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Wheel lock rifle

Wheel lock rifle

  • Place of origin:

    Germany (made)

  • Date:

    early 17th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Forged steel, carved wooden stock

  • Museum number:

    7821-1861

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Arms and armour are rarely associated with art. However, they were influenced by the same design sources as other art forms including architecture, sculpture, goldsmiths' work, stained glass and ceramics. These sources had to be adapted to awkwardly shaped devices required to perform complicated technical functions. Armour and weapons were collected as works of art as much as military tools.

This wheel-lock rifle has a mechanism that enabled it to be carried loaded. The jaws of the lock clamped a piece of flint or a piece or pyrites designed to rub against the rough edge of the wheel projecting into the pan. The wheel was revolved at speed by a tightly coiled spring, wound by a separate spanner, and released when the gun's trigger was pulled causing sparks to ignite the gunpowder in the breech.

Sketches for wheel-locks were made by Leonardo da Vinci but their first common use was in Germany in around 1520 and they continued in use until the late seventeenth century. They were the first devices to fire guns mechanically and accelerated the development of firearms by negating the need for long and dangerous 'match' cords which had to be kept dry.

As technical devices wheel-lock guns attracted princely collectors. Many are finely chiselled and engraved as works of art, some even on their insides, to be taken apart and reassembled at pleasure. The stocks were also often decorated with fine bone and horn inlays drawing on the skills of furniture makers and engravers. Wheel-lock guns were expensive, however, and most ordinary gunners were equipped with the older style match-locks until well into the seventeenth century.

Physical description

Steel barrel, wooden stock carved with scenes from the Legend of St. Eustace and Orpheus

Place of Origin

Germany (made)

Date

early 17th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Forged steel, carved wooden stock

Dimensions

Length: 109.9 cm, Height: 21.1 cm, Depth: 8.0 cm

Historical context note

Firearms combined virtuoso craftsmanship with high quality engineering. This gun is fitted with a wheel-lock, a complicated mechanism in which a spring coil is wound to high tension and then released when the trigger is pulled, causing sparks to fly in the pan and ignite a charge of gunpowder.

Wheel-locks revolutionised firearms in the 16th century by enabling guns to be carried loaded. They accelerated the development of firearms by negating the need for long and dangerous 'match' cords which had to be kept dry. Sketches for wheel-locks were made by Leonardo da Vinci and their invention is sometimes credited to him. Wheel-locks were first commonly used in Germany in around 1520.

Wheel locks were made by specialist craftsmen. As technical devices wheel-lock guns attracted princely collectors. Many are finely chiselled and engraved as works of art, some even on their insides, to be taken apart and reassembled at pleasure. The stocks were also often decorated with fine bone and horn inlays drawing on the skills of furniture makers and engravers. Wheel-lock guns were expensive. They also required a great deal of maintenance and were prone to misfiring. On the battlefield, most ordinary gunners were equipped with the older style match-locks until well into the seventeenth century.

Wheel Locks in Operation

Wheel lock guns took around a minute to load, prepare and fire. At the front of the wheel lock mechanism is a spring-loaded arm called a dog. Clamped inside the dog's jaws is a piece of pyrite. Pyrite is a hard mineral that causes sparks when struck. The word 'pyrite' comes form the Greek 'pyros' meaning 'fire'.

When loading the gun, the dog is pushed forwards into a safe position. A powder charge and ball, or other shot, is loaded through the end of the barrel or muzzle. It is pushed into position using the ramrod which is stored beneath the barrel.

Inside the lock is a wheel that can be wound to high tension. A spanner is required to wind it up. It has square sockets at the end to fit over the shaft projecting through to the outside of the lock. The spanner turns the shaft about 270 degrees until it clicks into position.

On top of the mechanism is a sliding cover. This opens to reveal the priming pan into which finer gunpowder, called priming powder, is poured in a measured dose. There is a small hole, or vent connecting the priming pan and the inside of the barrel.
At the bottom of the priming pan is a slot cut to reveal the top of the sprung wheel. This wheel is grooved and notched to provide a friction surface for the pyrite. When the pan is primed with powder, the cover is slid closed. The dog is pulled backwards so that the pyrite rests against the pan cover under pressure. The lock is now in firing position.

When the trigger is pulled, a secondary lever is withdrawn from its position and the wheel rotates. The pan cover slides forwards and the pyrites in the jaws of the dog move down on to the rotating wheel. A built-in delay means the wheel is already spinning when the pyrite strikes it.

The pyrite creates sparks on the spinning wheel igniting the powder in the priming pan. The explosion in the pan travels through the vent and ignites the main charge in the breech of the barrel and the gun fires.

Descriptive line

Wheel lock rifle, the stock carved with scenes from the Legend of St. Eustace and Orpheus, Germany, early 17th century

Materials

Steel; Wood

Techniques

Forged; Carving

Categories

Arms & Armour; Sport; Metalwork; Firearms

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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