stunning. Absolutely marvelous combination of art and ‘technology’ available is just oozing out of it. It looks they must have had some sort of primitive jigs by use of which they were able to produce rudimentary forms such as cylinders, cubes and hexagons. My question is: how they were driven? Human force, animal force, power of gravity? Also supporting metallurgy must have been on amazing level then.

    Worth of noticing is form of ‘buttstock’ which is fitted with interface allowing user to support it onto his cuirass (top body armour), commonly worn those days.

    • Probably drop-forging or stamping. Most people don’t realize that such technology was quite common in Europe going back to the Middle Ages, mainly due to the combination of the cam and axle (which raised the weight of the forging or stamping head on its lever and then let it drop) and the waterwheel (that powered the axle).

      See Connections by James Burke.

      cheers

      eon

      • Well yes, gravity potential of body of mass would make sense; but its travel is somehow limited, unless pulled way up to roof level. Water energy is possible as it was used in forging process.

        Now the machining aka ‘chips making’ as is known…. that requires more consistent and modulated effort.

  3. One small correction: wheellocks didn’t use flint — it was too hard and would damage the teeth of the rotating wheel, eventually grinding them down to uselessness. They used iron pyrites to produce the spark.

  4. I just cannot believe that this exquisite match lock is older than maybe 100 years. The machine work on it is too complex for pre-industrial Europe and the condition appears nearly unfired. This type of firearm is clearly out of my collecting knowledge (US Martial) so I maybe completely wrong on this. It is beautiful and super sophisticated. I believe a term for the brass decoration could be filigree.

  5. Did I hear Ian right about it being a smoothbore? given the elaborate craftsmanship it’s sort of strange that it’s not rifle. would the set trigger even be worth it on smoothbore musket(or is it an Arquebus? I’m actually not sure about the difference).

    Interesting fact: some scholars credit Leonardo da Vinci with the invention of the Wheelock based on a sketch in his Codex Atlanticus.

  6. Thanks Ian for letting us see such an awesome piece of the gunsmiths art.
    By the way I think the term for the metal fretwork is filigree.

  7. That is a really beautiful piece and an example of a conceptually advanced, if not widely adopted design at the time.

    “Thus the burn-front in the black powder charge passes from the front to the rear. This front-to-rear burn pattern minimizes the effect seen in rear-igniting cartridges where a portion of the powder at the front of the charge is forced down and out of the barrel to burn wastefully in the air as muzzle flash. It also ensures that the whole charge burns under the highest possible pressure, theoretically, minimising unburnt residues. Consequently, a smaller charge can be used to obtain the same velocity as a rear-ignited charge of the same bullet calibre and weight.”

    The above is an extract from the link below:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyse_needle_gun

    Which if accurate, suggests to me that we maybe missing a trick once more so to speak in the design of modern cartridges.

    We could use an insert inside say a 5.56mm case which could deliver the front to back burn with it’s perceived benefits, by pin fire. In that we could perhaps utilise the cases primer to impinge on a “pin” that inturn would detonate a primer against the seated bullet- Releasing it’s flash rearwards into the charge. With no modification to the firing mechanism of the weapon.

    Essentially the insert would resemble a nail, it’s head would be the diameter of the cases inside at it’s widest point- Allowing it to move up/down inside the case somewhat. A thin wad resembling a washer would sit on top of the head, this could be inserted into the case before it was bottle necked.

    The “nails” shaft would be say half the thickness of the internal diameter of a no.9 percussion cap, and its length would be to facilitate said cap sitting astride it “the point being removed” sealed side upwards slightly below the base of a correctly seated bullet.

    The case could be loaded with powder around the insert when it was vertical in a central position, and the cap placed on the top prior to seating the bullet. Upon firing the cases primer sends the nail so percussion cap into the bullet inturn igniting the powder from the top down, gas would prevent the insert from exiting the case the cap would exit the barrel.

    The idea rests on the inserts head and accompanying wad preventing ignition of the charge above it from the primer, the point would be the benefits alluded to in the extract- It reduce the need for extended barrel length to get the most out of the cartridge presumably while reducing muzzle flash.

