Wheellock 101: History and Shooting (Video)

The wheel lock was one of the first types of early gun or firearm, developed as an alternative to the simple but problematic matchlock musket. The wheellock uses an iron pyrite set against a spinning serrated wheel to produce sparks to fire a charge of black powder. The wheel lock was complex and expensive, but did not require the constant attention of a matchlock and its slow-burning fuse.

Today we will be discussing the history of the system, and then going through the process of loading and firing a wheel lock. Don’t miss the fantastic slow motion footage!

23 Comments

  1. “Wheellock 101”
    I associate “101” in military history with 101st Airborne Division (2nd World War/Operation Overlord) but what mean 101 in context of Wheellock? I don’t know any “model 101” or “type 101” or similar wheellock, but I have no special knowledge about such old fire-arms.

    • “101” means an introduction to something. I believe it comes from the name of introductory or beginners courses in U.S universities. Maths 101, Biology 101 etc.

      So this video title just means “An intro to wheellocks”

    • “Subject 101” is the usual shorthand for saying that something is a basic course, or introductory, based on the fact that almost all intro college courses have traditionally been designated that (“English 101”)

  2. Continuing “Wheel-Locks 101”;

    The wheel-lock apparently was first invented in China, about the middle of the 12th Century AD. Its first use was non-military; as a fire-lighting device carried by travelers, more convenient and reliable than “flint and steel”.

    It entered the military arena when black powder became more than a magician’s parlor trick in China, around the middle of the 13th Century AD, as a triggering device for land mines and sea mines, that did not require a lit slow match.

    For a land mine, it could easily be set up to be set off by a simple taut cord, i.e. a tripwire. In a sea mine, a lever attached to the top of a “drift” mine so as to be tripped when it rubbed up against a ship’s hull would do it. Similar devices were used to trigger percussion-fired Confederate anti-ship mines and land mines during the American Civil War five centuries later.

    The first known Western illustration of a wheel-lock is in the Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Da Vinci wrote the CA (1,119 pages) from 1478 to his death, and the page illustrating a wheel-lock was apparently done around 1510-1515. The version it shows has a coil spring around a rotating shaft that turns the wheel through right-angle gearing, more complex to build than the “conventional” version. Da Vinci noted its foreign origin, and suggested it as a device for lighting the slow matches on the linstocks used by artillery gunners. This usually required a campfire be kept burning, which at night or in overcast conditions was a dead giveaway of the gun battery’s position.

    Maximilian I (born March 22, 1459, Wiener Neustadt, Austria—died January 12, 1519, Wels) was archduke of Austria, king of the Second German Kingdom (Bavaria), and Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 until his death, though he was never crowned by the Pope, as the journey to Rome was always too risky. He was the son of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, and Eleanor of Portugal. He ruled jointly with his father for the last ten years of his father’s reign, from c. 1483 to 1493;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_I,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

    Maximilian prohibited wheel-lock weapons shorter than eighteen inches in length. These pistol-type arms were commonly called “daggs” (no, I have no idea why) and were considered to be used mostly by highway robbers and such. Maximilian had a very real and realistic fear of assassination, so it’s likely his ban on “short” wheel-lock guns, that could be kept concealed but still ready to fire unlike a matchlock, was mostly based on self-preservation.

    The armored horsemen who used wheel-locks weren’t knights per se. They were known as Reiters, from the German, and were generally members of “Free Companies”, mercenary horse who hired out to the highest bidder in any conflict. As Edwin Tunis stated (Weapons, 1954), they often claimed to be English or Scot, and a few of them actually were.

    As Tunis relates, their favored maneuver was the caracole; up to a dozen ranks of ten to a dozen horsemen each, who would charge, fire their wheel-lock pistols into the front ranks of the enemy, then break and wheel to each side so the next rank could do the same. By the time the last rank had done it, the first rank had had time to get to the back of the formation, reload and re-span their guns, and were ready to have another go at it.

    These characters ravaged Germany and most of north-eastern Europe for decades, right up into the Thirty Years’ War. They formed a major part of Tilly’s and Wallenstein’s Catholic armies and were yet another reason the Lutheran peasantry of Germany had no particular love for their Catholic barons.

