There are some very sleek and modern pistols being produced today, with major advances in technology and accuracy. But they are in a different class from the old flintlock pistols of the past. Ornately engraved and scrolled decorative finishes are something that is no longer produced, except in custom work, made to order at a high price. Many European gunsmiths were producing beautiful flintlock pistols in the 18th and 19th century. The few that have survived are now fetching high prices at auction, or on display in museums.
French design is legendary for its classical elegance and ornate decor. It is evident in French furniture and architecture. It can also be found in flintlock muskets and pistols produced by the famed armory at St. Etienne, the Manufacture d’armes founded in 1764 in Charleville, France. St. Etienne is only one of many locations for armories bearing the name. Small arms have been produced here since the middle ages, including the many weapons used in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte himself had personal weapons made here for him by his personal gunsmith, Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval. Among these are a double-barrelled flintlock pistol, and Napoleon’s personal St. Etienne 1806 traveling flintlock pistol with his crowned mongram “N” on the grip. Though customized, it is clearly a variation of the AN XIII flintlock pistol, used by French Cavalry in the Napoleonic wars. Polished wood, and intricately scrolled brass and pewter fittings make a resplendent contrast to the plain and the utilitarian. There are also the Versailles dueling pistols made by Nicholas Boutet in the time of Napoleon. Carved exotic woods and precious metals were used in the production of these pistols, which were presented to high-ranking officials.
A lot of the St. Etienne flintlocks made their way to America also. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark carried some of these flintlock pistols on their famous 1804-1806 expedition to explore the open western lands for expansionist and president Thomas Jefferson, accompanied by a native-American guide, Sacajawea. These were variations of the St. Etienne Model AN IX, which were issued to French infantrymen in the Napoleonic Wars. Most of these flintlocks can be identified by the famous St. Etienne stamp in the metal on the side of the lock mechanism.
Around 1680, Italian gunsmith Lorenzoni produced some magnificent triple-barrel flintlock pistols for the Medici family, with ornately carved ivory grips. Around 1795, Kumbley & Brum of London also made flintlock pistols with beautifully-carved ivory grips and bas-relief brass engraving.
First American President George Washington had a favorite pistol, a 1748 Hawkins, made in London had his name engraved on a silver plate on the grip. It is now housed in the museum of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was also presented with a brace of flintlocks by the Marquis de LaFayette. The famous first shot of the American War for Independence, the “Shot heard ’round the world” was fired by a 1760s Scottish flintlock pistol, an all-metal piece of extraordinarily ornate design. These are but a few examples of the fine art and craftsmanship that went into gunmaking in the 17th through the 19th centuries. When compared with today’s utilitarian, sleek and modern hanguns, which are faster and more powerful, there is still something magnificent about the time-honored practice of handcrafted elegance.
The first flintlock firing mechanism was created by a French courtier for King Louis XIII, and by 1630 was in use in Europe for warfare. Flintlock weapons were in use for around two hundred years, until they were succeeded by the invention of the percussion cap. The percussion cap was a short-lived technology, bridging the gap between flintlocks and the later self-contained metal cartridges.
For more detailed background on firearms history, please visit GunClassics.com. If you are interested in authentic non-firing and blank-firing replicas of famous, historical firearms, reenactor gear and other items, please visit GunsOfOld.com.