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C17 musketeers were deadly shots but slow reloaders

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about guns first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Royalist Musketeer,  picture, image, illustration

A Royalist musketeer

The distant jangling of a silvered bridle sounding dully through the mist was the only warning they got.

“Horsemen!” hissed a soldier to his comrade as they squelched miserably along the muddy track. The other man peered into the fog, but all he could see was a heather-covered hillside disappearing into the silent greyness. Suddenly, he grabbed his musket tight; he could hear horses galloping – lots of horses.

Out of the mist thundered twenty heavily armoured horsemen, sweeping down on the straggling line of infantry and baggage waggons. A musket crashed and one rider fell but in an instant the horsemen reached the road; nineteen pistols were raised, nineteen flashpans erupted fire and nineteen barrels belched lead into the confused mass of foot-soldiers.

Without pausing, the horsemen turned and galloped away. But it was not over yet. Twenty more riders charged, fired, wheeled and rode away; then another twenty; then the first squadron charged again. As one group advanced another retired while the third reloaded their long pistols ready to charge once more. Soon the track was choked with terror-stricken men (few had any courage left to fight) until at last the horsemen disappeared into the mist from where they came.

The scene was Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. The early 17th century was a bloody era for Europe, but it was also a period of dramatic advances in strategy and the use of firearms. The pistols that those horsemen fired were wheel-locks. They were so devastating and terrifying when used against unorganized infantry, or even cavalry, that such pistol-horsemen, called Reiters, became the “storm-troopers” of their day.

Match-lock muskets were still used by most of the infantry during the Thirty Years’ War, though they were cumbersome and very vulnerable to wind and rain. The wheel-lock was far less vulnerable, either as a pistol or as a musket. As far back as 1500, Leonardo da Vinci had designed a gun fired by sparks shot off a piece of pyrites with a steel wheel. Pyrites is a natural mixture of iron and sulphur which gives plenty of sparks if rubbed properly. Within a few years wheel-lock pistols were being made in Germany and Northern Italy but their firing mechanisms were complicated and very hard to make.

With every wheel-lock came a spanner to “span” or wind up the spring that turned the wheel. Each gun also had a powder horn and bag of bullets. These new pistols were so expensive that only the aristocracy could afford them. Strangely enough, it was also the aristocracy who most feared the wheel-lock. The new pistol needed no lighted match and could easily be hidden under a cloak. Assassinations were common and in 1522 the chief men of Ferrara in Northern Italy banned wheel-locks within the city limits!

The wheel-lock still had one great disadvantage; it was complicated and fragile. Damage to its delicate chain or wheels was common and only the most skilful craftsman could mend a wheel-lock. For all these reasons, the tough foot-soldier had to go on using a match-lock musket. By the end of the 17th century, muskets fell into two separate categories. The ordinary musket had grown into a monstrous weapon that needed a firing rest to take its weight. But it could smash armour at 125 yards. Loading muskets was a tedious business and even the best musketeer could fire no more than two shots in three minutes. If a musketeer was attacked while reloading, he was almost defenceless and that is why musketeers and pikemen so often worked as a team.

Calivers were also a type of musket but smaller, and a caliver man could fire twice as fast as a musketeer. However, the caliver’s small bullet was generally useless against armour. Even so the English government had 7,000 calivers stored in the Tower of London in 1578.

There were also two ways of carrying ammunition. One method was to wear wooden, horn or leather bottles hanging from a bandolier across the chest. In each container was a measured amount of powder but this arrangement rattled and got in the way. It also had the nasty habit of attracting stray sparks and occasionally blowing up. The second method was to carry gunpowder in a large, sometimes beautifully decorated powder-horn which had a pouring device that gave a measured dose of powder.

Expensive wheel-locks were popular with the richer gentry, but when someone invented the snaphaunce everything changed. The snaphaunce was tough and cheap. In fact its very cheapness made it notorious. Snaphaunce seems to mean “pecking chicken” and, according to legend, the poachers of Holland got hold of snaphaunces and decimated the egg-laying population of the Netherlands. A poacher who carried a lighted match for his match-lock found it hard to hide in the dark, but nobody could see a snaphaunce because it was fired by a flint.

Flint is stronger than pyrites but makes just as good sparks. When the snaphaunce’s trigger was pulled a spring-loaded arm holding the flint came down and struck a metal “battery,” showering sparks into the flashpan whose cover had already been slid off by the trigger movement. It sounds complicated, but in fact it was so much simpler than the old wheel-lock that even the English could make snaphaunces! Apparently English gunsmiths had a poor reputation in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is what one indignant writer said of them, “. . . divers cutlers, smiths, tinkers and other butchers of weapons, by their unskilfullness, have utterly spoiled many weapons!”

During the English Civil War a few soldiers had these new guns needing no match. Special storming parties were issued with them and they must have had a terrific advantage over anyone carrying a match-lock. Imagine a sentry on duty at night; he would be visible from far off because of his lighted match. Lighted matches on the other hand were sometimes left hanging from bushes to look like sentries, so luring the unsuspecting foe into a trap.

When you look at a snaphaunce it is hard to imagine why it was designed in the way it was. The next improvement is so obvious – to combine the battery and pan-cover. That is just what someone did in Spain, and so invented the miquelet. The miquelet lock is far simpler than the snaphaunce lock, though it has its main-spring on the outside of the gun where it can easily be damaged or get jammed with mud.

It was the scorned gunsmiths of England who solved this problem by putting the main-spring inside the gun. Their guns were crude but tough and though they are generally called English-locks, they are really the first of the Flint-locks that endured almost unchanged for two hundred years.

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