Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 3206: Captain Joseph Belton Style Repeating Flintlock Pistol

Auction Date: June 7, 2020

Captain Joseph Belton Style Repeating Four-Shot Flintlock Pistol with Wooden Model and Extensive Documentation

Estimated Price: $25,000 - $50,000

Captain Joseph Belton Style Repeating Four-Shot Flintlock Pistol with Wooden Model and Extensive Documentation

Manufacturer: American
Model: Flintlock
Type: Pistol
Gauge: 61
Barrel: 12 inch round
Finish: bright/casehardened
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 1327
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 90
Class: Antique

This pistol and the model are heavily pictured and discussed in the included book "The Belton Systems, 1758 and 1784-86: America's First Repeating Firearms" from 1986 and the included article "The Guns of Joseph Belton Part II" in April 1987 issue of "American Rifleman," both by Robert Held. The Belton "Roman candle" fusil is the very first known American repeating firearm, and this model and pistol set have a more advanced design by the same maker. The lock slides in a track on the right and aligned with the four vent holes along the side. Cocking the cock prepares the gun to fire in one motion. It closes the frizzen, primes the pan using powder contained in the reservoir on the frizzen, slides the lock to the next vent hole, and of course readies the cock itself. It is a very mechanically complex system for the era and certainly an innovative way to get more shots out of a muzzle loading flintlock firearm. The barrel was loaded using pre-loaded magazine tubes to ensure the loads properly align with the vents. Aside from the obvious immense interest generated by this set's interesting mechanisms and rarity, it is also very interesting in that the engraving on the pistol's barrel has, per author Robert Held, "the oldest known dated depiction of the so-called 'Betsy Ross' flag (thirteen stripes, thirteen five-pointed stars in a circle)." The next earliest depiction of the flag noted by Smithsonian curator is "Washington at Princeton," painted by Charles Willson Peale, Washington’s former aid, in 1792. The repeating fusil design by Joseph Belton noted above is dated May 16, 1758, and was manufactured using a barrel by James Barbar of London. It is now part of the collections of the Smithsonian at the National Museum of American History and used superimposed loads that fired in succession after a single pull of the trigger using a chained charge much like a Roman candle. Four much rougher Jover & Belton guns (two pistols and two long guns) manufactured in 1784-1786 in England using variations of the system on this pistol are known in the Royal Armories in the Tower of London and Pitt Rivers Museum. They are historic in their own right but pale in comparison in terms of condition, quality, and historical significance to this set. A similar system was patented by Isaiah Jennings of New York City decades later in 1821 and was used on the Ellis-Jennings repeating flintlock rifles. Very little is known about Joseph Belton's life, including when and where he was born and died. In 1777, Belton informed the Continental Congress that he had designed a way to make a musket discharge multiple shots. He was summoned to demonstrate his weapon (believed to be the very fusil now in the Smithsonian) and contracted to alter one hundred muskets. None have ever come to light, and the contract was quickly canceled due to costs. Belton kept lobbying for contracts and kept making innovations including a version that sounds similar to the design on the pistol and model here that allowed multiple separate bursts of shots from a single gun. Benjamin Arnold, Horatio Gates, and others were certainly intrigued by the design. Nonetheless, they appear to have never been manufactured for the cause, and Belton never received the immense compensation he sought for his invention. Thus, the year following the end of the war, 1784, Belton petitioned the British Board of Ordnance to examine his weapon system, and it was tried and recommended for trials but not adopted. In 1785, Belton now partnered with well-known London gunmaker William Jover and improved the system and then demonstrated it to the East India Company. A hundred, perhaps several hundred, muskets using Belton's system were then manufactured in the Jover shop for the East India Company, but the system was never widely adopted. It is possible this pistol and model were manufactured in Jover's shop as well; however, Held believes Belton returned to Philadelphia in 1785 and the pistol was manufactured there after a falling out with Jover. Nothing else is known about Belton. The pistol and model are clearly shaped like a classic British dueling pistol from the late 18th century. The lock is marked "BELTON/PHILAD./U.S." on the tail. The brass primer magazine on the frizzen is finely engraved with martial and border patterns and has a small trapdoor on the top for filling it with powder. The track is inscribed "IOS. BELTON - INVENTOR ET" and "ARTIFEX - PHILAD - MDXXLXXXVI." The top of the barrel has "PHILAD. U.S. 1786 CAPT. JOSEPH