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Matchlock Pistol: Burning a Hole in Your Pocket

In a previous article, we referenced the original gangster of concealment, the wheel-lock pistol. The wheel-lock provided a solution to early firearms technology in terms of the ability to conceal a gun without a burning match cord. That isn’t to say matchlock pistols didn’t exist. If they were made today, the label on the outside of the box would say, “Handle with Care … and Maybe Don’t Wear Hairspray.” 

Matchlock firearms first appeared around 1400; we historians hate putting exact dates on things that old. It was the first true ignition system and operated as follows: a slow burning match cord is placed in the jaws of an arm known as a serpentine on the lock. The serpentine is linked to the trigger and lowers the burning match. After loading and prepping to fire, the user pressed the trigger, which lowered the burning rope into the powder pan (often toward his/her face), igniting the powder in the pan and firing the gun. While later lock times were quite quick, and modern trigger mechanism lock times measure in milliseconds, the matchlock’s lock time is best measured in decades, relatively speaking. The move of the serpentine is a slow squeeze compared to modern “clean break” triggers. If you’ve ever had the chance to fire a matchlock — which you should do — you’ll know it can also be disconcerting having a match moving toward your eyeball, even with safety glasses.

Perhaps the long lock time and the minor game of chicken between your eyeball and the match can be overcome with training — although we officially do not recommend dry-firing a matchlock pistol for practice inside the home. But the biggest drawback, and the real nail in the coffin against pro-matchlock carry arguments, is the lit match. To carry one cocked and locked, or more officially, Condition 0, (most of these don’t have safeties so Condition 1 isn’t possible), a shooter must keep the match cord lit all the time. 

Not the ideal situation if you want to conceal carry. For those who switch to carrying a full-size pistol during colder months, at least the match in your coat will help keep you warm. Most users would also light both ends of the match cord so they had a backup plan in a pinch. While the matchlock pistol was certainly more advanced than a hand-cannon, it would get a bad modern-day review for concealment. But often these limitations are what fuel innovation. 

Matchlock Pistol

Caliber: .50-ish
Barrel Length: 6 inches
Action: Matchlock
Date: 1400-1600's (Yah, those 1800's, I'm looking at you Japan)
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY, USA; Gift of Olin Corporation, Winchester Arms Collection, 1988.8.1075.


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