The first small arms came into general use at the end of the 14th cent. Initially they were nothing more than a small cannon held in the hands, fired by placing a lighted match at the touchhole; later a stock was added. The matchlock, the first real handgun, was fired by pulling a trigger that moved a lighted match to the touchhole; it was superseded by the wheel lock, which was fired by a spark-producing mechanism that ignited the gunpowder. By the end of the 16th cent. the wheel lock had been replaced by the flintlock, in which flint striking against steel produced a spark to fire the powder. Early matchlocks, wheel locks, and flintlocks bore many different names; common types included the musket, harquebus, and pistol. The musket was a heavy military firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder; the harquebus, an earlier and heavier weapon, was fired from a support. The pistol, in contrast, was designed to be held and fired with one hand.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.