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Old 22nd April 2021, 05:40 PM   #1
Jim McDougall
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Default Underhammer boot leg pistol

These are relatively little known single shot percussion pistols of around 1830s to 1860, which were apparently used in Maine, primarily by lumber jacks and loggers on the rivers and the mill towns. Bangor was the largest and busiest of the lumber milling cities in those times.

These pistols were unusual with percussion lock on the underside rather than traditionally placed on the stock, and while termed 'boot pistols' , many were actually worn in a holster on the belt, as William Neal's typically were.

This pistol by William Neal, of Bangor was likely made in the 1840s. He was listed in his shop at East End Kenduskeg Bridge there, where he remained until his death Oct.10, 1853 (@ 43 yrs old). He set the style for the 'saw handle' underhammer pistols of the 1850s.

In the spring, the tightly wound river drivers (moving the logs down river on the Penobscot) would descend on Bangor (they were termed Bangor tigers from the ensuing release of energy). As they poured into the many hotels, bars, gambling halls and brothels on Exchange Street, violence was no stranger, and this was actually another version of the 'wild west' , much in the manner of later Alaskan and other gold rush towns.

I bought the gun (outside my normal field of swords) as one of my grandfathers was originally from a town nearby on the Kennebec River, and that it was unusual and from the place he was born in the same period. He had moved to Minnesota and in 1862, he served with the 2nd US Sharpshooters (Berdans Sharpshooters), and this unit (one of only two regiments) was comprised of men from Minnesota and Maine, many notably in lumber industry.

Coincidentally, William Neals son also joined the Union army and fought in the 2nd US Sharpshooters ! My grandfather may well have known him!!
Such is the happenstance and remarkable coincidence that is part of the adventure of collecting and studying arms
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Old 22nd April 2021, 07:15 PM   #2
Ian
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Hi Jim,

Thanks for sharing this interesting weapon and its history. I like the grip style and the wood it is made from--the grain is rich and beautiful! The sight line is not impaired by the hammer and the barrel seems quite long. Have you ever fired it to test its accuracy?

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Old 22nd April 2021, 07:42 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ian
Hi Jim,

Thanks for sharing this interesting weapon and its history. I like the grip style and the wood it is made from--the grain is rich and beautiful! The sight line is not impaired by the hammer and the barrel seems quite long. Have you ever fired it to test its accuracy?

Ian
Thank you Ian! No, I am not a 'shooter' but interested in the history of the weapons. I would be very concerned about firing of such an old pistol, but it seems a consensus among the gun guys that as long as the charge is carefully measured etc. it is entirely feasible to fire these antiques.
It seems these guns were of large enough bore to be deadly in the circumstances they were used in, very close range.

Actually, in some reading on such close range discharge of black powder arms (Im sure to be corrected but I am not exactly a gun maven) that the victims clothing could be ignited.

Fernando has reminded me gently ( my age is creeping up on me) that I posted this already last October, so please indulge my redundance

The burl wood is characteristic of the beautiful woodwork well known in the furnishings and cabinetry of New England, and the gun stocks of the famed long rifles.
I am a bit puzzled by the sight on this, but do know that the 'underhammer' system was later used in a number of rifles, but not sure if that would have any bearing.
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Old 23rd April 2021, 06:08 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall

The burl wood is characteristic of the beautiful woodwork well known in the furnishings and cabinetry of New England, and the gun stocks of the famed long rifles.

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The grain structure points to maple, which as you say was a common wood for gunstocks in the northeastern part of America into the first half of the 19th cent. Its use on firearms seems to have faded with the increasing use of machine production. I can speak from experience that the curly grain is quite tricky to shape with edge tools such as planes or spokeshaves; rasps and scrapers work better and perhaps the woodworking machinery of the early industrial era was not up to the delicacy of work that hand-shaping and carving could achieve.
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Old 23rd April 2021, 12:04 PM   #5
fernando
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
... It seems these guns were of large enough bore to be deadly in the circumstances they were used in, very close range...The burl wood is characteristic of the beautiful woodwork well known in the furnishings and cabinetry of New England ...
Dear Jim, going back to your previous topic on this gun, this would be a 31 caliber, as also examples we see out there are of not so large caliber either ... mainly .36. Possibly they considered this was a bore large enough to stop a man and wouldn't oblige for sturdier/heavier barrels. Amazing that they still produce replicas of this type of guns, potentially for sports shooting. Surely not for my tastes as, besides not being a shooter (army time long gone) i find these guns simply bizarre ... to be candid.... and if you don't mind .
According the Flayderman's catalogue, the saw handle grips of your gun are made of walnut.
I have spotted a detail image of a underhammer mechanism; maybe not the one of your example but, maybe still interesting for perusal.


