The Flintlock Pistols of Rappahannock: The Forge that Armed America
by Andrew Padavich
Authentic Revolutionary War firearms are rare items to find. Examples fortunate enough to still exist are rapidly approaching 250 years in age, meaning that those that have survived the ravages of time have given museums and other preservation-oriented institutions plenty of time to snatch them up either for display behind glass or to be nestled safely away in an archive. This scarcity of supply means that not everyone who wants one of these historic firearms or items is afforded the opportunity to obtain one. When they do show their face at auction, dedicated collectors almost without fail ensure that they draw handsome prices. This week we examine one such piece, equally noteworthy for the early American era in which it came to be, the important manufacturer who made it, and the man who may have owned it.
At the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the American colonies were ill prepared to produce standardized military weaponry and equipment on a massive scale. Committees (or Councils) of Safety were organized to solve this problem. Scottish immigrant James Hunter (1721-1784), who settled in the Falmouth area of Virginia in 1746, was the most successful iron maker to answer the colonies desperate call for war manufacturing. Once located in Stafford County, Virginia, along the Rappahannock River, Hunter’s Iron Works, which later became to be known as Rappahannock Forge, was in operation as early as 1759 until the early 1780s. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Rappahannock Forge was the largest iron works in the colonies. In 1776 Hunter proved to the Council of Virginia that his forge could successfully produce military grade muskets. The forge went on to manufacture an assortment of weaponry and implements for the Continental Army and Navy during the Revolutionary War. In his book “United States Martial Flintlocks” Robert Reilly concluded, “The arms turned out at the Rappahannock Forge are perhaps the rarest of all weapons ever produced anywhere under contract, and should be regarded in the highest historic significance.” Few weapons are known to exist, with examples kept by the Smithsonian Institution, West Point Museum and Rock Island Arsenal Museum.
What Can This Pistol Tell Us?
Offered here is an example of a brass barreled and silver mounted commercial flintlock pistol manufactured at the famed Rappahannock Forge. The brass barrel has double bands at the breech, a slightly belled muzzle and a floral engraving amongst “RAPA FORGE” in a banner. Parallel lines are used under the raised “A” of Rapa. The engraved lock plate is signed “J/HUNTER.” Note that firearms with the James Hunter marking have been identified as using the letter “I” as the first initial. During this period the letter “I” served as the letter “J.” The writer was unable to remove the lock in order to look for inspector initials and Roman numeral assembly numbers, which are typical markings found on Rappahannock Forge weaponry. The two ramrod thimbles, butt cap, side plate and trigger guard are silver. There are no visible hallmarks. The trigger guard has an engraved floral blossom and an acorn finial. The butt cap is a high relief grotesque mask. The side plate is also engraved. The full length stock has a bird’s head style butt, beautifully pierced “CS” monogrammed silver thumb escutcheon and silver inlaid wire patterns partially outlining the stock flats and around the floral engraved barrel tang. A similar pistol is identified in a paper that noted firearms expert and author Nathan Swayze presented in 1975 titled “The Rappahannock Forge” (see figure 18). This pistol was by far the “fancier” example of a Rappahannock Forge firearm Swayze presented in his analysis, and the pistol was then owned by the Maryland Historical Society. Both pistols exhibit a grotesque butt cap, brass barrel slightly belled at the muzzle and two ramrod thimbles. Raised carvings are in lieu of the silver wire inlay and the barrel markings differ. Although the Swayze pistol had a replacement lock, evidence suggested that the original lock matched the design found on the pistol offered by Rock Island Auction, featuring an elongated, pointed tail. The design of this pistol is also similar to an unidentified American holster pistol (circa 1760-1780) described and pictured in George Neumann’s “The History of Weapons of the American Revolution” (pages 202-203).
French-Indian War Veteran Charles Smith
Since this pistol is a privately purchased weapon and most likely not a military issued sidearm, it has been argued that this pistol was manufactured before the Revolutionary War with the “CS” monogram linked to French and Indian War veteran Charles Smith. It is known that James Hunter settled in Virginia before the French and Indian War (1754-1763) in 1746, but records of his early days in the colonies have been lost to history. Early documents regarding his famed iron works, which began operating in 1759, are limited at best. Moreover, the lock plate marking is inconstant with known Rappahannock Forge weapons built during the Revolutionary War. The aforementioned fact supports the theory that it is plausible this pistol could have been manufactured around the time of the French and Indian War. The high quality of this pistol also suggests that the potential original owner is documented as being a prominent member of colonial society and of the status to have been able to own this. Charles Smith, whose initials match the monogram, is one such candidate.
Charles Smith served in the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. He entered service in 1754 as a private and was with George Washington during the battle of Fort Necessity that same year. According to one account, he lost his left hand during this battle (see History, “Charter and By-laws of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Illinois,” published in 1900, page 112). A more detailed account stated, “He lost his hand and a great part of his left arm by the bursting of a musket on his duty” (see “Virginia’s Colonial Soldiers” by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck, page 180). Undaunted by his injuries, Smith continued to play a role in England’s fight against the French in the New World. In late 1756, Washington put Smith in charge of constructing Fort Loudoun, one of Britain’s earliest fortifications on the western frontier. In the summer of 1757, Washington secured Smith a lieutenancy, and in June 1758, Washington appointed Smith commander of Fort Loudoun. While at the fort, Smith’s ties to the future general and American president grew. Smith forwarded Washington’s mail, kept an eye on Washington’s nearby Bullskin plantation and supervised the funds for Washington’s election to the House of Burgesses. Smith was also able to get himself into trouble. In September 1757, he punched postman rider Thomas Frazier during a dispute in a tavern. An half an hour later Frazier was dead. Smith was later exonerated. He died in 1776. Consignor research is included; we will let one decide the historical relevance, if any.
This pistol has more going for than might be instantly recognizable to many who focus primarily on weapons of the two World Wars. It is highly and beautifully embellished, dates to a significant period in American history, was made by a forge critical to our nation’s independence, and may have been owned by a British military man close to George Washington. It checks off a great many boxes for collectors, but most importantly, it is not stowed away in the safe, dark confines of a museum archive. This September is a rare opportunity when such a historic arm is available to the collecting public.