The matchlock Small arms appeared during the period 1460-80 with the development of mechanisms that applied match to hand-portable weapons. German gunsmiths apparently led the way. The first step was a simple S-shaped trigger, called a serpentine, fastened to the side of a hand cannon’s stock. The serpentine was pivoted in the middle and had a set of adjustable jaws, or dogs, on the upper end that held the smoldering end of a length of match. Pulling up on the bottom of the serpentine brought the tip of the match down into contact with powder in the flashpan, a small, saucer-shaped depression surrounding the touchhole atop the barrel. This arrangement made it possible for one gunner to aim and fire, and it was quickly improved on. The first and most basic change was the migration of the touchhole to the right side of the barrel, where it was served by a flashpan equipped with a hinged or pivoting cover that protected the priming powder from wind, rain, and rough handling. The serpentine was replaced by a mechanism, enclosed within the gunstock, that consisted of a trigger, an arm holding the match with its adjustable jaws at the end, a sear connecting trigger and arm, and a mechanical linkage opening the flashpan cover as the match descended. These constituted the matchlock, and they made possible modern small arms.
One final refinement was a spring that drove the arm holding the match downward into the pan when released by the sear. This mechanism, called the snap matchlock, was the forerunner of the flintlock. The fabrication of these devices fell to locksmiths, the only sizable body of craftsmen accustomed to constructing metal mechanisms with the necessary ruggedness and precision. They gave to the firing mechanism the enduring name lock.
The development of mechanical locks was accompanied by the evolution of gunstocks with proper grips and an enlarged butt to transmit the recoil to the user’s body. The result was the matchlock harquebus, the dominant military small arm of the 15th century and the direct ancestor of the modern musket. The harquebus was at first butted to the breastbone, but, as the power of firearms increased, the advantages of absorbing the recoil on the shoulder came to be appreciated. The matchlock harquebus changed very little in its essentials until it was replaced by the flintlock musket in the final years of the 17th century.
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