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Old 23rd April 2021, 12:34 PM   #6
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Thank you Philip! as always your insights into so many aspects of arms are always remarkable, and it is always more exciting to have these kinds of details to fully appreciate ones treasured weapons. I think the so called 'Kentucky' long rifles (which were actually made in Pennsylvania and other NE regions) have some of the most beautiful stocks I have ever seen.

Fernando, as always, I appreciate your candor, and most interesting views on weapons that we discuss. Being far from a 'gun guy', without the description from original purchase, I would have no idea how to determine the bore, but as previously noted, the close quarters probability for its use would render even these 'smaller' bores deadly enough to serve its purpose.

It seems I bought this gun from Norm (Flayderman) about 20 years ago, and I have been trying to find the original papers. He was one of the most renowned authorities on arms and particularly Americana, as well as being generous and always helpful in my never ending queries.

Thank you so much for the peek at the inner workings of this form of firearm system, which gives insight at how it worked.

As you well note, this under hammer gun is indeed 'bizarre', which is exactly why I liked it , which Im sure will agree is quite understandable
What is also bizarre is that I am a Texan, and NOT a gun guy!!! Other than my own military exposure over 55 years ago, simply have not found the general interest.
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Old 26th April 2021, 03:34 PM   #7
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They are indeed intriguing. They also were popular for duelling, the normal duelling pistol side hammer and nipple are in your vision when aiming, its off-centre motion and the exploding cap are distracting to the shooter. Unerhammers were less popular on rifles where you had your off hand and the grip in a vulnerable are, and it could not as easily be fired prone where the hammer might catch on surrounding materials near it. Some came with an optional forearm which made it a bit easier. Target sights and optical sights were also available.
Some pistols had trigger guards that also enclosed the hammer to help keep it from snagging. They also came in breech loaders!
See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjzrUYgAzAI


And the Ultimate underhammer is a pre-percussion flintlock - how it works without the priming charge falling out, I have no Idea.

When the under hammers came out, duelling was however dying out in the States.

If cleaned and loaded correctly and consistently, they were quite accurate at pistol ranges, a .36 with a conical projectile is essentially a .38, a calibre still in use by police and world military inc. the USA with its metric disguise of 9mm. The 9mm, .36, .357, .38, are essentially all the same diameter, the cases are different for different powder charges and loading/ejection.

The breech loader underhammer was .58 cal. & originally fired a greased minnie-style conical projectile using a paper cartridge. The pistol uses a 40 grain chrge, the Rifle uses 140 grains and kicks a bit.
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Old 1st May 2021, 08:22 PM   #8
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This is the best book on the subject.
https://www.amazon.com/Early-America.../dp/1931464464
For an enthusiast-collector of American firearms, these are rather inexpensive and not as desirable as most other firearms of that period. I don't know why, as they are all well-made, and full of character. I had one that I sold, and it took a good three years to find a buyer. They must have been quite popular in the mid-1800s, judging by the numbers extant.
I believe the interest today comes from the local collectors, as most of these were made in New England.
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Old 3rd May 2021, 05:04 PM   #9
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An under hammer flintlock, It's May 1st, not April
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Old 3rd May 2021, 05:51 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mel H View Post
An under hammer flintlock, It's May 1st, not April
Oh, ye of little faith!

Not only were there underhammer flintlock pistols, but there were rifles as well - tho not as popular for offhand shooting.

Try an internet search for "underhammer flintlock".

(I used Google - lots of images too)

Appears they started making them mid 18c.
They work. In spite of gravity.

I found a gun oriented forum thread where a reply to another sceptic indicated the poster, initially sceptical himself turned his 'normal' flintlock upside down, and successfully fired it! (well, 3 out of 5 tries, once he got used to it, and experimented with a larger/finer priming charge, it fired every time.)


I gather that when the flint displaces the pan cover, kept closed by a spring, the sparks are being sent in all directions and actually ignite the falling prime charge faster than 'conventional' locks.

I noted in one photo the touch hole was at the bottom, er top of a fairly deep oval recess, providing room for a larger charge. With the rising heat, larger charge, you get a bigger ball of flame and burning powder, which as I noted earlier, going off over your offhand arm supporting a hand guard might be a bit uncomfortable for the arm. Not so much if you fire resting the barrel on a support, like a tree limb. On the other side of the equation, keeping that lock and the ball of flaming powder and smoke out of the line of sight improves accuracy.

When they had the infrastructure to mass produce percussion caps, they did become a lot easier and more reliable
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Old 4th May 2021, 11:11 AM   #11
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Well, search duly completed. The truth is, we do learn something new every day. Gravity can be beaten by a spark.
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