Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Staplehurst rail crash, 1865

The Scene of the Crash

Staplehurst, in Kent, is a station on the line from Folkestone to London Bridge, operated at the time by the South Eastern Railway. A few miles east of the station the railway crosses the River Beult, and this was where the accident took place. The river is not particularly wide but the land on either side is somewhat boggy, so it is bridged by a short viaduct, its height being no more than ten feet above the surface.
In 1865 the bridge was mounted on brick piers, linked by cast iron girders. The girders provided the seating for substantial timber beams on which the rails were laid. There were 32 of these beams and, at the time of the accident, the beams were in the process of being replaced as they were showing signs of excessive wear.

An Engineer at Fault

The engineer in charge of the work was John Benge. Given that the traffic on this railway was not all that frequent, he was able to carry out the work in the intervals between train movements. The rails would be lifted, one or more of the old beams be replaced with new timbers, and the rails relaid in plenty of time for the next train to pass.
The South Eastern Railway laid down strict procedures for warning any train driver who might approach the scene of running repairs on the track. The practice was for detonators to be laid on the track at defined intervals and for a man with a red flag to be posted at the site of the detonator furthest from the work site. (A detonator is an explosive device that produces a flash and a bang when hit by a train wheel but which causes no damage to either the train or the track).
John Benge was, however, so confident that the men could do the work within the “safe time” between trains that he saw no need for the rules to be observed to the letter. Although he was supposed to set detonators at 250 yard intervals up to 1,000 yards, at which point there should be two detonators and the man with the red flag, the man in question was told not to set detonators unless it was foggy (which it wasn’t on 9th June) and to stand only 550 yards along the track.
The foreman’s confidence was due to the fact that the work had proceeded faultlessly for several days and was nearly complete, with 31 of the 32 timber beams already replaced. He also, or so he thought, had a three-hour window in which to finish the work by fitting the final beam. After an “up” train had passed at 2.51pm there was a clear gap of well over an hour before the next “down” train at 4.15pm.
However, there was a complication that also had to be taken on board. This was the boat train that took passengers to London from the “Channel packet” that arrived at Folkestone after crossing the English Channel from Boulogne. The timing of these ferries depended on the state of the tides, and the timing of the boat trains was therefore affected as well.
The boat trains could not be included on the regular timetable but a “working timetable” was produced at short notice for the benefit of railwaymen along the route including anyone, such as John Benge, who was working on the track. Benge had a copy of the working timetable for 9th June, as did his chief carpenter who was shaping the new timbers to fit the spaces on the viaduct.
The problem was that John Benge misread the working timetable. He was convinced that the boat train was not due until 5.20pm, which was well outside his original time frame, but the actual time was 3.15pm. Had he been aware of this he would certainly not have started work at 2.51pm. He was not helped by the fact that the chief carpenter had already lost his copy of the timetable – he dropped it and it was run over by a train. Nobody was therefore in a position to point out the engineer’s error.

The Accident

When the boat train reached the scene it was doing 50 miles an hour. The man with the red flag waved it vigorously but the driver could not respond in time, although he braked as hard as he could and blew his whistle. The guard, who had a patent emergency brake at his disposal, did not see the flag and only applied his ordinary brake when he heard the train’s whistle.
John Benge’s confidence as to his gang’s speed of working was justified to the extent that the new timbers were already laid, but a 21-foot section of rail was not. The engine and the leading van managed to stay upright as they ran across the bare timbers but the following carriages (there were thirteen in total) were not so lucky. The cast-iron girders gave way and the leading passenger carriage fell into the gap, although it was still coupled to the van that had stayed on the viaduct. It therefore hung at an angle but was not otherwise damaged. The next five carriages, however, fell into the river and were wrecked. It was in these that the casualties occurred, with ten deaths and 49 injuries.

