FIREARMS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION - PISTOLS
Within reasonable limits the statement is true that pistols in Revolutionary War time were only useful in hand-to-hand encounters. Their inaccuracy at any but shortest range, and the inability of the user to keep one correctly pointed during the considerable interval between pressing the trigger and the exit of the bullet, were so generally recognized that sights on any but dueling pistols were considered unnecessary. An expensive pistol, or the pistol of a person skilled in the use of firearms, sometimes had a front sight of generous bulk, but its purpose was more to enable the eye readily to locate the position of the muzzle in quick aiming than to offer assistance in accurately aligning the barrel. Under such circumstances army pistols were really no more than pistol clubs, more effective, perhaps, as clubs; large, heavy, strongly built, and weighed and protected at the butt with metal.
Since revolvers were not in use then, and multibarrel pistols that were good for anything besides maiming the user were so expensive that they were relegated to the wealthy, custom decreed that pistolsshould be made and carried in pairs, so that if the first shot missed there was still one shot left as a last resort. Army pistols were carried usually in holsters, one slung each side of the saddle-bow. Both army and navy pistols frequently had belt hooks that were thrust inside the belt, or the sash, or the waistband of the trousers. Sporting pistols were made to be carried either way. Pocket pistols were made in a great variety of sizes, from the tiny one to go in the pocket of the large, loose, and ornamental vest, or medium-sized ones for larger pockets of the clothing, to formidable and rather weighty affairs to be carried in the big outer pockets of the greatcoat.
There always has been and there always will be a fascination for masculine humans in the feel, the looks, the ownership of a pistol. And such men always want the best that money can buy. Therefore, while the unfortunate private soldier had to be content with the simple pistol his government furnished him, his officers and civilians of means created a demand for fancy hand firearms that put the gunsmiths to the keenest exercise of their ingenuity.
It is not surprising, therefore, that by the second half of the eighteenth century — and even before — all conceivable schemes in single and multi-barrel pistols that could be adapted to the flintlock — the principle of the true revolver had long been understood and abandoned as impracticable with such means of firing as was then known—had been devised and most ingeniously utilized. Form, feel to the hand, and decoration reached a degree of excellence never since surpassed. Luxuries such as safeties, single-trigger action in double locks, single and double set-triggers, means for loading at the breech, and so forth, were as developed then as now, and as excellent. While these perfections did not increase the accurate shooting of the weapon, they made it fascinating and they made variety. How many kinds of pistols were used in the Revolutionary War no man knows nor ever will know, for many are lost and along with them all knowledge of them, but enough remains to give some idea as to how great the variety was. The scarcest of all Revolutionary-time pistols is the rifled pistol; military, sporting, and dueling pistols were smooth bored.
Since form, size, mechanism and the endless varieties of the devices for repetition of fire were repeated during the entire flintlock period, as a general rule it is safe to say that the only means of determining the date of manufacture of a flint pistol, and hence the possibility of use at any particular time, is by the marks on it. Hence the need of a list of makers and their dates, proof-marks, etc. In some cities the coat-of-arms of the city was used during a certain period as a proof-mark. The coatof-arms of Liege, Belgium, was used, for instance, up to 1810; of Vienna during the sixteenth century; of Nuremberg up to about 1750, etc. People who were entitled to a crest or coat-of-arms usually had it put upon the name-plate. These can be identified and information regarding them found by reference to Der Wappenbuch, by Stebmacher. One needs a collector's patience, however, as there are sixty large volumes and no index, and it is necessary to know the German spelling; for instance, a search for Liege would be without result, but a search for Liittische would yield the desired knowledge. A good working knowledge of the history of ornament is very useful. English pistols mounted with silver are readily assigned to a date which is liable to be correct within a year by the hall-marks on the silver. These hallmarks are very minute — also very clear and perfect — and should be sought with the aid of a strong glass in the crevices of the ornamentation. They can be identified by comparison with the prints in Chaffer's Book of Hall-marks. Hall-marks of the cities of Continental Europe are given by various books which can be had in great public libraries, such as those of Boston, New York, and St. Louis.
Sawyer, Charles. Firearms in American History. Boston: The Author,
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