The matchlock was the first mechanism invented to facilitate the firing of a hand-held firearm. Before this, firearms (like the hand cannon) had to be fired by applying a lit match (or equivalent) to the priming powder in the flash pan by hand; this had to be done carefully, taking most of the soldier's concentration at the moment of firing, or in some cases required a second soldier to fire the weapon while the first held the weapon steady. Adding a matchlock made the firing action simple and reliable by a single soldier, allowing him to keep both hands steadying the gun and eyes on the target while firing.

Early German musket with serpentine lock


Engraving of musketeers from the Thirty Years' War

The classic European matchlock gun held a burning slow match in a clamp at the end of a small curved lever known as the serpentine. Upon the pull of a lever (or in later models a trigger) protruding from the bottom of the gun and connected to the serpentine, the clamp dropped down, lowering the smoldering match into the flash pan and igniting the priming powder. The flash from the primer travelled through the touch hole igniting the main charge of propellant in the gun barrel. On release of the lever or trigger, the spring-loaded serpentine would move in reverse to clear the pan. For obvious safety reasons, the match would be removed before reloading of the gun. Both ends of the match were usually kept alight in case one end should be accidentally extinguished.

Earlier types had only an "S"-shaped serpentine pinned to the stock either behind or in front of the flash pan (the so-called "serpentine lock"), one end of which was manipulated to bring the match into the pan.[1][2]

Most matchlock mechanisms mounted the serpentine forward of the flash pan. The serpentine dipped backward, toward the firer, to ignite the priming. This is the reverse of the familiar forward-dipping hammer of the flintlock and later firearms.

A later addition to the gun was the rifled barrel. This made the gun much more accurate at longer distances but did have drawbacks, the main one being that it took much longer to reload because the bullet had to be pounded down into the barrel.[3]

A type of matchlock was developed called the snap matchlock,[4] in which the serpentine was held in firing position by a weak spring,[5] and released by pressing a button, pulling a trigger, or even pulling a short string passing into the mechanism. As the match was often extinguished after its relatively violent collision with the flash pan, this type fell out of favour with soldiers, but was often used in fine target weapons.

Edo period rifles
Various Japanese (samurai) Edo period matchlocks (tanegashima).

An inherent weakness of the matchlock was the necessity of keeping the match constantly lit. The match was steeped in potassium nitrate to keep the match lit for extended periods of time.[3] Being the sole source of ignition for the powder, if the match was not lit when the gun needed to be fired, the mechanism was useless, and the weapon became little more than an expensive club. This was chiefly a problem in wet weather, when damp match cord was difficult to light and to keep burning. Another drawback was the burning match itself. At night, the match would glow in the darkness, possibly revealing the carrier's position. The distinctive smell of burning match-cord was also a giveaway of a musketeer's position (this was used as a plot device by Akira Kurosawa in his movie Seven Samurai). It was also quite dangerous when soldiers were carelessly handling large quantities of gunpowder (for example, while refilling their powder horns) with lit matches present. This was one reason why soldiers in charge of transporting and guarding ammunition were amongst the first to be issued self-igniting guns like the wheellock and snaphance.

The matchlock was also uneconomical to keep ready for long periods of time. To maintain a single sentry on night guard duty with a matchlock, keeping both ends of his match lit, required a mile of match per year.[6]


Drehling GNM W1984 ca 1580
8-shot matchlock revolver (Germany c. 1580)
Strings for night firing
Japanese foot soldiers (ashigaru) firing tanegashima (matchlocks)

The matchlock appeared in Europe in the mid-15th century,[7] with the idea of a serpentine appearing in an Austrian manuscript. The first dated illustration of a matchlock mechanism dates to 1475 (making it the first firearm with a trigger[8]) and by the 16th century they were universally used. During this time the latest tactic in using the matchlock was to line up and send off a volley of musket balls at the enemy. This volley would be much more effective than single soldiers trying to hit individual targets.[3]

