Every army in the world between 1580 – 1650 was equipped almost exclusively with matchlock calivers and muskets …
Robert Held, The Age of Firearms, London, 1957
To understand the full importance of the Alderney firearms, one needs to know a little concerning their design and how they functioned.
The ignition mechanism that discharged the gun is called the lock. It was recessed into the wood of the stock near the breech. The Alderney firearms featured two kinds of locks: matchlock and snaphaunce. Of the examples so far recovered, all but one are matchlocks.
In its primitive form, the matchlock first appeared around the second quarter of the fifteenth century in Nuremburg. It consisted of a pivoted S-shaped arm, or serpentine (after its resemblance to a snake), which held a fuse in its upper extremity. When the shooter drew back on the lower end of the serpentine, the fuse swung down into the flash-pan, which carried ignition through the touch-hole to the charge within the breech.
By the time of the Alderney ship, the matchlock firing mechanism had become a proper sear-type gunlock of the type illustrated immediately below. It consists of three mobile parts; the first is a ‘tricker’, or trigger bar, which is screwed into one end of the sear, or pivoting arm, which connects with a tumbler that is fastened to the serpentine. By drawing upwards on the trigger, the shooter imparts a downward motion on the opposite end of the sear which, in turn, swings the end of the serpentine (which holds a slow match) into the powder of the flash-pan. On release of the trigger, a leaf-spring returns the mechanism to its primary position. The old, unreliable touch-fuse that had been used in the early decades of the fifteenth century, had been replaced by the so-called slow-match. This was a cord that had been soaked in a saltpeter solution and which, on drying, gave a slow and even glow. One of the problems of the early matchlock was its open flash-pan which a drop of rain, or a puff of wind, could instantly render useless. Now the pan was protected by a sliding cover, which the shooter could open immediately prior to firing. Behind the flash-pan was a ‘fyre-shielde’, or baffle, to protect the shooter’s eye from any sparks, or back-fire, that might occur during discharge. The remains of the cover and pivot of the baffle have survived on gun fragment no. 317 from the wreck. All in all, by the time of the Alderney ship, the matchlock had become a practical and fairly reliable weapon.
One piece (inv. no. 16) was different from all the others that were recovered. The barrel, forestock, much of the butt and all of the actual lock mechanism had disintegrated, but the centre of the stock with its lock recess, survived in fair condition. From the shape of the cutting it is likely that the weapon was of snaphaunce type. This was a lock mechanism which had come into use in England during the last two decades of the sixteenth century for both shoulder-arms and pistols. During the early seventeenth century, this type of lock evolved into what became known as the ‘English lock’, and eventually, the standard flintlock. Rather than by the mechanical insertion of a slow-match into the priming powder of the flash-pan, this type of lock was based on the flint and steel principle in which a cock struck a clamped flint against a steel surface (sometimes called a ‘frizzen’, or ‘battery’) raining sparks down on the powder in the pan, which communicated ignition to the main charge within the barrel. Each flint was good for about twenty strikes before it had to be replaced. But the new snaphaunce, though a little more efficient than the tried-and-true matchlock, was much more expensive and thus, with the exception of pistols, never made a significant impact on the armaments of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries’.
The foundation of the weapon was its wooden stock which seated the barrel and, at its rear, broadened out to butt against the body, which helped steady the gun during firing and block the recoil. On the outside right, beside the breech, the stock was recessed to take the lock, while the forestock below the barrel featured a long cylindrical drill-hole to take the ramrod.
Every one of the Alderney firearms was different; but, in broad terms, it can be said that all the stocks were flat or slab-sided and usually featured a groove behind the breech to to take the shooter’s right thumb. In most cases, the butt (of which no complete example survived), was curved down slightly to rest against the shoulder. On one example, the butt appeared to drop away sharply so that the weapon would have been set against the chest rather than the shoulder. This was interesting as just two years before the Alderney ship was lost , Sir Roger Williams in his Brief Discourse of Warre, wrote that muskets should be ‘straight stocked after the Spanish manner’ rather than ‘stocked crooked after the French manner’. This would allow them to be fired from the shoulder ‘with the thumb betwixt the stock and the face’. Though no complete examples survived, the butt of the Alderney guns would have broadened towards their ends so as to distribute the force of the kick over a wider area of body. Good stock-makers were as important as lock-makers and barrelsmiths. We are given a sense of this in a letter from Sir George Carew who, in 1590, had an English army in Ireland, in which he complained that he could not obtain seasoned timber of the type that was necessary to restock his guns, and even if it could be found, he did not have the skill to fashion it, ‘for I know not but two in this realm that have the knowledge how to stock a piece’.
The barrels from the wreck had all much deteriorated. In general, however, it can be said that the rear halves of the barrels had all been milled into octagonal flats, but as they progressed and diminished towards the muzzle, they became round. Fundamentally, the barrel was a metal tube which was sealed at its rear by a threaded breech-plug that screwed into the bore, and which was notched on its right side to allow the passage of the touch-hole into the breech. At its rear the breech-plug had a protruding vertical lip which slotted into the stock to prevent any turning of the barrel. Above the lip was a rearward protruding tang that was holed to take a screw which fastened the barrel to the stock. Two small perforated lugs, welded to the underside of the barrel, slotted into the forestock and took pins to cotter the tube into its wooden groove. Very little survived of the aiming devices on the tops of the barrels. All muzzles, together with their fore-sights had disintegrated, but on the remains of a tube were found above the breech of piece 317, which may have been part of a diaphragmed peep-sight, but more likely, it was all that remained of a sleeve that served to direct and protect the slow-match.
So far, surprisingly little lead shot has been recovered from the site. The majority came from the sand or were extracted from lumps of iron corrosion products (concretion). One ball, however, was found still rolling up and down within barrel 339. The latter had a diameter of 15 mm within an estimated interior barrel diameter of 16.5 mm. An early study of the ammunition from the wreck conducted by the present writer (Monaghan and Bound, 2001, 79), seems to confirm the view that the vessel was carrying harquebuses, calivers and muskets, and that, within these groupings, every gun was different, there being no standardization of design or bore.
To service the weapon and equip the shooter, a number of ancillary items were required. Humfrey Barwick (A Breefe Discourse, Concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons of fire, 1594) states that the following should be carried by harquebusiers and calivermen:
- moulds to cast bullets
- one in every ten shooters should carry a casting pan- match, well made and dry
- steel and flint to strike fire
- screws, worms and scouring sticks
- a priming iron for clearing the touch hole
- flasks for powder (canisters or ‘apostles’ of the type found on the wreck were particularly recommended)
- touch box- a purse for bullets
- A morion helmet with not too high a creast
- A good short sword of a yard in blade
- A dagger of twelve inches in blade
- A good girdle and strong
Musketeers needed all these items as well as a forked gun-rest, but they did not wear body plates or helmets.