RIA: Saxon Double Barreled Wheel Lock

Wheel locks are one of the less common types of early firearm ignition systems, as the were much more expensive as the contemporary flintlocks. The wheel lock had a major advantage in reliability, though. Many surviving wheel locks are quite ornate guns, as they were valuable enough to be kept away from much field use and thus preserved. This example is a double-barreled and highly decorated piece with independent locks for each barrel.


  1. I have never read anywhere that wheellocks were more reliable than flintlocks. They were more reliable than matchlocks, especially in bad weather, but that is hardly surprising. Wheellocks were are mechanically complex and much more expensive than flintlocks or matchlocks. The mechanical complexity made them more prone to breaking and malfunctions than flintlocks. They did have one advantage over flintlocks, namely faster ignition of the powder after trigger pull, which made them popular for upper class hunting weapons even in 18th century, when they had been long superseded by flintlocks as military weapons.

    • I’m not a smoker, but there is very little difference between the Wheel Lock system, and Zippo lighters that lit a zillion young ladies cigarettes.

    • Ian’s right in terms of period perceptions though; and let’s be honest, no-one today has the everyday experience with these weapons to challenge these perceptions). These people tell us that wheellocks were regarded as more reliable than snaphance and ‘true’ flintlocks. For example, from ‘The Advise of That Worthy Commander, Sir Edward Harwood, Collennell’ (1642):

      ‘Now for other kinds of horse, I would that the Trained bands be reformed as Harqubusiers, but whether their Peeces to bee with Fire-locks or Snaphaunces, is questionable. The fire-lock is more certain for giving fire, the other more facile of use.’

      In this context, we know from period usage that by ‘fire-lock’ he means ‘wheellock’ rather than what we now regard as a flintlock (French lock). ‘Snaphance’ simply meant a lock that operated by striking a piece of stone (rather than abrading it in situ as per wheellock).

      Likewise Markham’s ‘The Soldier’s Accidence’ (1643) says ‘firelocks (if it may be), but snaphaunces where they are wanting’ doesn’t spell out greater reliability, but is certainly a value judgement.

    • I’m a flintlock shooter and have been for 50 years I’m also a gun maker I’ve made and fired both flintlock and wheelock and there are two reasons wheelocks are more reliable and faster firing than flintlocks. First there is more striking surface on a wheelock as 3/4 of the wheel is engaged as opposed to only an inch or so of the flintlock. Second there is no distance between the pyrite and the priming powder when the trigger is pulled,and the pyrite comes in immediate contact with the spinning wheel when fired With a wheel lock there is no inertia when the weapons is fired meaning no hammer fall jolt as in a percussion or flintlock.

  2. While it was developed in France in the early 1600s, the “true” flintlock didn’t become the standard ignition system for military arms until the last decade or so of the 17th Century.

    The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the English Civil War (1642-56), and most every other war of the period were fought mainly with matchlock arquebus, simply because they were already “in inventory”, cheap and easy to make, rarely “broke”, and when they needed repair it generally didn’t take long or cost much.

    Or require much skill; any blacksmith could repair a matchlock, and all armies had their own traveling smithies.

    Even older weapons hung on for the same reason. volunteers ion both sides in the early stages of the English Civil War showed up for muster with longbows or crossbows. It must be remembered that the Trained Bands had only been ordered to turn in their bows for arquebus in 1599, and that there was exactly one armory in England that made firearms, in London. It was owned by the Crown. In short, there weren’t enough actual guns to go around, even in a civil war in a relatively small country. Plus, there were a lot of men who had used the longbow or crossbow all their lives, and knew nothing of firearms. An analogous situation occurred in the first years of the American Civil War (1861-65), with flintlocks accounting for nearly half of the musketry on both sides up to the summer of 1862.

    The New Model Army Parliament formed was armed mostly with matchlock arquebus, and happily took any firearms they could beg, borrow, steal, or capture. The Royalist forces were in a similar fix, especially after losing London (where the Royal armory was) to the Roundheads.

    There really wasn’t much influx of “imported” arms except for Scot and English mercenaries returning from the fighting on the Continent, until after the Peace of Westphalia in 1848. And even then, it was largely older, obsolescent arms, as the treaty just ended the Thirty Years’ War officially; the fighting continued for another three decades under other pretenses, notably in the Germanies and Scandinavia.

    As for the wheel-lock, the most common such military weapons were pistols for use by cavalry. This was because it was next to impossible to safely use a matchlock while mounted. Among other thing, horses can be trained to put up with the racket, concussion, and smell of a gun going off over their heads, but it’s next to impossible to train a horse to put up with the constant smell of a burning match, due to its instinctive (and entirely reasonable) fear of fire.

