The wheellock transformed warfare and shooting after its invention. And some are glorious to look at. Dr Thom Richardson, deputy master of the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds explains.
The wheellock transformed warfare and shooting. Its place in the history of the shotgun and shooting is confirmed. The new mechanism, in existence by about 1500, employed an enclosed, sprung steel wheel, wound up by a spanner. It spun and struck sparks from a piece of iron pyrites held in a “dog”, igniting the priming powder in the pan. These locks made it easy to use firearms from horseback, transforming the cavalry. And provided the hunter with an effective firearm that did not smell or smoke like the cheaper matchlock. However, wheellock mechanisms were complex and expensive, so restricted to royalty, nobility and the rich.
THE WHEELLOCK – UNDER LOCK AND KEY?
In England, where the longbow remained crucial for the army for the first half of the 16th century, the use of the wheellock was controlled by a series of statutes. In 1533 the use of guns was licensed through an addition to the crossbows act of 1504. This was followed by the firearms act of 1541. The accuracy of these early guns, most of which were smooth-bore, was variable. So “hayle shot” was rapidly adopted (and prohibited in 1548) for shooting small game and birds, either perching or on the water.
The great age of hunting wheellocks spanned the late 16th and early 17th centuries, though their production for target shooting continued much later. It became fashionable for noble wheellocks to be lavishly decorated. In the German lands stocks were usually covered with intricately carved staghorn or bone, often with scenes from Classical antiquity or myth and alluding to the hunt.
This gun, purchased by the Armouries in 1952 with the aid of the National Art Collections Fund and the Pilgrim Trust from the collection of the great American collector William Randolph Hearst, is a superb mixture of functionality and exquisite decoration. The plain lock is unmarked while the barrel is engraved with the name of the gunmaker, Nicolas Keucks, who is believed to have worked in Lorraine or the Rhineland between 1620-30.
The high quality of the form and decoration of the stock relates it to a number of pieces that represent a fine school of gunmaking established around Metz. They replaced the bone inlay technique with inlaid silver wire and plaques in the new French fashion. This decoration was influenced by the Mannerist designs of Michel Le Blon and Theodore de Bry. The scene representing the abduction of Ganymede at the rear of the lock is close to a drawing by Michiel Coxie of Mechelen, probably based on a printed version by Giulio Bonasone in Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicae Quaestiones of 1555, in turn after Michelangelo’s composition of 1533.