The Role of Charles Dickens

One of the passengers in the leading coach, now hanging off the viaduct, was the novelist Charles Dickens. He had been taking a working break at his regular holiday retreat near Boulogne, accompanied by his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother. He had been looking through the manuscript of his latest novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, when the train crashed, and he mentioned this fact in a postscript to what would prove to be his last completed book.
Dickens helped the passengers in his carriage to escape and then turned his attention to those who were not so lucky. Although the extent of the help he gave has probably been exaggerated it certainly seems to be the case that he kept his head when some others were losing theirs. For example, he calmly let other passengers out of the un-wrecked carriages when the railway workers were running around in a panic.
However, that is not to say that the Staplehurst crash did not have a profound effect on Dickens’s health, because it certainly affected him psychologically. He suffered from what would probably be termed today “post-traumatic stress disorder” and those people who knew him personally before and after the crash testified to the fact he was never the same again. He avoided long train journeys whenever he could (which was by no means always) and in the five years remaining to him he only started one more novel (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) which he did not live to complete.
Ironically, he died (from a stroke) exactly five years after the Staplehurst disaster, on 9th June 1870. Had John Benge read his timetable correctly, perhaps “Drood” would have been finished and other novels might have followed in its wake.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The origin of pasta: the Marco Polo connection

Marco Polo on his Travels
Pasta, in its various forms, has been a mainstay of the Italian diet since the Middle Ages. However, it is known that the Chinese had been eating noodles, a closely related foodstuff, for thousands of years prior to that. Could it be that the Italians learned about pasta from the Chinese? 

Pasta - the Marco Polo connection

The Venetian explorer Marco Polo returned from more than twenty years of travel in the Far East in 1295, so could this be the connection? Did pasta reach Italy from China thanks to Marco Polo? It sounds like a highly plausible story.

In 1929 an article appeared in the “Macaroni Journal”, which was an official publication of the National Pasta Association of the United States. This article, entitled “A Saga of Catai”, purported to tell the full story.

It appears that an Italian sailor on the ship that brought Marco Polo home from China had met a beautiful Chinese girl who was making noodles. She offered some to him, which he tasted and found to be delicious. He asked if he could take some of the noodles back to his ship so that he could show them to Marco Polo and the rest, as they say, is history.

On the other hand …

Unfortunately, however, the rest is not history but pure bunkum. For one thing, the story includes Marco Polo naming this new dish after the enterprising sailor, whose name was Spaghetti. Given that “spaghetti” is a variant of the Italian for “thin string”, this derivation is highly unlikely. 

There is another excellent reason why the story, attractive though it may be, should not be given much credence. This is that pasta was being eaten in Italy long before Marco Polo turned up with his traveller’s tales. There is a record dating from 1154 to the effect that pasta was being made at that date in Sicily. It is also known that soldiers in the 13th century carried pasta as part of their food rations. If Marco Polo did, by some happy coincidence, happen to bring some noodles back with him from China to Italy, they had nothing to do with introducing something new in the food line, because pasta was on the menu in Italy long before he started off on his journey in 1271.

Whether the author of the “Macaroni Journal” article was being serious in his claim or not is a debatable point, but the fact remains that it acquired a patina of reliability about it. After all, if the National Pasta Association did not know where their product originated, who did? It seemed to be the sort of story that could easily be true and so, as it spread beyond the limited confines of the pasta trade into the outside world, it was taken by many people to be absolutely true.

So what is the origin of pasta?

If pasta did not originate in Italy, and it was not introduced by Signor Spaghetti and his boss Marco Polo, then where did it come from? There are various mentions of products made from dried sheets of dough from as far back as the 5th century, with the Arabs apparently being their first users. When Arabs from Libya invaded Sicily in the 7th century they apparently brought durum wheat with them, this being the most suitable wheat type from which to make pasta. It could be that it was at this time that pasta production began in Sicily, thus making it several hundred years older than the 1154 date noted above.

In any event, one thing that can be taken as being beyond the shadow of a doubt is that Marco Polo had nothing to do with it.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Nazis' Hossbach Memorandum of 1937

Consideration of the Hossbach Memorandum has played a significant role in deciding the question of Hitler’s intention to wage war in Europe. Hitler, Goering, and a number of other high-ranking military Germans met at the Chancellery in Berlin on 5th November 1937 and Hitler outlined a number of his ideas as to where he saw things heading over the next few years. Count Friedrich Hossbach (the central figure in the above photo) was the staff officer who took the minutes of the meeting, which is why his name is attached to the document.

Hitler was clearly obsessed with the concept of “Lebensraum”, by which was meant “living space” for racially pure Germans. This concept was not new, in that it was not invented by the Nazis, but Hitler gave it the formulation of expansion eastwards into lands occupied by racially inferior people (in his eyes) such as the Slavs and the Poles.