    As for this piece, double-barreled wheel-locks were moderately common as horsemen’s weapons, simply because a pair carried in saddle holsters (as this one was clearly intended to be) gave you four shots without reloading. By that time in the charge, you should be in amongst the enemy or right through his formation. Meaning, time to either brake, or just go to work with your saber.

    The oddly reptilian critters inlaid in the forend are traditional renditions of “sea serpents”, as used on illuminated charts of the time. This might indicate the owner was a naval type.

    Then again, he or the gunmaker may just have liked sea serpents.




    • “horses can be trained to put up with the racket, concussion, and smell of a gun going off over their heads, but it’s next to impossible to train a horse to put up with the constant smell of a burning match, due to its instinctive (and entirely reasonable) fear of fire.”

      Perhaps the Marlboro Man was a complete fraud?

      • Yep. Died of emphysema, too.

        BTW, I’ve yet to deal with a horse that liked the smell of burning tobacco. They tend to give smokers dirty looks when they light up.



    • The Tower did not actually manufacture firearms (though it would later ‘set up’ guns from parts), and in fact relied upon there being a number (37 by this time in fact) gunmakers operating in London (the Minories originally) by the time this gun was made. Which is not to say that firearms weren’t relatively uncommon c1600, they obviously were. But the government did not have the monopoly over firearms; anyone with enough money could buy or commission a firearm from one of these makers, or purchase one abroad. With fear of Spanish invasion, there would have been plenty of privately-purchased firearms for town defence as well (you mention the Trained Bands).

  3. I’ve also read that wheel locks didn’t use a flint — flint was too hard and would quickly wear the teeth of the wheel. They used iron pyrites instead to produce the spark.

    • Also, I’d question the assertion that the wheel lock was more reliable than the flintlock — not that ignition is more reliable because of the greater quantity of sparks generated by the action; that may well be true — but that reliability overall is better. The flintlock was a pretty simple mechanism; there wasn’t much to go wrong with it, and if it did, any blacksmith could generally put it right again in short order. The wheel lock, on the other hand, had a much more complex, and in truth often rather delicate mechanism that was much more likely to get out of order, and when something went wrong, only a skilled gunsmith could usually fix it. This is probably why wheel locks almost completely disappeared after flintlocks came along. Even wealthy people who could afford them stopped buying wheel locks, and took to flintlock weapons instead.

  4. I always thought that Wheelocks used Iron Pyrites (Fools Gold) to provide the spark. I have never heard of any being used with flint, nor would it be capable of unless you had grooved wheels. I have fired replica guns in the past and while these are not up to the standard of the original, one issue with them is actually the lock time, and my experience differs from the comments made by Euroweasel. When you pull the trigger, they go CLICK – WHIRR – BANG. It feels like you have enough time to scratch your butt between pulling the trigger and the discharge.

    Having said that flintlocks are CLICK – UH – Bang, so the difference may be more between the ears rather than in the ears.

    • Definitely a function of their being replicas I’m afraid (wheellocks are really a lost art). The real thing is quicker to fire than a flintlock (not that I’ve been lucky enough to fire an original, but I know a man who has).

  5. Some quibbles:
    Wheellocks do not use a flint but pyrit in the jaws of the cock. As I understand, the serrated steel wheel strikes sparks from the pyrite. Unlike the flint-lock, where the hard flint strikes sparks, i.e. fine metal shavings, from the frizzen´s surface. This is why frizzens must be hardened and are horizontally serrated to give the flint many opportunities to remove material. Am I wrong?
    The key feature of the wheellock which improves its reliability over the flintlock: The pyrite and wheel meet inside the pan. Thus the sparks are created directly among the priming powder, they don’t have to fall there first. Lock time supposed to be shorter too.
    The wheel is not powered by a wound-up clock type spring, such an arrangement did exist but it is a very rare sub-type of wheellock. The V-spring and drive-chain arrangement commonly used are actually clearly visible in the video!
    At 3:19, look at the lower, forward wheel and below it. Its main V-spring is mounted on the outside the lock plate, it begins above the trigger and extends forward beyond, below the bottom of the stock right under its wheel. It is connected to the wheel by a set links exactly like bicycle chain links. These are connected to an eccentric “nut” on the axis of the wheel (this complicated piece is covered here on the forward lock, it is usually behind the plate). If the wheel was turned (counterclockwise here, I am guessing), the chain would wind up and pull the arm of the V-spring upwards and convert the linear tension of the spring into rotary motion on the axis of the wheel. The sear locks into an indentation on the inside surface of the wheel to hold it ready.
    I speculate that the wheel actually does not rotate fully on firing, just ½, or ¾ of a revolution. If anybody knows for sure I´d be very happy to learn.
    Another aspect of this lock is timing: The wheel is not in contact with the pyrite when it is ready to fire. It is pressed onto the pan cover which is pushed open (forward) automatically upon firing by the rotation of the eccentric “nut” via an extension of the pan cover, usually behind the lock plate. Only now does the cock lower itself into the pan. The goal is to give the wheel as much momentum as possible before it contacts the pyrite.
    Earliest technical drawings are dated 1500-1509 from Nürnberg. Primary armament of the heavy, fully plate-armored (painted black!) cavalry in the Thirty Years War. A very good exhibition in Halle (Saale) currently documents the fate of front line soldiers killed in the battle of Lützen 1632, found in a mass grave dug right on the main line. Vast majority has one 15-17mm hole in the skull. These were effective combat weapons, it`s just that the impractical presentation pieces are all that remain.
    Treaty of Westphalia was 1648. I`ll shut up now.

