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Revolutionary War Era Scottish Military Pistol by Waters

Revolutionary War Era Scottish Military Pistol by Waters

  • Product Code: FHG-2325-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

The Scottish “Highland” pistol is one of the most recognizable silhouettes of all historical handguns. While the form most often associated with the Scottish Highlander is the all-steel flintlock design with a flat, rams horn butt, secured to the Scotsman by a belt hook, and often profusely engraved, it was only one of the variations of the traditional Scottish pistol. This form of pistol was romanticized by the works of Sir Walter Scott during the first quarter of the 19th century, when his novels like Rob Roy (set just prior to the Jacobite uprising of 1715), and Waverly (set during the second Jacobite uprising of 1745) actually helped to create a wave of Scottish revival during the 1830s, bringing an otherwise antiquated form of pistol back into production. 


As Scottish firearms expert Claude Blair noted, “the romantic picture of Scotland, first painted by Sir Walter Scott in his poems and novels, has been responsible for many misconceptions about the country and its people. The popular idea that all Scotsmen before the middle of the 18th century habitually wore the tartan kilt and plaid, and went daily armed with claymore, dirk, target and pistols, is totally incorrect.”  However, the all-metal Scottish pistol is a traditional form that is almost completely unique to Scottish use, although English gunmakers, particularly in Birmingham, produced plenty of them during the middle of the 18th century. 


The form originated from the “Fish Tail” butt snaphaunce pistols that first appeared in Scotland during the last decade of the 1500s. The snaphaunce had a relatively simple lock with a lateral sear but was a significant improvement over earlier ignition systems like the matchlock and wheellock. The final improvement for flint and steel ignition would be the flintlock that would supersede the snaphaunce in most of England and Europe by the middle to latter part of the 1600s. The Scottish snaphaunce pistol had a slab-sided butt that terminated in three lobes, that looked very much like the tail of a fish, thus the collector term for these guns. One of the downsides of the snaphaunce lock was that most of the actions did not include a half cock position. The flintlock, with its one-piece steel (frizzen) and pan cover offered the half cock on the tumbler and was making strong inroads in England and Europe by the first quarter of the 1600s. In Scotland, the “Scottish Lock”, which would become the heart of the classic Highland Pistol appeared sometime around 1670, with the earliest documentable example dated 1678. This lock utilized the flintlock battery but retained the lateral sear of the earlier snaphaunce. The sear, however, was improved with a hooked extension that passed through the face of the lock, forward of the hammer, allowing for a half-cock position where the hammer body rested against the exposed sear tip. This form of lock would see use in most of the classic Scottish pattern pistols produced in Scotland and Birmingham during the latter part of the 17th century through the end of the 18th century and would be reborn to see service again during the Scottish revival during the first half of the 19th century. 


Unlike the great English gunmaking centers in Birmingham and London, no such centralized area of major firearms production ever developed in Scotland. The earliest Scottish makers (c1500s) appear to have been confined to the largest towns in the lowlands like Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, and it was not until at least a century later that makers started to appear in towns closer to the Highlands regions like Doune. As Blair notes, “At no time does there appear to have been anything more than a handful of gunmakers working in any one place, including the major towns, and the organisation of the craft was analogous to that of the makers of the Kentucky rifle in its golden age, as were probably the methods of production.” It is quite probable that the rather limited number of makers, and the somewhat isolated nature of Scotland during the 16th and first part of the 17th century might explain why the craftsmen held so tightly to traditional patterns and designs that were somewhat archaic or even anachronistic when compared to the work of most of the English gun makers by the end of the 1600s. 


The Scottish firearms industry was certainly adversely affected by the two Jacobite rebellions during the first half of the 1700s. While the first in 1715 may well have been a boon to the industry initially, the heavy handed English response certainly put a damper on production. However, the Proscription Act of 1746, passed after the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745 and the English “pacification” of the Scots (much akin to American “pacification” of the Native Americans) put a final nail in the coffin of any widespread Scottish firearms production. The Proscription Act of 1746 banned the carrying of arms by regular citizens, in particular ownership of firearms for the average Scotsman was all but abolished. While the Proscription Act of 1746 would eventually be repealed almost four decades later, in 1782, it all but wiped out most of the small Scottish gunmakers. The few remaining plied their trade primarily making pistols for use by the Scottish Highland regiments and various government and law enforcement officials who were still allowed the own and carry firearms.