    • Hmm… You may be onto something! Interestingly, the Type 38 Rifle has practically no muzzle flash because the powder charge is entirely consumed just before the projectile exits the barrel. This meant that somebody using the supposedly weak bolt-action could harass you all night in the woods and you’d never be able to figure out his position unless you decided to call the artillery to simply blast the guy’s general neighborhood back to the stone age with interest.

      • I think I might be onto something also, have you got a gun? Try it. “Construct a cartridge” Use a gun that is replaceable etc. Tie it to a tree, string around the trigger- Pull when your hid behind another tree, fire through a chronograph and have a buddy see if they can spot the flash less or more than usual- Test the usual flash/chrono prior, ensure your pal is not inline with were the muzzle is pointing on both occasions as a spotter- Other usual safety rules apply, in regards fish and other wildlife, highways etc.

        • Oh and it is important that the length of pin with a live cap on top is short enough to allow it sit below a bullet which is correctly seated above, to prevent the cap detonating upon construction. The insert/live cap wants to have wiggle room beneath the bullet but not enough to jiggle mind.

          Ideally the cap will activate before the primer pushes the bullet out of the case, which I assume it could.

          • Sounds complicated, should pin inside cartridge be launched outside or should it stay inside?

            “Ideally the cap will activate before the primer pushes the bullet out of the case, which I assume it could.”
            This probably could be done with electric primer, electric primers were used in cartridges for 3,7 cm KwK 36 and other KwK during WWII. Also electric primer would solve problems with internal pin as it would be unnecessary, on the other hand it would need voltage supply, so it would be best suited for usage as attached for vehicles/vessels/flying machines.

          • Voere has also something called laser ignition system
            http://www.voere.at/en/historie/37-historie/historie.html#technology
            which can be used with caseless and conventional cartridge (but then requires special primers).
            German MG 151/20 autocannon has electric-primed version, because such primer have better timing and thus were better suited for synchronous (firing through propeller arc) usage.
            Remington also tried to market electric primed rifle (firing .220 Swift, .22-250 or .243 Winchester with special primers dubbed Etronx), but it failed on economic grounds (cartridge and primers more expensive that conventional)

          • Gas should hold the pin inside the case, as it would act upon the head of the nail- You know the pin. Anyway I still think it’s a good idea, because I haven’t tried it- So I don’t know.

            It isn’t complicated, in the sense of… It doesn’t require any alteration to the firearm and if it works it may allow a 9mm Luger to develop 6″ barrel velocity out of a 3″ it might not who knows, remember to keep your spotter away from the line of sight anyway.

          • For Daweo:

            I am quite surprised that German small-medium bore cannons used during WWII electric priming – real news to me. As far as MG151 it would make real sense and frankly I am surprised if was not used commonly. It allows to place heavier calibre weapons into fuselage as oppose to loading wing structure.

            You are correct with translation of that “initiation compound” at Benelli case-less cartridge, btw.

          • “It isn’t complicated, in the sense of… It doesn’t require any alteration to the firearm”
            But is more complicated in area of cartridge manufacturing.

            “if it works it may allow a 9mm Luger to develop 6″ barrel velocity out of a 3″”
            But this might be probably also done with different propellant.

            “to keep your spotter away”
            I would say that it should be measured by instrument, rather than eyeball. People can see things which they want to see, but not exist.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N_ray

          • BUFFALO BORE also has some cartridge loading for short-barreled weapons, which they claim is low-flash, for example:
            https://www.buffalobore.com/index.php?l=product_detail&p=276
            They also claim is tactical cartridge, which from Russian parlance point-of-view is nonsense: why to categorize handgun cartridge as tactical, are there operational or strategic handgun cartridges? if not such categorization make no-sense. I assume that it is one of peculiarities of American parlance which I never could understand.

          • I arrived at this idea via thinking about .22 WMR fired out if 1″ or so barrels, I then figured it may have further applications.

