The turn of the 18th century brought an end to the era of matchlock muskets and the flintlock arrived to reign for over 100 years. Most historians accept the fact that the flintlock was a vastly superior weapon, but how much of an edge did the musket really have?
First let’s look at the basic concept of the matchlock musket. Matchlocks evolved throughout multiple wars, but the first of them were operated by a lever. The lever would trigger the pin with attached match cord to move down and light the powder in the pan. Later, matchlocks developed to have a trigger. The muskets were usually at the shoulder of the musketeer, measuring 140 cm (4’5). To load a matchlock, you would pour some powder in the pan, close the pan and blow off the loose powder, pour powder and ball down the barrel, ram the charge, light the match, and fire. The process would usually take a minute for inexperienced musketeers, but many could fire twice per minute.
Now let’s look at the flintlock. The flintlock operated with a simple system with a hammer, frizzen, and pan. The musket was similar in length and weight to a matchlock and were used in the latter 17th century and continued to be used throughout the 18th century and even through the Napoleonic Wars, ending in 1815. Loading a flintlock was easy to learn for common infantrymen. The soldier would pour some powder into the pan and close the frizzen over it. Then, he would charge the musket by pouring the ball and powder into the barrel from a cartridge. The bullet would be rammed and then he would pull back the hammer. The flint would strike the pan and spark the powder, firing the musket.
Many would label the flintlock as the superior weapon immediately since it clearly arrived on the battlefield after the development of matchlock muskets. However, the flintlock did not have much of an edge at all. Loading times were staggeringly similar. Trained musketeers in the 1680s and 90s fired flintlocks in 30 seconds, just two seconds less than the average time to fire a matchlock (according to John Tincey in Osprey MAA 267). The weight and lengths of these muskets were comparably the same, too. Both weapons would frequently misfire due to problems with their pans and damp powder would not fire from either musket. Many musketeers continued to use the matchlock into the very early 18th century. So why was it replaced?
Matchlock musketeers carried their powder in wooden cartridges slung around their shoulders, nicknamed ‘apostles.’ Musketballs were carried in a pouch, and powder for their pans was in a horn. Including this, the musketeer had wadding in a separate pouch. These were very fiddly to operate, and would waste time. In the heat of battle, a musketeer may forget which ‘apostle’ he used and may forget wadding, causing a muzzle flash but no shot. Musketeers in the flintlock-era solved this problem by using paper cartridges, which were quicker to load and more effective. Flintlock muskets also had the ability to attach bayonets to them. The plug bayonet could be used by matchlocks, but this prevented firing, and many matchlock musketeers relied on swords or their regiment’s pikemen to defend them. Socket and plug bayonets were more common for the flintlock, and when Louis XIV first introduced the socket bayonet, it was exclusive to flintlock muskets. Flintlocks also removed the problems with matchcords, which would fizzle out on many occasions and cause uncoordinated firing from companies. Flintlocks were perfect for volleys and therefore suited the evolving style of European armies.
The advantage is taken by the flintlock thanks to technological advances away from the musket itself. When presented head-to-head, these muskets were not much different from one another. Mass production in the Industrial Revolution played a large role in the flintlock overtaking the matchlock as the primary weapon on the battlefield, as well as the disappearance of pikes and the evolution of the Marlburian-Era tactics.