David Nicolle noted that the Janissary corps of the Ottoman army were using matchlock arms from the 1440s onwards.[9] Robert Elgood theorizes Ottoman and Italian army used the arquebus in 15th century, but this may be a type of hand cannon, not matchlocks with trigger mechanism. He agreed that the matchlock first appeared 1470s in Germany.[10]

Improved versions of the arquebus were transported to India by Babur in 1526.[11]

China is credited with inventing both gunpowder and firearms but the matchlock was claimed to have been introduced to China by the Portuguese. Europeans refined the hand cannons that had arrived in Europe in the early 15th century and added the matchlock mechanism. The Chinese obtained the matchlock arquebus technology from the Portuguese in the 16th century and matchlock firearms were used by the Chinese into the 19th century.[12] The Chinese used the term "bird-gun" to refer to muskets and Turkish muskets may have reached China before Portuguese ones.[13]

In Japan, the first documented introduction of the matchlock, which became known as the tanegashima, was through the Portuguese in 1543.[14] The tanegashima seems to have been based on snap matchlocks that were produced in the armory of Goa in Portuguese India, which was captured by the Portuguese in 1510.[15] While the Japanese were technically able to produce tempered steel (e.g. sword blades), they preferred to use work-hardened brass springs in their matchlocks. The name tanegashima came from the island where a Chinese junk with Portuguese adventurers on board was driven to anchor by a storm. The lord of the Japanese island Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–1579) purchased two matchlock rifles from the Portuguese and put a sword smith to work copying the matchlock barrel and firing mechanism. Within a few years, the use of the tanegashima in battle forever changed the way war was fought in Japan.[16]

Despite the appearance of more advanced ignition systems, such as that of the wheellock and the snaphance, the low cost of production, simplicity, and high availability of the matchlock kept it in use in European armies until about 1720. It was eventually completely replaced by the flintlock as the foot soldier's main armament.

In Japan, matchlocks continued to see military use up to the mid-19th century. In China, matchlock guns were still being used by imperial army soldiers in the middle decades of the 19th century.[17]

There is evidence that matchlock rifles may have been in use among some peoples in Christian Abyssinia in the late Middle Ages. Although modern rifles were imported into Ethiopia during the 19th century, contemporary British historians noted that, along with slingshots, matchlock rifle weapons were used by the elderly for self-defense and by the militaries of the Ras.[18][19]

Modern use

Tibetan Soldier at Target Practise
Tibetans with matchlock rifle (1905 painting)

Under Qing rule, the Hakka on Taiwan owned matchlock muskets. Han people traded and sold matchlock muskets to the Taiwanese aborigines. During the Sino-French War, the Hakka and Aboriginals used their matchlock muskets against the French in the Keelung Campaign and Battle of Tamsui. The Hakka used their matchlock muskets to resist the Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1895) and Han Taiwanese and Aboriginals conducted an insurgency against Japanese rule.

Tibetans have used matchlocks from as early as the sixteenth century until very recently.[20] Tibetan nomad fighters used arquebuses for warfare during the Chinese invasion of Tibet as late as the second half of the 20th century. Tibetan nomads still use matchlock rifles to hunt wolves and other predatory animals. These matchlock arquebuses typically feature a long, sharpened retractable forked stand and are part of Tibetan traditional Nomad regalia. Some of these arquebuses are engraved with silver and gold inlays and/or have damascened barrels. The early 20th century explorer Sven Hedin also encountered Tibetan tribesmen on horseback armed with matchlock rifles along the Tibetan border with Xinjiang.


