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A Somewhat Pleasant Surprise

Firearms played an important role in maritime history. By way of illustration, matchlock weapons were used by European invaders to terrorize New World populations. The matchlock featured a slowmatch (gunpowder infused rope) clamped in a lever construction (the lock) which was brought into contact with gunpowder by pulling a trigger. The technology behind the firearm and gunpowder were beyond the means of indigenous peoples throughout the Age of Discovery and helped the Europeans establish near domination on the colonial battlefields.

The Mariners’ Museum and Park did not hold an example of an Age of Discovery matchlock in the Museum Collection until 2008. In 2007, I received permission to seek out a suitable firearm to add to the Museum’s holdings.

A robust example dating to 1644, of likely Dutch manufacture, was located and secured for the Museum. When the artifact arrived, we encountered a somewhat pleasant surprise. The matchlock was rifled.

Most early gunpowder weapons are smooth bored, meaning the barrel is like a pipe. Smoothbore guns are easier and faster to load but sacrifice accuracy and range as the bullet is smaller than the bore and does not sit flush with the barrel. The alternative to a smooth bore is rifling, in which grooves are cut into the metal of the barrel. The grooves impart a spin onto the bullet which improves accuracy and range. The bullet, however, must be fitted tightly to the grooves in order to be spun. Rifling an early firearm was a slow and laborious process that significantly increased the cost of the weapon.

While the matchlock had all of the appearances of the typical Age of Discovery smoothbore, a quick glimpse down the barrel revealed some impressively deep grooves. Instead of being a utilitarian weapon that helped conquer the New World, this artifact was likely a custom made hunting piece. That being said, it was decided to keep the firearm in the Museum’s Collection and it has been (and will be again!) displayed simply as a matchlock. But, this nice surprise awaits those who choose to look closer…

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