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Swedish Snaphance guns from the mid 17th century.

A Snaphance or Snaphaunce is a particular type of mechanism for firing a gun or a gun using that mechanism.[1] The name is Dutch in origin but the mechanism can not be attributed to the Netherlands with certainty. It is the mechanical progression of the wheel-lock firing mechanism and the predecessor of the flintlock firing mechanism. It fires from a flint struck against a striker plate above a steel pan to ignite the priming powder which fires the gun.[2] Examples of this firearm can be found through Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.


A snaphance lock cocked and ready to fire:

External view of a cocked snaphance lock
External view, showing the cock and frizzen rotated back.
Internal view of a cocked snaphance lock
Internal view, showing the flash pan cover closed and the lateral sear engaged.

The same lock, fired:

External view of a fired snaphance lock
External view, showing the cock and frizzen rotated forward.
Internal view of a fired snaphance lock
Internal view, showing the flash pan cover pushed forward to open the pan and the lateral sear disengaged.

Snaphance sparking

Like the earlier snaplock and later flintlock, the snaphance drives a flint onto a steel to create a shower of sparks to ignite the main charge (propellant).

The flint is held in a clamp at the end of a bent lever called the cock. Upon pulling the trigger, this moves forward under the pressure of a strong spring and strikes a curved plate of hardened steel (called simply the steel, or in 17th century English dialect the frizzen) to produce a shower of sparks (actually white-hot steel shavings). These fall into a flash pan holding priming powder. The flash from the pan travels through the touch hole to cause the main charge of gunpowder to explode. The steel is at the end of an arm that can be moved independently of the pan cover.

The snaphance first appeared in the late 1550s as an improvement of the earlier snaplock in one or more of the following countries: Spain, Holland, Germany, Scotland, or Sweden.[3] The main improvement was that the pan-cover opened automatically (to keep the priming dry until the exact moment of firing), as in the wheel-lock. (The snaplock had a manually operated pan cover similar to that of the matchlock. Some definitions class the snaphaunce as a sub-type of snaplock.) Also like the wheel-lock, the snaphance used a lateral sear mechanism to connect trigger to cock. Later models had a variety of safety mechanisms to prevent accidental discharge of the gun. Without these the weapons, like any firearm, could be highly dangerous: Hakluyt's "Voyages" records the death of one of the men on Cavendish's circumnavigation in the 1580s due to an accidental discharge during a hurried re-embarkation on the coast of Ecuador, specifically mentioning the weapon was a snaphance. The snaphaunce has a form of safety built into its design, since the steel (frizzen) could be manually moved forward so that if the cock should be released accidentally it would not strike sparks. This led to an inherent disadvantage: in the flintlock when at half-cock and the frizzen is closed, the flint is in close proximity to the steel and can easily be adjusted to strike square to and in the center of the steel; in the snaphaunce the cock can only be at full-cock or down, where it prevents the steel from being brought back to the firing position, so the flint is more difficult to align. The development of the snaphance occurred separately but at the same time as the creation of the miquelet.[3]


The snaphance was used from the late 1550s until modern times (in North African guns), but by about 1680 it was out of fashion everywhere except Northern Italy where it persisted until the 1750s. In Europe, and especially France, the snaphance was replaced by the flintlock with its combined steel/pan cover starting from about 1620. In England, a hybrid mechanism called the English Lock replaced the snaphance from the same date. Both the flintlock and the English lock were cheaper and less complex than the snaphance.

The snaphance dominated the New England gun market until it fell out of favor in the middle of the 17th Century. Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut outlawed the outdated mechanism by the late 17th Century.[4]


The origin of the name snaphance is thought to come from the Dutch language "Snap Haan" or German language "Schnapphahn"—both of which roughly mean "cock peck" or "snapping lever", and could relate to the shape of the mechanism and its downward-darting action (and would also explain the name "cock" for the beak-shaped mechanism which holds the flint). A more fanciful explanation relates to the use of this type of gun by chicken thieves, who would be given away by the sight and smell of a burning match if they had used the earlier matchlock gun in their nocturnal depredations. The German word Schnapphahn had however since moved away from the earlier definitions and has traditionally referred to a mounted highwayman, who would have been likely to use a firearm of that nature. The French chenapan also changed its meaning in the seventeenth century to define a rogue or scoundrel. During the Second Northern and Scanian Wars, a "Snapphane" was a pro-Danish Guerilla-man in Scania, which had just been annexed by Sweden, as they wanted to belong to Denmark instead.

In Swedish the word Snapphane is first recorded 1558 in a letter from King Gustav I to his son Duke John of Finland "reffvelske snaphaner" (Snapphanar from Tallinn-Reval), earlier correspondence were discussing Estonian privateers and problems created by them in Russian commerce. In the inventories of the Royal Armoury in Stockholm the term snapphanelås (snaphance lock) appears first in 1730, after the conquest of the former Danish provinces of Skåne, Halland and Blekinge in 1670s. The local peasant warriors were then called snapphanar and their typical smallbore rifles (see picture) were described as having snapphanelås: locks or rifles used by the Snapphanar. In the earlier inventories the term used is always snapplås (snaplock).

In K. J. Parker's novel The Hammer which takes place in a fictional universe, the pistols are referred to explicitly as "snapping-hens".

See also


  1. Frederick C. Mish, ed (Electronic). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Retrieved 26 November 2012. 
  2. Godwin, Brian. "Brian Godwin on The English Snaphance". Retrieved 26 November 2012. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chapel, Charles Edward (2002). Guns of the Old West : an illustrated guide. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 12. ISBN 9780486421612. Retrieved 26 November 2012. 
  4. Russell, Carl P. (2005). "Arming the American Indian". Guns on the early frontiers : from colonial times to the years of the Western fur trade. New York: Dover. pp. 9. ISBN 0486436810. 

External links

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