Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Finest Guns

There's a scene in my old favorite Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World where Mr. Howard, the Sergeant of the Marines (and I've a hunch the director's personified commentary on a certain gun-crazy stereotype), is cleaning his pistol while Midshipman Mr. Boyle looks on in awe. Mr. Howard, admiring his sidearm, says: "Say what you want about the Frenchies, they're damn fine gunsmiths," and goes on to explain the pistol's lock action to the boy. I may be paraphrasing but you get the point.

In fact by the Napoleonic wars the "Frenchies" had been damn fine gunsmiths for over two hundred years. Their pistols and muskets were in high demand in Europe and the New World. In fact, it was only the Spanish Empire - so typically penny wise and pound foolish - that insisted on making and shipping their own antiquated arquebuses to their forts on the Main. In the end it cost them dearly.

The boucaniers who escaped servitude and clawed a life out of the woods of Hispaniola were not handed firearms as they joined their Brethren. Each man was expected to buy his own guns. These men, who rarely had two doubloons to rub together except after a successful raid would not necessarily - as the movies preach - run straight to the grog house and brothel. In fact, unless they were already packing, the first thing a flush buccaneer wanted was a good pistol or two. And that meant buying the most expensive and best operating technology possible. Only French would do.

Both the pistols and muskets of pirates were made by French craftsmen and, in many cases, cost a small fortune. They were perhaps the only thing that the buccaneers of Morgan's day, the pirates of Teach's ilk and the privateers of the Laffite era were obsessed with keeping clean (besides their ships of course). Constantly oiled against the damp of rain forests and the salt water aboard ship, the firearms were coddled like babies. For the most part, they were the only property that these vagabond men and sometimes women owned. They held them so dear that it was not uncommon for a throat to be slit or a hand to be lost over attempted theft.

By 1650 the two foremost gunsmiths in France were Galin in Nientes and Brachere in the old privateer port of Dieppe. These houses were still making guns when the one-of-a-kind matchlocks and wheelocks carried by L'Olonnais' and Morgan's men were replaced with mass production flintlocks in the middle of the 18th century. Even then the guns were expensive and jealousy over them could turn friends to enemies.

Lyle Saxon told the story of a fabulous pair of pearl handled pistols owned by Jean Laffite that no one was allowed to touch. Not even Jean's older brother, Pierre. Saxon swore the siblings nearly came to blows over these pieces of French art. I like to imagine Pierre, his index finger centimeters from one of the pistols, mocking Jean: "I'm not touching it." In all fairness the story is probably apocryphal - as most of Saxon's entertaining tales were - but it's still illustrative... and funny.

The French, too, were notoriously good shots. When Morgan took Portobelo in 1668 his success relied heavily on French buccaneers who were crack shots with their long muskets. This trend continued into the early 19th century. I've a theory that this excellence with a firearm was why Frenchmen and French Creoles in the New World eschewed dueling with pistols even as the English and Americans made it a habit. The French were too good with their arms to risk killing one another under the oaks. A simple drawing of blood with a sword would suffice to prove honor. But then I'm French Creole, so I may be a tad bias.

Finally, unlike navy sailors who were known to throw their hefty pistols at enemies once discharged - no kidding! - a freebooter was not letting go of his expensive sidearm. The old story about pirates tying their pistols to silk cords and draping them around their necks is no story at all. This kept the pistols close while the hands were free to wield cutlass or axe. Plus, the heavy butts of the guns were not called "skullcrushers" for nothing.

The simple fact was that if you were a buccaneer, pirate or privateer in the glory days of each, you'd be loathe to own anything but a French gun. Just like his descendants, a savvy gentleman of fortune wanted the best technology he could afford.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Technically, I think the scene you referenced from "Master and Commander" with Mr. Howard was in the "deleted scenes" on the DVD, but your point is still well made. Your take on the Lyle Saxon story with the Laffite brothers was funny too. I'm surprised to hear that anyone would throw their pistol after discharging it rather than use it as a bludgeoning weapon. I thought navy men were smarter than that? I'm guessing that the French dominance in this area ended with Samuel Colt and his patented revolver in the mid 1800's. Interesting post, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think you're right about the deleted scenes thing. It's been awhile. I like to humanize my subjects whenever possible and, of course, the Laffites are no exception. ("Move your finger, Pierre, or I will break it.") And I'm betting the guys chucking their pistols were impressed Royal Navy sailors who didn't know what else to do, poor things.

Finally yes, the US made huge strides in gun manufacture in the 19th century. But those old French pieces are still made of awesome.

Ozarklorian said...

Hi Pauline! Right you are about the French gunsmiths. Sitting in front of my computer is proof that at least one privateer of Barataria packed an extremely fancy pistol: a French pistol lockplate featuring solid gold inlays. It was found many years ago in the bay water off Grande Terre.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Ozarklorian. Well I'm green with envy! How delightful; I'm betting they weren't the only fancy French guns flashed around during the boom days of Barataria. Now to find those pearl handled numbers... (My guess is though, if they existed at all, the handles were actually ivory).

Capt. John Swallow said...

Aye...most of those pistols were so well cared for a great many o' them are still available today - and some in working order!

There be a fine shop in the Vieux Carre - practically a museum, in fact - that has a great many beautiful pieces of this craftsmanship...though the price has not lowered with time

Pauline said...

Ahoy Capt. Swallow and thankee for stoppin' by! I'm always thrilled to hear from ye.

Oh yes, I've been to the shop in the Quarter and thought - just thought - I might be able to ransom my house for one of those beauties. Still a dream I have. Maybe in 2015 when I'm down for the big anniversary. It only seems fitting.