The Royal Highland Regiment was the only English infantry regiment of the period that actually issued pistols to the rank and file. In most British infantry regiments only the officers carried pistols, and often not on their persons but in pommel holsters or even their saddle bags. However, the Royal Highland Regiment authorized pistols for all the troops. These were invariably of the classic Scottish form and of all metal construction with a “Scottish Lock”, a ball trigger (without a triggerguard) and a belt hook. Two primary forms of the pistol were produced. The most classic was the all-steel pistol with the recurved “rams’ horn” butt motif that usually included a vent pick in the center of the butt. These guns appear to have been primarily produced by the surviving Scottish pistol making families like the Murdochs, Christies, Caddells and Campbells, all based in Doune. While the guns made for the rank and file were invariably only lightly engraved or simply decorated at best, the guns were workman-like arms made to decent standards, though not as good as the finest work from London or Birmingham. However, when a rich or powerful client, or an officer in the Royal Highland Regiment ordered a set of pistols from these makers, very fine work could be done. One of the best examples of the high-grade work of Scottish gunsmith John Murdoch are the pair of Scottish officer’s pistols on display at the Hancock-Clarke House as part of the collection of the Lexington Historical Society. These pistols belonged to Major John Pitcairn who had led the Royal Marines during their ill-fated sortie to Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The pistols were in Pitcairn’s saddle bags, and when the column lost their baggage and some of their horses, the guns were captured. They were subsequently carried by Patriot General Israel Putnam, whose descendants would eventually donate them to the Lexington Historical Society. There are some who believe that the first shot fired during America’s War for Independence was by Major Pitcairn with one of those pistols. These pistols are very high grade and expertly engraved, but they were the exception and not the rule for the typical Highland regimental pistol. While the all-steel Scottish made guns were of reasonable quality, by the mid-1700s a newer, cheaper form of Highland pistol was being produced for the Royal Highland Regiment in Birmingham.  


The first was a cheaply made version of the steel pistols which was primarily made by Isaac Bissell. The second type was made of “gun metal”, essentially a bronze alloy with only the lock and barrels of iron or steel. They retained the classic “Scottish Lock”, but had a simpler butt form, with the curving ram’s horns being replaced by a more lobe-like, kidney shaped profile. Like typical Scottish pistols the ubiquitous belt hook was retained. These cheaply made guns were produced by John Waters. Bissell and Waters were the only two official Board of Ordnance contractors to produce “Scottish Pistols” during the latter part of the 1700s, and it was these cheaply made Birmingham guns by Bissell and Waters that were the primary pistols in the hands of the Royal Highland Regiments when they stepped ashore in America to fight the colonists that were in rebellion. The most famous was certainly the 42nd Infantry of Foot, also known as the Black Watch. The regiment been in North America before, serving during the French & Indian War at the Battle of Carillon (aka First Battle of Ticonderoga), as well as the Second Battle of Ticonderoga. They had also seen service in the West Indies during the Seven Years War, fighting in Havana, Martinique and Guadeloupe. They were returned to the American colonies again between 1758 and 1767 and saw combat during Pontiac’s Rebellion. During the American Revolution, they fought several major actions during 1776, including Long Island (August), the Battle of Harlem Heights (September), and the Battle of Fort Washington (November). During 1777, they saw action at Piscataway (February), Brandywine (September), and Germantown (October). They also fought at Monmouth in June of 1778 and participated in Lord Cornwallis’ siege of Charleston during 1780. There is no doubt that a large number of the cheaply made, Birmingham produced  Scottish pattern pistols of Isaac Bissel and John Waters were witness to many of these events. Although the enlisted men of the regiment were ordered to stop carrying pistols and broadswords during the 1776 campaigns, author, collector and historian George Neumann notes that reports indicate that many of the men retained both their pistols and Claymores for use in the later campaigns against the colonists. Examples of Scottish pistols from the Revolutionary War are depicted on pages 244-246 of Neumann’s seminal book Battle Weapons of the American Revolution. Other Highland Regiments to see service during the American Revolution included the 71st Regiment of Foot (Frasers Highlanders), the 82nd Regiment of Foot, the 83rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Glasgow Volunteers) and the 84thRegiment of Foot – the Royal Highland Emigrants. The use of the pistols by the rank and file of the Highland Regiments was officially ended in 1795, and from that point on, the guns were limited to carry by officers. With this order, the era of the Scottish regimental pistol, came to an end, for all intents and purposes.