            It may have none, I don’t know and I assert neither do you. I don’t own a gun to try it, you understand.

          • The extract from the link “I posted” said with less charge, your solution increases pressure- Presumably; Different powders etc. My proposed solution, burns more of the available average type powder.

            So that is the base line here. Burning more of the available powder- I put it to you, that forward ignition is the solution. My idea is a method to achieve this.

          • Do you have a solution to enable a normal case from a normal gun to ignite a charge from the front? If so let’s hear it, I am sure it will be very good 🙂

          • “solution to enable a normal case from a normal gun to ignite a charge from the front”
            2 similar ideas, however applicable for Boxer primed cartridge only.
            1) bring thin-walled brass tube
            2) weld/attach said tube axially inside case, so sparks from primer will go inside that tube
            3) close front end of said tube by
            3a) blob of priming compound
            3b) closing tube analogically to blank cartridge for example http://mail.gd-otscanada.com/html/en/products/detail.php?id=180&thisSection=77
            whatever choice a) or b) depends of power of used primer

        • “because the powder charge is entirely consumed just before the projectile exits the barrel.”

          Is that a particular feature of it’s calibre in relation to the length of barrel, as it doesn’t appear to have any contraptions on the muzzle?

          • You’re probably right about the relationship between the nominal caliber, powder charge, and the barrel length. With just the right length of barrel for any particular cartridge (assuming a standard load of propellant), one might achieve a good muzzle velocity and a very low muzzle flash without the assistance of a flash hider. The only problems with this setup are handling and overall weapon weight. Keep in mind that the Type 38 was designed when all First World armies were getting long barrel bolt-action rifles issued. So while the Type 38 was heavy for the average Japanese soldier, it had very mild recoil and a long effective killing range against unarmored opponents. In some cases, the lead projectile from the usual 6.5×52 cartridge separated from its copper jacket upon hitting human flesh, creating TWO wounds for one shot. That’s pretty nasty…

          • Well shooting people is never nice, I suppose.

            I think when they design these things they term it “efficienct” as oppose nasty.

            Depends who your customers are… The Puckle gun advertised it’s square bullets for use against heathens, as being nastier than required for purposes other than efficiency.

          • I assert that the aforementioned insert would enable the Type 38 to have a shorter barrel, yet retain the same velocity as a longer barrel without increasing muzzle flash. I make that assertion based on the extract from the link, assuming its accurate.

          • “I make that assertion based on the extract from the link, assuming its accurate.”
            It might be true for black-powder, but about smokeless powder – I don’t know.
            In percussion era existed Unterhammer rifles, but I have no blueprints so it is hard how near end or forward of powder charge they ignited.
            Anyway, there was 9mm AUPO quasi-caseless cartridge, see drawing here:
            https://naboje.org/node/3423#
            priming compound is labeled INICIACNI SLOZ if am not mistaken. This send bullet at velocity of 390m/s (measured 10m from muzzle)

          • Well smokeless powder definitely doesn’t burn in it’s entirety out of short barreled weapons otherwise you wouldn’t need longer barreled ones, as is my understanding.

          • “(…)Type 38(…)”
            Article from Tactical and Technical Trends from 1944 states that:
            http://www.lonesentry.com/articles/ttt09/smokeless-power.html
            (…)It is believed that any apparent superior results, such as complete flashlessness, from the use of smokeless powder by the Japanese is due to the quite low power of the ammunition and extra barrel length of the weapons rather than to the characteristics of the powder.
            (…)
            we could produce low-power weapons with ammunition which is just as flashless as the Japanese powder, but it would not be wise to reduce the superior military characteristics of our military weapons and ammunition for the sake of getting less flash.(…)

          • “otherwise you wouldn’t need longer barreled ones, as is my understanding.”
            No, unburned propellant means that longer barrel will give higher muzzle velocity. Please notice following data for .25 Auto cartridge (50gr FMJ version)
            http://ballisticsbytheinch.com/25auto.html
            this cartridge was designed for vest pocket automatic pistol (with barrel 2″ long or so), but it give highest velocity for 14″ (longer barrel will lead to loss of velocity)

          • “longer barreled ones”
            Would be also useful, not for burning more powder, but also for better sight radius and thus more accuracy.

