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Guns on the Early Frontiers: From Colonial Times to the Years of the Western Fur Trade

Guns on the Early Frontiers: From Colonial Times to the Years of the Western Fur Trade

by Carl P. Russell

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This thoroughly documented, authoritative, and highly readable book not only details the weapons used during the settlement and westward expansion of America but also describes their use by fur traders, trappers, soldiers, and Native Americans. The result is a lively historical examination of the momentous events that were strongly influenced by the gun trade.


This thoroughly documented, authoritative, and highly readable book not only details the weapons used during the settlement and westward expansion of America but also describes their use by fur traders, trappers, soldiers, and Native Americans. The result is a lively historical examination of the momentous events that were strongly influenced by the gun trade.
The text is augmented and enriched throughout with clearly identified illustrations of everything from antique muskets, flintlocks, repeating rifles, and howitzers to bullet molds, powder horns, and other firearm accessories.
“An outstanding contribution to firearms literature. It sets its own standard.” — The New York Times.
“For collectors, museum curators, archaeologist-historians, this book is — in its field — an essential contribution.” — Kirkus.
“A Glossary of Gun Terms, ample footnotes most skillfully arranged, and illustrations … complement the text which achieves the miracle of scholarship without tedium.” — San Francisco Chronicle.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor
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Barnes & Noble
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Guns on the Early Frontiers

From Colonial Times to the Years of the Western Fur Trade

By Carl P. Russell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14023-0


Arming the American Indian

"Having gone about eight leagues, the Indians [Montagnais and their allies], towards evening, took one of the prisoners [Iroquois] to whom they made a harangue on the cruelties which he and his friends without any restraint had practised upon them, and that similarly he should resign himself to receive as much, and they ordered him to sing, if he had the heart. He did so, but it was a very sad song to hear.

"Meanwhile our Indians kindled a fire, and when it was well lighted, each took a brand and burned this poor wretch a little at a time in order to make him suffer the greater torment. Sometimes they would leave off, throwing water on his back. Then they tore out his nails and applied fire to the ends of his fingers and to his membrum virile. Afterwards they scalped him and caused a certain kind of gum to drop very hot upon the crown of his head. Then they pierced his arms near the wrists and with sticks pulled and tore out his sinews by main force, and when they saw they could not get them out, they cut them off. This poor wretch uttered strange cries, and I felt pity at seeing him treated this way. Still he bore it so firmly that sometimes one would have said he felt scarcely any pain. They begged me repeatedly to take fire and do like them. I pointed out to them that we did not commit such cruelties, but that we killed people outright, and that if they wished me to shoot him with the arquebus, I should be glad to do so. They said no; for he would not feel any pain. I went away from them as if angry at seeing them practise so much cruelty ... When they saw that I was not pleased, they called me back and told me to give him a shot with the arquebus. I did so, without his perceiving anything, and with one shot caused him to escape all [further] tortures ..."

So wrote Samuel de Champlain after his first punitive expedition into the land of the Iroquois. The date was July 30, 1609, and the locale Lake Champlain, so named on this occasion by Champlain himself. The Indians who perpetrated the atrocities upon their Iroquois victim were Algonkin, Huron, and Montagnais, the more substantial allies of New France at this time. This was the occasion of Champlain's famous shot which won a battle but engendered the fury of the Iroquois that was to be visited upon New France for a century and a half.