At the “Hossbach” meeting, Hitler made clear that such moves would inevitably be opposed by France and Britain, so care would be needed to ensure that these powers would not cause trouble when the time came. The first move would be to absorb Austria and Czechoslovakia into the Reich.

Hitler believed that France would eventually fall into internal turmoil, at which point a move against the Czechs would be advisable. He also thought that Britain would soon be at war with Italy, and not in a position to wage war with Germany. Likewise, Russia was too preoccupied with events to the east, concerning Japan, to be an obstacle to Germany in the west.

However, Hitler said nothing about making war on his neighbours at an early date. He clearly believed that Germany would need to act before around 1943 or 1945, but that was six years ahead at the earliest.

As we all know, events moved faster than envisaged at the Hossbach meeting, with the “Anschluss” of Austria occurring in March 1938 (only four months after the meeting) and the annexation of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia in September/October.

After Germany’s final defeat in 1945, the prosecutors at the Nuremberg tribunals produced the Hossbach Memorandum as evidence that Goering and others on trial had planned the war as far back as 1937. However, the British historian A J P Taylor, who was certainly no friend of Germany, took the view that the Memorandum proved nothing of the sort and could not be used as documentary evidence that Hitler was hell-bent on war at this time.

In Taylor’s opinion, all the Memorandum revealed was a vague rant on the part of Hitler concerning the possibility of a somewhat limited war at an indeterminate time several years in the future. To quote Taylor, “A racing tipster who only reached Hitler’s level of accuracy would not do well for his clients”.

Taylor’s words did not please those who wanted to prove intent on the part of Hitler, and he was accused by some of being an apologist for the Nazis. However, Taylor had shown that Hitler, not for the first or the last time, was able to combine aggressive talk with an inability to translate intention into plans for action. 

Historians have continued to argue ever since about whether the Hossbach meeting marked a turning point in the events leading to World War II, or whether it is wrong to see the Memorandum in this light. As with many incidents in history, it is always difficult to view an event in isolation from the events that followed it. 

© John Welford

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Longitude Prize and the Harrison Chronometer

One of the greatest problems that marine navigators face is working out where they are when out of sight of land. Knowing one’s latitude (i.e. how far north or south) is not too difficult, because the height of the Sun in the sky will tell one this, but navigation also relies on pinpointing one’s longitude, or position east or west, which is harder to determine.

In order to determine longitude, there are two possible methods. One is to use the night sky, including the position of the Moon, as a kind of celestial clock. This is the “lunar distance” method, but it has the obvious disadvantage that measurements can only be made at night, and is not particularly accurate. The other is to have on board a clock that is set to the time at some predetermined place, such as one’s home port, that can be compared to local time.

It is not difficult to work out the current local time, based on the Sun’s position, but the problem is knowing what the time is at the port that could have been left weeks or months before. In the early 18th century there was no clock available that could be relied upon to be accurate enough, especially on a ship at sea that was subject to being tossed about by wind and waves.

The Royal Observatory in London had been established in 1675 with the sole purpose of solving the problem of finding longitude at sea, but by 1714 it had produced nothing better than the lunar distance method. The British Government therefore passed the Longitude Act which offered a prize of 20,000 pounds (several million in modern money) to anyone who could devise a timepiece that could operate with accuracy at sea. The size of the reward shows just how serious this issue was. Great Britain was now a maritime nation that wished to “rule the waves”, but the huge losses of ships at sea, caused by navigational errors, presented a severe handicap to this ambition.

Enter John Harrison

The man who solved the problem was John Harrison (1693-1776), a carpenter’s son from Lincolnshire with no formal education but with an interest in clocks. Although he had only built a few wooden clocks before seeking the longitude prize, he had made several important advances in their accuracy and believed that he had the answer.

He heard about the yet-to-be-claimed prize in 1726, and in 1730 had designed a portable version of his best long-case clock. He showed his drawings to Edmond Halley, the Astronomer Royal, who advised him to consult a well-known clockmaker named George Graham. Graham was impressed by the design and lent Harrison the money to build a prototype clock.

This clock, now referred to as “H1” was completed by 1735. Although portable by the standards of the day, it still weighed 72 pounds. Halley and Graham recommended that it should be tested at sea, and this was done in 1736 on a voyage to Lisbon. Harrison’s clock was accurate enough to correct the ship’s reckoning by one and a half degrees, which was sufficient to persuade the “Board of Navigation” to make Harrison an award of 500 pounds to allow him to make an improved prototype.

