The American gunmaking firm of Robbins & Lawrence would become one of the pioneering entities to adopt and effectively utilize the modernized manufacturing methods that were coming to the fore during the 1840s. The “American System” of production, which had been pioneered by inventors Eli Whitney and John Hall, was the basis for all future assembly line manufacturing based upon the concept of interchangeability of parts. The firm would also employ some of the rising luminaries in the American firearms industry, several of whom would go on to become household names to arms collectors and in some cases, even the general public.
The initial partnership that created the firm was between Nicanor Kendall of Windsor, VT and Richard Lawrence of Connecticut. Kendall, the son of a blacksmith, had apprenticed as a gunsmith under the tutelage of Vermont gunmaker Asa Story. Early on he had received a patent for an underhammer percussion lock mechanism and by 1835 he was producing underhammer rifles and pistols in his father-in-law’s pump factory in Windsor. In 1843, Richard Lawrence became a partner is Kendall’s gunmaking operation, and the pair moved out of the pump manufactory and established their own shop in Windsor on Mill Brook. Like most manufacturing establishments of the time, the location was selected for the easy access to water power, which was used to drive the machinery, such as lathes, drills, milling machines, etc. The United States was in the beginning throws of the Industrial Revolution at the time, and partners sought to capitalize on the potential for mass production of interchangeable parts arms that was made possible by the concept of the American assembly line manufacturing system. In 1844, Samuel Robbins approached the pair, suggesting that the three of them bid on a contract to produce US Model 1841 Rifles for the US government. The new firm of Robbins, Kendall & Lawrence was awarded a contract to produce 10,000 of the new “Mississippi” rifles, at a price of $11.90 each, a dime cheaper than any of their competitors. The act that the company was on the cutting edge of mass production of interchangeable parts arms allowed them to complete their contract eighteen months ahead of their contractual delivery schedule, and the government quickly awarded them a second contract to produce 15,000 of the rifles. At this time, Nicanor Kendall decided to part ways with his partners, sell his interest in the firm, and move to Iowa. The remaining duo of Robbins & Lawrence attacked their new contract with vigor and also started to develop their own line of firearms. With the expansion of their business they had attracted several new employees. Among these were B. Tyler Henry, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Henry would eventually become famous for his work on with the Volcanic Arms Company, and his designs would eventually result in the famous Henry Rifle. Smith & Wesson, would of course go on to form one of the most famous firearms manufacturing companies in the world, and would probably be second only to Colt in terms of handgun name recognition. However, while employed at Robbins and Lawrence, the trio was involved in the development and manufacture of the Jennings repeating rifle, the gun that would eventually evolve to the Volcanic, the Henry and eventually the Winchester.
The success of the firm’s ability to mass produce interchangeable parts firearms was brought to the fore of the international community during 1851, when their display at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London won awards, accolades and the attention of the British government. This attention eventually resulted in two contracts for the firm. One to produce 25,000 Pattern 1853 “Enfield” Rifle Muskets and second to provide the machinery to manufacture the newly adopted Pattern 1853 rifle muskets at the British Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock. In the end, the Enfield contract would be the undoing of the company. During the same period, the company introduce a line of pepperbox handguns, and also started developed a manufacturing relationship with inventor Christian Sharps, producing some of the initial versions his falling block, breechloading rifle. Richard Lawrence would also develop and patent the Lawrence Pellet Priming system, which would be incorporated on most of the Sharps rifle and carbines designs from the early 1850s through the end of the percussion era. The collapse of the firm can be traced to the early end of the Crimean War, and the British cancellation of future Enfield contracts. The firm had spent most of the money from the Enfield contract to tool up for the manufacturing of the guns, assuming that the first 25,000 would only be the tip of the iceberg. The unexpected end to the war resulted in Great Britain cancelling any additional foreign arms contracts that were in process, and Robbins & Lawrence were forced to default on their original 25,000-gun contract and declaring bankruptcy. The firm was placed in receivership and was briefly operated by a holding company working on behalf of the British government, in an attempt recoup the money spent on 25,000 Enfields, only about half of which were ever delivered. In 1858, the remaining assets of the company were sold at auction. E.G. Lamson purchased the factory buildings and much of the machinery, while Eli Whitney Jr. acquired huge stocks of gun parts (both finished and unfinished) raw materials and some manufacturing machinery as well. With the sale, the story of Robbins & Lawrence came to a close. Even though the company that had only been a major arms producer for a little over a decade, the visionaries who worked there would leave an indelible mark on the story of mass production in America and several of the firm’s employees would go on to become legends in the gunmaking industry.
