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Confederate Altered M-1836 Pistol - Likely a Nashville Alteration

Confederate Altered M-1836 Pistol - Likely a Nashville Alteration

  • Product Code: FHG-1498-SOLD
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  • $1.00

Determining the identity of the gunsmith or arsenal that performed Confederate percussion alterations to small arms can be difficult at best, and is sometimes nearly impossible. While certain features and styles of work can sometimes be directly documented to a specific gunsmith or arsenal, very often we are left with only the best “guess work”, based upon reasonable research and circumstantial evidence to attribute a certain style of alteration to a specific time and place. To date, the very best work done along those lines is the seminal text Confederate Rifles & Muskets by the late Dr. John Murphy and Howard Michael Madaus. Using original documents, extant examples and a high level of scholarship, they managed to identify (or at least “attribute”) a large number of alteration types to various southern gunsmiths and arsenals. As the work of these arsenals and artisans is rarely marked, the research was no doubt a Herculean effort, and is of course open to additional research and newly found information. Still, their work is the absolute best available on the subject and is always my first stop when trying to identify a clearly Confederate alteration of a flintlock arm to percussion.

I recently obtained a unique US M-1836 flintlock pistol, altered to percussion and rifled. The unique hammer style and bolster shape left no doubt that the gun had been altered in the South, but identification remained somewhat elusive. Unfortunately, there is no good reference regarding Southern altered pistols, so the next best source is Confederate Rifles & Muskets, in hopes of identifying the bolster shape, hammer, mating codes, etc. By using this reference, I determined that the pistol was most like the altered rifles attributed to Kemper & Shriver of Nashville. The bolster shape was quite similar, the oddly curved and long hammer neck was similar, as was the punch dot mating code system noted. However, no evidence indicated that Kemper & Shriver ever altered any pistols. Furthermore, after researching the conclusions of Murphy & Madaus, it became clear that their attribution was based primarily upon an identified gun, which was in the possession of a Tennessee soldier, to tie this Nashville gunsmith operation to the three similar examples noted. Their other evidence relied on Confederate documents specifying the work to be done by Kemper & Shriver, and noting that the examples cited essentially conformed to those requirements (or at least a couple of them did”.). I knew that the oddly shaped fenced bolster, brazed onto the breech of this pistol was not typical of any of the well known Confederate arsenals or gunsmiths, and felt if I could find a similar bolster from a known maker, it would help lead me in the right direction to identify the man who did the work. I also felt that while the Murphy and Madaus attribution of their known sample guns to Kemper & Shriver might be slightly suspect, they were probably correct in their attribution of the guns to having been altered in Tennessee, and mostly likely Nashville. This lead me to investigate known Nashville makers a little more, and allowed me to stumble upon some information that I’m not sure has ever been set forth for general public consumption.

The best known gunsmith of the 1860’s in Nashville was Franz (later Frank) J Bitterlich. Bitterlich was born in Bohemia in 1829 and according to the 1860 census was a 31-year old resident of Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee, employed as a gunsmith. Bitterlich is best known for his copies of Henry Deringer’s pocket pistols, and apparently produced them not only for himself, but for Schneider & Glassick of Memphis as well. What is less well known is that Bitterlich produced a wide range of firearms from derringers to belt pistols to rifles, all of which were well made arms and apparently very desirable at the time. Sometime in 1862 Bitterlich entered into a partnership with a man named Legler, and they remained in business under the name of Bitterlich & Legler until sometime in 1867. I immediately noticed that the bolster style of this percussion alteration (which I had previously “attributed” to Kemper & Shriver based upon the Murphy & Madaus work) was similar to that found on Bitterlich’s belt pistols. This immediately made me wonder if maybe the Kemper & Shriver altered arms in Confederate Rifles & Muskets might have really been altered by Bitterlich, or if the two firms might have influenced each other in their work. I could find almost nothing about Bitterlich in print, and decided that an examination of the Confederate Citizen Files in the National Archives might be in order. Initially I was frustrated as “Bitterlich” did not appear in the NARA M346 (National Archives Records Administration files M346 “ “Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens & Business Firms 1861-1865”). I then searched based upon a partial name, and hit pay dirt, as all of F J Bitterlich’s documents relating to his work for the Confederacy were misfiled under Bitterlick with a “k” and not an “h”. I unearthed 20 pages of documents relating to the work that Bitterlich did repairing and altering guns for the Confederacy, including 9 receipts or invoices dated from October 14, 1861 to February 13, 1862. During this time frame Bitterlick repaired or altered several hundred guns of various types, including double barrel shotguns, Tennessee Rifles, Halls Rifles, Warners Rifles, Colts Revolvers and pistols. It is reasonable to assume that the entries for “pistols’ were for the repair and alteration of single shot pistols, as revolvers appear to have always been listed as being “Colt’s Revolvers’ or “Colt’s Pistols”. Absent the “Colt” moniker, they were mostly likely single shot marital pistols that had been in store at the arsenal in Nashville, which Tennessee had received during the previous two decades, under the Militia Act of 1808. The receipts range from rather specific, listing the types of guns worked on with some specificity, to rather vague, listing only “Repairing 14 Guns” or “52 guns of different kinds repaired @ $3.50 each”. One of the most interesting receipts is dated January 7, 1862 and reads in part:

Repairing 14 Guns
do 5 Pistols
For Texas Rangers

It is well known that the famous “Terry’s Texas Rangers’ arrived in Nashville in October of 1861, and remained for some time, camped at the fairgrounds. The receipt that is of most relevance to this pistol is dated October 14, 1861 and along with the repair of 124 Double Guns and 17 Rifles, specifically lists 50 Pistols @ $2.00 ea. As the repairs to the long guns were performed at $1.25 each, this indicates that more work was done to the pistols, likely their alteration to percussion and possibly rifling as well. A copy of this receipt is included at the end of the pictures of the pistol below.