  1. ^ Ágoston, Gábor (2005). Guns for the Sultan. Cambridge University Press. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-521-84313-3.
  2. ^ "Handgonnes and Matchlocks". Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  3. ^ a b c Weir, William (2005). 50 Weapons That Changed Warfare. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press. pp. 71–74. ISBN 978-1-56414-756-1.
  4. ^ Richard J. Garrett (2010). The Defences of Macau: Forts, Ships and Weapons over 450 years. Hong Kong University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-988-8028-49-8.
  5. ^ Blair, Claude (1962). European & American Arms, C. 1100-1850. B. T. Batsford.
  6. ^ Dale Taylor (1997), The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, ISBN 0-89879-772-1, p. 159.
  7. ^ Saidel, Benjamin (2000). "Matchlocks, Flintlocks, and Saltpetre: The Chronological Implications for the Use of Matchlock Muskets among Ottoman-Period Bedouin in the Southern Levant". International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 4 (3): 197. doi:10.1023/A:1009551608190.
  8. ^ Petzal, David E., and Bourjaily, Phil, with Fenson, Brad. The Total Gun Manual (Canadian edition) (San Francisco: WeldonOwen, 2014), p.5
  9. ^ Nicolle, David (1995). The Janissaries. Osprey. pp. 21f. ISBN 978-1-85532-413-8.
  10. ^ Elgood, Robert (1995). Firearms of the Islamic World: In the Tared Rajab Museum, Kuwait. I.B.Tauris. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-85043-963-9.
  11. ^ "Google Sites".
  12. ^ Garrett, Richard J. (2010). The Defences of Macau: Forts, Ships and Weapons over 450 years. Hong Kong University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-988-8028-49-8.
  13. ^ Kenneth Warren Chase (2003). Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-521-82274-9.
  14. ^ Lidin, Olof G. (2002). Tanegashima: The Arrival of Europe in Japan. NIAS Press. ISBN 978-87-91114-12-0.
  15. ^ The bewitched gun : the introduction of the firearm in the Far East by the Portuguese, by Rainer Daehnhardt 1994 P.26
  16. ^ Noel Perrin (1979). Giving up the gun: Japan's reversion to the sword, 1543–1879. David R Godine. ISBN 978-0-87923-773-8.
  17. ^ Jowett, Philip (2016). Imperial Chinese Armies 1840–1911. Osprey Publishing Ltd. p. 19.
  18. ^ Chisholm, Hugh (1910). The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. At the University Press. p. 89.
  19. ^ Office, The Foreign (18 May 2018). "Memorandum on Abyssinia". The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. 25: 215–218. doi:10.2307/1798118. JSTOR 1798118.
  20. ^ La Rocca, Donald J. "Tibetan Arms and Armor". Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
Action (firearms)

In firearms terminology, an action is the mechanism of a breech-loading weapon that handles the ammunition (loads, locks, fires, extracts and ejects) or the method by which that mechanism works. Actions are technically not present on muzzleloaders, as all are single-shot weapons with a closed off breech. Instead, the ignition mechanism is referred to (Matchlock, Flintlock, etc.)

Actions can be categorized in several ways, including single action versus double action, break action versus bolt action, and others. The term action can also include short, long, and magnum if it is in reference to the length of the rifle's receiver and the length of the bolt. The short action rifle usually can accommodate a cartridge length of 2.8 in (71 mm) or smaller. The long action rifle can accommodate a cartridge of 3.34 in (85 mm), and the magnum action rifle can accommodate cartridges of 3.6 in (91 mm), or longer in length.


The arquebus ( AR-k(w)ib-əs), derived from the German Hakenbüchse, was a form of long gun that appeared in Europe during the 15th century. Although the term arquebus was applied to many different forms of firearms from the 15th to 17th centuries, it originally referred to "a hand-gun with a hook-like projection or lug on its under surface, useful for steadying it against battlements or other objects when firing." These "hook guns" were in their earliest forms defensive weapons mounted on German city walls in the early 1400s, but by the late 1400s had become handheld firearms. The development of the arquebus is somewhat tied to technology developed for the crossbow as without the stock from the crossbow, the arquebus would not have a stable platform to rest one's shoulder on. Priming pans also were placed on the arquebus. A matchlock mechanism was added around 1475 and it became the first firearm with a trigger. The heavy arquebus, known as the musket, was developed to better penetrate plate armor and appeared in Europe around 1521. A standardized arquebus, the caliver, was introduced in the latter half of the 16th century. The name "caliver" is derived from the English corruption of calibre, which is a reference to the gun's standardized bore. The caliver allowed troops to load bullets faster since they fit their guns more easily, whereas before soldiers often had to modify their bullets into suitable fits, or were even forced to make their own prior to battle. The smoothbore matchlock arquebus is considered the forerunner to the rifle and other long gun firearms. Heavy arquebuses mounted on wagons were called arquebus à croc. These carried a lead ball of about 3.5 ounces (100 g).An infantryman armed with an arquebus is called an arquebusier.