    • Thanks for catching that. How in the *%&^#$&%%! did I type “1848”? *headdesk*

      Also note that more than a few of the wheel-lock pistols used by cavalrymen back then were rifled. They can be spotted because they have both front and rear sights, while smoothbores had either only a front sight or none at all.

      A patched ball, spun by rifling and leaving the muzzle going “straight” instead of whim-whamming off at an angle after “bouncing” down a smooth bore, meant that such pistols were generally more accurate than an arquebus, and had equal or better effective range (50-75 yards).

      Still, even with that, head shots indicate one of two things;

      1. The horsemen were aiming at the infantrymen’s heads because they were wearing cuirasses the pistol bullets might not get through; or

      2. A lot of them were coup de grace’ head shots to downed, but still breathing, foes.

      After all, looting bodies is simplified by making sure they really are dead first.



      • Wheel lock pistols can also be used for assassinations, since they are less likely to misfire compared to flintlocks, snaphaunces, and miquelets. If I’m not mistaken, it is best to shoot when the target is in a noisy area or when the nearest huge clock tower strikes the changing of the hour (or if you are riding after the target on horseback in the woods and shoot him on passing, assuming he’s also on horseback).

        • There was something about the emperor Maximilian, p[assing laws to forbid various sorts of fire arms, I can’t remember whether that included match locks, or just the more concealable flint and wheel locks.

          like modern day politicians, he knew that if the plebs ever found out what he was really up to – they’d re-balance him, using lead weights for the purpose.

        • The facility for them being used in that way was the reason a law was passed in Elizabeth I’s time prohibiting the possession or manufacture of “firelocks” anywhere within three miles of Her Majesty, her residences, or areas she frequented. (This may be one reason why the London Guild gunmakers were still turning out mostly matchlocks twenty years later.)

          Elsewhere, in France, there was enough worry about “daggs” (a common English term for a wheel-lock horse pistol), that a Royal decree in 1535 prohibited the making or possession of any gun less than three feet long in the kingdom.

          In 1515 Maximilian I prohibited the manufacture or possession of any sort of “self-igniting” arm in the Habsburg Empire. Since he died in 1519, and his successor, Charles V, used wheel-locks for hunting, odds are the prohibition was never actually enforced.

          “Gun control” is nothing new. And it really never works, because a genie cannot be stuffed back into a bottle, no matter how many times Barbara Eden did it on TV.



  6. Wheel Lock actions were more reliable mostly because the Iron Pyrite would throw a sustained “shower” of sparks which were also hotter than a flint-produced spark. They would also produce sparks when damp (but not soaked) unlike most flint ignition systems. The majpor drawback was the availability of Iron Pyrite sort of like having a Zippo but no “flints” for it eventhough an out-of-fuel Zippo can be used to light a cigarette or start a fire. In one instance, a “novice” trader reportedly came to the new world to try a load of the plentiful gold but was scammed into buying a shipload of Iron Pyrite also known as Fools Gold. He then happily sailed back to the Old World. When the “scammers” returned with their cargo they found that he had actually come for the Pyrite which was, if it was in sizable “slabs,” without fractures or impurities, worth twice an equal measure of smelted gold bullion. So he was not quite the dunce as first suspected. The top quality portion went for wheel lock ignition and the remainder for “fire starter kits” carried by most “gentlemen” back then. Most assuredly the wheel lock was more reliable than the match Lock ignition systems.