BELTON. INV." inscribed on a long banner as well as very fine engraving of a naval themed stand of arms, leaves, and the noted Betsy Ross flag. The photographs in the included sources demonstrate the bottom of the barrel is marked "T.BR." at the breech. The barrel has .61 caliber bore, and the tubular magazine is estimated to have been .53 caliber using .47 patched round balls. The front sight acts as a retaining spring to secure these magazines. The standing breech is also engraved and dished to act as the rear sight. The trigger guard has an acorn finish and floral and border engraving on the bow. The stock is the style popular on civilian pistols, particularly dueling pistols, in the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 18th century and has flat sides on the wrist and raised relief floral carving by the breech. The wooden model is identified as made from a single piece of American black walnut for the stock, barrel, ramrod, and furniture and magnolia or boxwood for the lock parts. It is marked "PHIL'DA' [scrollwork] AUG. 1785" inside the wooden track. This marking is only visible under ultraviolet light as discussed and demonstrated by Held due to fading. They are contained in a well-made modern custom case fitted to the pistol and model. Extensive provenance documentation is also included as is a manuscript with detailed captions and photographs of the pistol including images of components fully disassembled. The documents trace the ownership of the set, as well as Belton's earlier 1758 fusil design, to Alexander Thompson Britton, a Civil War Veteran that served in the National Rifles of Washington, antiques collector/dealer, attorney in Washington, D.C., member of a commission by President Hayes, and businessmen connected to several banks and railroad as well as other businesses, and member of the National Geographic Society. He was in possession of a collection of family heirlooms that dated back to an unidentified Revolutionary War era ancestor that he received from an aunt. He died in 1925, and in 1927 his widow, Marjorie, married Count Ippolito Salvoni. They moved to Italy around 1929, and their guns were hidden away in Switzerland during World War II out of fear of expropriation and punishment from the Germans. Between 1954 and 1961, many guns and other antiques were given to Count Neri Battaglini (Salvoni's godson who had previously been married to Marjorie Savin-Pilson-Britton-Salvoni’s eldest daughter, Elaine, who died in 1952) and Battaglini’s wife second wife, Countess Graziella Battaglini nee Righi. Among these were the Belton guns, including the fusil which he received in 1954. When they divorced in 1977, they divided their collection, and she kept the pistol set in this lot and other antiques. Shortly before Count Battaglini's death in 1982, the Belton fusil became part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian by Smithsonian curator Craddock R. Goins. The pistols and other antiques remained the property of the Countess, and he recommended the Countess contact the Smithsonian. She donated many other items from the Britton family to the Smithsonian and also contacted them about the pistols. Smithsonian curator Dr. Edward C. Ezell had the pistol examined by experts at the Royal Armories in the Tower of London and at Scotland Yard around November 1984 to forensically examine the age of the metals and determined "no presences of any constituent that would be at variance with 18th century provenance" and sought to make the pistol and model part of the Smithsonian's collection. It was determined no repairs or other modern work was present on the pistol. Before the Smithsonian could finalize an agreement, the family instead sold the set to a collector in England for financial reasons. They were sold to the current consignor around 1993 through an agent in London as laid out in included documents.

Rating Definition:

Listed by Held as "virtually 'mint'." We feel they are fine as contemporary built within the last century. The brass barrel, primer reservoir, ramrod pipes, and trigger guard display deep aged patina and retain crisp engraving and markings. The lock and track have dark gray/brown patina and distinct markings. The stock has some rub wear and a chip above where the tail of the lock rests in the rearmost position, minor pressure marks and scratches, a minor crack at the front of the long lock/track mortise, and crisp carving at the breech. Mechanically fine. The model is in similar condition, has a couple loose pieces, and minor age, storage, and handling related wear. It is non-functional. As Robert Held wrote, "The pistol represents without question the summit of American gunmaking skill before the eighteen-thirties, and it bears engraved on its barrel the earliest known dated depiction of the 'Betsy Ross' flag. . . Finally, the custom wooden model is a unique model of American arms development history, or for that matter British or any other so far as enquiries in two patent officers, three historical arsenal-museums and in arms-study circles generally have been able to discover."

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