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The Digital Vault

Wheel Lock

The Wheel Lock is the first firearm which incorporated an improved ignition system. It was developed around 1500 and was most likely developed by clock makers in Germany and Italy. It was the first system that created a spark by mechanical means. While it was faster and more reliable than the Matchlock, it was more complicated and difficult to produce. However, its development provided significant benefits to the user, namely greater reliability, added safety, transportability when loaded, and the ability to be fired by a person on horseback.

The ignition of black powder was initiated by a piece of pyrites against a metal edge. The ignition system is similar to a modern cigarette lighter. The spark is produced by holding a piece of pyrites in a vise which was struck against a revolving rough-edged wheel.

Little is known about the use of the Wheel Lock in the American colonies since early writers did not refer to the type of ignition system used. Often times, they used the term "firelock" to differentiate it from the Matchlock. But the advent of of Flint Lock systems also became known as "firelocks". The only other way to trace the use of Wheel Locks in America is the date of use. Thus, it is known that the Wheel Lock was used in the Spanish colonies and in the ill-fated English Roanoke Colony. Fragments of these firearms have been excavated from archaeological site by the National Park Service at Jamestown as well.

It is assumed that the Wheel Lock did not play a major role in the colonies because it was an expensive weapon and the English colonies were usually poor. Yet, while the Wheel Lock was more expensive, colonists knew that it was far superior to the Matchlock. They knew that life expectancy was closely tied to the efficiency of their firearm.