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Early German musket with serpentine lock

A matchlock or firelock[1] is a historical type of firearm wherein the gunpowder is ignited by a burning piece of flammable cord or twine that is touched to the gunpowder by a mechanism that the musketeer activates by pulling a lever or trigger with his finger. This firing mechanism was an improvement over the hand cannon, which lacked a trigger and required the musketeer or an assistant to apply a match directly to the gunpowder by hand. The matchlock mechanism allowed the musketeer to apply the match himself without losing his concentration.


Engraving of musketeers from the Thirty Years' War
Various Japanese (samurai) Edo-period matchlocks (tanegashima)
Jochong (조총/鳥銃), the Korean matchlock muskets

The classic matchlock gun held a burning slow match in a clamp at the end of a small curved lever known as the serpentine. Upon the pull of a lever (or in later models a trigger) protruding from the bottom of the gun and connected to the serpentine, the clamp dropped down, lowering the smoldering match into the flash pan and igniting the priming powder. The flash from the primer traveled through the touch hole, igniting the main charge of propellant in the gun barrel. On the release of the lever or trigger, the spring-loaded serpentine would move in reverse to clear the pan. For obvious safety reasons, the match would be removed before reloading of the gun. Both ends of the match were usually kept alight in case one end should be accidentally extinguished.[2]

Earlier types had only an "S"-shaped serpentine pinned to the stock either behind or in front of the flash pan (the so-called "serpentine lock"), one end of which was manipulated to bring the match into the pan.[3][4]

A later addition to the gun was the rifled barrel. This made the gun much more accurate at longer distances but did have drawbacks, the main one being that it took much longer to reload because the bullet had to be pounded down into the barrel.[5]

A type of matchlock was developed called the snap matchlock,[6] in which the serpentine was brought to firing position by a weak spring,[7] and activated by pressing a button, pulling a trigger, or even pulling a short string passing into the mechanism. As the match was often extinguished after its collision with the flash pan, this type was not used by soldiers but was often used in fine target weapons where the precision of the shot was more important than the repetition.

An inherent weakness of the matchlock was the necessity of keeping the match constantly lit. This was chiefly a problem in wet weather, when damp match cord was difficult to light and to keep burning. Another drawback was the burning match itself. At night, the match would glow in the darkness, possibly revealing the carrier's position. The distinctive smell of burning match-cord was also a giveaway of a musketeer's position. It was also quite dangerous when soldiers were carelessly handling large quantities of gunpowder (for example, while refilling their powder horns) with lit matches present. This was one reason why soldiers in charge of transporting and guarding ammunition were amongst the first to be issued self-igniting guns like the wheellock and snaphance.

The matchlock was also uneconomical to keep ready for long periods of time. To maintain a single sentry on night guard duty with a matchlock, keeping both ends of his match lit, required a mile of match per year.[8]


Japanese peasant foot soldiers (ashigaru) firing tanegashima (matchlocks)

The earliest form of matchlock in Europe appeared by 1411 and in the Ottoman Empire by 1425.[9] This early arquebus was a hand cannon with a serpentine lever to hold matches.[10] However this early arquebus did not have the matchlock mechanism traditionally associated with the weapon. The exact dating of the matchlock addition is disputed. The first references to the use of what may have been matchlock arquebuses (tüfek) by the Janissary corps of the Ottoman Army date them from 1394 to 1465.[9] However it is unclear whether these were arquebuses or small cannons as late as 1444, but according to Gábor Ágoston the fact that they were listed separately from cannons in mid-15th century inventories suggest they were handheld firearms, though he admits this is disputable.[11] Godfrey Goodwin dates the first use of the matchlock arquebus by the Janissaries to no earlier than 1465.[12] The idea of a serpentine later appeared in an Austrian manuscript dated to the mid-15th century. The first dated illustration of a matchlock mechanism dates to 1475, and by the 16th century they were universally used. During this time the latest tactic in using the matchlock was to line up and send off a volley of musket balls at the enemy. This volley would be much more effective than single soldiers trying to hit individual targets.[5]

Eight-shot matchlock revolver (Germany c. 1580)

Robert Elgood theorizes the armies of the Italian states used the arquebus in the 15th century, but this may be a type of hand cannon, not matchlocks with trigger mechanism. He agreed that the matchlock first appeared in Western Europe during the 1470s in Germany.[13] Improved versions of the Ottoman arquebus were transported to India by Babur in 1526.[citation needed]

The matchlock was claimed to have been introduced to China by the Portuguese. The Chinese obtained the matchlock arquebus technology from the Portuguese in the 16th century and matchlock firearms were used by the Chinese into the 19th century.[14] The Chinese used the term "bird-gun" to refer to muskets and Turkish muskets may have reached China before Portuguese ones.[15]

A Japanese Arquebus with a rain cover, c. 1598

In Japan, the first documented introduction of the matchlock, which became known as the tanegashima, was through the Portuguese in 1543.[16] The tanegashima seems to have been based on snap matchlocks that were produced in the armory of Goa in Portuguese India, which was captured by the Portuguese in 1510.[17] While the Japanese were technically able to produce tempered steel (e.g. sword blades), they preferred to use work-hardened brass springs in their matchlocks. The name tanegashima came from the island where a Chinese junk (a type of ship) with Portuguese adventurers on board was driven to anchor by a storm. The lord of the Japanese island Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–1579) purchased two matchlock rifles from the Portuguese and put a swordsmith to work copying the matchlock barrel and firing mechanism. Within a few years, the use of the tanegashima in battle forever changed the way war was fought in Japan.[18]

Despite the appearance of more advanced ignition systems, such as that of the wheellock and the snaphance, the low cost of production, simplicity, and high availability of the matchlock kept it in use in European armies until about 1720. It was eventually completely replaced by the flintlock as the foot soldier's main armament.

