Lock and Load: the Museum’s Firearm Collection

By Marlene Gray, Conservator

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FGCU Intern, Silas Pacheco removes dirt and corrosion from a pistol on left. Museum Conservator, Marlene Gray applies protective wax to a rifle on right.

As the Museum’s Conservator, one of my large projects this year was to examine and assess the firearms in the Museum collection. While some of our exhibits have replica weapons on display, the real action is found in the vault where the historic objects are stored. Thirty-eight pistols, rifles, carbines, muskets, and revolvers are safely kept in storage (and are available for viewing by making an appointment for a behind the scenes tour if I have peaked your interest!) I had to determine whether the weapons were still loaded with gun powder or bullets, remove harmful corrosion and dirt, and complete an overall condition survey of that specific collection.   Once it was confirmed that the firearms were safe to handle, each one was inspected and lots of interesting things were discovered.

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The oldest firearm in the collection is a 1750’s French Officer’s musket. French designed weaponry was the inspiration for early 19th century American-made firearms at both armories in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and Springfield, Massachusetts.  The majority of the Museum’s firearms collection was manufactured at one of these two armories.  This musket is one of few that contain a leather-wrapped piece of flint in the lock.  As the trigger is pulled, the flint makes contact with the frizzen to create sparks that hit the priming powder in the pan, causing it to burn and release enough gases to project the ball from the barrel.

Muskets from the 18th and 19th centuries were known to misfire and not work well in humid and damp conditions.  Percussion cap systems were invented in the early 19th century to remedy these problems, but it was the Maynard Tape Primer System that helped increase the rate of fire.  Dr. Edward Maynard’s tape primer consisted of two thin strips of paper embedded with pellets of priming material.

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Model 1855 U.S. Percussion Rifled-Musket dated 1858

Compared to the manual loading needed with prior percussion cap systems, when the musket’s hammer was cocked, the tape automatically advanced through the lock.  While it was a neat idea, Maynard’s system still did not do well in humid climates, like Florida.  The U.S. Model 1855 Percussion Rifled-Musket in the Museum’s collection is an example of this tape primer system.  This particular musket dates to 1858 and while cleaning, the tape primer was found rolled inside the patchbox.

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Clockwise from top left: Quality mark and flint from New England style Fowler Flintlock Rifle; U.S. Model 1840 Hall-North Breech-loading Percussion Carbine with fishtail lever; tape primer found in patchbox of U.S. Model 1855 Percussion Rifled-Musket.

For something a little rarer, the Museum holds two firearms that were both limited productions. Manufactured by Simeon North in Connecticut, the U.S. Model 1840 Hall-North .52 caliber, breech-loading percussion carbine, Type II is one of just over 6,000 that were made between 1840 and 1843.  It has a fishtail-shaped lever that releases the breech, which is why it was called the fishtail model.  Then there is the .56 caliber Colt Model 1855 revolving rifle that would have been used during the latter years of the Seminole War and during the Civil War.  Only 9,310 of these rifle models were created.  Samuel Colt’s big break came during the Seminole Wars when the U.S. Army purchased his earlier versions of revolving rifles which deterred Seminole warriors from immediate retaliation after U.S. soldiers used their single-shot weapons.

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Lastly, there are the materials and intricate designs that make each firearm a work of art. The New England style Fowler flintlock rifle was the first American-made firearm manufactured in the 1770’s and 1780’s and used by early American settlers to hunt.  The Museum’s rifle has a mark on the barrel consisting of a crowned X, which was an indication of the quality standard for pewter.  Our 19th century Spanish smooth bore percussion rifle uses a Miquelet lock system that was often used in Florida’s Spanish settlements.  The ornate gold inlay and shell patchbox make this one of the most decorative weapons in the collection.2003-317-1  Spanish smooth bore percussion rifle

Patinas of blue and brown were historic chemical treatments applied to firearms as both decoration and to prevent metal corrosion.  In the early 19th century, bluing was done with charcoal and heat to form a blue-grey color.  The practice is still done today with different chemicals to create a more blue-purple color.  Bluing can be seen on the U.S. Model 1816 flintlock pistol, manufactured by Simeon North for the U.S. War Department in 1813.  Care must be taken not to remove the bluing or browning patinas on historic firearms since it is an example of historic practices.

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From top to bottom: Oldest firearm in the Museum’s collection, 1750’s French Officer’s Musket; detail of gold inlay on 19th century Spanish Smooth Bore Percussion Rifle; “bluing” on the barrel band of Colt Model 1855 Revolving Rifle.

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Our collection of weapons represents not only the American-made examples that would have been used against Seminole people during the war torn 19th century in Florida, but also one example of the lighter and more versatile Spanish-made weapons that Seminoles acquired through trade during the same period.  Such Spanish guns, as well as the local knowledge and cunning resourcefulness of the Seminoles themselves, helped the Seminole people and their allies resist American soldiers and their guns in order to emerge The Unconquered!

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You can look into these subjects at the Museum research library, where our Research Coordinator can help you find the information you need. Please call ahead for appointments, so that we are better prepared to help you!  To see the historic guns, ask for a behind-the-scenes tour during your next visit to the Museum.  Hope we see you soon!

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Author: Collections Division

The Collections Division manages the Museum's collections, produces and maintains exhibits, conducts the oral history program, and staffs the Museum's village.

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