Guns of the Mayflower: Not a Blunderbuss to be found
The traditional image of a pilgrim, armed with a flare-barreled blunderbuss. This is a myth, as the blunderbuss was not invented when the Pilgrims hit the shores of Plymouth.
It seems that each Thanksgiving I happen upon a picture of a somber Pilgrim dressed in black, big buckles on his shoes, belt and hat, with a turkey slung over one shoulder and a blunderbuss firearm in-hand. This image has been used in cartoons, movies and ads for generations; I’m sure that most of you have seen something similar.
Like many of the myths surrounding national holidays, picturing a blunderbuss in Thanksgiving imagery is pure fiction. The first Thanksgiving is said to have been celebrated in 1621; the blunderbuss wasn’t introduced into England until the mid-1600s. Such a weapon makes for a clever picture, though. A flared barrel-end shotgun would seem perfect for birding, wouldn’t it? But the flared end wasn’t designed for hunting: it was designed so that soldiers could funnel a loading ramrod down a gun barrel while rocking on a ship, horseback, or carriage. As with soldiers, the Mayflower Pilgrims having dependable firearms was a matter of survival.
The voyage from England to Cape Cod was a stop-and-go affair that lasted from July through November 1620. Harsh weather and inhospitable Natives Americans forced the colonists to winter aboard the Mayflower, where disease and lack of food reduced their numbers from 130 to 65 (passengers and crew). In the spring, colonists established a foothold on the mainland and—for protection from Natives Americans —installed six cannon on a hill overlooking their village. The cannon were four to eight feet in length, weighed more than half a ton, and could hurl a three-inch iron ball about 1,700 yards. Without such firepower, the handful of settlers would have been easily over-run by the local inhabitants.
Once shelter and safety were established, crops were planted. Since it would be four to six months before harvest, the Plymouth Colony relied on hunting for the bulk of their food. Hunting required reliable guns and a good supply of gunpowder and shot.
Plymouth Colony firearms have been extensively researched and cataloged and have a cult-like following among collectors. Although original 17th-century guns are rare, quality reproductions abound. According to Harold Peterson’s “Arms and Armor in Colonial America,” three types of firearms were commonly found in the colony: matchlocks, wheelocks and flintlocks. Each of these general categories had design sub-sets that appeared during the life of the Plymouth Colony, but I will only discuss the benefits and limitations of the basic three types.
The firing mechanism for a matchlock musket.
Matchlocks (sometimes referred to as a musket) were the simplest firearm. When Plymouth settled, matchlock technology was already about 100 years old. The matchlock concept was simple: a short length of matchcord (cord that had been soaked in saltpeter to allow for slow burning) was attached to a curved piece of metal (called a “serpentine”). When a marksman pulled a lever the serpentine moved forward, touching the smoldering matchcord to a small gunpowder charge in a flashpan attached to the gun barrel. The powder flash would ignite the charge in the barrel, firing the gun.
Most of the guns found in Plymouth were matchlocks. Because matchlocks didn’t have very many moving parts they were reliable, inexpensive and easy to repair. But, keeping a length of matchcord lit for an extended hunt in varying weather conditions (and keeping errant sparks away from the gunpowder) was problematic. They also weren’t very effective for close-range hunting because a glowing matchcord was easy to spot and there was a delay between the flash in the pan and the discharge of the weapon, giving nimble game time to dart away.
The Mayflower Gun, which is on display at the National Firearms Museum, was brought to the New World by the Mayflower’s cooper John Alden, who kept it with him when he decided to stay with the colony.
The disadvantages of the matchlock were overcome with the advent of the wheellock. Wheellocks eliminated the need for a matchcord to ignite the powder, instead using a spark-generating mechanism. This mechanism operated by winding a spring-loaded steel wheel which, when released by a trigger, spun against a piece of iron pyrite, creating a spark. Wheellocks were not widely used in Colonial America because they were expensive to manufacture, prone to breakage and difficult to repair. Wheellocks are noted in early Plymouth inventories.
For all its problems, it is a wheellock that lays claim to the title “The Mayflower Gun,” on display at the National Firearms Museum. The gun was owned by the Mayflower’s cooper John Alden, who kept it with him when he decided to stay with the colony. When Alden built a new home in 1653, he built a hidden compartment next to his front door to store his wheellock, loaded and ready to shoot. The gun stayed in that spot for 204 years after Alden died; It was discovered in 1896 when the home—still lived in by Alden descendants—was restored.
The flintlock, or “snapchaunce,” was more reliable and faster to shoot than a wheellock. This mechanism from an English fowler was given to Philip III of Spain in 1604 (Photo: Royal Armory, Madrid)
The newest gun technology found in the Mayflower Colony was the flintlock (sometimes called a “snaphaunce,” for the characteristic “snap” of the hammer). The flint mechanism is similar to the wheellock in that creates a spark; but that’s where the similarity ends. On a flintlock a spring-loaded trigger activates a thumb-cocked hammer containing a piece of flint, which strikes a piece of steel, creating a spark that ignites gunpowder in the flashpan, which touches off the barrel charge and discharges the weapon. Flintlocks could be made ready to shoot much faster than either matchlocks or wheellocks, and eventually became the weapon of choice in the New World.
With the exception of the Alden wheellock, the Mayflower gun types were discovered through archeological digs and document research. Whatever their mix, the guns did an admirable job of feeding the town during its first Thanksgiving. Plymouth resident Edward Winslow wrote in a letter dated Dec. 12, 1621:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.
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