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Early Handguns and the
Development of the Matchlock
Hand Cannon
The earliest type of personal firearm consisted of a small cannon attached to a wooden or metal pole. These hand-held weapons were called hand cannons, gonne or handgonne (1). Smoldering wood or coal and red hot iron rods were used to ignite the hand cannon`s charge. Eventually a slow-burning match cord was developed. It was made by boiling hemp or linen in a solution of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and vinegar (2) The image at left is from a woodcut made in 1499. As you can imagine weapons of this type were extremely difficult for one person to load, hold, aim, and fire.

Over time the design of personal firearms improved. Shoulder stocks replaced wooden poles. The touch hole was moved from the top to the side of the barrel and a flash pan was added along with a mechanical method for holding and lowering the burning match cord. These improved weapons eventually came to be known as matchlocks. The contemporary Spanish term for them was arcabuz (derived from hacabuche) or escopeta. (3).

Matchlock Carbine
Circa 1590
Fine matchlocks like this one from the late 16th or early 17th century are almost nonexistent. Its length suggests that it is a carbine (designed for use by cavalry). The barrel is two-stage octagonal and round with a cannon turned muzzle. Near the breach the barrel has decorative inlays in brass and an obscured maker`s cartouche. The flash pan is attached to the lock, rather than the barrel, as on most early matchlocks. The walnut stock`s butt is of a style that was popular in Brescia and influenced the style in Catalonia. Most of the nail heads on the butt are covered with brass. The butt, trigger plate, and barrel bands are all decorated with Moorish-style inlays. The ramrod has been replaced.
Type: Carbine
Style: Sear Lock Matchlock
Country: Catalonia / Brescia?
Overall Length: 40 1/8 inches
Barrel Length: 25 7/8 inches
Weight: 3 lb, 7 1/4 oz
Bore: 0.65 inches, Smooth
Stock: Walnut

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(1) Handgonnes and Matchlocks, A preliminary essay in the history of firearms to 1500

(2) Making a Proper Slow Match, A historical review
Simplicissimus by Grimmelshausen (German, published in 1668)

(3) A History of Spanish Firearms by Dr. James D. Lavin (published in 1965) page 43-49

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