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Puffer wheel-lock pistol

German gunsmith

Saxony, 16th century

Material: Wood, iron and carved bone

Size: 53 cm long

Review by Gherardo Turchi

The astonishing weapon we’re going to describe was produced by one of Germany’s most renowned gunsmiths in the sixteenth century.

The wheel-lock ignition mechanism was created between the late fifteenth and earliest sixteenth centuries by Leonardo da Vinci, according to some scholars; by a still today unknown German craftsman and harquebus-maker, as reported by some others.

The mechanism is composed of a spring-loaded rotating wheel and a moveable hammer whose jaws are provided with a piece of pyrite. Thanks to a wrench, the user could wind the wheel about 270 degrees to engage the sear mechanism setting the lock. The hammer could then be directly lowered on the wheel or the sliding flash pan cover, which could open automatically owing to an inner device upon the trigger being pulled. This allowed the pyrite to drop on the wheel, whose rotation produced some sparks igniting the powder in the flash pan which, finally, fired the charge – previously put into the barrel – and caused the shot.

The wheel-lock mechanism was rather difficult to set up and, as a result, extremely expensive to produce. Only nobles, renowned officers as well as rich merchants could afford weapons equipped with such a complex firing device: most soldiers and citizens, therefore, kept on using matchlock guns mainly.

Although more useful and handier than harquebuses, wheel-lock weapons needed too much repair and maintenance. That’s why a constantly increasing number of gunsmiths as of the mid sixteenth century turned them into artworks, mainly to be kept at home and shown off or to enhance someone’s own collection. The models provided with light damask-decorated barrels certainly prove that “artistically-based choice”.

However, this doesn’t allow us to ignore wheel-lock weapons had been used in compliance with the aim they had been originally created, thus catching on across all Europe. On battlefields, for instance, soldiers being asked to attack needed some thicker and more resistant weapons, especially when they were expected to fight at close quarters. Therefore, only officers and commanders could use them – since not directly involved in fighting – in addition to cavalry, such as the German Reiter units.

The pistols equipped with rounded-shaped knobs, also known as Puffer, allowed users to better grip them. Furthermore, thanks to the inner cavity making them extremely light, the knobs could be filled up of some spare parts. That’s why users couldn’t rely on such wheel lock weapons during hand-to-hand fights: their knobs weren’t thick enough to get used as clubs.

On the other hand, wheel-lock weapons were widely employed by hunters as well as hired guns: the reduced weight and size of such pistols allowed the latter to get closer to their targets and quickly hide the weapon just after using them. Francis I of Lorraine and William I of Orange are known to be killed in this way.

The twenty-gram bullets shot by such pistols could just cover fifty meters; moreover, it took a huge amount of time as well as accuracy to reload them. Cavalry units, for instance, could take advantage of these firearms only if carrying out the so-called caracol, one of the most important military strategies at that time.

The amazingly rare pistol we’re describing is provided with a smooth double-barrel, whose first half is octagonal section-shaped, while the other, solidly joined with the breech, is decorated with a lion-looking engraved pattern, enhanced with an arrow and two letters, H and R. They are known to stand for the gunsmith’s signature – one of Saxony’s most renowned in the sixteenth century – which proves the authenticity of the weapon.

The wheel-lock mechanism is provided with its original pan cover and safety device. The richly carved bone stock is decorated with floral and coil-shaped patterns, in addition to some geometric ornaments next to the iron trigger and trigger-guard. The ramrod, just under the barrel, is made of greatly carved bone as well.

The central part of the ensuite-decorated spherical pommel is enhanced with an engraved metal plate; yet, despite its significant size, the weapon is rather light if compared to most late-sixteenth century wheel-lock pistols.

Perfectly preserved, the one we’ve today analysed is certainly worthy of attention. Since it took a huge amount of time for Saxon gunsmiths to set up such weapons, they used to produce only a few per year. However, you can surely appreciate some Puffer pistols at London’s Tower Royal Armoury, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Munich’s Armoury Museum.

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