Of all antique weapons, firearms are probably the most popular with collectors. They have romantic, aesthetic and mechanical qualities which appeal to so many people. Until the mid-19th century each was hand made and unique.

Details of the early history of gunpowder are vague, but it seems fairly certain that it was in use on a limited scale in China during the 11th or 12th century. 

The story of European firearms begins with a reference to them in 1326 and, by coincidence, the earliest illustrations of a crude gun can be dated to the same year.

The earliest firearms were essentially artillery, primarily designed to replace the older forms of missile weapon used to demolish fortifications. In a very short time the idea of hand firearms had developed and the first handguns were very simple. 

They were nothing more than a tube with one end closed, and near the closed end a small hole (the touchhole), was drilled through the wall of the tube. A charge of black powder, a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, was poured down the barrel; a ball of lead, iron or stone was then pushed down on top of the powder inside the barrel.

 A pinch of powder was placed over the touchhole and this priming was ignited by some means or other, perhaps a glowing ember. The priming flared and the flame passed through the touchhole to the charge inside the barrel. As the gunpowder exploded the expanding gas drove out the bullet.

The first handguns had a barrel mounted-at the end of a wooden stick, although some were all-metal types with barrel and stock made in one.

 Examples of these early handguns are extremely rare although similar weapons made at a much later date in the Orient may occasionally be found. Soon the barrel was lengthened and fitted to a wooden stock with the end shaped to fit against the shoulder.

From around the end of the 15th century the matchlock ignition system was developed and this used a piece of cord which had been soaked in a very strong solution of saltpetre and then allowed to dry. If the end of this cord was ignited it smouldered with a glowing tip, burning down very slowly. 

The match was attached to a simple, mechanical arm which was fitted to a plate set into the stock. When the trigger, set under the stock, was pressed, the arm (the serpentine) which held the match, swung forward and pressed the glowing end into the priming powder and ignited the main charge.

This weapon, known as a musket, was long and heavy, and during the 17th century became the main arm of the infantry of most armies. Seven­teenth century muskets rarely appear on the market, and then they are extremely expensive. 

Army-issue weapons were very plain b.ut some, owned by groups known as the Trained Bands or town guard, were sometimes decorated with inlay of horn or ivory.

One great disadvantage of the match was its vulnerability to wind and weather. Rain could easily extinguish the glowing end and the wind could blow sparks about, a great danger with gunpowder near. Gunsmiths sought other means of ignition which would be less liable to the vagaries of the weather. 

One solution was known as the wheellock. The idea was basically simple, but the mechanism was rather complex. A steel wheel was fitted with a square-ended axle and the edge of the wheel was roughened by various cuts. This wheel was coupled by a very short linked chain to a powerful V-spring. 

The edge of the wheel was so placed that it formed part of the floor of a pan set next to the touchhole. A metal arm, attached to the lockplate, had two jaws which held a piece

of pyrites - a common mineral. To prepare the mechanism for firing a special key was fitted over the squared end of the spindle attached to the wheel. As this key was turned the wheel also rotated and this movement compressed the spring. 

When fully compressed a small arm (the sear) engaged with a hole in the side of the wheel, locking it in place. The cock holding the pyrites was swung forward until the pyrites was pressed against the wheel's edge which had been cut and roughened. 

A pinch of priming powder was placed in the pan and the weapon was ready to fire. When the trigger was pressed the sear was drawn clear of the wheel which, driven by the spring, rotated rapidly. The friction between wheel and pyrites produced a shower of sparks which then ignited the priming powder and so discharged the weapon. 

This mechanical system of igni­tion was a big advance on the old matchlock and offered several ad­vantages, being far less subject to the weather. 

The wheellock was, how­ever, fairly complex and expensive to produce and was, therefore, never issued on a large scale. It was fitted to longarms and pistols, some of which were extremely ornate with the wooden stocks inlaid with mother- of-pearl, ivory, steel, gold and silver.

 Many of these weapons were works of art in their own right.

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