March 29, 2019
By Danielle Hollembaek
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The Colt M1911, Luger, and Browning Hi Power are all classic military pistols that collectors have come to know and love all around the world. For centuries, firearms like those pistols have been contracted out to gun manufacturers to make for military use. The United States government has been contracting firearms almost since the founding of our country, resulting in many different types of pistols throughout the years. The earliest of these is the rare “horseman” type U.S. martial flintlock pistol- the first ever contract pistol to be produced for the United States.
In our upcoming May Premier Auction, we have a horseman flintlock pistol made by one of the three gunsmiths in the Philadelphia area who received government contracts. His name is Robert McCormick. He was originally from Ireland and came to the United States in the 1790s. Not much is known of his origins other than the fact that he was son of Belfast gunmaker John McCormick and learned the trade from his father. When his father passed away in 1785, Robert took over the family business. By 1794, he moved his shop to Dublin, but shortly thereafter headed to the United States. When he arrived in America, he leased the Globe Mill just south of Philadelphia to produce firearms.
In 1797, McCormick was awarded a contract to make flintlock pistols for the United States, unfortunately, said pistol contract has no recorded documentation, and is likely lost to history. However, there is still strong evidence that such a contract existed such as delivery ledgers, payment receipts, documented contracts for his muskets, and the known existence of at least three “McCormick” and “US” marked horseman flintlock pistols. With as few as ten such horseman pistols in existence today, having three with US markings is significant.
McCormick’s pistol contract was to make “horseman” style flintlock pistols, as well as a small number of “ship” style pistols. The standard ship pistol aimed to be lighter than the horseman with a simpler trigger guard and military side plate. An oddity found on McCormick’s ship pistols is a slightly more decorative lockplate than his competitors. Typically with military arms, added aesthetics are deemed unnecessary and slow the production process. All ship and horseman pistols’ functions and builds were very similar, however.
In a young nation yet to experience its Industrial Revolution, it was necessary for the government to contract numerous gunsmiths in order to meet demand in a timely manner. Despite the large number of gunmakers needed to fulfill the need, there were only six involved in producing ship pistols, and only three of them were also producing the horseman pistols: Robert McCormick, John Miles, and Thomas Annely. Each of them received components to work with from the Schuylkill Arsenal storeroom, which was also responsible for storing numerous lockplates previously imported by the United States in the 1790s from the London-based Ketland & Co. The example offered here, still bears the Ketland marking underneath the flash pan.
When comparing a McCormick’s horseman pistol to others, subtle differences in markings, the hardware, and stock shape are evident. McCormick put his mark in his pistols with a die stamp “MCCORMICK” on the left flat of his pistols vertically, while the other two producers did not consistently mark their pistols. Because of the differences, firearm experts have deduced that horseman flintlock pistols must have been produced by multiple gunsmiths. The first horseman pistols were delivered in 1797 and 1799, making them the earliest U.S. martial pistols, even predating the famous North & Cheney Model 1799 pistols, which did not receive a contract until March 1799.
The McCormick horseman flintlock pistol in our May Premier Auction has a smoothbore barrel that displays the markings ”US” and an “eagle/p” proof right at the breech. Other markings on the gun include the aforementioned “Ketland/& Co.” on the lock and the vertically stamped “UNITED/STATES at its tail. The stock has a brass band near the forend tip, and is marked “US” horizontally and “MCCORMICK” vertically on the left flat. The “US” horizontal markings and plain brass furniture are common elements of all horseman pistols produced in the 1790s.
The iron of the gun displays a gray and brown patina, providing a classic look with the smooth, aged patina of the brass. The stock is very well kept considering this gun is over 200 years old and most likely saw a fair amount of use. It displays a shiny and smooth oil finish that show the beautiful wood quite nicely. The stock, like the entire gun, has character and tells a story from years past.
McCormick continued to make the pistols as per his contract until 1800. With the United States dreading a French invasion due to rising tension between the countries, the need for firepower was evident. This concern lead to another government contract for McCormick in July of 1798. He received a large commission with his agreement to produce 3,000 muskets at the price of $13.40 each. In the next three years, he made two trips to Skuylkill Arsenal and delivered a total of 2005 muskets to the federal government, and between 600 and 925 to the State of Virginia. We can infer that at some point he stopped producing muskets for them because payments to McCormick ceased in early 1801.
The exact reasons for this next event are not fully understood, but unfortunately for McCormick he was sent to debtor’s prison in late 1801. Maybe it was the unfulfilled contract, or poor budgeting, or possibly it was bad luck. As far as my research could find, little to nothing about McCormick is known past 1801. His remaining government contracts were given to his factory foreman James Haslett, to complete.
The McCormick horseman flintlock pistol legacy did not end with his imprisonment. It is believed that either a McCormick or North & Cheney Model 1799 horseman pistol was used by Captain Meriwether Lewis during the “Lewis and Clark Expedition.” In May of 1803, Lewis received a pair of horseman pistols from the Schuylkill Arsenal. The pistol saw use in July of 1806 during a skirmish with a Piegan Blackfeet Native American. The result was Captain Lewis firing his gun and hitting the Native American who died shortly after from his injury. This is the only known shooting incident between the Corps of Discovery and any Native American tribes. A McCormick horseman pistol is likely the gun that was fired that day.
The legacy of the McCormick horseman flintlock pistol is one that is important to U.S. military history. It is always a treasure to stumble upon a firearm so early in the history of our country. Before our 2019 May Premier Auction, May 3-5, be sure to take a glance one of ten surviving horseman flintlock pistols known. It is a rare occasion someone gets to be in the presence of such a historic marvel.
United States Martial Flintlocks – Robert O’Reilly
Historic Pistols: the American Martial Flintlock, 1760-1845″ -Samuel E. Smith and Edwin W. Bitter
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