Monday, April 30, 2018

An Early French Pistol By Brian Godwin

In 1939, the late Torsten Lenk, later Director of the Tojhusmuset in Copenhagen, published his monumental study on the flintlock and established a foundation by which most early flintlocks have since been identified and dated. The book was translated into English in 1965 as The Flintlock, its Origins and Development  and over 50 years later it remains today the definitive study on the subject. Some dates applied by Lenk to the very earliest flintlocks have since been challenged and amended by later students but the study still remains of great importance and has been used in these notes to date the early pistol that is the subject of this article.

The subject pistol has a flintlock of the type that Dr. Lenk defined as the true flintlock – that is, it has a combine flash-pan cover and steel, commonly known as a frizzen, and internally it uses a vertically acting sear that engages in two notches in the tumbler to give half and full cock. He first attributes this type of lock to the Le Bourgeois gunmakers from Lisieux in Normandy, sometime before 1615. This date is now thought more likely to be during the 1620s. At first this new flintlock was just the plaything of the King of France, Louis XIII, and remained as such until the 1630s when examples left the French Court and were copied and made by other In addition to the Dr Lenk’s book, a flintlock gun dated 1636 and an illustration from a design pattern book dated 1635, will be used as comparison with the subject pistol in an attempt to reach a conclusive date of its manufacture.

Although considerably affected by corrosion, worm and loss of wood, the subject pistol has been painstakingly restored. From its long, slender lines and rudimentary lock it is immediately apparent that this is a very early flintlock. Although the pistol is 24 inches in length (60.5cm) it weights only 1. pounds. The .55 (14mm) caliber barrel is 16 inches (42.5cm) in length and is formed in two stages, octagonal from the breech, changing to round at about half its length. It is secured by two transverse pins, the breech held firmly by side-nail, which passes through an extended section of the breech-plug. There is a very faint but unidentifiable makers mark at the breech. Lenk states that pistol barrels were of this length during the 1630s and became shorter after about 1650.

The full stock is made of pear wood, the fore-end fluted along its entire length thus reducing any unnecessary weight and giving the pistol a very elegant overall appearance. The faceted rear section of the stock is made from a separate piece and terminates in a flattened hexagonal pommel. It is possible that the pommel was originally covered in thin sheet silver, embossed with a punched design and similar to that on a pair of pistols in the Wrangel Armoury at Skokloster Castle, Sweden [No.5753/5754] and another pair in the Musee de l’Armee,Paris [[Inv.No.M.411], both pairs dating from the 1630s.

The pommels of these pistols also appear to be made from a separate piece of wood. There is, incidentally, no side-plate or cup-washers to protect the stock from the heads of the side-nails. The looped shape trigger guard is quite thin in section, and has a long rear tang extending down to the pommel and fixed by a nail. There is only one ramrod pipe, and according to Lenk, the use of a rear ramrod pipe was not made on French firearms until the 1650s.

The lock perhaps provides some of the strongest clues for dating this pistol. The thick lockplate is flat with a bevelled edge, the rear section drawn out into a rounded tongue, a shape common to the early flintlock. On the upper edge, between the cock and the flashpan, there is a curious S-shaped recess which can also be seen on the Duclos gun dated 1636, Daubigny’s designs of the 1630s and some other early flintlocks.

A design for a flintlock from the pattern book of the French designer/engraver Philippe Cordier Daubigny, published in 1635.

Above 2 images - detail of a combined flint and match-lock superimposed load gun by Francois Duclos, dated 1636 (Musee de l’Armee, Paris -M.410)

The shape of the cock is very similar to the illustrations in the pattern book of Philippe Daubigny, published in 1635 and to the 1636 Duclos gun, although the subject lock has only a small amount of engraved decoration. The cock is of flat section, the upper half retaining the straightness which reflects the influence of the very first flintlock cocks. The front edge has a small upward curving spur and the rear has a similar upward curving spur, although in this case it extends to become an ornamental filling for the rear curve of the cock (compare with the Duclos gun). Lenk suggests that these spurs are rudiments of the earlier flintlock buffer stop and the snaphance cocking foot. Although the front edge spur disappeared from flintlocks during the 1640s, the rear spur curve filling, which adds strength to the delicately formed cock, continued to be used well into the 18th  century. The plum-shaped top-jaw screw and the triangular shaped flashpan (attached by a single screw) are both feature from the 1630s (these can be seen on the Duclos gun).

The steel has a multi-faceted front, with the upper corners cut off, while the steel spring is mounted on the inside of the lockplate. Both features are again common to flintlocks of the 1630s, including the Duclos gun, although the internal steel spring was used on some flintlocks until the early 1650s. This of course adds to the streamline appearance of the exterior of the pistol.

Internally, the lock features a short but powerful mainspring with a deeply curved hook. The hook fits snugly against a corresponding curve in the spur of the tumbler, which is in itself an unusual early shape, resembling a helmeted human head. These features are to be found on several flintlocks of the 1630s.

 The split sear: made in two pieces; the larger half with the sear arm, the small inner half with a longer nose and having its own spring.

A most interesting internal feature of the lock is the split sear safety device. The sear is made in two pieces; the outer half with the sear arm in the usual way and the inner half with a slightly longer nose. The inner half has its own spring. When the lock is in the half cock position the inner sear cannot be moved by the action of the trigger. It can only be released fully when in the full cock position. Lenk states that this constructional feature was discontinued after the middle of the seventeenth century. That said, the celebrated London gunmaker, John Twigg, used the same device on some of his firearms during the 1770s (see Neal & Back "Great British Gunmakers 1740-1790", Figures 106-109).

An early detached French lock signed Mayer a Lyon , c1640 - note the internal frizzen spring and split sear.

Above and below a pair of French flintlock pistols, 1630s, with silver butt caps (Wrangle Armoury, Skokloster Castle, Sweden - No.5753/5754).

The subject pistol bears a remarkable similarity to the pair of holster pistols mentioned earlier which are in the Wrangel Armoury at Skokloster Castle, Sweden, and date to the 1630s. These pistols which are very plain apart from the silver mounts, have a comparable barrel mark to the pistol in this article.
They are depicted in a portrait of Carl Gustaf Wrangel, painted in 1652.

In conclusion, the type of long barrelled holster pistol presented here was considered by Dr Lenk as the type produced in Northern Europe during the period 1630 – 1650. He considered that this form of pistol developed directly from the elegant long-barrelled wheellock pistols produced in France during the 1620s and it was to set a precedent for pistol design that influenced the rest of Europe. Even though the subject pistol has sustained some serious damage it still remains a very rare and early piece. Comparison of the stylistic, decorative and mechanical features of the pistol with the points raised in Dr Lenk’s thesis, together with the Duclos, Skokloster guns and other sources mentioned above, confirm with some certainty that the subject pistol was produced in France between 1635 and 1640.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am a history podcaster, researching the "Braddock Pistol," ca. 1750, which bears the maker's mark, "Gabbitas." I am hoping to determine who the maker may have been. I understand that there was a William Gabbitas, gunsmith, in Bristol as of 1768, but it seems likely he may have been too young to be the maker of the Braddock Pistol. I would very much appreciate any guidance. I know that Mr. Godwin has published a short book on Bristol gunmakers, but I cannot find a way to access it in the USA. I would appreciate very much if there is any way I could contact Mr. Godwin.
    Best regards,
    Samuel Biagetti


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.