Throughout time and around the world, man has made some historic finds by accident. In Thailand, the Emerald Buddha which now rests in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, was originally found after lightening struck a chedi (temple) in the mid 1400s and revealed the statue’s precious green jade from under it’s stucco covering. All through Western Civilization, many statues and treasures were painted over to make them look cheap and valuables were cast into cement. Many relics were lost or destroyed before archaeologists and historians have realized their finds. I own such a piece that could have easily been resold or even thrown away.
My Mom used to own an antique store and she was always hunting for interesting treasures and good deals. One day, while rummaging in one of Denver’s many antique shops, she came across an ugly and dirty powder horn. There was so much muck and dirt all over the powder horn, you couldn’t even discern if it was made of metal or animal horn. My Mom called my Dad to see if he was interested and of course he said, “I’ll have a look at it.” Upon purchasing the powder horn, for cheap I might add, she found out that this chewed up, clunky musket shaped eyesore thing came with it. I remember when those pieces came home and only the powder horn looked worth spending the time to clean it up. There is probably no way that I can describe how ridiculous that the matchlock looked when it came into our possession, but I will try.
My Mom described it as some type of crude prop gun for a high school play or some other “no budget” event. There were so many coats of paint on it that it had completely changed the shape of the matchlock. There was no way that you could tell that there was even wood under several inches of paint. The lock mechanism itself was not even visible. Within the week, the firearm shaped blob went into the woodpile (fine pieces of walnut, cherry, oak, birch, etc.) that was used for various projects. The gun (unbeknownst to us) was soon buried and forgotten about.
My family moved once again and a decade or so passed by. I came home for Christmas break during my College years to find a breathtaking firearm and powder horn from the fifteenth or sixteenth century hanging on the wall. I stood in awe and asked my Dad where the museum relics came from and he happily told me the story of how he had restored the powder horn and couldn’t believe what he had all of these years. That got him to thinking about the forgotten abomination in the woodpile. It took weeks of patience to whittle through what was literally thousands of coats of paint, lacquer and crud. I can only imagine how he must have felt when he started seeing brass and fine wood. Aside from carving a few more decoys, this matchlock was one of the last projects that my Dad felt like doing. The hours that he spent restoring this firearm from its original condition is unbelievable.
The matchlock (circa the early 15th century) was a big step in the development of firearms. Its predecessors were the hand cannon and handgonne whose projectiles were also forced into motion by expanding gases created from exploding gunpowder (saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal). The matchlock or arquebus was significant because it allowed the shooter to utilize both hands to stabilize the weapon when firing, which in turn allowed for better accuracy. The serpentine held the match cord, which was a length of cotton soaked in a saltpeter solution. The wheel-lock and flintlock would follow the matchlock’s innovations.
My father was not able to find out very much about the gun, but when it went to the gun shows for research, it always drew a lot of attention. The most we were able to find out about the firearm was that it seems to be an Algerian matchlock from the mid-1400s. The muzzle was chewed up pretty badly, and though it isn’t historically correct, my Dad affixed a brass muzzle made from a bell to make it look more aesthetically pleasing. The lock was made to work again after what were probably centuries of abuse. A makeshift serpentine was carved out of walnut to be temporarily put in place until further research on the serpentine’s exact time period and design could be established. I look forward to learning more about this mystery matchlock. Though many have said that the matchlock is Algerian, to me it looks more like a Japanese/Portuguese arquebus. I would like to finish what my dad started, though I like it just as it is for now.