The next two prototypes, H2 and H3, were even heavier than H1, and beset with various technical problems, but the real breakthrough came with H4, which was built to a different specification altogether.

This was a large pocket-watch, more than five inches in diameter but only weighing three pounds. Harrison had intended to use this only as a means of “transferring” time from land to sea, so that the sea clock could be set accurately before a ship left port, but he found that H4 worked far better than expected and made the heavy sea clock unnecessary.

How John Harrison eventually won his reward

The terms of the prize were that the timepiece should be sent on a voyage to the West Indies (a regular route at the time of the slave trade), and the amount of the award would depend on the degree of accuracy of the clock or watch. The full 20,000 pounds would be paid if the longitude obtained was correct to within 30 miles, but if this was only 60 miles the prize would reduce to 10,000 miles.

When tested in 1761, the watch lost only 5.1 seconds over the 81 days of the round voyage, although this figure was arrived at by making an allowance, or “rate”, for the known performance of the timepiece over that length of time. Unfortunately, this was not made clear by Harrison at the outset, and the discrepancy nullified the trial. As a result, he was only awarded 2,500 pounds, and this would only be paid if the result was confirmed by a second trial.

This second trial took place in 1764, with a gain of one second per day. On the outer voyage of 47 days, the watch allowed computation of the longitude to within 10 miles, which was three times better than the maximum requirement of the test and should have been enough to land Harrison the full 20,000 pound prize.

However, the Board of Longitude refused to believe that the watch was that accurate and made all sorts of stipulations before they would agree to hand over the money. Harrison was required to make two more watches, and to hand over the original watch so that it could be dismantled and examined by a committee. If an independent craftsman could replicate the watch, Harrison would be awarded the balance of 10,000 pounds, with the remaining 10,000 pounds only being payable if the two extra watches were produced.

When the committee met in August 1765 and examined the H4 watch in Harrison’s presence they were sufficiently impressed to pay him the money, but it was still only half of what had originally been promised. Harrison was determined to win the full amount.

When H4 was copied by a master watchmaker, Larcum Kendall, in 1769, it was found to be of such excellent craftsmanship that it was taken by Captain Cook on his second and third voyages of discovery and used to map the South Pacific Ocean.

Before Harrison could produce another watch, mariners were able to make full use of another invention, namely the sextant, which could be used to make much more accurate calculations of local time and thus render the rival lunar distance method more workable. Harrison therefore had to produce something that was even more accurate than H4, and he was not even allowed access to his own invention when building the new watch, which was labelled H5.

In order to get H5 tested, and to claim the rest of the 20,000 pounds, Harrison was forced to appeal to the King, and in 1772 H5 was tested by the Royal Observatory and found to keep time to within a third of a second a day. Nevertheless, the Board refused to acknowledge the test and it was only when Harrison appealed to Prime Minister (Lord North), and a further Act of Parliament was passed in 1773, that the full prize was finally awarded.

However, Harrison was by now an old man, and he only had three years left in which to bask in the recognition that he so fully deserved. He died in 1776 on what was believed to be his 83rd birthday.

One has to suppose that the Board of Navigation never really believed that anyone would meet the full terms of the prize, which had been unclaimed since 1714, and was always going to be reluctant to award it to a man whose background was in joinery and was, to all intents and purposes, an amateur when in came to clocks and watches. However, John Harrison was an extremely clever and inventive man who was prepared to spend many years on getting something as good as he could get it.

One innovation that Harrison incorporated was the bimetallic strip, being a strip of two metals fixed together such that changes in temperature would be compensated due to the different expansion coefficients of the two metals. This is the principle used in many later inventions, including the electric toaster. In clocks and watches, the mechanism will not be subject to warping as the temperature rises and falls, thus affecting the accuracy of the timepiece.

The modern marine chronometer, developed from Harrison’s watches, enabled the British Navy to explore and chart the world’s oceans for the next 200 years, and helped Great Britain to become a major world power due to its dominance of the sea.

