Pyrite Pyrotechnics

The 16th Century Wheellock Is The Great-Grandfather Of Modern Handgun

By Martin J. Miller Jr.

The “Danish Style Cavalry Pistol” was favored by nearly all combatants during the mid to late period
of the Thirty Years War. This is a German-made officer’s grade example, plain and functional, yet elegant
and shows the skill of the craftsmen who made it.

The well-dressed gentleman is wending his way home late at night, or rather, early morning. He has spent an enjoyable evening; good food and drink, success at the gaming tables, topped off with one of madam’s lovely companions. The street is deserted and dark. There are no streetlights in the early 1500s, and no one wants to be abroad at night, except the night watch and cutpurses. The night watch can neither be seen nor heard when the villain steps out and confronts our gentleman with knife and cudgel. “Your purse or your life.”

Our gentleman, who apparently forgot his sword or stick, flings back his cloak, draws out something not seen by the mugger before, points it at him and flame, smoke and a loud explosion erupt. In an instant it’s over for the mugger. He lies dead from the first successful concealed carry handgun encounter.

Crude firearms had been in use for around 100 years, but they were mostly long arms and needed a lit match to ignite the priming powder to discharge the gun. However, the “new” Wheellock action could be downsized to the size of a handgun as we know it today, one that could be carried loaded, primed and ready to fire. This so frightened those in power the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I banned the use and manufacture of “self-striking handguns that ignite themselves” in 1518! And like all attempts to ban new technologies, the first ban failed—dismally as usual.

This closeup of the wheellock action gives an idea of the simple clean lines and function. The finish is
highly polished, and the hammer (without its pyrites) is in the open position with the pan cover closed.

The dog cock is pushed down manually and the spring is wound. When you pull the trigger, the pan retracts
exposing the wheel and primer charge, the cock then contacts the spinning wheel, sparks fly and kaboom.

The wrench was a do not lose accessory. Without it you could not fire the gun. This is a simple folding example
with a little decoration. Priming flasks often came with a wrench and screwdriver as part of the flask and would
be attached to the soldier’s bandolier or other equipment.

Graeme Rimmer in his marvelous monograph Wheellock Firearms Of the Royal Armouries summarizes: “Claude Blair (a well know author on early firearms) has said that the arrival of the wheellock turned the former craft of gunmaking into an art. Before it firearms had only been relatively bulky longarms (matchlocks), used primarily in military service by common infantry. The new ignition system meant that the creation of high-quality complex mechanisms, which could produce small, portable yet lethal weapons (sic). It had been very difficult to use a matchlock weapon from horseback, so cavalry troops, and indeed civilians of quality, who would have ridden rather than walk from place to place, had not before had a firearm which they could carry loaded and ready to fire, and which could be used with one hand, leaving the other free to control the horse. This new market for their products gave enormous encouragement to gunmakers to develop their ingenuity and skill, and almost immediately finely finished and decorated firearms began to appear.”

The first mention of the “wheellock” appears in a manuscript dated 1505 and is described as a friction wheel spinning against a piece of stone. In a Leonardo De Vinci manuscript drawing from about the same time, there is what appears to be a “gunlock,” and next to it a wheel turned by a small chain. Earlier Chinese writings of the 14th Century describe what may have been a wheellock-activated weapon. The first dated wheellocks appear in Italy 1510–20 and in Germany 1521–26.

We can call the wheellock’s action a mechanical, friction ignition arm. This, in its simplest essence, describes all later generations of small arms up to today, the 16th to the 21st Century. The wheellock, flintlock, percussion and self-contained metallic cartridge handguns, both single-shot, revolver or semi-automatic are discharged by pulling the trigger which is linked to a mechanical mechanism releasing a striker device which by friction or impact ignites a priming charge (either loose powder, percussion cap or modern primer). This then ignites the main powder charge propelling a projectile out of the barrel.

Our wheellock pistol here is a late version of a plain military cavalry officer’s model in the “Danish Style” about 1640–50 made in Suhl, Thuringia, and later Saxony (Germany). Suhl was known as a metalworking town and later an arms making area. This pattern of arm, seen as early as the 1620s, was made in many European countries and provinces and you see examples with minor variations and conditions of use. The slim lines, narrow pointed lock tail and sow belly forward of the trigger are associated with this 1600s style. They were popular in both the Thirty Years War (1616–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1651). This example stands out because of its pristine and unused, unissued condition.

The wheellock action is exceedingly complex and the finest mechanics, lock makers, armorers and even jewelers would combine to begin the gunmaker’s craft and art and their high status in the guilds in coming years.