The bajō-zutsu (馬上筒) was a tanegashima (Japanese matchlock) in the form of a pistol. Bajō-zutsu were used by mounted samurai in feudal Japan.


A firearm is a portable gun (a barreled ranged weapon) that inflicts damage on targets by launching one or more projectiles driven by rapidly expanding high-pressure gas produced chemically by exothermic combustion (deflagration) of propellant within an ammunition cartridge. If gas pressurization is achieved through mechanical gas compression rather than through chemical propellant combustion, then the gun is technically an air gun, not a firearm.The first primitive firearms originated in 10th-century China when bamboo tubes containing gunpowder and pellet projectiles were mounted on spears into the one-person-portable fire lance, which was later used as a shock weapon to good effect in the Siege of De'an in 1132. In the 13th century the Chinese invented the metal-barrelled hand cannon, widely considered the true ancestor of all firearms. The technology gradually spread through the rest of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Older firearms typically used black powder as a propellant, but modern firearms use smokeless powder or other propellants. Most modern firearms (with the notable exception of smoothbore shotguns) have rifled barrels to impart spin to the projectile for improved flight stability.

Modern firearms can be described by their caliber (i.e. their bore diameter; this is given in millimeters or inches e.g. 7.5 mm, .357 in.) or in the case of shotguns by their gauge (e.g. 12 ga.); by the type of action employed (muzzleloader, breechloader, lever, bolt, pump, revolver, semi-automatic, fully automatic, etc.) together with the usual means of deportment (hand-held or mechanical mounting). Further classification may make reference to the type of barrel used (rifled) and to the barrel length (24 inch), to the firing mechanism (e.g. matchlock, wheellock, flintlock, percussion lock), to the design's primary intended use (e.g. hunting rifle), or to the commonly accepted name for a particular variation (e.g. Gatling gun).

Shooters aim firearms at their targets with hand-eye coordination, using either iron sights or optical sights. The accurate range of pistols generally does not exceed 110 yards (100 m), while most rifles are accurate to 550 yards (500 m) using iron sights, or to longer ranges using optical sights (firearm rounds may be dangerous or lethal well beyond their accurate range; the minimum distance for safety is much greater than the specified range). Purpose-built sniper rifles and anti-materiel rifles are accurate to ranges of more than 2,200 yards (2,000 m).

Firearms of Japan

Firearms of Japan were introduced in the 13th century by the Chinese, but saw little use. Portuguese firearms were introduced in 1543, and intense development followed, with strong local manufacture during the period of conflicts of the late 16th century.

Gunpowder weapons in the Ming dynasty

The Ming dynasty continued to improve on gunpowder weapons from the Yuan and Song dynasties. During the early Ming period larger and more cannons were used in warfare. In the early 16th century Portuguese breech-loading swivel guns and matchlock firearms were incorporated into the Ming arsenal. In the 17th century Dutch culverin were incorporated as well and became known as hongyipao. At the very end of the Ming dynasty, around 1642, Chinese combined European cannon designs with indigenous casting methods to create composite metal cannons that exemplified the best attributes of both iron and bronze cannons. While firearms never completely displaced the bow and arrow, by the end of the 16th century more firearms than bows were being ordered for production by the government, and no crossbows were mentioned at all.