In Japan, matchlocks continued to see military use up to the mid-19th century. In China, matchlock guns were still being used by imperial army soldiers in the middle decades of the 19th century.[19]

There is evidence that matchlock rifles may have been in use among some peoples in Christian Abyssinia in the late Middle Ages. Although modern rifles were imported into Ethiopia during the 19th century, contemporary British historians noted that, along with slingshots, matchlock rifle weapons were used by the elderly for self-defense and by the militaries of the Ras.[20][21]

Under Qing rule, the Hakka on Taiwan owned matchlock muskets. Han people traded and sold matchlock muskets to the Taiwanese aborigines. During the Sino-French War, the Hakka and Aboriginals used their matchlock muskets against the French in the Keelung Campaign and Battle of Tamsui. The Hakka used their matchlock muskets to resist the Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1895) and Han Taiwanese and Aboriginals conducted an insurgency against Japanese rule.

20th century use[edit]

Tibetans with matchlock rifle (1905 painting)

Tibetans have used matchlocks from as early as the sixteenth century until very recently.[22] The early 20th century explorer Sven Hedin also encountered Tibetan tribesmen on horseback armed with matchlock rifles along the Tibetan border with Xinjiang. Tibetan nomad fighters used arquebuses for warfare during the Chinese invasion of Tibet as late as the second half of the 20th century—and Tibetan nomads reportedly still use matchlock rifles to hunt wolves and other predatory animals.[23] These matchlock arquebuses typically feature a long, sharpened retractable forked stand.

Literary references[edit]

A Spanish matchlock, purchased in Holland, plays an important role in Walter D. Edmonds' Newbery Award-winning children's novel The Matchlock Gun.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The definition of firelock changes over times, in later era it could refer to flintlock and wheellock. According to Merriam-Webster, a firelock is "a gun's lock employing a slow match to ignite the powder charge", first recorded in 1544. See Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Firelock. In dictionary. Retrieved October 13, 2022.
  2. ^ Article on explaining the matchlock system
  3. ^ Ágoston, Gábor (2005). Guns for the Sultan. Cambridge University Press. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-521-84313-3.
  4. ^ "Handgonnes and Matchlocks". Retrieved 2008-12-05.
  5. ^ a b Weir, William (2005). 50 Weapons That Changed Warfare. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press. pp. 71–74. ISBN 978-1-56414-756-1.
  6. ^ Richard J. Garrett (2010). The Defences of Macau: Forts, Ships and Weapons over 450 years. Hong Kong University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-988-8028-49-8.
  7. ^ Blair, Claude (1962). European & American Arms, C. 1100-1850. B. T. Batsford. ISBN 9789130014750.
  8. ^ Dale Taylor (1997), The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, ISBN 0-89879-772-1, p. 159.
  9. ^ a b Needham, Joseph (1986), Science & Civilisation in China, vol. V:7: The Gunpowder Epic, Cambridge University Press, p. 443, ISBN 0-521-30358-3
  10. ^ Needham 1986, p. 425.
  11. ^ Ágoston, Gábor (2011). "Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500–1800". Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. 12 (2): 281–319 [294]. doi:10.1353/kri.2011.0018. S2CID 19755686. Initially the Janissaries were equipped with bows, crossbows, and javelins. In the first half of the 15th century, they began to use matchlock arquebuses, although the first references to the Ottomans' use of tüfek or hand firearms of the arquebus type (1394, 1402, 1421, 1430, 1440, 1442) are disputable.
  12. ^ Godfrey Goodwin: The Janissaries, saqu Books, 2006, p. 129 ISBN 978-0-86356-740-7
  13. ^ Elgood, Robert (1995). Firearms of the Islamic World: In the Tared Rajab Museum, Kuwait. I.B.Tauris. p. 41. ISBN 978-1-85043-963-9.
  14. ^ Garrett, Richard J. (2010). The Defences of Macau: Forts, Ships and Weapons over 450 years. Hong Kong University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-988-8028-49-8.
  15. ^ Kenneth Warren Chase (2003). Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-521-82274-9.
  16. ^ Lidin, Olof G. (2002). Tanegashima: The Arrival of Europe in Japan. NIAS Press. ISBN 978-87-91114-12-0.
  17. ^ Daehnhardt, Rainer (1994). The Bewitched Gun: The Introduction of the Firearm in the Far East by the Portuguese; Espingarda Feiticeira: A Introducao Da Arma De Fogo Pelos Portugueses No Extremo-Oriente. Texto Editora. p. 26.
  18. ^ Noel Perrin (1979). Giving up the gun: Japan's reversion to the sword, 1543–1879. David R Godine. ISBN 978-0-87923-773-8.
  19. ^ Jowett, Philip (2016). Imperial Chinese Armies 1840–1911. Osprey Publishing Ltd. p. 19.
  20. ^ Cana, Frank Richardson (1911). "Abyssinia" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 01 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 82–95, see page 89, first para, six lines from the end. Although the army has been equipped with modern rifles, the common weapon of the people is the matchlock, and slings are still in use.
  21. ^ Office, The Foreign (18 May 2018). "Memorandum on Abyssinia". The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. 25: 215–218. doi:10.2307/1798118. JSTOR 1798118.
  22. ^ La Rocca, Donald J. "Tibetan Arms and Armor". Department of Arms and Armor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  23. ^ Goldstein, Melvyn (1990). Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. ISBN 978-0520072114.

External links[edit]

Media related to Matchlock firearms at Wikimedia Commons