English Pepperbox by Smith - About Excellent
- Product Code: FHG-1906-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
While the pepperbox revolving pistol is usually thought of as a classic American firearm that dominated the personal protection market for some two decades between the mid-1830s and the mid-1850s, it was a concept that found moderate success in England as well during the same period. The concept of a multiple shot firearm with several barrels clustered around a central axis was not new and predated American made pepperboxes by some two centuries. But it is the American made examples from 19th century New England that tend capture the imagination of collectors today, likely because the form was more successful in America than in England. The success in the American market of the simple system of rotating barrels, firing a new round each time the trigger was pulled is attested to by the quantity of pepperbox type pistols that appear in period images as diverse as the California Gold fields in 1849 and young men heading off to fight in the American Civil War in 1861. Among those many pepperboxes were likely some of foreign manufacture as well, primarily arms from Birmingham (England) and Liege (Belgium), which were often available on the market at prices that were lower than the American makers. The typical pepperbox of the period (whether of American or foreign manufacture) was intended to be a pocket-sized protection pistol usually in a small to medium caliber between about .28 and .36, although smaller and larger caliber guns were produced. Barrel clusters tended to be between 3” and 5” in length, although shorter and longer barrels were manufactured and ungainly “Dragoon” pepperboxes (usually .36 caliber and with longer barrels) were produced on a somewhat limited basis with limited popularity; due primarily to their size and weight. While the first American pepperbox patent was granted in 1836, British makers appear to have been producing pepperboxes somewhat earlier. Edward Budding, an English machinist, owned Thrup Mill, near Stroud in Gloucestershire during the 1820s and 1830s. About 1830 he started to producing a percussion ignition, single action, hand rotated pepperbox of his own design. These were really only more complicated versions of the rotating barrel, over and under pistols that had been manufactured for more than a century in flint and were starting to be produced in percussion. They did, however, add additional barrels resulting in more firepower for the owner. The concept did not catch on quite as quickly as it did in America, if the records from the London Proof House for “revolving pistols’ are any indication. In fact, prior to 1844 the London Proof House did not even have a designation for “revolving pistols”, with the few that were submitted for proof being classified simply as “pistols”. In 1844 the London Proof House records indicate that 194 “revolving pistols’ were submitted for proof. This number remains very low for the next few years, and does not even exceed 200 until 1848 when 297 were proved. In 1849 386 revolvers of all types were proved, in 1850 425 and in 1851 954. It was not until 1852, the year after the patenting of the Adams Model 1851 revolver that the proving of revolving pistols in London exceeded 1,000 pieces, jumping form 954 in 1851 to 6,121 in 1852. While proof figures for such firearms are not readily available for the Birmingham Proof House, as the only categories were “pocket pistols’ and “saddle pistols’ with no indication that they were single shot, multi-shot or revolvers, it can be assumed that production figures jumped similarly during the early 1850s. The category of “pocket pistols’ shows 172,006 units proved in 1852 and some 300,714 proved the following year. It is more than likely that most of these were conventional revolvers rather than pepperboxes. Using the “6 fold” increase in revolving pistol proofs as an assumed multiplier, it would suggest that in 1853, Birmingham proved only about 50,000 pocket pistols that were either single shot, double barreled or pepperbox designs. This suggests that while the pepperbox was widely embraced in America is saw moderate success in England, as if it was simply a stop-gap weapon until a better “mouse trap” was built. One English gun maker who embraced the pepperbox design was Charles James Smith of Birmingham. Smith began his gunmaking career in partnership with Michael Smith, who may have been his father, uncle or older brother. Michael Smith operated at several addresses in the Steelhouse Lane section of Birmingham from 1807 through 1842. Charles entered into partnership with him in 1838 and since the firm was known as Michael and Charles J. Smith (not Michael Smith & Son), and the disparity in age between the two men appears to be at least 20 to 30 years, we can reasonably assume that Michael was likely Charles’ uncle, not his father or brother. In 1845 Charles Patented his own variation of the double action percussion pepperbox, as well as a self-priming magazine device and a multiple charge flask/loader combination. An 1848 dated advertisement from Smith illustrated three long guns and two handgun designs. The long guns included a “common musket”, a “Double Patent Rifle with Magazine Self Priming Lock” which he claimed allowed for 60 shots without re-priming, and a “Patent Six Shot Gun” (that looks like a pepperbox rifle) that also included his patented priming system allowing for “firing 30 times without priming”. The two handgun designs that were featured included a “Patent Six Shot Magazine Self-Priming Pistol” (a pepperbox with the self-priming system) and a “Patent Double Pistol”, apparently an over-under design with the self-priming system. Smith operated his manufactory in Birmingham at 27-28 Whittall Street form 1845 through 1852. He also maintained a London retail location during that period at 24 King William Street, just few doors down from Deane, Adams & Deane, who were located at 30 King William Street and were probably the primary reason for the failure of the pepperbox market in England! It appears that the pepperbox design that Smith patented was the classic, double action, bar hammer pepperbox. From the illustration in the ad, the pepperbox takes the decidedly “English” form with a flat-bottomed grip, a splayed recoil shield and deeply fluted barrels. Like any successful arms maker of the period, Smith produced a wide range of products to serve all price points and providing as simple a product as the customer could desire, or as embellished a product as his pocketbook would accommodate. However, it appears that the introduction of conventional revolving pistols and long arms, and the likely lack of interest in his magazine priming system, combined to force Smith from the market. His designs were simply obsolete in a time when modern double action revolvers and early metallic cartridge designs were coming to market.
