Andrea here, going down another research rabbit hole today . . . Cover your ears, for there could be a number of loud bangs! I recently took you through a few thrusts and parries with London’s most famous Regency swordsmen. Well, today we’re looking at London’s best gunmakers of the era.
I swear, it’s not that I’m bloodthirsty—I just find that in the hands of a master craftsman, pistols and swords are lethally beautiful works of art. For me, they are a perfect example of artisans becoming artists, and I love how the famous design adage “form follows function” comes to life in the hands of men like Manton, Wogdon and Egg. (At left are pistols by John Manton.)
I recently saw a small but scintillating exhibit at Met in NYC entitled The Art of London Firearms, which showcases some of the treasures from its permanent collection, which are rarely displayed. So, let me prime my pen and take a quick shot at giving you some of the highlights of the golden age of flintlock pistols . . .
Regency aficionados tend to think of the Prince Regent as a dissolute pleasure lover, so I was surprised to learn that he had a keen interest in firearms, and was apparently a good marksman. (The exhibit includes one of his targets, with rather impressive bullet holes peppered around the center!) His patronage helped encourage the top gunmakers to create topnotch weapons, which in turn made them fashionable among the aristocracy.
Most of us have heard of Joe Manton (a name often used in Regency novels when talking about pistols.) I learned that he was indeed a leading maker, but tended to focus on innovating and tinkering with new ideas. His brother, John Manton, was the more traditional craftsman and made exquisite pistols for Prinny that combined both beauty and accuracy. And then there is Robert Wogdon (who made the dueling pistols used by Hamilton and Burr. A Wogdon pistol is shown above.) My new favorite, however, is Durs Egg (You have to love him for the name alone! I promise you he will appear in my next book . . . though Egg pistols have already starred in The Judas Pair, a mystery novel by Jonathan Gash!) His nephew, Joseph Egg, worked with Durs and won acclaim in his own right.
Durs Egg was born in Switzerland in 1748 and moved to London in 1772. He was one of the few gunmakers skilled enough to make the Ferguson rifle, an experimental breech-loading long gun used by a special British regiment during the American Revolution. The rife was abandoned as it was too hard to mass-produce, and had certain design flaws, thought technology eventually caught up with the idea. Egg then went on to create sought-after flintlock pistols, which were known for their grace and precision.
The Prince Regent admired Egg, and the exhibits includes a set of royal “Eggs.” (one is shown above) Underneath the fancy decorations on the grips, Egg put in a square of lead to create the right balance, and the long trigger guard with bar at the front was a distinctive mark of an Egg pistol.
Joseph Egg was skilled at making pocket pistols, and his weapons was prized for their their jewel-like beauty and precise engineering. He also designed a special trigger mechanism that allowed his double barreled model to be fired by pulling the trigger twice to fire the two bullets in succession. The Prince Regent also owned some of these miniature models. (That's a Joseph Egg pocket pistol to the right.)
The exhibit makes a point of how the competition between these incredibly talented men elevated the flintlock pistol to new heights. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, engineering and technology were evolving with lightning speed, and the London gunmakers were developing wonderful innovations, that improved accuracy, reliability and speed. Their designs were, the words of the museum catalogue “elegant yet ergonomic.”
Dozens of patents were issued as the gunmakers sought to create special features that would give their weapons an advantage over the competition. From flintlock ignition systems to barrel designs to improved locking mechanisms, the array of technical improvements to pistols was astounding.
One of the reasons I love the V&A Museum in London is because it shows artisans as artists and utilitarian objects, such as pistols, locks, wrought iron gates, and chairs, as art. What about you? Do you think everyday objects, done by a skilled craftsman, can be called art? Have you any favorite type of objects, like redware or spoons, that you consider collectible art? (I confess, I would love to own an Egg pistol just to put on the wall and admire as a thing of beauty.)