  7. Possibly a question for Ian- why are the wheel locks behind one another in this gun, rather than side-by-side?
    Seems like a no brainer to us current day people to put them on either side of the gun, rather than to put two on one side and nothing on the other.

    Then again that pistol grip doesn´t look very ergonomic either…

    • Putting the locks on opposite sides of the gun requires more frame parts. As it appears here, having both wheels on the right hand side decreases the complexity of removing the firing mechanism for maintenance… I could be wrong, though.

      • No, I think you’re right. I suspect they were trying to cut down on bulk as well as weight. Later flintlocks were miniaturised sufficiently that one could be let in to either side of the stock, and this became the standard configuration. c1600 was still early days for figuring out how multiple shots might work practically speaking.

    • Ergonomics are a modern science, and this is an early firearm. Change takes time, and a substantial user base able to feed back to designers. You simply weren’t firing a pistol often enough to drive the need for a more ‘comfortable’ stock design. Straight-line recoil into your cocked wrist was fine for most purposes. Sporting long guns of the period are much more comfortable, though they often feature a cheek stock instead of a shoulder stock, which seems strange to us today.

      • I’m not so sure about ergonomics being a recent science: check out some of Durs Egg’s saw handled dueling pistols for advanced ergonomics. similarly, though at a much later date, some of the schutzen rifle stocks.

        the ball end of the handle was possibly there to use as a club, after the two shots had been fired.

        • Durs Egg was making much later than this pistol! Of course pistol stock designs had improved by then. My point was that this straight-line grip is an early form designed before makers were really trying to make a good pointing pistol.

          As for Ergonomics, as a discipline it didn’t exist until the 20th century.

    • I’m guessing that you are a right hander?

      have you ever tried firing a flint or wheel lock that has a lock and pan on the same side of the gun as your face?

      • Yet flintlock double guns were common later. Also, this being a pistol, you’re holding it at arm’s length, so it wouldn’t be an issue in this case. Ron’s comment about holstering is probably the main consideration, but there were others.

    • Most obviously, this is a horse pistol intended to be carried in a saddle holster. The side next to the saddlebow would need to be as flat as possible to avoid getting caught on something in a draw.

      Such pistols made in pairs, for right and left-hand saddle holsters, were often “handed”, or mirror-imaged; one with the lock(s) on the right side, the other with the lock(s) on the left. So that the locks would always be on the outer side of each holster.



    • The simple reason is that the looks need to be spaned or wound before firing. Thus you want to have the spanner nipples on the same side of the gun.

  8. The wheel itself doesn’t turn as much as you’d think. It’s only a quarter turn to span the lock. The mainsprings however, were (and are!) under immense tension, so not only more sparks generated, but under much greater constant pressure than a falling cock. Hence more reliable as the sources confirm. Modern replicas have much weaker springs, among other failings.

    • I hate to say it, but the proper forging and tensioning of V-type springs is almost a lost art today.

      If you don’t believe me, try getting a properly-made replacement V-spring for a LeFever or Greener double shotgun, sometime.

      Good luck on that one.



  9. Dear Ian,

    I’ve just seen the Armoury in Turin, Italy and if you’d ever had the oppotrunity to go there, I most highly recomend. Far more fancy and insane flint locks, wheel locks, percusion and pinfire guns are there including (but not limited to) gun-swords. Also huge collection of melee weapons and armour. I have some photos, but most pieces are in glass cases so there are a lot of glares.

  10. The wheelock was the first “firelock” or self igniting mechanism to be widely adopted. As such it had a huge impact, notatbly by making pistols a viable weapon. Within a few decades of their introduction in the 1530s, these had surplanted heavy lance cavalry in western europe.
    It also made Firearms practical for hunting for the first time, and there are quite a lot of very ornate wheelock rifles dating to the mid-1500s.

    The main weakness of the wheelock is cost and complexity. The mechanism is for all intents and purposes a piece of clockwork, and if a piece breaks it would have to be repaired by a Specialist, a service unavaliable outside major cities. Kind of having to return your gun to the factory every time a part needs to be changed.
    Thus they where reserved for the most wealthy hunters and heavy cavalry.

    When the snaplocks where introduced in the 1590, it meant another huge step; A snaplock can be made and maintained by a village blacksmith, and within a decade or two Firearms where pretty much universal for as hunting weapons. Some of these early Craft made rifles saw use for nearly 300 years, with a upgrade to the lock every century or so…

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. SayUncle » Gun Porn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.