    Finally, the rather ornate wheel-lock rifle Ian was using is properly called a tschinke. It’s a German design dating to about the 1680s, and was intended for hunting wild boar and other typical game animals found in the Black forest and etc. Sine wild boar can be both big, muscular and aggressive, most such guns were at least .50-.60 caliber, some went as high as .75 or even .80.

    Technically, the butt really wasn’t meant to be pressed to the shoulder; the idea was that it was to be cheeked, with the entire weight and recoil of the gun supported and absorbed by the hands. Its relatively short overall length allowed it to carried and even fired on horseback, which was probably a good idea when hunting a large porker with an attitude problem.

    Besides resting on the ground while reloading, the ball on the butt also fit into a socket on the saddle harness (often on top of the leather hood of the stirrup) to allow the gun to be more easily reloaded while in the saddle.

    The fact that reloading almost any muzzle-loader longer than a pistol on horseback was a PITA, especially in battle, was the main reason that most cavalry preferred pistols, other than dragoons, who mainly rode to get to where they’d be fighting, then dismounted and went to work on foot while every tenth man tended to the horses.

    Some sporting wheel-locks of this era also have a matchlock system built in. While the smell of the burning match might make the horse nervous (it smelled a good bit like burning straw, and horses have an instinctive fear of fire), as well as alerting the boar’s sensitive nose (which is why pigs are still used to hunt truffles), it did provide an insurance policy in event the pyrite fractured instead of sparking properly.

    Which happened more often than you might think.

    cheers

    eon

    • “The armored horsemen who used wheel-locks weren’t knights per se. They were known as Reiters, from the German, …”

      Word “Ritter” in German actually means “Knight” – member of lower gentry. Those recruited often from what is called in English “squires” – so the knight and Ritter is the same. But, the truth is that many lower gentry folks were available as mercenaries since Middle ages all across the Europe and thus it happen that for example Scots and many others were participating during 30years war also in Central Europe. Scots in particular were used as personal guard to Czech-Austrian archduke Albrecht of Waldstein. One of them crossed allegiances and murdered Albrecht during one of crusades.

    • “(…)tschinke. It’s a German design dating to about the 1680s(…)”
      According to http://www.beyars.com/kunstlexikon/lexikon_9181.html name Tschinke or Teschinke is from town of Teschen (other orthography can be encountered aswell) it has own query in Wikipedia (Cieszyn) which states that was the capital of the Duchy of Teschen since 1290, which was ruled by Piast dynasty until 1653 and by the Habsburg Dynasty of Austria to 1918, thus it would suggest that said type of fire-arm is Austrian, not German.

  3. I really cringed when Ian described generations of smoothboore muskets and arquebuses as “rifles”. Rifling does go way back, but not so much on military muskets.

    • According to W.H.B. Smith, even military rifles are fairly old developments. In The Book of Rifles (1948, rev. by Joseph E. Smith 1963), he notes that one Caspar Kollner of Vienna cut straight grooves in arquebus barrels (for fouling to be swept into out of the way of reloading and firing again) around 1498.

      An Eichstadt Schutzenbrief of 1487 describes target matches shot at 250 “paces” (about 200 meters), which would almost certainly have required rifling and a close-fitting ball.

      The German writer Fishart credits curved rifling to spin the bullet to August Cotter of Nuremberg around 1500-1520.

      Major Angelo Angelucci’s Catalago del Armeria Reale (Turin, 1890) cites a Turin arms inventory of 1476 listing sclopetus unus ferri fctus lumage, a long arm with an internally spiral-grooved barrel.

      The Musee d’Artillerie in Paris had a rifled arquebus dated 1542. Woolwich has a barrel dated 1546 and another dated 1592. The Nuremberg Chronicle first lists rifled arms in 1578.

      Thomas Freemantle’s Freemantle’s Book of the Rifle (1900) points out that of 36 rifled barrels in the Woolwich museum dating to the 16th and 17th Centuries, only 3 had straight grooves; the rest were spiraled. The earliest dated rifled arm in England came from Hungary in 1548, dated 1547; it had spiraled grooves.

