There is nothing quite as exhilarating as firing your first blackpowder firearm. It usually takes a few minutes to wipe the grin off your face, and for the thick, acrid gray smoke to clear. Blackpowder pistols, muskets, rifles, and shotguns are more than old-style firearms; they are history, a history that today almost anyone can experience firsthand.

The handgun, as a practical sidearm, dates back to the 16th century wheelock (also wheellock) a long-barreled pistol used by musketeers and dragoons. These highly complex single-shot pistols (there were some double-barreled variations crafted in the period as well) are generally regarded to be of German origin and perfected throughout the late 1500s (estimates range from 1550 to 1580) and early 1600s.

The Wheelock

For the first time in man’s history, a weapon of devastating power could be carried on one’s person primed and ready to fire, safely tucked into a waist sash, secured with a belt hook or carried in a leather scabbard. The wheelock changed the rules of combat by allowing an individual soldier to carry a compact weapon capable of shooting a knight in armor from his horse. Whereas it took many months to train an archer, with a skilled archer having spent years in the field, a soldier could be instructed in the use of a wheelock in only days. A single, well-placed shot could penetrate armor and disable or kill its wearer, thus the wheelock was a game-changer for medieval warfare.

Despite its obvious advantages on the battlefield, the wheelock was very expensive and laborious to manufacture. No different than the wheelock musket,
a pistol’s internal lockwork was more akin to a timepiece than a gun, and it required the fine skills of a clockmaker to build one. 

The wheelock needed a spanner (wrench or key) to wind the wheel and cock the internal mechanism. The wheel had serrated edges and, when released by pulling the trigger, spun one complete rotation, striking a piece of pyrite held in the jaws of the “dog”—a large, spring-loaded arm rotated over the priming pan. The “dog” held the pyrite in place as it was ground by the spinning wheel, creating a spark to ignite the priming powder in the pan. The burning powder in the pan was drawn though a small vent opening (touch hole) in the side of the barrel, where it ignited the powder charge and sent a lead ball racing toward its intended target. 

With some modicum of skill, a soldier with a wheelock could hit his mark at a considerable distance. However, the firing process took a moment to engage from the time the trigger was pulled, so moving targets were very hard to hit. Wheelocks also required more than a minute to reload. Because of their high cost and value on the field, wheelocks were generally issued only to musketeers of the guard, dragoons and a limited number of foot soldiers. Muskets were more commonly carried by foot soldiers.

The greatest drawback to the wheelock was its delicate, clocklike internal workings, which had to be properly wound for each shot. In the heat of battle, turning the spanner in the wrong direction could damage or break the internal mechanism, which was comprised of small gears and chains. And if one lost the spanner, the gun became useless except as a rather expensive club. Thus the buttcap was generally large and capable of being used as a bludgeon if necessary. 

Despite its weaknesses, the wheelock was a major step forward from the matchlock design, which was even slower and harder to use. The matchlock firing process required a slow-burning match to be held in a clamp at the end of a curved lever known as the serpentine, thereby allowing pieces of the smoldering match to drop into the flash pan after the trigger was pulled.

 Aside from the matchlock’s large and cumbersome size, the glow of the burning match
was also quite visible to the enemy. In fact, it 

was nearly as dangerous to the shooter as his intended target, since soldiers were festooned with small bags of gunpowder around their
neck or waist for reloading! With these obvious disadvantages of the matchlock design in mind, it’s easy to see why the wheelock reigned supreme as a military arm for more than a century.

The snaphance followed the wheelock briefly in the late 17th century as a step toward the invention of the flintlock. The Snaphance was developed around 1550 and remained in use until the early 1600s. It used a flint (instead of pyrite) to create the spark and ignite the powder charge, but the operating mechanism was more akin to the wheelock.

The Flintlock

First developed around the beginning of the 17th century, the flintlock mechanism was simple, robust and easy to operate when compared to any of its predecessors. It was also adaptable enough to be made in almost any size, thus allowing the development of smaller pocket pistols that could be easily concealed. Carried loaded and primed, all that was required was thumbing back the cock (hammer) taking aim and pulling the trigger. The flintlock was also very easy to build as a double-barrel rifle or pistol. Other versions allowed for multiple barrels and over-under swivel barrels with double cocks. By the time of the American Revolution, the flintlock musket, fowler (shotgun), rifle and pistol had become the standard of the world, and they would remain so until the early 1800s and the development of the first caplock pistols and long arms.

Percussion Lock Pistols
The percussion lock’s ignition process consisted of a new hammer to strike a copper cap lined with a mercury fulminate, which was mounted over a hollowed tube (nipple) that was itself mounted directly to the back of the barrel breech or over the touch hole (vent) of an earlier-style flintlock action.

The Percussion Lock

While few are willing to attach their names to failure, success has many fathers. The flintlock, in all of its iterations over more than two centuries, had many fathers, both in Europe and North America. The percussion lock, as we know it, also has many fathers, and a history that is much older than most are familiar with.