The pistol offered here is, in my opinion, one that was altered to percussion for the Confederacy by Frank J Bitterlich of Nashville. The style of the bolster is quite similar those found on his belt-sized pistols, with a slightly narrow and tall appearance, complete with a curved fence to the rear of the bolster. The hammer profile is quite similar to that attributed by Murphy & Madaus to Kemper & Shriver, which I now believe may be more accurately attributed to Bitterlich. The gun is also marked with a punch dot reassembly code, another feature of “Kemper & Shriver” alterations, but as noted I think it might be reasonable to suggest that the work of Kemper & Shriver was really the work of Bitterlich. The pistol is a US M-1836 .54 caliber single shot, which was originally produced by Robert Johnson of Middleton, CT in 1837. The pistol is in about VERY GOOD condition, especially for an early war Confederate alteration. The pistol is marked in four lines on the lock plate: U.S. / R. JOHNSON / MIDDn CONN / 1837. The markings are mostly legible, but do show some wear due to flash pitting from the percussion caps. Johnson produced 18,000 M-1836 pistols between 1836 and 1844. The M-1836 was the standard US pistol during the Mexican War (it is doubtful many, if any M-1842 percussion pistols saw use there) and was a pistol that was provided to the states in some quantity under the Militia Act of 1808, especially after the percussion system was adopted. The gun retains the original JH inspection mark of US arsenal sub inspector Joseph Hannis on the upper breech and under the barrel as well. Interestingly the “US’ breech mark has been cleaned off. Hannis’ script cartouche is also visible on the stock flat, opposite the lock. The pistol has been altered from flintlock to percussion by removing all of the external flintlock battery and filling the unused screw holes. A fenced bolster has been brazed into place over the original flintlock vent hole, and sweeping, simple “dog’s head” style hammer with a flat face and neck has been added. The pistol has been marked with the reassembly code of 2 punch dots on the inner neck of the hammer, inside the lock plate and under the barrel. The lock functions crisply and correctly on all positions and is mechanically excellent. It appears that two of the internal lock screws are more modern replacements. The metal of the pistol has been lightly cleaned; leaving it a medium gunmetal color, with some scattered areas of minor age discoloration. The metal is mostly smooth, but there are some scattered patches of minor pinpricking and peppering, mostly around the breech area. The lock plate and hammer also shows some light to moderate cap flash pitting. The balance of the metal furniture has been lightly cleaned as well, and shows the same small, scattered areas of minor age discoloration, peppering and pinpricking. The swivel ramrod is a good quality modern replacement, which someone added to restore the gun to its correct, period appearance. The severe distaste that most Confederate soldiers had for the captive ramrod system is likely the reason that this piece was found missing from the gun at one point in time. The bore of the pistol has been rifled with 6 narrow grooves, with a relatively slow rate of twist. The grooves are medium depth and appear to be an attempt to rifle the pistol in a way that would allow it to work with either round or conical ammunition. The bore of the pistol rates about GOOD with strong visible rifling and moderate pitting along its entire length. The pistol retains the original brass blade front sight and the notched rear sight on the breech. The stock of the pistol has been lightly cleaned in the past, and may have been lightly sanded as well. The metal backstrap is slightly proud of the wood at the upper rear of the grip area. As noted, a fairly clear, script JH cartouche remains on the stock flat. The stock is solid, with the expected wear from a Confederate arm used in the field. There is some minor wood loss between the hammer and breech area from percussion cap burnout. There is also a repaired crack on the left side of the stock, from the breech area diagonally about 3” into the barrel channel. This is not visible without taking the pistol apart, and is very stable. There is also a minor grain crack of about ““ running from the rear lock screw to the barrel channel. This minor crack is stable and non-structural, and is the result of the lock screw being over tightened. The stock shows the scattered bumps, dings and wear marks that one would expect to find on a 150+ year old martial pistol.

Overall this is a very interesting example of a Confederate altered US M-1836 Pistol. While I cannot 100% guarantee that it was altered by Bitterlich, I believe that the combination of circumstantial evidence, “Kemper & Shriver” attributed features and period documentation of Bitterlich’s work, all combine to make an extremely compelling case that it is. Tennessee altered and associated arms are very scarce, as Nashville fell so early in the war (February 25, 1862 “ less than two weeks after the date of Bitterlich’s last invoice), Nashville produced and repaired items are very scarce. For any serious collector of Confederate alterations or those with a real interest in the Confederate arms that came out of Tennessee (and Nashville in particular), this is one of those must have pieces that I believe will be someday proved to have been altered for the Confederacy by Frank J Bitterlich.


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Tags: Confederate, Altered, M, 1836, Pistol, Likely, a, Nashville, Alteration