History of a gun


Guest post by Mark Hatfield

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History of a gun.

Versatility.  Adaptability.  The ability to do many things, to be set up in many configurations, this is said to be a great feature of the AR design but what about other guns, ones from 179 years ago.

A simple single shot shotgun but with a history, a history of transformation. 

There are no identifying markings that I can find.  Perhaps if I took it apart I might find some but I don’t want to risk damaging it.

It was advertised as a 12 gauge shotgun, a muzzle loader, percussion, half stock, some engraving.  The seller noted that the bore was 0.70 inch.  Twelve gauge is 0.72 inch but for an old, not modern reproduction gun, that’s close enough.  Much more interesting was the rifling.  Yes, the seller showed several pictures of the rifling in the barrel.  Shallow rifling but it was rifled, no doubt about it. 

There was bead front sight, still common on modern shotguns but there was something more.  Clearly shown in photos though not mentioned by the seller was a dovetail cut in the barrel.  This gun once had, or had been intended to have, a rear sight.

A shotgun, with a rear sight, and rifled?  Clearly this had not been a shotgun.  Seventy caliber, could it have been a sportsmans elephant or dangerous game gun, possibly intended for use in Africa?

Today, some shotguns have rifle sights and a few are even rifled.  They are designed for shooting slugs only, generally for deer hunting in the Eastern states, so that idea is not new.  This gun feels light and handy in the hand but light enough that I would never want to fire a powerful dangerous game load from it and it does seem to still be in good enough condition that it could be fired.  The barrel, though, seems far too thin to have been rifled.  The rifling is very shallow.  The barrel is way thinner than the barrels of rifles of the 1800s, even thinner than the military ‘Rifled Muskets’ of the 1860s.  The barrel was the thickness of a dedicated smoothbore, such as a true musket.

Back then there were true shotguns, referred to as ‘fowling pieces’ specifically for hunting birds but those would not have had a rear sight.  For a long time the militaries of the world had used smoothbore guns, muskets.  Rather than using tight fitting bullets for good accuracy most used round bullets which were deliberately undersized.  This practice was carried to an extreme with the British gun known as the ‘Brown Bess’.  This was so the guns could be loaded and fired quickly, up to four times a minute.  As these guns got very dirty quickly which made loading difficult, the undersize bullet let the soldier continue loading and shooting with a very fouled bore.  Shooting distances were very close and the target was a usually group of men instead of an individual target so accuracy didn’t matter.  The idea was to get a bunch of bullets in the air at the target.  The guns could also be loaded with buckshot and another practice was a load with the standard round ball and two or three buckshot.  This load was rather inaccurate but the shooting at combat distances was so short, often 50 yards or very much less, and the enemies were crowed together.  The combination of ‘buck and ball’ made for a deadly load which was sure to hit somebody.

Rifles were accurate to much greater distances but were more expensive, complicated to make and slow to load, not practical for military use.  When put into such use they were best used with non-traditional tactics such as the ‘cowardly’ practice of ‘hide behind a tree, shoot then run away’.  This was sometimes used, very effectively, by violent rebels and terrorists against the representatives of the lawful government in the 1770s.  Later in the 1800s, a pair of French military officers came up with a new concept for a military rifle, one which might be loaded almost as fast as a musket but with greatly improved accuracy.  French Captain Minnie (pronounced ‘Min A’) improved on the idea and his name became associated with the new designed bullet.

The ‘Minnie ball’ (now pronounced as in Minnie Pearl or Minnie Mouse) was long instead of round and had a hollow base.  It slid down the barrel easily using the ramrod and upon firing, the hollow base expanded to fit the rifling.  At first there were iron or wooden plugs in the bullets base to help the expansion but quickly seen that those were not needed.  By the time of the failed war for the Second American Independence from Tyranny in the 1860s, this design was used by most modern military guns of the time.

Around 1840-1842 some of the muskets made at the military facility at Springfield were made with slightly thicker barrels then previously. These barrels were still much thinner than a ‘civilian’ rifle but would work fine with the minnie.  The thinking was that in the future they might be returned and then rifled to accept the new bullets.  Some were.  Shortly after that all were the thicker barrels and rifled when new. Some of the earlier muskets were rifled also when new or later but this rifling had to be very shallow as standard musket barrels were thin.  The U.S. then followed the French example and standardized on a 58 caliber gun.  This was a reduction from the previous 69 caliber smoothbore muskets.

It seems to be that the barrel on this ‘shotgun’ originally may have been, was probably, for a 69 caliber military smoothbore musket which was later rifled or one of the few which was rifled at time of manufacture.

An aside:  I have long known of the term ‘rifled musket’ and sometimes heard’ rifle musket’.  They are interchanged.  I found a writer who claims that old sources explain that they are not the same thing.  Reportedly, the ‘rifled musket’ was a smoothbore which was rifled later in its life.  The ‘rifle musket’ is the correct term for the musket which was designed to be rifled when new.  It is the second which is now common among reproduction guns.  Among period guns there were few of the rifled muskets and many of the rifle muskets. 

Another change.  These 69 caliber muskets and rifled muskets were originally flintlocks but were later converted to the newer, more reliable and rain resistant ‘caplocks’ using ‘percussion caps’ or ‘caps’ to fire the gun.  One of the methods of this conversion makes it obvious that the gun had probably been a flintlock, the other method not so.  Later there were 69 caliber smoothbores which were made new with the percussion system.  My gun appears to be the second style.

On my gun the front of the half stock is held to the barrel by a ‘wedge’.  A modernish band was added later apparently for additional for support.  The wedge system became common in the 1840s with civilian guns, particularly those preferred by the ‘mountain men’.  Many others were held together by tight fitting pins. The wedge is curious as I can find no military gun of the period which used the wedge method.  All used metal bands which slipped over the barrel and stock. This was an improvement over pinning as it allowed much easier disassembly.  One did not expect to remove pins except to  do repairs.  This made me wonder if it might have been from a foreign gun of the time but I have so far only found images of ones using bands. 

Even more curious I found a mark on the barrel giving the appearance that there had been a second wedge.  The receptor for it had been soldered on the barrel and later removed.  So at some time this barrel had been fitted with a longer stock, one held on with wedges.  Or someone was starting to set it up like that and changed their mind.  And of course, the barrel is shorter than an original rifled musket would have been.

The stock has checkering on the wood and simple engraving on the lock and other areas.  It is possible the stock was cut down from an original military one but I suspect that the original may have seen enough use that it was replaced.  But that happened long ago.

So, while it is possible this may have started as a foreign made gun I suspect that this:

Started life at the Springfield armory around 1840ish.
Was a U. S. military issue smoothbore musket 69 caliber.
Possibly flintlock initially and converted at the armory or one of the many transitional guns, but more likely originally one of the percussion smoothbores.
Rifled at the armory, probably returned and converted sometime after manufacture.
Possibly used in our various early conflicts against the Red Savages on this continent or against Mexicans.
Very possibly used in the ‘Civil War’.  (which has always been an incorrect title.  A ‘civil war’ is for control of a government not separation from one).  Many percussion 69 smooth bores used by the Southern forces.
Later removed from government service, sold to the civilian market and ‘sporterized’.
Went from a full length military stock to a full or 3/4 wedged stock to a decorated single wedged half stock with decorated furniture. (Though the decorations could have been earlier)
Barrel shortened.
‘Bead’ front sight added.

If this thing could talk, where it has been, what it has done.  All from a simple single shot ‘shotgun’, sold cheap, and looks like it ‘s good enough to shoot just fine after about 179 years. 


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