Saturday, January 1, 2011


Non-typical Rifles from Beyond 1840 (Top to Bottom): Illinois or Ohio built mountain rifle circa 1850, English percussion “Indian Gift” rifle circa1840, Lehman attributed circa 1845 longrifle

J.J. Henry, H.E. Lehman, and J.S. Hawken…All of these names as we think about them, flash an image of a classic fur trade era firearm across our mind's eye. Images of the half stock, heavy barrel of the Hawken rifle, the large English scroll trigger-guard of the J.J. Henry, the heavily tacked Lehman Indian trade rifle, all have become “branded” on our brains as classic guns associated with the fur trapper.

I will say that I am not a “gun expert,” but know enough to look at the traits of historic firearms and see the nuances in the different examples out there. My argument here is that a good fur trade rifle can easily be assembled to resemble the hundreds of “non-typical” examples out there form parts at dealers like “track of the wolf” or “the rifle shop.”  With careful attention to details on DOCUMENTABLE examples, you can easily make up an authentic and accurate rifle that surpasses many of those sold “off the rack” today that is just as historic as any custom gun builder can make for you.

A classic Rocky Mountain fur trade rifle (1820-40) should have a straight barrel or maybe even swamped. A resilient 19th century flintlock, a full stock is more prevalent for a classic, but as the era beyond 1840 progressed, half stock weapons gained favor with some. Furniture would be sparse and often of brass or a mixture of iron and brass. Patch and cap boxes began to be used interchangeably but, may have had none at all.  Older “colonial” features like wooden patch box covers, octagonal to round barrels, and heavy curvilinear carving would have been abandoned. Yet, as sure as I write this, one could find examples with beautiful carving and engraving work.  What is important is the style of the renderings.

I approach my hobby from my museum background. I guess that is a shortcoming to some, but I think it forces me to look outside the historical box when looking at artifacts. Having the privilege of handling and examining many real fur trade era guns, something struck me early on when viewing the collections. What struck me is that there were many non-typical fur trade associated weapons than those that fit the classic lines or at least that is what I am seeing in my work.

Whether field altered or cobbled together from parts to fill orders for fur posts and outfitters at "jumping off points," the artifacts I have seen so far seem to lack the classic compositions and components which we all aspire to carry. Don’t get me wrong, the classic are out there but they don’t seem to be reflected en masse in collections or exist in altered states of condition.

One exception to this which isn’t a rifle, is the pattern of the Barnett trade gun and its’ many copies. I have seen many altered specimens and classic percussion retro-fits. The traditional pattern demanded by indigenous clientele and made by several firms, doesn’t change much throughout the Fur Trade era and even beyond.

What I hope to look at here are examples from collections and some I have looked at available from brokers and auctions, that don’t jive with our perceptions of fur trade rifles.  We all strive to buy the best gun we can afford, just as the original frontiersmen did. But as the frontier opened up in the mid-1830’s the demand for firearms increased and made it possible for the market to be flooded with guns that don’t fit the classic “perception” of the fur trade.

The pieces that are examined here are examples of those rifles that don’t fit the “classic” lines of their production (pictured above)

The Illinois or Ohio built “mountain rifle” circa 1850, first in the line-up, is very similar to my original from the same area but from a decade earlier and mimics the classic “mountain rifle” of the Hawken clan. It seems pretty clear that in the “civilized” markets that the evolution in firearms technology contrasts the tastes and preferences of the traditional fur trader, who preferred flint weapons until much later. These percussion guns were more readily used in the east prior to 1840, while the trappers preferred the familiarity of the flintlock ignition system. There are many arguable reasons for this, but it is clear that in the east these guns were being produced in greater numbers by the mid-1830s and seeping onto the frontier. Similar rifles were still in production beyond 1860.

The very rugged and little known English “Indian Gift” percussion rifle circa 1840, was sold by the Canadian government and likely the HBc. from the 1840’s on.  Joe Meek, Oregon’s famous Mountain Man and Territorial Marshall carried one he received reportedly, at Fort Vancouver. He even named it!  What is fascinating is that these are altered specimens of the famous Baker Rifle, which have been shortened and fitted with new stocks, with military features removed and back-action locks. These were finished with sporting furniture and details.[i]  In 1842 these were listed as “rifles chiefs” and distributed throughout Canada and as “Indian Presents” along with hats, coats and ribbons.[ii]

Finally, H.E. Lehman apparently produced many guns for the trade under government contract[iii] that didn’t fit what we imagine as the classic “Indian rifle” style. I have been shopping for an original Lehman rifle to add to my own collection and there appears to be many variations in furniture and caliber. The specimens currently for sale range in odd calibers from .35-.42. The one pictured above has a “Henry” style patch box. I have seen 3 now without any toe, butt, or side plates as well as lacking nose caps.

Some rifle have no concrete provenance. Many of these working rifles have been converted from flintlock to percussion. Among these examples are converions from flintlocks to percussion which seems common as the rifles changed hands over time. One example I have looked at recently is marked “Barnett” and is clearly a retrofit from the original lock with remnants of the pan and the round faced trade gun lockplate with a new percussion hammer. Another is an example with a “Goulcher” lock. You can clearly see the old flintlock oriented touch hole and new lock placement.  Both weapons have a drum and nipple inserted into the original flintlock touch hole.[iv] 

So it would seem once again, that historic reality is stranger than fiction. The rifles that are out there for collecting and in the dark vaults of museums, often don’t reflect the classic designs that we all aspire to own as reeanctors. My opinion is that many simple rifles like these were wielded expertly on the American Frontier for a long period of time and changed hands and ignition systems as they survived or traded hands with various owners.  Just as significant, is that many of the "famous" rifle types which have been immortalized mostly by popular culture, are not typical of the working trapper but of the truly famous and affluent. I think of the various Jim Bridger and Kit Carson attributed rifles and guns, which exemplifiy their later careers beyond the rocky mountain fur trade era. The reality maybe that many more "non-typical" rifles were out there than are given credit for.

Next time, I will look at “guns” that are often overlooked in place of their more accepted styles. I will eventually look at examples in paintings, ledgers, and art from famous depictions of trappers, including some odd looking depictions of pistols.

Happy New Year to all far and wide!

[i] Egles, Ross,  Gifts for Indians Percussion Guns and Rifles Before 1842
[ii] ibid.
[iii] Russell Carl P.  Firearms traps and tools of the Mountain Men. U of New Mexico P. 1967. 2: 72-73.
[iv]  Rifles featured at John Gunderson Antique Militaria;

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