Sparking A Revolution

Snaphaunce And Miquelet: THE flintlock’s mom and dad

Surplus Moroccan

This ornate Moroccan snaphaunce (top) and Spanish miquelet (below) were precursors to the French flintlock.

The flintlock as we know it evolved over many decades. Though the history of firearms development is misty on the subject, it appears the familiar flintlock was perfected in France. But how did it evolve and from what?

It’s an intriguing question and the answer lies in some less-familiar ignition systems preceding the appearance of the French flintlock — namely the snaphaunce and the miquelet.

Ignition System Overlap

There’s a tendency to assume firearms evolved in a linear way — the matchlock, followed by the wheellock, then the snaphaunce, miquelet and finally the flintlock. In truth there was a great overlap in time — at least 100 years — between the several ignition systems.

For example, a German nobleman in 1540 might hunt with a wheellock while the common farmer down the road would probably be hunting with a matchlock. In fact the wheellock was so mechanically complicated — and required such skilled maintenance and repair — it was never issued for mass military use. But the comparatively primitive matchlock soldiered on until 1650 or so.

Surplus long gun

The Beak Brings It

The earliest design to replicate the best qualities of the wheel lock without its cost and complexity was the snaphaunce. Developed sometime in the mid-1500s, it was believed to have originated in Holland and the name was derived from the Dutch word Snaphaan or “pecking rooster.” Looking at the image the snaphaunce lock, it’s easy to see how it could be described this way. There’s its beak-shaped cock pecking down at the free-swinging battery, which we recognize as an early frizzen.

The snaphaunce offered all of the advantages of a wheel lock. It could be loaded and primed in advance. With the pan cover secured to prevent moisture from affecting the prime, the snaphance was ready for instant use. Compare it to managing the burning match of a matchlock, although the matchlock remained the dominant design in Japan until the 1860s.

While the snaphaunce incorporates the flintlock concept of a cock and a battery, the battery is not attached to the pan as we will see in the later miquelet and flintlock designs. In one way, it’s a safer action than the miquelet and flintlock since the free-swinging battery can be swung forward well out of range of the pecking cock. Also, the operation of the pan cover of the snaphaunce is similar to the wheellock. Both are mechanically linked to uncover the primed pan at the moment of firing.

surplus wheel lock

The snaphaunce provided the performance of a wheellock with less complexity and far less cost.

surplus miquelet

The miquelet lock combined the snaphaunce battery and flash pan cover into a functional frizzen.

A Long-Lasting Favorite

The snaphaunce as a pistol, shotgun and rifle was met with wide acceptance in Europe, Scandinavia and the Arab world. Moorish and Arabian snaphaunces were still being made until at least 1875. Kitchener’s troops were receiving snaphaunce fire as late as 1898 while rooting out the dervishes in the Sudan!

It’s been speculated many of the best North African gunmakers of the period were skilled Jewish metalworkers who’d been expelled from Spain. In any case, the bone and red coral inlays decorating the stock on the example shown are fetching indeed. The barrel bands are lapped over and soldered in place. There are large metal plates both underneath the lock and along the left side of the stock which I assume are “wear plates” to protect the stock from abrasion when carried on camel or horseback.

With an overall length of 64″ and a weight of 8.5 lbs., it balances perfectly when you wrap your hand around the stock just forward of the lock, and it hangs nicely offhand. It’s a smoothbore, and using Brownells barrel caliper I found the bore measures 0.55″. The lucky man who owned this snaphaunce was a person of substance in the tribe.

Miquelet handgun

Miquelet locks persisted well into the percussion era as evidenced by this double-barreled percussion pistol with two hound-headed hammers.

The Refined Miquelet

Moving closer to a true flintlock was a development from Spain. According to the royal gunsmith and historian, Isidro Soler, in his 1796 treatise Historical Account of the Gunmakers of Madrid, during 1530 the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Charles V (formerly Charles I of Spain), brought to Madrid two master gunsmiths from Augsburg, Germany — Simon and Peter Marquarte — to improve Spanish gunmaking. Simon’s son, Simon Marquarte, Jr., is credited with developing the refined “Spanish” or miquelet lock during the reign of Philip II (1556-1598).

The key improvement over the snaphaunce was the battery — now combined with the flash pan cover — was no longer a free-swinging arm but was mounted to the lock, just like the frizzen we’re familiar with in later flintlocks.

The miquelet lock is a powerful and rugged design. Mounted in pistols, rifles and shotguns, it spread quickly throughout Anatolia, North Africa, Arabia, the Caucasus and beyond.

The cock jaws are massive and fitted with a prominent thumbscrew to facilitate flint changes. I believe the quality of flint found throughout the range of the miquelet varied considerably (as did the shape of the flint) so the massive jaws compensated to hold lesser-quality flints.

The strong exterior mainspring of the lock is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, although some late miquelet locks did sport interior mainsprings. Three positive qualities of the exterior miquelet mainspring are (1) it’s easy to maintain and replace, (2) it minimizes inletting so the stock is stronger over the lock area and (3) it’s large and powerful enough to deliver a real wallop to the frizzen when using inferior flint. The exterior mainspring bears on either the front or the rear of the cock.

The frizzen itself is heavy and robust and normally grooved down its face to really dig into the flint and direct the sparks into the flash pan. It’s so robust — even without any spring tension on it — it’ll still deliver a shower of sparks. The grooved face of the frizzen was “re-soled” as it wore down.

Another interesting feature of the miquelet is its sear arrangement. Like the snaphaunce, it features a sear projecting laterally through the face of the lock plate which mates with a fan-shaped tail at the base of the cock. Typically, there are two visible sears stacked on top of each other. The bottom sear is a secondary one which serves as a safety. The upper sear allows the hammer to fall when the trigger is pressed.

There’s a great story about how revered the miquelet lock was in Spain. In 1752 the Spanish infantry musket was issued with a French flintlock. Forty years later Spain reverted to a military miquelet lock in their Model 1789-91 infantry musket. Then in their 1803 model they returned to the French flintlock but retained the horizontal operating, exterior sear of the miquelet!
The development of the snaphaunce and miquelet led to the future design of the French flintlock.

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