      The Zurich, Switzerland arsenal inventories listed rifled barrels in 1544; some are still in the museum there today.

      By 1563 Swiss shooting matches included separate events and course for rifled and smoothbored arquebuses, with the rifled arms shooting over greater ranges.

      The first verified record of military use of rifled arquebuses is from the reign of Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648), which would most likely include action in the Thirty Years’ War. Specimens of those rifles still exist in the Arsenal Museum in Copenhagen, and at least one dated 1611 found its way to Woolwich.

      (Smith, p. 32)

      Rifles, and their military use, go back further than most people think, at least as “specialist troop” arms.

      cheers

      eon

  4. This is invaluable class in firearms history, especially for those born in New world. This type of things are freely available to be seen in museums and castles of Europe.

    I have couple of observations related to Ian’s interpretation.
    The ball (sometimes hook) at the but served for location of butt onto Cuirass (top body protective armour). Further, muskets of either matchlock and further wheellock type were carried not just by fighters on horse, but also by foot soldiers. Often they were as tall (or more) than soldier was. Those who used them were mostly from higher social classes. The rest carried pikes/ halaparten of various kinds.

    Also, firearms of this type were used for hunting – it was lot easier to get game in comparison with crossbow. They are often beautifully decorated.

  5. Cap and ball firearms: where every shot is a hangfire. Seriously, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and how often do you get to say a New Zealand made wheel-lock?

  6. To the match of the matchlock.
    A restaurateur/gunsmith of the Landeszeughaus (Graz Austria) told me it was made like that:
    Take the slag of lead casting, put vinegar over it and wait until the fluid get a green/blue colour. Soak the match in it and let it dry (you can do it more then one time if you desire).
    It burns very steady and stinks very characteristic.

    They did fire one weapon of all kinds the have. (There 3867 long guns and 4259 pistols left.)
    Therefor they had to have them proved again and the got new stamps on the barrels because that is part of the exam :-/.
    There should be a documentation of that and a video, but I haven’t seen it.
    Dose someone here know it?
    They also have redone a proving of an already dented Breastplate with a wheellock pistol.

    Ian should visit the Landeszeughaus in Graz!
    https://www.museum-joanneum.at/en/styrian-armoury/historic-armoury/collection
    https://www.museum-joanneum.at/en/styrian-armoury
    https://youtu.be/dvR2ZOFA5yc

    • This is absolutely gorgeous display and well related to the subject. If I had one more trip there I’d definitely stop by. Thank you Andreas!

  7. Wheellock rifles were mostly used by the troops tasked with protecting artillery, to avoid having lit match among large quantities of powder.

  8. Great post Ian. Do you have more information on the person that created the replica wheel lock shown, or any other manufactures that offer this type of firearm?
    Thanks

  9. I think you should read Peter Engerisser: Wheellocks – Principles and Function [http://www.engerisser.de/Bewaffnung/weapons/Wheellock.html].
    As far as I know, every time, when the wheel is rotated – the mechanism is spanned, or the gun is fired -, the closed sliding pan cover is automatically opened by the same eccenter of the rotading spindle, which is connected to the main spring with the chain.
    I should quote this: “The piece of iron pyrite (iron sulfide), which is screwed in between the jaws of the cock, always will be pulled down and dropped on top of the closed sliding pan cover (M), never directly to the outer rim surface of the wheel. This fact is neglected in almost every operating despription for wheellocks. The eccenter of the rotading spindle automatically breaks open the sliding pan cover when the drigger is pulled. Pulling down the pyrite directly on top of the outer rim surface of the wheel would not make any sense, as by motion of the horse all priming powder would be spilled out of the flash pan.”

  10. cheekstock and shoulderstock: As was the case with crossbows those straight stocks with the three fingergrips in the triggergruard were NOT pressed against your shoulder but only against your cheek- so you do not need it in such a “cramped” position. Recoil? Well, forget about it- it is black powder and not smokeless powder, so even with some 80 grain behind the bullet it is ok to hold the gun with your hands only. The guns were indeed quite heavy due to very thick barrels, from 1.5 inches to 1.75 inches at the breech, slightly thinner in the middle and then thicker again to the muzzle.

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