Offered here is a NEAR EXCELLENT condition example a . The pistol is clearly and crisply engraved in an Old English font on the left side of the frame: Smith London. The pistol bears no other markings except for Birmingham commercial proofs between each firing chamber in the barrel flutes. The pistol is extremely crisp and sharp throughout. The frame is crisply engraved with tight floral scrolls, with motif on the right side of the frame copied on the butt cap and the backstrap. Additional simple, loose embellishments are found at the muzzles and along the upper edge of the bar hammer. The gun has a 3” barrel cluster with narrow ribs and deep flutes between each barrel. The bores are nominally .34, measuring average of .337” at each muzzle, and in England it would have been considered a 120-bore pepperbox. The overall length of the pepperbox is about 7 “. The entire gun was finished by case hardening, including the frame, barrel cluster and hammer. The gun retains about 60%+ original case coloring overall, with the frame retaining the largest amount of vivid color (about 85%+) and the barrel cluster retaining about 60%+. The case coloring on the barrels has started to fade and dull and has developed a rich tobacco brown patina where the coloring has lost its vividness and deep mottling. The frame retains most its vivid mottling and colors on the sides, and has dulled and developed a rich tobacco brown patina on the gripstrap, backstrap and triggerguard, with only some traces of mottling present. The barrels are free of any pitting along most their length, but do show some moderate pinpricking around the nipples and some even lighter pinpricking around the face of the muzzle. The frame is free of any pitting as well, showing only some light pinpricking around the interior of the nipple shield. As previously mentioned the frame retains very crisp and sharp factory engraving of foliate designs. The bar hammer retains about strong traces of its original case hardened finish, with trace mottled hues of blue, purple and brown present, although faded and dulled, over a gorgeous tobacco brown patina. The action of the pepperbox remains in EXCELLENT condition and the gun times, indexes and locks up perfectly and the bar hammer functions as it should during the trigger pull. All of the original cones (nipples) are in place and are in very nice condition. The cones are slotted on opposing sides for use with a spanner style cone wrench. They remain quite usable with only minimal battering and wear. The bores are in about VERY GOOD condition. They are smooth, with some lightly scattered pitting and minor oxidation present, but are not rusty and worn as are the bores of so many pepperboxes from the period. The only real condition issue with the pistol even worth noting is that a couple of the screws show some light to moderate slot wear, a really minimal issue considering the striking amount of finish remaining on the pistol. The two-piece checkered flat bottomed walnut grips are in about FINE condition. The grips appear to retain much of their original oiled finish and remain quite crisp with sharp checking over most of their surfaces. The grips are solid and free of any breaks, cracks, chips or repairs. They do show some minor scattered scuffs, surface mars and few minor dings along with some minor checkering wear, but nothing that significantly detracts from the gun in any way.
Overall this is a really crisp, well-marked example of a scarce English made Smith Pepperbox that is 100% complete and correct in every way. The gun was made during the late 1840s or very early 1850s, most likely circa 1848-1850. The gun remains in extremely nice condition with lots of brilliant original case colored finish remaining and no repairs or improvements to detract from its display. For any serious collector of pepperboxes and early English made repeating pistols, this is a great example of a relatively scarce pepperbox in very nice condition that you will certainly be glad to add to your collection and display.SOLD