The fight which had yielded the unlucky prisoner had taken place that same day, and Champlain's account of it is quite as lucid as his description of the torture. He and two volunteer Frenchmen, armed with arquebuses, had accompanied the war party from the St. Lawrence for the express purpose of demonstrating to their savage allies the superiority of guns over Indian weapons. On the evening of July 29, the invaders, traveling in canoes at the south end of Lake Champlain, had encountered a war party of Iroquois, also in canoes. Obligingly, the leaders of the opposing parties had agreed to await a new day before waging their fight. All combatants of both sides had spent the night at quarters close enough to permit the hurling of insults back and forth, and the Iroquois had taken advantage of the opportunity to throw up a small fortification. Of the events of the next morning, Champlain wrote:

After we were armed with light weapons, we took, each of us [three Frenchmen], an arquebus and went ashore. I saw the enemy come out of their barricade to the number of two hundred, in appearance strong, robust men. They came slowly to meet us with a gravity and calm which I admired; and at their head were three chiefs. Our Indians likewise advanced in similar order, and told me that those who had three big plumes were the chiefs, and that there were only these three, whom you recognize by these plumes, which were larger than those of their companions; and I was to do what I could to kill them....

[The enemy] ... stood firm and had not yet noticed my white companions who went into the woods with some Indians. Our Indians ... put me ahead some twenty yards, and I marched on until I was within thirty yards of the enemy, who as soon as they caught sight of me halted and gazed at me and I at them. When I saw them make a move to draw their bows upon us, I took aim with my arquebus and shot straight at one of the three chiefs, and with this shot two fell to the ground and one of their companions was wounded who died thereof a little later. I had put four bullets [balls] into my arquebus.... The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly, although they were provided with shields made of cotton thread woven together and wood, which were proof against their arrows. As I was reloading my arquebus, one of my companions fired a shot from within the woods, which astonished them again so much that, seeing their chiefs dead, they lost courage and took flight, abandoning the field and their fort ... I [pursuing them into the woods] laid low still more of them. Our Indians also killed several and took ten or twelve prisoners.

Champlain's account was published in Paris a few years after the events. He embellished his text with illustrations which leave no doubt about the type of gun used. It was a matchlock, light enough to be fired from the shoulder without a rest. Whether the "four balls" fired with that momentous shot at the Iroquois amounted to a buckshot load, or whether four standard musket balls were placed one upon another has not been explained, but there is no reason to question the ability of a seventeenth-century gun barrel to withstand the pressure of such a load of musket balls. Probably the "light armor" helped to protect the gunner from the full strength of the resulting kick.

In Champlain's accounts of his forays both before and after this incident of 1609, there are repeated references to the "match," which was all-important to the guns of his day. In his Voyages, 1604—1618, he depicts French musketeers firing the heavier and longer weapon, which did require the gun rest. Champlain and his contemporary Lescarbot have handed down a number of rather illuminating accounts of the Frenchman's demonstration of guns to the seventeenth-century Indians of the north Atlantic Coast and the St. Lawrence. About the still earlier French firearms brought to America by Jacques Cartier, Sieur de Roberval, Jean Ribaut, René de Laudonnière, and the many unnamed navigators who brought French merchandise to the Newfoundland fishing banks in the sixteenth century, little was recorded by the participants in these expeditions, with one notable exception, which will be mentioned farther on in this chapter.

Actually, the dependable personal weapon of the period of American discovery was the arbalest, or crossbow, which with a lingering representation of the longbow gave the first adventurers from Spain, France, and England only a slight advantage in armament over any Indians who might be resentful of invasion. Generally, during the earliest contacts, curiosity, superstition, and covetousness of iron excluded from the Indian's mind the hatred and justified hostility which later marked so much of his intercourse with Europeans. One of the factors in establishing the white man as "manitou" was his possession of cannon and a comparatively few small guns which were but little advanced beyond the ancient hand-cannon stage.

The gun first to be demonstrated to the native American in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a cruder arm than Champlain's matchlock, little more than a tube of iron, mounted upon a wooden stock and provided with a touchhole, a flashpan brazed to the barrel, and a means of applying fire to the priming charge. In its earlier form this gun had no lock. At the moment of firing, the gunner applied the burning end of a slow match to the priming in the pan and this ignited the charge. By this method it was impossible for the gunner, if he had no assistant, to keep his piece aligned upon his target at the crucial moment of discharge. However, by the time the matchlock was brought to the North American mainland, there had been developed a firing mechanism which employed a serpentine, or "cock," in which the slow match was held. The cock was operated by a lever installed under or at the side of the grip in a position that enabled the gunner to manipulate it as a trigger and at the same time keep the barrel "sighted" upon his target; this improved the chances that the ball might find its mark.