    • How about the cartridge case being made with a hollow tube to carry flame front to close to base of bullet. Or a special primer manufactured with a hollow to tube to almost reach base of bullet.

      These are just an “off the top of my head” idea. I have no idea on how either way could be manufactured. Just an alternative to pin reaching primer near base of bullet.

      • I think Daweo is also alluding to inserting a hollow tube, and your extended primer is also a kind of hollow tube but it provides an additional how to affix it suggestion. I started thinking about possible methods initially from a rim fire case so I came up with the hollow tube idea myself, but one that would have a larger internal diameter given the lack of central primer. I then came up with the insert idea, which I thought was an improvement as the sparks would be fresh. Anyway thank you both for your input- However it’s done, it might be worth doing according to the info on the link I posted.

        • I just searched the internet for forward ignition cartridges, it seems it’s not a new proposal- So I assume the info on the Wikipedia page is accurate, they seem to have gone with the flash tube idea can’t find what I suggested perhaps it doesn’t work: Say it knocks the bullet out the case, can’t see it not having enough percussive force to detonate the cap- Alternatively it hasn’t been tried.

          http://www.rivetsinstock.com/rivet-builder-form.php?a=Solid%20Flat%20Rivet&b=solid-flat-rivet

          They can make the insert to seemingly any required dimensions.

          Drill through a wad to make a washer.

          https://www.trackofthewolf.com/list/Item.aspx/173/1

          no.9 percussion caps are 4mm diameter so the inserts “pin” would want to be 2mm thick, the other dimensions 1mm apart from the head width- As close to the case diameter as possible, the pin length would depend on the cartridge basically you’d allow 1mm below the bullet seating depth and the top of the percussion cap. Working out the case depth to bullet seating depth, cut pin length to fit with live cap on giving the clearance aforesaid.

    • Yeah, right… instead of being sold on auction.

      I had that feel from start this may not be original weapon from beginning of 17.century as it claims to be, but later replica. That was one reason I brought up technical/ manufacturing capabilities of the time period. Nobody seem to pick on it.

      • Well the perky looking fellow etched on the patch box certainly looks like he’s from Ye olde 17th c time.

        I’ve seen some examples elsewhere of similar Wheelocks but less spectacular/advanced that are reputedly from the 17th c selling for what I thought seemed quite low prices- I assume quite a number survive, it also seems to be the case however that they seemed to manufacture Wheelocks in central Europe for hunting much in the traditional style well into the 19th c and the advent of percussion caps. I believe you get a few ignition strikes of the pyrites per wind up of the wheel…

        The fittings on this look quite antiquated to me, the text inscription apt for the era, artwork also. Which could be made so, but I don’t think it’s modern if it is a copy. Which particular manufacturing capability are you referring to? “Also supporting metallurgy must have been on amazing level then.” They had fairly advanced metal working skills by then, if the armour is anything to go by.

        It’s a fancy piece, I have seen that blue colour on later firearms… Early 18th c. The lattice work is brass as opppse gold seemingly, unless 1625 is some sort of commemorative date as oppose manufacture but it isn’t immediately apparent what it would refer to the images aren’t of a battle etc.

        • Said chap has a “lute” type instrument, and there’s repetitive pictures of the gate of a walled settlement.

          Perhaps it’s a commemorative edition of a 17th c “Bruce Springsteens” great comeback tour of Breslau etc 100 years ago I.e 1725.

        • I meant specifically metal forming (see the regularity of barrel surface) and witness marks of machining in chamber area. This cannot be done by unguided hand.

          I know that you as person living in Old World know this era of technology first hand – so I remember seeing hundreds of such specimen myself. I have not been in past very fond of that old-gone archaic era weapons, but as time goes on, I feel increasingly more appreciation for it. Maybe you miss most, what you cannot see.

          We owe Ian special thanks for what he had done by presenting this.

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