Of course, the advent of satellites has revolutionised navigation and made much of Harrison’s work redundant. That should not, however, diminish the credit that Harrison deserved. Countless lives must have been saved thanks to his hard work and dedication.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Matchlocks, Wheellocks and Flintlocks: How Early Small Arms Were Fired

In the centuries before the invention of the percussion cap, which came into use in the 1830s and 1840s, small arms had to be fired by the cumbersome (and often dangerous) means of igniting a primer charge of gunpowder in the weapon’s “pan,” which then ignited the main charge in the barrel.
There were three basic methods of so doing, namely the matchlock, wheellock, and flintlock. Wheellock and flintlock weapons were devised to overcome the problems presented by the matchlock method.
Matchlock weapons
The matchlock ignition system was developed around the end of the 15th century, and was clearly copied from the means used to fire larger artillery pieces. The idea was that a piece of cord was kept smouldering and used many times to fire charges of gunpowder. This avoided the need to “strike a light” each time, which was itself a tricky and uncertain procedure in the days before friction matches had been invented.
The match was essentially a fuse, comprising a length of cord that was soaked in a very strong solution of saltpetre (potassium nitrate, one of the components of gunpowder) and allowed to dry. Once ignited, the cord would burn very slowly.
With a handheld weapon, as opposed to a fixed artillery piece, it was obviously impractical for the soldier to hold the weapon steady at the same time as applying the end of a piece of cord to a firing pan. A trigger mechanism was therefore devised that allowed the user to concentrate on holding and aiming the weapon as it was fired.
A short length of match was therefore attached to a mechanical, S-shaped arm which was fitted to a plate set into the stock of the weapon, which was held against the shoulder. Pressing the trigger, which was usually set underneath the stock, would swing the arm forward, bringing the glowing end of the match into contact with the primer powder in the pan of the weapon, which in turn set off the main charge.
The procedure for firing such a weapon, be it an arquebus or early musket, was a clumsy affair, involving the insertion of powder, ball and wadding into the barrel, ramming them home, then priming the pan. A soldier would do well to get more than one shot off in a minute, and he would be vulnerable to attack between shots. The usual procedure was for soldiers to fall back after they had fired, to be replaced by others whose weapons were primed and ready
The matchlock method had a number of disadvantages, as well as its slow operation. In wet or damp conditions the match could be extinguished and need to be relit, using a tinderbox, or replaced. Sometimes this would be impossible, making the weapons completely useless.
In a strong wind the match could do more than just smoulder, producing sparks that were highly dangerous when gunpowder was being handled. A spark could ignite the powder in a neighbouring gun, which might be pointing anywhere at the time.
Early matchlock weapons required the user to carry charges of gunpowder on his person, as well as spare lit matches. The combination of the two was clearly highly dangerous
Despite these disadvantages, matchlock weapons were in general military use in Asia and Europe for several hundred years. The Chinese used such weapons as early as the 14th century, and they were common in Europe from the late 15th century. It was only from the mid 16th century onwards that other firing methods, namely the wheellock and flintlock, superseded the matchlock.
The picture shows members of the Sealed Knot, who re-enact battles from the English Civil War, in various stages of firing matchlock weapons. The photographer has caught the moment of a priming charge being ignited but before the main charge has been fired. Should the latter fail to happen, this would be an instance of a “flash in the pan”, which is how that expression originated.
Wheellock weapons
The matchlock system, in which heat was supplied by a naked flame in the form of a smouldering piece of cord brought into direct contact with gunpowder in an open pan, was a process that was not only dangerous but unreliable. The way forward was to use friction as the heat source, and the first method to do so was the wheellock, which was used on weapons from around 1550 to 1650, although weapons from both before and after these dates can be found.
The idea of the wheellock was a simple one, although the mechanism was quite complicated, and later versions of muskets and pistols developed in various directions. What is described here is the fundamental operating principle of the wheellock.
The wheel was made of steel, with a roughened edge, set on a square spindle. The edge of the wheel, which was set vertically to the stock of the weapon, met the pan beside the touchhole that conveyed heat to the main charge inside the barrel. The wheel was also linked to a powerful V-spring.
Another vital part of the mechanism was a metal arm that held in its jaws a piece of pyrites, a commonly found mineral which was renowned for its ability to strike sparks when in contact with steel. Indeed, the word derives from the Greek for “fire”.