The musketry sergeants of the day placed a good deal of emphasis upon the importance of using only very fine powder in the flashpan. Wallhausen in 1615 directed:

Let every soldier take well care of this. The priming powder must be ground up fine, be completely dry and mixed with a little sulphur in order that no misfire may occur, because the finer the powder the more easily it can be ignited and the better it can enter the vent Touchhole], and occasionally when the serpentine [in this case the priming powder] burns off the flash-pan without firing the charge, this is the reason. In order to be certain of the shot, the musket should be slightly turned and tapped after the priming powder is placed upon the flash-pan so that the priming may fill the entire vent.

Upon his person the soldier carried a number of accessories for the care of his piece, including a cleaning needle with which to "prick" the touchhole when it became clogged with coarse powder or fouled with burnt-powder residue. These large-bore weapons ordinarily were loaded with a ball which was enough smaller than the bore to permit the gunner to seat the bullet upon the powder charge by the simple expedient of jarring the butt of the gun upon the ground; only the corporal possessed a ramrod, which was carried separately and was made available to any soldier who believed that a ball required ramming home. Later it was decided that every loading was occasion to make sure that the ball was seated properly; forestocks were manufactured with a longitudinal channel and ram pipes which made it possible to equip each gun with its own ramrod carried neatly on the underside of the forestock.

Powder, balls, a reserve of slow match, and various accouterments for the gun commonly were carried on a broad strap, or bandolier, slung over the gunner's left shoulder. The weight and clumsiness of this inflammable equipment, combined with the troubles of loading and firing the piece, made the weapon oppressive to the soldier. In effectiveness also, the gun in its early stages of development did not compare favorably with either the long bow or the crossbow. A practiced bowman could discharge twelve arrows a minute, and each would fly to a mark two hundred yards distant and there strike with such force as to penetrate two inches of oak. The loosely fitting ball from a matchlock could do no better, and the musketeer was at disadvantage because of the difficulties he encountered in loading and the resulting slow rate of fire. In heavy rain his match was likely to be extinguished, and his priming powder became wet in the pan. Under such conditions misfires were the rule, not the exception. Even under favorable weather conditions the gunner's burning match "gave him away" when he attempted surprise attacks, because of the smoke, fumes, and the glow of fire. Actually, about the only superiority that could be claimed for the early matchlock was the psychological effect it had upon an uninitiated and superstitious foe who quailed before the roar and flame of exploding gunpowder.

However, at the beginning of the sixteenth century characteristics of the matchlock began to change for the better. The flashpan was equipped with a hinged cover, the burning end of the long match was protected by a perforated cylindrical case of brass, and the lock was improved by the invention of a snapping cock geared to a sear and propelled by a spring. The cock was released for its downward thrust by the pull of a conventional trigger, and the trigger was protected by a trigger guard. The guns used by Champlain were of this type. The wheel-lock mechanism and flint guns also began to be used at this time, but the matchlock was less costly to manufacture, and most European governments ruled that it should be the arm of their ordinary soldiers.

