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Early Percussion Altered Northwest Trade Gun by Robert Wheeler

Early Percussion Altered Northwest Trade Gun by Robert Wheeler

  • Product Code: FLA-3674-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

The Indian Trade Gun, known as the “Northwest Trade Gun” is one of the most recognizable patterns of firearms in American history, and even novices can usually recognize the form. It was also one of the longest lived patterns of arms, from its general standardization during the third quarter of the 18th century through the latest extant example which is dated 1900! For over two centuries the basic pattern did not change significantly, other than the eventual adoption of the percussion ignition system in the mid-19th century and some manufacturing simplifications as the guns changed from being entirely handmade pieces to being factory produced during the third quarter of the 19th century. The most commonly encountered form of the Northwest Trade Gun was a full stock flint or percussion ignition smoothbore long arm of 24-Bore (about .58 caliber) with an octagon to round barrel of between 30” and 48” that usually features two sets of balusters turned “wedding band” rings. The gun was a flower, a sleek and well balanced gun that had evolved from the French Fusil de Chasse. These guns were shorter, lighter and much handier than the military musket of the period, often weighing nearly half as much as their heartier military brethren. The North American Indians preferred these shorter, lighter guns over the heavy military muskets and often shortened military arms to adapt them to use in the thick forests and vegetation where they often saw service. The trade guns were produced without sling swivels, a useless encumbrance to the natives who tended to universally remove them from military muskets that they acquired. Despite the form being of French origin, the Northwest Trade Gun that became “standardized” during the last quarter of the 18th century was a decidedly English gun. While furniture was typically simple and minimal, it was the serpent sideplate that came to define the form during the last part of the 18th century. While the actual imagery was often that of a dragon, to the Native American it was a snake or serpent and came to be sign of quality that made trading of such arms without this decorative sideplate almost impossible. The guns also often carried the mark of the fox in a circle on the lockplate. This appears to have originated with the Hudson Bay Company (established in 1670) which uses the fox as the central image at the top of their company crest. By the turn of the 19th century nearly all Northwest Trade Guns, whether supplied by the Hudson Bay Company were marked with a fox in a circle of some sort, even if the guns were supplied by their competitors like the Northwest Company or John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Initially most of the Northwest Trade Guns were produced by English gunmakers. Some maker names like Barnett, Ketland, Wilson and Wheeler are well known, while others like Whatley, Galton and Jacot are somewhat less commonly encountered. While many of the guns were marked “London” and even bore early London commercial proofs, a large majority of the arms originated with England’s Birmingham gun trade. By the first quarter of the 19th century the American Fur Company began to rely upon many of the Pennsylvania makers like Gumpf, Fordney and Leman from Lancaster and Henry, Tryon and Golcher from Philadelphia. Eventually even Belgian import arms began to be part of the gun trade as well. 


In addition to trading guns for pelts, the military high commands of the French, English and Americans all understood the potential advantage to arming sympathetic Indian tribes during period of conflict, in effect creating an ersatz guerilla fighting force. The French were particularly adept at doing this during the Seven Years War (French & Indian War 1754-1763) but the British truly refined this practice during the War of 1812. The British Board of Ordnance contracted for a total of 26,786 trade guns to arm their Native American allies during the War of 1812, relying upon sixteen Birmingham contractors to deliver them between 1813 and 1816. Of those guns, 12,494 were the standard Northwest Trade Gun, 10,118 were “Chief’s Guns”, 1,538 were rifles and 2,636 were pistols.


The Northwest Trade Gun offered here is an early standardized example that likely dates to somewhere between 1790 and 1815. The gun was produced by Robert Wheeler of Birmingham and is clearly marked with his name on the lock, along with his trademark initials on the barrel. While sources differ slightly, it appears that Robert Wheeler went into business in Birmingham circa 1766 and remained in the gun trade through 1799 when he died. Sometime around 1784 the firm became Wheeler & Son, though it appears that they did not mark their guns in that way until around the turn of the 19th century. Robert’s Wheeler’s son was also named Robert, adding to some of the confusion and at least two other Robert Wheelers operated in Birmingham, one during the late 16th century and one during the mid-17th century. The Birmingham proof house was not established until 1813, as barrels produced before that time had to be proved at the London proof house. Wheeler guns with London proofs are likely to be pre-1814, although old habits die hard and it was likely some years after the proof house was established that he and many of the other major Birmingham makers were proving their barrels locally rather than in London. Wheeler was one of the sixteen contractors hired by the British Board of Ordnance during the War of 1812 to produce trade guns for Native American allies and delivered a total of 1,491 Northwest Trade Guns between 1813 and 1816. According to research by DeWitt Bailey the firm did not use the “& Son” in their name from 1799-1813, did from 1814-1824, dropped it again circa 1825-1827 and returned to using it from 1828-1843, although these dates probably varied slightly in terms of the markings on the guns as older parts were used up. Bailey further notes that the firm was not only a British Board of Ordnance contractor but also a contractor for the Hudson Bay Company.