During the height of Robbins & Lawrence’s success in the early 1850s, one of their primary products was an innovative pepperbox style handgun. Unlike most pepperboxes of the era, the gun was a breechloader, and the barrels were stationary, rather than rotating. Most pepperboxes had a cluster of three to six barrels, which revolved when the gun was fired, bringing the percussion cap for each barrel in line with the hammer for each shot. Most were bar hammer, double action designs, although a few were made in single action or with conventional hammers. The Robbins & Lawrence design was based upon improvements to George Leonard’s 1849 patent (#6723). Leonard had previously worked for Allen & Thurber, and like fellow Allen & Thurber employee Alexander Stocking, had left the company to pursue his own gunmaking career using his own proprietary designs. Leonard’s patent covered a rotating firing pin mechanism that allowed the barrels to be capped at their rear. The “hammer” was much more akin to what would be called a “striker” today, and was shaped like an “L” with a 90-degree projecting face at its end. Each time the gun was fired, the firing pin rotated 72-degrees (1/5 of a circle), allowing the L-shaped hammer face to strike the next cap on the rear of the barrels. The advantages to the design were that the caps were on the rear of the breech face, in-line with the chambers and there was no external hammer to snag or become fouled while carrying or deploying the gun. Leonard’s patent drawings show a conventional double-action style trigger with triggerguard, and do not show any hinge or system to remove the barrels. It must me assumed that the barrels had be removed from the cylinder arbor for capping and were loaded from the muzzle like most pepperboxes of the period. The Robbins & Lawrence version of the design incorporated a two-piece hinged barrel system to make loading easier. The barrel assembly was spring latch retained and tipped forward for capping, revealing the rear of the breech face. For loading, forward portion of the barrels unscrewed from the breech section, allowing the powder and ball to be inserted into the breech section, much like loading the cylinder of a percussion revolver. The barrels were then screwed back onto the breech and after capping and closing the action, the gun was ready for service. The gun had a stationary cluster of five rifled barrels and was produced in both .28 and .31 caliber. The guns were produced with barrels of two lengths, nominally 3 ““ and 4 “. They were produced with both a conventional double-action style trigger and triggerguard and with a ring trigger to rotate and cock the hammer, and an exposed trigger forward of the ring to fire the gun. This second system allowed the gun to be cocked and ready to fire with a short, crisp single action pull, rather than relying on the long, heavy, double-action pull of the conventional system. Another improvement incorporated into the ring trigger guns by Robbins & Lawrence was a de-cocking system. When the pistol was cocked, as small button on the rear of the grip strap could be pushed, the cocking ring pulled slightly to the rear, and the sear would be disengaged. This allowed the user to lower the hammer to the un-cocked position by using the cocking ring to ease it forward. This innovation is rather unique to Robbins & Lawrence pepperboxes. The guns were produced with color case hardened frames and blued barrel clusters. The gun had a distinctive saw-handle grip and low bore line axis, which allowed it to point very naturally, like an extension of the hand. A front sight could be incorporated because the barrel clusters did not rotate. The frames were lightly engraved with loose floral scrolls and the grips were two-piece varnished rosewood. The earliest production examples referenced Leonard’s patent on the barrel clusters, but this was eliminated fairly early during production. Some minor variations in production did exist, with the very earliest of the guns being produced with a fluted barrel cluster, but the large majority being produced with ribbed barrels. The ribbed barrel guns were only manufactured in .31 caliber, and as noted some were produced as double-action, conventional trigger guns as well. The design proved reasonably popular, and between 1851 and 1854, Robbins & Lawrence produced about 7,000 of the guns, which appear to have been serial numbered sequentially. However, their survival rate today seems to be rather low, and like most pepperboxes, when they are found they are usually in well used and worn condition.