Hand cannon

The hand cannon (Chinese: 手銃), also known as the gonne or handgonne, is the first true firearm and the successor of the fire lance. It is the oldest type of small arms as well as the most mechanically simplistic form of metal barrel firearms. Unlike matchlock firearms it requires direct manual external ignition through a touch hole without any form of firing mechanism. It may also be considered a forerunner of the handgun. The hand cannon was widely used in China from the 13th century onward and later throughout Europe in the 14th century until at least the 1560s, when it was supplanted by the matchlock arquebus, which is the first firearm to have a trigger.


A handgun is a short-barrelled firearm that can be held and used with one hand. The two most common handgun sub-types in use today are revolvers and semi-automatic pistols.

In the days before mass production, handguns were often considered a badge of office, much the same as a sword. As they had limited utility and were more expensive than the long-guns of the era, handguns were carried only by the very few who could afford to purchase them. However, in 1836, Samuel Colt patented the Colt Paterson, the first practical mass-produced revolver. It was capable of firing 5 shots in rapid succession and very quickly became a popular defensive weapon, giving rise to the saying "God created men, but Colt made them equal." Today, in most of the world, handguns are generally considered self-defence weapons used primarily by police and military officers. However, in the United States and many other countries around the world, handguns are also widely available to civilians and commonly carried for self-defence.

Hunting sword

A hunting sword is a type of single-handed short sword that dates to the 12th Century but was used during hunting parties among Europeans from the 17th to the 19th centuries. A hunting sword usually has a straight, single-edged, pointed blade typically no more than 25 inches long. This sword was used for finishing off game in lieu of using and wasting further shot. Adopted by many Europeans, and in past centuries sometimes worn by military officers as a badge of rank, hunting swords display great variety in design. Some hilts featured a thin knuckle-bow to protect the fingers. Others sported a serrated saw edge on the back of the blade. Still others had small matchlock pistols built into the hilt, with deep firing grooves cut into the fuller of the blade.

Lock (firearm)

The lock of a firearm is the firing mechanism used to ignite the propellant. Types of lock include matchlock, wheellock, snaplock, snaphance, miquelet lock, doglock, flintlock, modern caplock/percussion cap, and experimental electronic types. Parts of the lock can include the serpentine (for matchlocks), wheel (for wheellocks), cock and frizzen (for flintlocks) or the hammer (for caplocks). A complete muzzleloader consists of lock, stock, and barrel.

Locks are typically spoken of when it comes to firearms which use loose ball and powder, and not to metallic Cartridge breech-loading firearms, which are all percussion-based. In breech-loading weapons, the general mechanism for handling ammunition is known as the firearm action.

The term firelock was originally applied, as the name suggests, to the matchlock, but was later successively applied to the wheellock and then the flintlock as each was invented.

Mughal weapons

Mughal weapons significantly evolved during the ruling periods of Babur, Akbar, Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan. During its conquests throughout the centuries, the military of the Mughal Empire used a variety of weapons including swords, bows and arrows, horses, camels, elephants, some of the world's largest cannons, muskets and flintlock blunderbusses.


A musket is a muzzle-loaded long gun that appeared as a smoothbore weapon in early 16th-century Europe, at first as a heavier variant of the arquebus, capable of penetrating heavy armor. By the mid-16th century, this type of musket went out of use as heavy armor declined, but as the matchlock became standard, the term musket continued as the name given for any long gun with a flintlock, and then its successors, all the way through the mid-1800s. This style of musket was retired in the 19th century when rifled muskets (simply called rifles in modern terminology) became common as a result of cartridged breech-loading firearms introduced by Casimir Lefaucheux in 1835, the invention of the Minié ball by Claude-Étienne Minié in 1849, and the first reliable repeating rifle produced by Volcanic Repeating Arms in 1854. By the time that repeating rifles became common, they were known as simply "rifles", ending the era of the musket.

Primer (firearms)

In firearms and artillery, the primer () is the chemical and/or device responsible for initiating the propellant combustion that will push the projectiles out of the gun barrel.