This Wheeler Northwest Trade Gun measures 51 ½” in overall length with a 36 ½” octagon to round barrel that is secured to the stock with three pins and a screw through the tang that enters from underneath, through the front of the triggerguard tang. The barrel has a 7 5/8” octagonal section that ends with baluster turned rings, a 3 7/8” round section that also ends with baluster turned “Wedding Band” rings, and finally a 25” round section. The rectangular breech tang is 2” long and ½” wide. A sighting and indexing groove passes through the tang and top rear of the breech and a 3/8” front sight blade is present on the top of the barrel, 1 ¾” from the muzzle. The bore of the gun is nominally .60 caliber at the muzzle, about right for a gun that has seen use. The guns were nominally 24-Bore, about .58 caliber or “Pistol Bore” for the British Board of Ordnance. The barrel is marked LONDON on the top flat and bears a pair of early London proof marks of a {Crown}/GP and {Crown}/V in depressed ovals, separated by the maker’s mark */RW. The rounded 6” long lock plate terminates in a point at the tail and marked WHEELER in a vertical arc behind the hammer.  Between the hammer and the bolster is a 3/8” circle with a fox emblem, a mark typical of Wheeler produced trade guns. The lock has been converted to percussion with a typical mid-19th century civilian hammer and a simple drum bolster. As is typical of frontier alterations, the flintlock battery holes are not filled in the lockplate. The lock is secured by three screws that pass through a 5 ¾” “serpent” sideplate in the form of scaled dragon. The gun is fully stocked to the muzzle with a ½” sheet brass reinforcement at the nose, 1” from the tip. The flat, “shotgun” butt measures 1 ¾” wide and has a flat brass buttplate that is secured by two rows of three square head finishing nails on the bottom and a single nail in the tang. The stock has a pair of 1 ¼” grooved sheet brass ramrod thimbles and no entry pipe. The only piece of iron furniture is an 8 7/8” long triggerguard with a large bow to accommodate a gloved finger. The stock has a neatly executed raised carved apron in a trapezoidal shape around the breech plug tang that terminates in raised oval finial that serves as a thumb piece. The stock has moderate Roman nosed profile with 1 1/8” drop at the comb and a 2 5/8” drop at the heel. The comb has a pronounced rail and flat top. The length of pull is a comfortable 13”. The light, handy and well balanced fusil weighs in at a very comfortable 5 ½” pounds, slightly more than half the weight of the British Land Pattern “Brown Bess” of the period. The London proved barrel in combination with the use of the nailed buttplate, a tang screw entering from underneath the stock and the sheet brass nose reinforcement are all typical of earlier production English arms and are features that were disappearing by the first quarter of the 19th century. Most examples of Birmingham proved Wheeler trade guns are marked “Wheeler & Son”, have a tang screw that enters through the top and have an actual cast nosecap. These guns start to appear regularly in the post-War of 1812 period, suggesting that his guns were earlier features were produced during or before that conflict.


The  gun remains in FINE condition for an Indian Trade Gun that dates from sometime between about 1790 and the end of the War of 1812. The gun shows real world use and a long service life in its percussion form but was never abused or mistreated; the gun was clearly always cherished and cared for. The markings on the tail of the lock are crisp and clear, with the circled fox mark weak and only partially legible. The barrel proofs are very crisp was well, with the “London” mark slightly weak. The barrel has a mostly smooth plum brown patina with moderate surface oxidation and minor roughness here and there. The barrel is mostly free of serious pitting, with the exception of the breech which shows moderate pitting from the gun’s service life in percussion form. The locks shows some scattered surface oxidation, as well as some minor pitting around the percussion bolster. The percussion altered lock is fully functional and works exactly as it should on all positions. The bore of the fusil is moderately oxidized with some scattered rust, moderate roughness and scattered light to moderate pitting. The iron triggerguard has a smooth plum brown patina and the brass furniture has a deep, rich, uncleaned mustard patina. The brass buttplate has an old, thin coat of protective varnish on it. The stock is solid and full-length and remains in about FINE condition. The stock is free of any breaks, cracks or repairs and retains crisp edges, particularly around the raised carved apron and along the edges of the flat comb. The stock shows no signs of sanding, but also appears to have an old, thin coat of varnish that has protected it from the ravages of age as a collectible gun. There is some minor wood loss here and there, with a tiny chip missing behind the hammer at the bolster, as well as some minor old wood loss around some of the barrel retention pin holes in the stock. There are also a couple of grain cracks at the forend tip with one about 2" long on the obverse and another about 4" long on the reverse. These are clearly shown in the photos. Otherwise, the stock shows only some scattered bumps, dings and light handling marks; remaining really fine and crisp. The gun includes an old wood ramrod with good age and a nice patina that matches the gun well. It is about 4” short of full length and shows splintering at the end.


Overall this is a really wonderful example of a Northwest Trade Gun by Robert Wheeler. This early gun dates somewhere between about 1790 and the end of the War of 1812 and would be a fantastic addition to any collection of late 18th or early 19th century Native American arms and accouterments, War of 1812 arms or an advance Fur Trade collection. The fact that it was altered to percussion during its working life and shows real world use in percussion suggests that the gun likely saw use well into the mid-19th century and through the heyday of American expansion west during the pre-Civil War period. I have seen similar early production, percussion altered Northwest Trade Guns in lesser condition sell in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. This is a no apologies example you will certainly be proud to own, and display and it is priced very fairly and well under $4,000.


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Tags: Early, Percussion, Altered, Northwest, Trade, Gun, by, Robert, Wheeler