This inside view of the lock mechanism gives an idea of the complexity of its operation. The pyrite wheel is external,
and the chain with 4 or 5 links under the plate is connected to the massive “V” mainspring.

In the days of single-shot muzzle loaders, a serious edged weapon was, of course, a mandatory accessory.

The wheellock is easily recognized by the prominent wheel cover on the lock face and the “dogshead” or “cock” arm appearing backwards compared to those on the later flintlock. The dogshead holds a pyrite stone in its jaws (flint being too hard). At full raised extension the spring is at rest. The arm is manually lowered to half-cock (if to be carried loaded) or onto the priming pan if it is to be fired. When the trigger is pulled, the pan cover is automatically retracted exposing the priming powder in the pan to start ignition.

The wheel is on an axle mounted horizontally on the lock plate. The edge of the wheel is roughly finished so when it “spins” against the pyrite it produces a spark igniting the priming powder. Think of the action of a Zippo lighter, with your thumb acting as the next mechanism described.

Inside of the lock this other mechanism works to spin the wheel. Its axle is attached to a short chain wound around it by means of a wrench winding the axle 1/2 to 3/4 of a turn from the outside. This action tensions a flat spring inside the lock engaging the trigger sear. Pulling the trigger releases the spring, pulling the chain, spinning the wheel and causing a spark in the pan, to create the boom. Remember the old lawnmower engine where you wrapped a rope around the “wheel” and pulled to “fire” the sparkplug?

Just reading this description gives you an idea of the complexity and the degree of sophistication needed to make this arm work. There is no explanation for why the much simpler flintlock action was not “invented” first, or why the wheellock prevailed for more than 10 generations. Sometimes technology moves at a glacial pace.

The wheellock cavalry pistol was quite “common” during the 1500s and 1600s. The pistol described here is a single-shot muzzleloader of .70 caliber with a 15-3/8-inch smoothbore octagonal barrel. The overall length is 24 inches and the weight is a surprisingly light 2.53 pounds. It handles quite easily and—again surprisingly—points beautifully. It is finished in the “white” meaning the metal was polished but no other finishing methods like browning or bluing applied.

This superbly decorated wheellock rifle is by Johann Mendel of Prague dated ca. 1650. The lock is deeply
chiseled in relief. The double eagle on the wheel face signifies the Holy Roman Empire and Austria-Hungary.
Many decorated wheellocks survive today. These examples are works of art but were meant to be used at the
time, and they were. Photo: Dan Retting, www.retting.com

This unusual Polish Tschenki wheellock rifle has the chain spinning the wheel exposed outside
the lockwork. Photo: Dan Retting, www.retting.com

Tactically during this 200-year period, cavalry would typically charge the opposing pike wall interspersed with musketeers, pull up short and discharge their pistols, usually issued in pairs. If the “wall” broke they would charge through using the sword to hack away. If the wall still “stood” they would wheel about and withdraw to reload and try again.

Wheellock muskets on the other hand were very uncommon even though they were far more reliable than the matchlock. Try keeping a dangling “slow match” burning at both ends while maneuvering, loading and firing. Then try this in windy or wet weather.

The primary reason was cost. The wheellock was at least 10 or more times as expensive to manufacture. The cavalry pistol on the other hand fit right in, not only tactically, but because the cost of cavalry was already 10 times or more expensive to field than infantry. As the Thirty Years War wound down cavalry began to adopt wheellock muskets and carbines as well as pistols. The cost of manufacturing wheellock pistols, muskets or rifles could only be afforded by wealthy merchants, titled nobility and governments.

If such an individual wanted one, it was often embellished with engraved scenes in the metal work, inlays of ivory, bone, silver and gold, and even jewels. Such pieces where often given to the wealthy and nobility as gifts, or bribes, to curry favor. Since these resided in ancestral homes and palaces they would survive for hundreds of years in protected conditions. Today wheellocks from this era grace many museums as works of art and in the collections of wealthy arms and art collectors.

The plain military versions have not survived in any similar numbers. Military use meant harsh conditions and hard battle use. Guns would be lost, broken and subject to inclement weather. If found unserviceable the parts could be salvaged, re-melted and made into new arms. I have seen a number of the cavalry models in this Danish Style, few in the great condition of this officer’s model. When the simpler and cheaper flintlock started appearing around the middle of the 17th century the wheellock would fade away. In Germany the wheellock rifle was still popular into the 18th century.

I did not attempt to “shoot” this gun. It is after all 400 years old. Breaking parts would make a serious dent in its value and my bank account. Finding a skilled gunsmith to make a new part would also be very difficult. However, if you really hanker to shoot a wheellock there are several companies making replicas. The cost would be “reasonable.”

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