Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 3128: Belton Style Repeating Four-Shot Flintlock Pistol with Model

Auction Date: May 16, 2021

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

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $18,000 - $30,000

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: antiqued
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 1586
Item Interest: Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 74
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 by Captain Joseph Belton is the very first known American repeating firearm. A repeating fusil based on that design is part of the collections of the Smithsonian at the National Museum of American History and uses superimposed loads that fire in succession after a single pull of the trigger using a chained charge much like a Roman candle. This model and pistol set are based on a more advanced repeating design developed by the same gunsmith. On this repeating pistol design, 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. 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 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. Four Jover & Belton guns (two pistols and two long guns) manufactured in 1784-1786 in England using variations of the system used on this pistol are known in the Royal Armories in the Tower of London and Pitt Rivers Museum. 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. The pistol is clearly the work of a very talented gunmaker and certainly looks the part of a well-maintained pistol from the 1780s, but we believe it was professionally built within the last century. It remains, nonetheless, one of the very few examples of Joseph Belton's repeating system and is certainly a rare piece of complex traditional gunmaking. 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 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 a .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 documentation is also included, including a manuscript with detailed captions and photographs of the pistol, including images of components fully disassembled. The documents claim to trace the ownership of the set, as well as Belton's earlier 1758 fusil design, to Alexander Thompson Britton, an antiques collector/dealer among other professions in Washington, D.C. After he died in 1925, his wife remarried to an Italian count, and the set is said to have been passed down through to his godson Count Neri Battaglini. After a divorce in 1977, the pistol set is said to have been owned by his ex-wife Countess Graziella Battaglini nee Righi. Not long before Count Battaglini's death in 1982, the Belton fusil became part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. The Countess also contacted the Smithsonian concerning the pistol and model, and the Smithsonian considered purchasing them. Ultimately, the family instead sold the set to a collector in England. They were sold to the current consignor around 1993 through an agent in London.

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 a convincing deep aged patina and retain crisp engraving and markings. The lock and track have an aged 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, this pistol design "represents without question the summit of American gunmaking skill before the eighteen-thirties. . ." It is an incredibly fascinating design that is otherwise essentially impossible to attain.

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