Offered here is a FINE condition example of a Robbins & Lawrence Pepperbox. It is a .31 caliber, ring trigger variant with the 4 ““ barrel cluster. In reality, the measurement includes the breech section of the gun, and the actual barrels measure 3 ““ in length. This is an early production example that is serial number 864 and is early enough in the production cycle that it still bears a Leonard’s Patent mark. The gun retains crisp, clear markings throughout. The upper right angled rib of the barrel cluster is marked ROBBINS & LAWRENCE, while the upper left angled rib is marked WINDSOR, VT. The bottom rib is marked LEONARDS PATENT. 1849. The bottom of the gripstrap is serial numbered 864, and this same serial number is found on face of the hinged breech where the chambers are capped, on the left side of the frame (under the grip) and stamped inside both grip panels. The forward portion of the barrel cluster that unscrews for loading is assembly numbered 89 and the matching assembly mating number is found on the barrel cluster arbor that the barrels center on. Like most Robbins & Lawrence pepperboxes, the frame, backstrap and breech section of the pistol are engraved with loose floral scroll motifs. The engraving is neatly executed and remains in crisp condition. The frame of the pistol retains about 50%+ vivid case coloring, which has faded and dulled somewhat, but still retains very nice mottle colors, particularly on the lower sides, gripstrap and butt of the gun. The barrels retain none of their original blued finish but have a thin patina of a slightly plum-brown tone over the gun metal gray base color. The barrels shows some lightly scattered surface oxidation and age discoloration that appears primarily as darker flecks against the gray barrels. The barrels remain very crisp with sharp edges on the ribs and the original brass bead front sight in place on the top barrel, between the two angled top ribs. The coking ring retains about 50%+ bright fire blue on its surfaces (mostly on the sides), with the actual trigger retaining slightly less bright blue. The pistol remains in fine mechanical condition and is fully functional. The ring trigger cocks and rotates the striker as it should, and the trigger releases the striker with plenty of force. The de-cocking system works perfectly as well. The barrel hinge and lock remain in good condition and the gun locks up exactly as it should. The forward portion of the barrels unscrew as they should and can still be correctly indexed to the breech by exerting just a little extra force at the very end of the tightening motion. This is exactly how these precision machined pistols were intended to operate. The bores of the barrel cluster remain in VERY GOOD condition and retain strong rifling. They show scattered light pitting along their length as well as some scattered old dirt and debris; a quick cleaning will probably improve the bores significantly. The cones (nipples) in the breech face all appear to be original and show moderate wear, but remain in good, serviceable condition. The breech face does show some light to moderate erosion and flash pitting from the caustic fulminate of mercury caps used during the period. The grips of the pistol remain in about FINE condition as well. They are solid and complete and are free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. Both grips retain most of their original varnish as well. They do show some light handling marks and minor bumps and dings, but are otherwise in wonderful condition and remain very crisp.
Overall this is a really wonderful example of a scarce Leonard’s Patent, ring-trigger, breechloading Robbins & Lawrence Pepperbox. The gun remains in very crisp condition with a significant amount of original case color on the frame, and remains in perfect mechanical condition as well. The pistol is 100% complete, correct and original in all way, and displays wonderfully. This would be a fine addition to any advance collection of pepperboxes or a collection that centers on the arms of Robbins & Lawrence. From a mechanical standpoint, it is a fairly unique and very innovative system, considering that is a striker fired, breechloading pistol with a de-cocking system; all concepts that are considered standard features in today’s pistols, but were absolutely groundbreaking at the time. This is a fine example “Yankee Ingenuity” and of old world craftsmanship that spans the gap between hand crafted and mass produced firearms. I am quite certain that you will be very pleased to add this fine pepperbox to your collection of pre-Civil War pistols.SOLD