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Examples of Gun Lock Mechanisms
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Hand Cannon



Flintlock to Percussion Lock Conversion

Snider Breech

Mauser Bolt Action

Uzi Semi-Automatic


Chronology of Lock Development




Hand Cannon















Breech Loading Cartridge



Bolt Action




Hand Cannons

For the earliest weapons detonation was accomplished by simply applying a hot wire or slow-burning match to a touch hole and directly igniting the charge. These devices were literally "hand cannons," with only their small size distinguishing them from their larger counterparts. There was no true "firing mechanism" or lock incorporated into their design. The fact that one had to visually guide the match to the touch hole prohibited any sort of aiming at the target.



The first innovation to the firing mechanism was to attach a slow-burning match to a serpentine that was brought into contact with a small pan filled with gun powder (located adjacent to the touch hole) by depressing a "trigger." The fact that the charge was ignited by depressing or pulling a trigger (and thus did not require visual guidance) permitted aiming the weapon and the appropriate use of a gun stock to assist in aiming and to absorb the recoil. 

East Indian Torador (matchlock)

View of trigger, serpentine, and pan



The flintlock presented a dramatic improvement in firearms offering several important advantages over the matchlock. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, the new lock design included a pan cover that made the firing mechanism both water and wind proof. Prior to this innovation, weapons did not fire reliably in damp or rainy weather, and a gust of wind could displace the priming charge from the pan rendering the weapon an expensive club. The pan covered was automatically opened by the striking of the hammer. Secondly, eliminating the slow-burning match provided numerous advantages. For examples, a supply of lit matches was no longer necessary (soldiers usually had a number of slow-burning matches, several already burning, hung about them during combat to ensure a ready available ignition supply), the position of soldiers using the weapon was not compromised at night by the glow of the slow-burning matches, and the weapon was far less prone to accidental discharge or to inadvertently igniting adjacent powder stores. Indeed, the first available flintlocks were often assigned to guard the powder train where weapons with a slow-burning match posed a particular danger.

The gun shown below is a British .60 calibre pagent carbine (c. 1812), similar to the carbines carried by some British calvary units at the Battle of Waterloo. The weapon fired a round ball at close range (e.g., 5 to 15 yards). This specific design incorporated several improvements suggested by Lt. Pagent -- most notably, a thumb safety located on the side of the lock and a swivel mounted ram rod minimized loss while reloading from horseback.

British flintlock carbine

Half cocked position

Fully cocked position

The lock is shown here in the half cocked, ready to load position.

The lock is shown here in the fully cocked, ready to fire position.


Conversion of Flintlock to Percussion Lock

During the first quarter of the 19th century, it was fairly common practice to convert a flintlock to a percussion lock. Below is an example of this conversion in an early 19th century coach gun. The .60 calibre smoothbore gun is 22" overall, with a 12 1/2" barrel. The manufacturer is unknown (engraving obscured by the lock conversion). Note the unusual incorporation of the flintlock spring into this conversion. 

Coach guns are close quarter defensive weapons used to fire either shot or a round ball. Travel up to the late 19th century was plagued by highway robbers, so it was essential to carry appropriate protection. This weapon could be very easily concealed or inconspicuously carried in the coach. Similar purpose weapons are the much heavier double barreled shotgun ("sawed off") and the exceptionally intimidating blunderbuss.

Early 19th century .60 calibre coach gun

Detail of lock conversion



Snider Breech

During the last half of the 19th century, the practical application of three important design innovations produced weapons dramatically superior to the earlier percussion lock muskets -- the breech loading, cartridge firing rifle. Several different designs were commercially manufactured, one of which was the Snider. Although Snider was an American designer, his patent was adopted by the British (and not by the American) Army for service. However, a few "Sniders" from foreign manufacturers found their way to the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. 

The Snider rifle used a brass cartridge that was loaded through the breech. An external hammer struck a long firing pin that contacted the primer in a center-fire cartridge. The barrel was rifled, making this a deadly accurate, (relatively) rapid-fire weapon. Battle tactics and limited availability prevented the Snider from having a significant impact on the American Civil War, but it did figure prominently in some skirmishes of the British Army during the 1870s. 

Snider rifle

Open breech

Ready to fire

Top: Full view of Snider rifle.
Middle Left: Breech open to load.
Middle Right: Breech closed ready to fire.
Bottom Right: Snider cartridge showing bullet, granular powder charge, and primer.

 Snider Cartridge



Some Popular Expressions from Early Firearms




“going off half-cocked”

‘going off’ inappropriately or without warning; an inappropriately large response to a small provocation

“Half-cocked” is the safety position for flintlock and percussion lock weapons. A similar ‘safety’ position is found on some modern guns, especially revolvers.

“flash in the pan”

a big ‘flash’ with nothing to follow; a seemingly loud noise without significance consequences

Matchlock, flintlock, and percussion lock weapons all have a touch hole between the external firing mechanism and the internal powder charge in the barrel. This touch hole requires constant maintenance during use to ensure that it doesn’t become blocked; otherwise the priming charge will fail to ignite the main charge. This failure-to-ignite could have fatal consequences for one relying of the weapon for protection.

“lock, stock, and barrel”

complete, not requiring anything else to function

The three components required to form a complete gun.

“powder keg”

an ‘explosive’ or otherwise dangerous situation or individual

Powder kegs literally contained the gun powder and because accidental discharge (i.e., explosion) was common, it was indeed very risky to be sitting on a powder keg. This was especially true during the matchlock era. For obvious reasons the first flintlocks were assigned to troops guarding the powder kegs even while most line solder still used matchlocks.

“hotter than a two dollar pistol” (much newer expression than those above, late 19th or early 20th Century origin)

very ‘hot,’ agitated; alternatively, cheaply made prone to fall apart upon use

A pistol sold for $2 was cheaply constructed from inferior materials, subject to overheating upon discharge.

“playing Russian roulette (again, late 19th or early 20th Century origin)

to foolishly or needlessly risk something, especially ones life

A test of ‘nerves’ (or more appropriately, a test of stupidity) where a single cartridge is loaded into the cylinder of a 5- or 6-shot revolver, the cylinder spun, and participants alternatively take turns placing the pistol at their head and pulling the trigger. The cylinder is usually spun between ‘tests’ with the anxiety level often rising as the ‘game’ progresses without a looser.



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This page was last revised 01 March 2009 13:15 GMT.

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