In order to fire a wheellock weapon, the wheel needed to be wound against the spring, which was done by fitting a key to the square spindle and turning it until the spring was fully compressed. The wheel would then be held in place by a “sear”, a small arm that engaged with a hole in the side of the wheel, thus locking it in place. The piece of pyrites then had to be placed against the edge of the wheel and held firmly against it by a ratchet device of some kind. Finally, after a pinch of powder was placed in the pan, the weapon was ready to be fired.
The action of pulling the trigger withdrew the sear from the wheel, causing it to spin rapidly as the pressure of the spring took over. The rubbing of the wheel against the pyrites produced sparks which, when they reached the pan, ignited the powder.
The gunman would then have to reload the weapon and pull the pyrites away from the wheel before repeating the process for the next shot. All in all, it was not a notably faster process than that required for operating a matchlock weapon, but it was somewhat safer and was not as reliant on good weather conditions, given that less powder was needed to prime it and there was therefore less chance of it getting wet or being blown out of the pan by the wind. There was also less risk of a “flash in the pan”, meaning the burning of the powder in the pan without a subsequent firing of the main charge, caused by the touchhole being blocked or the powder trail not being complete.
Despite the advantages of the wheellock it was expensive to produce and tended to be used more for hunting by aristocrats than by armies in the field.
The army soldier had to make do with matchlock weapons for many years after wheellock mechanisms were available. Not only were matchlocks cheaper and less complex, with less to go wrong in terms of their mechanical operation, but their operators were more dispensable, the safety of the common soldier not being a prime consideration.
The wheellock did, however, make possible the development of personal weapons in the form of pistols, which would have been quite impractical under the matchlock system. Again, pistols were the property of rich people, and many became prized possessions with gunsmiths encouraged to produce highly ornate pieces, with inlays of ivory, gold and silver on the stocks and/or barrels (see picture).
The real successor to the matchlock was, therefore, not the wheellock but the simpler, and therefore more enduring, flintlock.
Flintlock weapons
The true successor to the matchlock firearm was the flintlock. The wheellock had its disadvantages, not least being the expense of constructing weapons that incorporated the necessarily complex mechanism. As a result, wheellocks and matchlocks continued to be used in parallel for around 100 years, and it was only when flintlocks came into general use, in the later 17th century, that the matchlock’s days were numbered.
There were several precursors to the flintlock, including the snaplock and snaphance, but the true flintlock could be said to date from the invention, by Marin le Bourgeoys, of a mechanism that enabled a weapon to be loaded in advance of the need to fire it, as opposed to in response to immediate need. This clearly brought huge advantages to the soldier in the field, who was far less likely to be caught by surprise.
Le Bourgeoys was a courtier at the courts of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, and his invention dates from the early years of Louis’s reign (i.e. around 1610-15). Dumas’s “Three Musketeers”, although fictional, could therefore have been early users of Le Bourgeoys flintlocks. The heyday of the flintlock came in the later 17th and 18th centuries.
The basic idea of the flintlock was that a piece of flint was brought into sharp contact with a piece of steel, producing sparks that then ignited gunpowder in a pan, in turn igniting a charge of powder in the barrel of the gun via a touchhole.
The flint was held in the jaws of a cock, which could be pulled back against the force of a strong spring. When released by the trigger being pulled, the cock would be forced forwards so that the flint would strike an upright steel piece, called a frizzen, producing the necessary sparks.
One feature that made the flintlock such an advance on its predecessors was the two-position device invented by Le Bourgeoys. When the cock was pulled half-way back, a metal arm called a sear was able to drop into a slot on the shaped metal block, the tumbler, to which the cock was attached. In this position, the trigger could not be pulled, thus constituting the first ever safety catch. Only when the cock was pulled all the way back was the sear ejected from its slot and the trigger able to be pulled.
A second very useful feature was that the frizzen was L-shaped. The flint struck against the upright long arm of the L, whereas the short arm covered the pan, in which the primer powder had been placed. The act of striking the frizzen forced the pan to be opened at the same time that the sparks were being produced. There was therefore no danger of the powder being affected by the weather, and no danger of its being ignited accidentally, which could easily happen with a matchlock weapon.
The flintlock musket or pistol could therefore be carried in the half-cock position, loaded, in perfect safety. When the owner needed to fire, he only had to aim, pull the cock all the way back, and pull the trigger. He could then reload and prime the pan, even if he had no intention of firing again immediately.
Many improvements were made to the basic flintlock mechanism over the years, with the method being applied to weapons of various types, including multibarreled and breech-loading weapons. They were eventually superseded by percussion cap weapons in the mid-19th century. However, flintlocks are still produced today in some places, for hunting as well as historical re-enactments.
© John Welford