Offered here is a FINE condition example of a Scottish Highland Regimental Pistol by John Waters. The pistol is of all metal construction, with a frame of cast gunmetal (bronze), a steel “Scottish Lock” and an iron barrel. The gun measures approximately 11 ½” in overall length and weighs just shy of two pounds, exactly 1 pound 14 ounces, according to my fish scale. The breech of the barrel is marked with a pair of London Gunmakers Company private proofs, a {CROWN} / P and a {CROWN} / V, with John Water’s {CROWN} / I W private maker’s mark separating them. The presence of London Gunmakers Company proofs have long created a question about whether Waters was truly based in Birmingham or London. Realistically, surviving documents indicate he operated in Birmingham, circa 1767-1781, and either had a retail establishment in London or simply chose to have his pistol barrels proved in the London proof house. Birmingham did not have an officially sanctioned proof house until 1813, thus any Birmingham guns produced prior to that date were either privately proved in some unofficial manner or had to be proved in London. As Waters was making these guns on contract with the government to provide them to the Highland Regiments, the Board of Ordnance may have required him to have them proved at the London Proof House, or he may have simply felt it was expedient to do so, in order to maintain his contractual relationship. In either case, he was certainly Birmingham based, and nearly all extent examples bear the London Gunmakers Company proof marks. The lock of the pistol is nominally 5” in length and unmarked, as is expected. The “Scottish Lock” has the usual lateral sear that extends through the lock at half cock and full cock, and has a rounded, unbridled iron pan with a fence. The frizzen spring has the expected trefoil final at its end. The cock is of the correct flat, beveled swan neck form. The pistol remains in its original flintlock configuration although the top jaw and screw appear to be old replacements. The lock is in FINE mechanical condition and operates correctly on all positions. The lock is assembly marked XXXII with file slashed on the upper edge, and this same assembly mark is present under the barrel, mating these two parts together. The lock has a dull pewter patina with some smoky gray tones and shows some minor surface oxidation and lightly scattered discoloration on its surfaces. The original ball shaped trigger functions correctly and has a moderately oxidized brownish patina, somewhat darker than the lock. The barrel has a medium pewter gray patina as well and was likely lightly cleaned long ago. The barrel is mostly smooth with some speckled splotches of darker age discoloration and minor surface oxidation scattered along its length. The round barrel measures 6 15/16” in length and is nominally .58 caliber, or “pistol bore”. The barrel is retained via a screw through the breech and a mortised stud on the bottom of the barrel that joins a slot in the bottom of the forward portion of the metal frame. The smooth bore is in about GOOD condition and is mostly dark and moderately oxidized with scattered light pitting along its length and a more serious thumbnail sized patch of moderate pitting 1”-2” from the muzzle. The typical belt hook is attached to the reverse of the pistol and measure 6 ¼” in overall length, including the mounting section to its rear, with the length of the actual hook itself being 4 ½”. The hook secured by a single screw. The gunmetal (bronze) frame has a wonderful, untouched butterscotch patina that is very attractive. The gun has the simplified dual lobe “kidney shaped” butt, rather than the more classic ram’s horn butt. The frame shows some scattered dings, minor mars and handling marks, but remains in nice, untouched condition. There is an old stress crack in the forend, where it joins the thicker portion of the frame, on the reverse that appears stable and might need to receive some attention in the future. It is partly concealed by the belt hook and as it is on the reverse of the pistol has no real effect on the displayability of the gun. What appears to be the original button head ramrod is in place under the barrel, secured by a rolled sheet brass pipe, with the end extending into a hole in the frame. Like most of Waters’ cheapest Scottish Regimental Pistols, the vent pick has been eliminated from the design and is not present in the butt. While most of the Bissell produced Highland pistols are marked HR or RHR (Highland Regiment or Royal Highland Regiment), most of the Waters made pistols that I have seen are not so marked. A nearly identical example of a Waters gunmetal Highland pistol is pictured on page 246 of Neumann’s book Battle Weapons of the American Revolution, with the only significant difference being that the example pictured does include the vent pick in the butt.


Overall, this is a FINE condition and very attractive example of a Regulation Pattern Scottish Highland Pistol by John Waters. This all-metal belt pistol is from the era of the American Revolution and was likely made c1770-1780 by Waters. The gun remains complete and correct, in its original flintlock configuration and in a fine state of preservation overall. This is a classic example of the Board of Ordnance regulation pattern belt pistol issued to all rank and file of the Highland Regiments from the 1760s through 1795 when they were withdrawn from service. While sources vary over Waters working years, it seems quite probable that he was no longer in business by the time the Revolutionary War came to a close. Fine examples like this rarely come to market in such crisp, complete condition. The last example that I saw for sale was severely pitted and both the lock and barrel had been cleaned to gray. It was priced significantly higher than this gun and was not in half the condition. This would be a wonderful addition to any serious collection of Scottish arms, a collection of Revolutionary War pistols or any advanced collection of secondary martial flintlock pistols. I am very sure that you will be extremely happy with this fine Waters contract Scottish regimental pattern pistol.


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Tags: Revolutionary, War, Era, Scottish, Military, Pistol, by, Waters