To my knowledge, nobody has cared to do close research in this topic so far.
), also called slow match or fuse, must have been used for igniting firearms from almost the very beginning. In the earliest two pictorial representations of a gun, the Christ Church and the Holkham manuscripts by Walter de Milemete of 1326/7 (top four attachments) we cannot clearly discern what substance is actually used to ignite the gun; at least in the Christ Church ms it seems to be a somewhat longer and thicker substance much resembling a piece of match clamped in a linstock:
Anyway, matchcord seems to have come into use in the course of the 14th century. For small guns, it is recorded to have been employed until the military end of the matchlock era, which was ca. the 1730's. At that time we find the latest records and drill instructions including service employment of matchlock muskets.
Big pieces, i.e. pieces of artillery/cannon, had of course to be lit by either igniting irons (ca. 14th to 18th c.) or linstocks holding match from the 14th c. until the end of the muzzle-loading era, the mid-19th century.
Slow match basically consisted of three main strands of fibrous hemp including a considerable amount of porous cortex, twisted and soaked in saltpeter/nitrate (Salpeter/Bleizucker
). As this chemical solution is volatile it can usuallly no longer be proven in existing pieces of matchcord. However, according to experiments by the author, unsoaked hemp will also smolder constantly to an extent where it can be stopped safely only be either chopping off the glowing end or dipping it into water.
From all we know, matchcord, just like saltpeter (animal urine), was produced by the rural population and purchased by the armories measured by weight. Of course, the dimensions measured up to literally tons. They were handed out to the troops in both larger and smaller bundles.
Surviving large bundles today are extremely few, known only in the armories in both Churburg, Sluderno/South Tyrol, and the Fortress Armory of Coburg/Franconia. A great number of them is known to have been kept in the fortress of Hohenwerfen near Salzburg/Austria but was sold together with the complete contents at auction in New York in 1927.
The author was given the chance to closely inspect the bundles preserved at the Fortress Museum (Veste) in Coburg. They measure about 80 cm length in average, each consisting of a great number of loops adding up to a total length of ca. 35-40 m per bundle. Small bundles carried by both musketeers and calivermen only seem to be preserved in the Vienna Arsenal (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Wien
), plus another in the author's collection; they measure approximately two to three meters in length, laid in small loops.
Such small bundles are depicted to be carried by both musketeers and calivermen as 'man's portion' (Mannportion
) by Jacob de Gheyn in his famous manual Wapenhandelinghe
The author has been assured several times by the leading experts of both museums and international auction houses that, in all probability, he posseses the largest amount of original matchcord in private hands recorded worldwide, including two bundles of ca. 5 m length each, both from the Emden armory, a small Austrian bundle/man's portion of ca. 2,50 m (as mentioned), plus a great number of various lengths from various provenances, and ranging from the 15th/16th to the 17th/18th century, including some considerable lengths of the thickest, rarest and earliest type of matchcord known: from the armory of Schloss Fronsberg, Styria/Austria, sold at auction by Tom Del Mar, London, December 15, 2004.
It is generally assumed that soaked matchcord will consume ca. 60 to 80 cm an hour when smoldering.
The average thickness/diameter of surviving samples of matchcord varies but, consistent both with depictions in period artwork and the Fronsberg samples, seems to have been as thick as ca. 2 cm in earliest times up to the first half of the 16th century, narrowing down to ca. 10-15 mm by the mid-16th century.
It should be noted that in the earliest times of 'matchlock' mechanisms, from ca. 1410 to ca. 1530, matchcord was way too thick to fit the jaws of the rather tiny early matchlock serpentines of the few surviving Late-Gothic and Early-Renaissance arquebuses. Thus it is depicted to be carried glowing by the arquebusier, either held in one hand or wound around the left arm, in pieces of period artwork from ca. 1480 (Diebold Schilling, The Berne Chronicle
) to the 1540's (paintings and tapestries of the Battle of Pavia, 1525, and cardboard watercolors of the Tunis Campaign by Charles V and tapestries woven after these cardboards).
In those times, slow match was only used to ignite a small piece of tinder
fixed in the jaws of the serpentine of the arquebus: thus, as the aforementioned instances of period artwork clearly depict, and as I have stated various times before, the actual ignition was achieved by glowing tinder and these earliest mechanisms should consequently be called tinderlocks
instead of 'matchlocks'.
It is true that tinder stayed in use for both reserve tinder holders on military types of combined wheellock and 'matchlock' mechanisms until at least the early 17th century, and for traditional types of snap tinderlocks for target shooting way up to the mid-18th century. On the whole however, surviving specimens of arquebuses prove that by ca. the mid-16th century, the serpentines - tender and tiny though they still were - could be opened wide enough by turning the wingnuts to receive, and hold, an average thickness of matchcord, which as I have stated had been sufficiently reduced in diameter by that time.
Please see also
, top to bottom:
- Walter de Milemete, Christ Church ms, 1326/7 (4 attachments)
- Walter de Milemete, Holkham ms, 1326 (1 att.)
- bundles of matchcord in the Churburg armory (2 atts.)
- bundles of matchcord in the Veste Coburg and close ups, of rather dense and hard consistency (6 atts.)