Matchlock vs. Wheelock – Which Pistol Was Better?

Key Point: Matchlock pistols, used a slow-burning match to ignite gunpowder, they were simpler but had a slower ignition. Wheellock pistols, used a rotating wheel to create sparks, were more complex but provided a quicker ignition.

This is going to be another match-up between two pieces of history. On one hand, we have the matchlock pistol and on the other, we have the technological wonder of the era, the wheel lock pistol. Now, before we continue with the topic of Matchlock vs. Wheelock let’s begin with a short summary of the entire article.

Here are the main differences between the matchlock and the wheel lock you should be aware of:

There are 5 main differences between a Matchlock and a Wheelock and they are:

  1. The Ignition System
  2. Their Complexity
  3. Reliability
  4. Ease Of Use
  5. Their Cost

These differences made the Wheelock a superior weapon to the Matchlock. You will see why that is in just a second. Now, let’s examine these differences in detail.

Matchlock Vs. Wheelock – The Ignition System

The ignition system is one of the most fundamental differences between matchlock and wheel lock pistols.

Matchlock pistols relied on a slow-burning rope or cord, known as a “match,” to ignite the gunpowder. This match had to be lit and then brought to the gunpowder in order for the pistol to be fired. This method of ignition was used for many centuries and was a significant improvement over earlier firearms that required a lighted wick to ignite the gunpowder.

However, the match could be affected by wind or rain, which could cause the pistol to misfire. Which was a major drawback.

Wheel lock pistols, in contrast, used a spark generated by a spinning metal wheel to ignite the gunpowder.

You can see the wheel lock pistol in action in the short video below.

Video demonstrating how the wheellock worked

This mechanism is self-contained and is less prone to failure than the matchlock mechanism. The wheel lock mechanism is activated by pulling a lever, which rotates a spring-loaded wheel against a piece of iron pyrite, creating a spark that ignites the gunpowder. The wheel lock mechanism was considered to be a major technological advancement and was a significant improvement over the matchlock mechanism.

So, the wheellock wins this round. How about the complexity of the two pistols? Let’s see

The Complexity Of The Two Historical Pistols

Wheel lock pistols are considered to be more complex and expensive to manufacture than matchlock pistols.

A wheel lock mechanism is more intricate and requires more precision in its manufacture, which made wheel lock pistols more expensive to produce.

The wheel lock mechanism was composed of several moving parts, including a spring-loaded wheel, a piece of iron pyrite, and a mechanism for holding the pyrite in place. The wheel lock mechanism also required more skilled labor to manufacture, which contributed to its higher cost.

Matchlock pistols, on the other hand, were relatively simple to manufacture and required fewer moving parts. The matchlock mechanism consisted of a simple arm that held a piece of rope or cord, known as a “match,” which was used to ignite the gunpowder.

Parts of a matchlock pistol

The matchlock mechanism was relatively easy to manufacture and was less expensive than the wheel lock mechanism. So, this round goes to the matchlock.

For now, it’s a tie. Let’s see what the next round brings.

Matchlock vs. Wheelock – Which Is More Reliable?

Wheel lock pistols are more reliable than matchlock pistols. But why is that? It goes back to the difference in their ignition systems.

The wheel lock mechanism is self-contained and is less prone to failure than the matchlock mechanism. A burning match could easily be affected by environmental conditions such as wind or rain.

The wheel lock mechanism also required less maintenance than the matchlock mechanism, which made it more reliable over time.

So, the wheel lock is in the lead for now, but will it stay that way? Let’s find out in our segment on the …

Ease Of Use

Matchlock pistols were often more difficult to use than wheel lock pistols. Why is that?

Well, the user had to light the slow-burning cord or rope, which could be affected by wind or rain, leading to the pistol misfiring or requiring the user to relight the match. This made matchlock pistols less convenient to use in adverse weather conditions, and more challenging to operate than wheel lock pistols.

On the other hand, wheel lock pistols offered improved ease of use compared to matchlock pistols.

The wheel lock mechanism was more reliable, and it was not as easily affected by weather conditions. The wheel lock mechanism was also easier to operate, as the user simply had to pull the trigger to activate the mechanism. This made wheel lock pistols more convenient and less challenging to use than matchlock pistols.

Another one round for the Wheellock.

Now, to the last segment, which is also the reason why the Wheelock was eventually replaced by the flintlock, as you can see here.

The Cost Of A Matchlock Vs. The Wheelock

Now, when it comes to the cost, the matchlock finally wins here. The mechanism used to fire a matchlock is so simple and easy that it’s very cheap to make it. In contrast, the Wheelock used an intricate ignition system that was hard to make at the time. More than hard, it was expensive. On top of that the wheellock was often made from the finest material with fancy decorations.

More than being a self-defense weapon it was also a status symbol, as I discussed in my article here where I go through the wheel lock system in detail.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned something new. And if you want to see how the matchlock compares to the flintlock then go here to check that out.

Take care!

Source: Peterson, Harold L. The Treasury of the Gun. Golden Press, 1962