The earliest known attempts at an improvement over the flintlock go back to Great Britain around 1799, when inventor Edward Charles Howard produced a mixture of fulminate of mercury and saltpeter as an alternative ignition compound to blackpowder. After the Reverend Alexander John Forsyth of Aberdeenshire missed his shot at dinner one too many times—a common consequence of the igniting powder in the pan, alerting wild game ahead of the shot—Forsyth looked into the practical application of Howard’s experimental powder as a means of developing a lock mechanism that did away with the traditional pan and frizzen. After several years of trial and error, Forsyth discovered a successful combination using Howard’s powder to directly ignite the charge in the barrel breech.

In 1805, Forsyth built what is generally regarded as the first successful percussion lock, though it was quite different from what we regard today as a caplock mechanism. With encouragement from England’s master general of ordnance, Forsyth continued his experimentation at the Ordnance Office in the Tower of London, and in April of 1807 received his first patent. Forsyth’s design, however, was still different in appearance and use from the early 19th-century percussion lock, a design that was not fully developed until the early 1820s, following the advent of the percussion cap. This simple brass cap would change the course of firearms design and operation, and ultimately lead to the invention of the metallic cartridge.

Historian Keith R. Dill, in the August 2000 issue of Man at Arms magazine, wrote:       “[T]here is hard evidence to support the claim of only one gunmaker, [as the inventor of the percussion cap], Joseph Egg. There are examples that may be dated 1819, and documentary evidence indicating that he was probably producing a system a year before that. On the case labels that he used in the 1820s, [the London gunmaker] rightfully made the claim of being ‘the inventor of the copper cap.’

The era of the percussion lock had been ushered into its fullness by the 1830s, and many flintlocks were refitted with the improved ignition system. The percussion lock’s ignition process consisted of a new hammer to strike a copper cap lined with a mercury fulminate, which was mounted over a hollowed tube (nipple) that was itself mounted directly to the back of the barrel breech or over the touch hole (vent) of an earlier-style flintlock action. The hammer’s impact crushed the cap against the top of the nipple, forcing the resulting ignition of the mercury fulminate into the hollow tube and into the powder charge in the barrel breech. Ignition was almost instantaneous. 

The new lock was more weather resistant, and there was no possibility of the powder in the pan being lost or failing to ignite the charge in the barrel. The onerous “flash in the pan” was a thing of the past.

The musket, rifle and pistol had been vastly improved, but there remained one more step in the evolution of the blackpowder handgun.

Samuel Colt’s cap-and-ball revolver was the end result of more than four centuries of blackpowder arms development.
Samuel Colt’s cap-and-ball revolver was the end result of more than four centuries of blackpowder arms development.

Samuel Colt’s 

Perfected Rotation

When he was 16 years old, Samuel Colt was, like almost every young 19th-century boy, fascinated by tales of adventure, drawn to the allure of firearms and explosives and dreamed of becoming either a sailor, soldier or a frontiersman. The difference was that Sam wasn’t dreaming—he was serving as a cabin boy aboard the cargo ship Corvo during its 1830 voyage to Calcutta. It is this adventure that has led many to believe Colt saw firsthand a Collier revolver while in India. 

The timing for Colt’s journey would have been exactly right to witness a handful of British soldiers armed with flintlock or percussion-lock Collier revolvers, which, although designed in America, were only manufactured in England. While Colt claimed never to have seen a revolver prior to 1835, the fact that he perfected the one mechanical flaw that had made the Collier a failure seems to indicate otherwise. 

The Collier had an ineffective means of mechanically rotating the cylinder by drawing the hammer to the cocked position. The original Collier flintlocks employed such a mechanism, but it often failed to align the cylinder chamber with the barrel breech, requiring a manual adjustment. Soon, the guns were simply built to have the cylinder rotated into battery by hand for each shot. 

Colt pondered the Collier’s mechanical conundrum and found the solution onboard the Corvo: the windlass used to raise and lower the anchor. That ratcheting device combined with the ship’s wheel got things spinning in young Colt’s head, and he envisioned a ratcheting device that would rotate and lock the cylinder with each successive draw of the hammer. During his off-duty hours, he carved a practical cylinder, arbor and hammer out of wood, the essential pieces that would become the basis of his first firearms patent. Colt was only 16 years old when he solved a problem that had confounded three arms designers many years his senior for over a decade.

Upon retuning to Boston on the Corvo in 1831, Colt began designing his revolver mechanism, and between 1832 and 1835 had various prototypes built of both pistols and long arms assembled to his specifications by local gunmakers. The most notable of these was a pistol built for him by Baltimore gunsmith John Pearson, who crafted the Colt-Pearson revolver, the handgun used in Colt’s original patents. 

The underlying principle of the Colt-Pearson design was to enable the pawl, attached to the hammer of a percussion gun, to move as the gun was cocked, and through this movement turn the cylinder mechanically and lock it securely into battery. With a capital investment from several New York bankers, Colt was able to establish the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, of Paterson, New Jersey, on March 5th, 1836. Production through the beginning of 1837 consisted of the Paterson revolving rifle, or the No. 1, followed by the first Paterson revolver, also designated No. 1. By the end of 1837, Samuel Colt had four models in production (two rifles, two pistols) and the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company closed the books with nearly 1,000 rifles and pistols produced.

Samuel Colt’s cap-and-ball revolver was the end result of more than four centuries of blackpowder arms development. And that is no flash in the pan.                               

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here

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