When the Spaniards arrived in America early in the sixteenth century, they brought with them some of the heavy matchlock muskets which for a hundred years had been the prescribed arm of the Spanish military. The standard musket weighed fifteen to twenty pounds, and it was quite customary for the soldier to equip himself with a pad or pillow to be placed on his right shoulder to ease the weight of the gun as he marched. In firing, the barrel was supported on a forked rest, and the butt was held against the shoulder. This ten-gauge weapon was loaded with more than an ounce of gunpowder and a loosely fitting ball weighing about twelve to the pound. Its normal range is said to have been three hundred paces, but there is no testimony in regard to its accuracy at this distance. Before the Spanish conquests in America, the Duke of Alba had ordered that there should be one musketeer to two pikemen in the military forces under his command. Although evidence of the proportionate distribution of matchlocks in the expeditionary forces of the early sixteenth century is incomplete, contemporary accounts reveal that the heavy musket was used by the expeditions in Mexico in 1519 and in Peru in the 1530's. Both the wheel lock and the matchlock are identifiable in the records of the armaments of Coronado (1540—1542) and Onate (1598—1608) in New Mexico. Exploration and assault upon the natives was the typical procedure wherever the Spaniard forayed during this period, and the introduction of the gun in these southern precincts of Spain had murderous consequences. The repeated attacks upon Florida and the Gulf Coast also made during the first half of the sixteenth century were the works of musket-armed Spaniards who searched in vain for the wealth of another Mexico City. Relics of their edged weapons and armor occasionally come to light, and it is reasonable to expect that gun parts will someday be discovered along the trails of Narváez, Cabeza de Vaca, or Hernando de Soto.

The French, who laid their first determined claim to empire in America in the 1530's, brought the matchlock to the St. Lawrence. Both the heavy musket and a lighter gun, the arquebus, which required no forked rest when fired, were used by these explorers of the north country. No documentary evidence has been found upon which to base detailed descriptions of the French matchlocks carried on the expeditions of Jacques Cartier (1534) and Sieur de Pontgravé (1603), but there are numerous references to the use of guns in saluting the friendly Indians met by these parties, and there is the account already given of Champlain's encounter with the Iroquois in 1609.

Among the relics left by sixteenth-century Frenchmen in America are excellent pictures made by Jacques Lemoyne, a member of the ill-fated Huguenot party which attempted to establish a French colony in Florida in 1564—1565. Spaniards already established in the West Indies wiped out the rival colony, but the artist, Lemoyne, escaped the massacre and preserved a precious record of some of the affairs of the Protestant colonists. Fortunately, he gave attention to guns as well as to gunners.Figure 1 shows a French arquebusier as depicted by Lemoyne in Florida. This fellow and his trappings may be accepted as representative of any and all Europeans who brought the first guns to America. The weapon shown is an arquebus which weighed ten or eleven pounds and was fired with the broad, flat butt against the gunner's chest. No forked rest was required. The bullet (.66 caliber) weighed about an ounce, and the bore of the barrel was approximately .72 of an inch. The range was two hundred yards, but the expectation of hits at this distance must have been small indeed. The flask for coarse powder, the smaller flask for priming powder, and the burning end of the slow match are conspicuous in the drawing. The match was a rope of twisted cord which had been soaked in a solution of saltpeter. It burned at the rate of four or five inches an hour and was carried, always lighted, in the soldier's right hand. When there was occasion to fire, a short piece of match was placed in the serpentine, or cock—which appears near the arquebusier's chin as seen in the drawing—and lighted from the long match. The small match was replaced after each shot. Some troop units of the day, instead of using the short match, regularly placed one end of the long match in the serpentine and kept both ends burning at all times. Under such circumstances, the flashpan and its content of priming powder were enclosed under a hinged cover which had to be opened manually before the gun could be fired. Pressure on the long and awkward lever which served as a trigger moved the sear and the link within the lock to bring the serpentine and its fire to the powder in the open pan. After the resulting ignition, a spring forced the serpentine back into its upright position.

The usual bandolier and its capsules for individual powder charges do not appear in Lemoyne's pictures. Bullets ordinarily were carried in a leather pouch, but in time of action a number were held in the mouth ready for quick loading. This practice, which was borrowed by many Indian tribes, persisted all through the period of the muzzle loaders. The noncommissioned officers of the French Army commonly accompanied the arquebusier and carried a ramrod.


Excerpted from Guns on the Early Frontiers by Carl P. Russell. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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