Thursday, August 16, 2018

Firelock on your shoulder

Swords and knives died in the apocalypse, or nearly so.  Today's weapons strike fire and breathe clouds of smoke, and they mean business.  A lead ball in your gut will likely spell death, so don't start a firefight unless you're sure to win.

Truth be told, the old weapons aren't entirely dead.  Spears never run out of ammunition, and you don't have to keep your axe as dry as your powder.  But guns are the great equalizer, needing neither strength nor especial skill.  And while the arms themselves are rather dear, shot and powder are quite cheap.

Let's take a look at how the lock itself puts fire to the gunpowder.


The oldest firearms were just a cannon with a little hole in the side.  You pour some gunpowder down the barrel, pack some kind of shot in next, and you hold a bit of flame up to the little hole so the gunpowder inside can explode.  It was basically a two-man job.

matchlock being fired
Today's firearms are a bit more practical, with a spring-loaded match holder to free up your hands for aiming.  A matchlock holds a piece of smoldering rope (called a "match") at the ready.  When you pull the trigger, the lock swings forward, touching the lit match to a little pan of gunpowder, setting off the main charge inside the barrel.

an old matchlock, with the pan open and the match unlit (Rainer Halama)
Matchlocks have one big advantage: they're very simple, which means they can be repaired by just about any blacksmith.  (This also makes them cheaper than other guns.)

They also have a few disadvantages:
  • Everyone can see (and smell) your smoldering match.
  • Rain or even damp air can put out your match.
  • Wind can blow sparks from a lit match, igniting other gunpowder nearby.
Matchlocks have been a favorite trade item since the elves first came to the North.  Just about every tribe and village has a few, no matter how far inland you go.


You know how a lighter works, where you spin a thumbwheel against a striker to form sparks?  That's pretty much how a wheellock works, too.

wheellock pistol (the circular silver part is the wheel that spins)

A wheellock is named for its wind-up wheel that spins against a striker when you pull the trigger.  This throws sparks into the pan, setting fire to the powder.

wheel with winding key still on it (Ian, Forgotten Weapons)

Wheellocks are better than matchlocks in some ways:
  • They can fire in just about any weather, other than the hardest of rain and wind.
  • They're very responsive, with little delay between pulling the trigger and the gun going off, making it easier to aim at a moving target.
But there are a few disadvantages too:
  • You can't wind up the wheel without a key of some kind.  If you lose the key in battle, you might as well be carrying a club, not a firearm.
  • Wheellocks are delicate, fiddly weapons.  Only specialized gunsmiths (and possibly jewelers) will have the tools and expertise needed to fix a damaged wheellock.
Wheellocks are the gentleman's firearm of the fallen empire, a complex weapon from a more civilized age.


Today's latest invention is the flintlock, a simpler, better firearm, the product of modern ingenuity.  Flintlocks make fire by swinging a piece of flint against a steel plate.  The steel flips up, uncovering the pan as sparks fly in.

flintlock just after firing (Brian Nesslage)

Because the steel cover keeps the powder in the pan, you can keep a flintlock loaded and ready to fire at a moment's notice.

The only downside to flintlocks is that they're very new, not readily available yet.  Give it a few years and they'll be just about everywhere.

so much smoke (Christopher Delano, Don Reimert)

Other features

Firearms come in two general lengths: muskets and pistols.  Muskets are the standard weapon, 3 to 5 feet long (1 to 1½ meters).  Pistols are only good at short range, but they're light and concealable.  (Though you'd better not light the match on your matchlock pistol before tucking it under your coat.)

Muskets can be improved by carving spiral grooves down the inside of the barrel, to help the bullet spin.  With one of these rifled muskets (or just rifles) a good shooter can hit a target at a very long range.

double-barreled wheellock made for Emperor Charles V

A double-barreled weapon is like two firearms built side by side.  Load both barrels, put some powder in both pans, and you've got a gun that can be fired twice in a row.

pepperbox flintlock, where the barrels rotate into place

Pepperboxes and revolvers go even further in that direction, with six or so rounds all loaded up at once, rotating into place as you need them.  (Revolvers have a cover over each pan so they can be kept loaded like a flintlock.)

matchlock revolver (Bullenwächter)

Large-caliber weapons pack a serious punch, tearing a hole through just about anything.  Big guns like these have a nasty kick, so they tend to be special-made for humans and giants who can handle them.

Many long guns (muskets and rifles) have a mount for a bayonet, a long blade that can be attached to the end and used in close quarters like a spear.

fix bayonets and advance (bantarleton)

Some firearms are a bit too fancy, with gold leaf, mother-of-pearl inlay, or secret compartments.

(Every now and then, some gunsmith gets it in their head to combine a firearm with a sword or an axe or silverware to make some kind of monstrosity.)


In a typical elven town, prices like these wouldn't be out of the ordinary, assuming the items are available:

5d1 round of powder and shot
$120 rounds of powder and shot
$10matchlock musket/pistol
$20flintlock musket/pistol
$30matchlock rifle
$50wheellock musket/pistol
$50flintlock rifle
$100wheellock rifle

Other features can drive the price up quite a bit.  A wheellock pepperbox pistol with silver inlay and a secret compartment could easily run you $500, and you'll have to have it custom made.

Out in the wilderness, at some far off village or trading post, prices could easily be three times as high, with very little selection.


  1. Why do wheellocks cost more than flintlocks if flint's the fancy new thing?
    And how would the stats of different gun mechanisms/sizes compare?

    1. Wheellocks cost more because they're harder to make. For now, flintlocks are hard to come by, a new invention that hasn't made it very far yet. Give it a few decades and they'll have spread throughout the wilderness; no one will bother buying wheellocks anymore.

      The stats will depend on the game rules you're using, though most of these differences aren't about stats, but about actions. To use a matchlock you have to light the match first, which an enemy can see in the dark. If you fumble while reloading your wheellock, you might drop the key. A pistol with a covered pan can be kept loaded under your jacket. Etc.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Well, crap. You had an awesome comment here that I wanted to reply to, but instead clicked "remove".

      You said something about Scottish swordsmen in the 1700s that I was hoping to learn more about...