In early, black powder guns such as muzzleloaders, the primer was essentially the same chemical as the main propellant (albeit usually in a finer-powdered form), but poured into an external flash pan, where it could be ignited by an ignition source such as a slow match or a flintlock. This external powder was connected through a small opening at the rear of the gun barrel that led to the main charge within the barrel. As gunpowder will not burn when wet, this made it difficult (or even impossible) to fire these types of weapons in rainy or humid conditions.

Modern primers, by contrast, are more specialized and distinct from the main propellant they are designed to ignite. They are of two types, those using shock-sensitive chemicals, and those reliant on chemicals ignited by an electric impulse. In smaller weapons the primer is usually of the first type and integrated into the base of a cartridge. Examples include handgun cartridges, rifle cartridges and shotgun shells. Larger artillery pieces in contrast typically use electric priming. In artillery the primers are frequently a separate component, placed inside the barrel to the rear of the main propellant charge -- but there are other examples of guns, including for example some automatic weapons, designed to shoot cartridges with integral electric primers.

Upon being struck with sufficient force generated by the firing pin, or electrically ignited, primers react chemically to produce heat, which gets transferred to the main propellant charge and ignites it, and this, in turn, propels the projectile. Due to their small size, these primers themselves lack the power to shoot the projectile, but still have enough energy to drive a bullet partway into the barrel — a dangerous condition called a squib load.


The Shenjiying (simplified Chinese: 神机营; traditional Chinese: 神機營; pinyin: Shénjīyíng; Wade–Giles: Shen-chi ying) was one of three elite military divisions stationed around Beijing during the Ming dynasty. Its name has been variously rendered as Firearms Division, Artillery Camp, Shen-chi Camp,Firearm Brigade, and Divine Engine Division.

Established during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1360–1424), the Divine Engine Division was specifically created to specialize in firearm warfare. Later on the division provided half of Qi Jiguang's army with firearms and one cannon to every twelve soldiers.

The other two elite divisions were the Five Barracks Division (五軍營; Wujunying), which drilled infantry in tactical manoeuvres, and the Three Thousand Division (三千營; Sanqianying), which specialized in reconnaissance, mounted combat and signalling. Firearms equipped included the fire lance, fire arrows, cannons, and matchlock guns such as the arquebus.

During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), there was also a military unit called Shenjiying but was known in English as the Peking Field Force. It was created in 1862 and put in charge of protecting the Forbidden City.

Slow match

Slow match, slowmatch or match cord is the slow-burning cord or twine fuse used by early gunpowder musketeers, artillerymen, and soldiers to ignite matchlock muskets, cannons, shells, and petards. Slow matches were most suitable for use around black-powder weapons because a slow match could be roughly handled without going out, and only presented a small glowing tip instead of a large flame that risked igniting nearby gunpowder. Slow match of various types was one of the first kinds of artillery fuse.

Slow matches were also used in the drilling and blasting of rock to ignite charges of gunpowder.

Snap matchlock

The snap matchlock is a type of matchlock mechanism used to ignite early firearms. It was used in Europe from about 1475 to 1640, and in Japan from 1543 till about 1880.

Tanegashima (gun)

Tanegashima (種子島), most often called in Japanese and sometimes in English hinawajū (火縄銃), which means matchlock gun, was a type of matchlock configured arquebus firearm introduced to Japan through the Portuguese in 1543. Tanegashima were used by the samurai class and their foot soldiers (ashigaru) and within a few years the introduction of the tanegashima in battle changed the way war was fought in Japan forever.

The Matchlock Gun

The Matchlock Gun is a children's book by Walter D. Edmonds. It won the Newbery Medal for excellence as the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature in 1942.


A wheellock, wheel-lock or wheel lock, is a friction-wheel mechanism to cause a spark for firing a firearm. It was the next major development in firearms technology after the matchlock and the first self-igniting firearm. Its name is from its rotating steel wheel to provide ignition. Developed in Europe around 1500, it was used alongside the matchlock and was later superseded by the snaplock (1540s), the snaphance (1560s) and the flintlock (c. 1600).

Early artillery
Medieval superguns
Early rockets and incendiaries

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