How matchlock weapons worked
Much used during the English Civil War, they were slow, unreliable and could be dangerous to the firer
In the centuries before the invention of the percussion cap, which came into use in the 1830s and 1840s, small arms had to be fired by the cumbersome (and often dangerous) means of igniting a primer charge of gunpowder in the weapon’s “pan”, which then ignited the main charge in the barrel. The earliest means of achieving this was the matchlock.
The matchlock ignition system was developed around the end of the 15th century, and was clearly copied from the means used to fire larger artillery pieces. The idea was that a piece of cord was kept smouldering and used many times to fire charges of gunpowder. This avoided the need to “strike a light” each time, which was itself a tricky and uncertain procedure in the days before friction matches had been invented.
The match was essentially a fuse, comprising a length of cord that was soaked in a very strong solution of saltpetre (potassium nitrate, one of the components of gunpowder) and allowed to dry. Once ignited, the cord would burn very slowly.
With a handheld weapon, as opposed to a fixed artillery piece, it was obviously impractical for the soldier to hold the weapon steady at the same time as applying the end of a piece of cord to a firing pan. A trigger mechanism was therefore devised that allowed the user to concentrate on holding and aiming the weapon as it was fired.
A short length of match was therefore attached to a mechanical, S-shaped arm which was fitted to a plate set into the stock of the weapon, which was held against the shoulder. Pressing the trigger, which was usually set underneath the stock, would swing the arm forward, bringing the glowing end of the match into contact with the primer powder in the pan of the weapon, which in turn set off the main charge.
The procedure for firing such a weapon, be it an arquebus or early musket, was a clumsy affair, involving the insertion of powder, ball and wadding into the barrel, ramming them home, then priming the pan. A soldier would do well to get more than one shot off in a minute, and he would be vulnerable to attack between shots. The usual procedure was for soldiers to fall back after they had fired, to be replaced by others whose weapons were primed and ready.
The main photo shows members of the Sealed Knot, who re-enact battles from the English Civil War, in various stages of firing matchlock weapons. The photographer has caught the moment of a priming charge being ignited but before the main charge has been fired. Should the latter fail to happen, this would be an instance of a “flash in the pan”, which is how that expression originated.
The matchlock method had a number of disadvantages, as well as its slow operation. In wet or damp conditions the match could be extinguished and need to be relit, using a tinderbox, or replaced. Sometimes this would be impossible, making the weapons completely useless.
In a strong wind the match could do more than just smoulder, producing sparks that were highly dangerous when gunpowder was being handled. A spark could ignite the powder in a neighbouring gun, which might be pointing anywhere at the time.
Early matchlock weapons required the user to carry charges of gunpowder on his person, as well as spare lit matches. The combination of the two was clearly highly dangerous.
Despite these disadvantages, matchlock weapons were in general military use in Asia and Europe for several hundred years. The Chinese used such weapons as early as the 14th century, and they were common in Europe from the late 15th century. It was only from the mid 16th century onwards that other firing methods, namely the wheellock and flintlock, superseded the matchlock.
About the author
I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.
I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".