Skip to comments.Thanksgiving’s First Rifle: The Mayflower Wheel-lock Carbine
Posted on 11/22/2012 5:19:28 AM PST by marktwain
Whats even more American than turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie these days? An Italian gun, thats what. The only known surviving firearm that crossed the wild Atlantic aboard the good ship Mayflower, settled with the pilgrims at Plymouth Colony and ultimately helped the first colonists not only survive, but prosper. Meet the Mayflower Gun.
Affectionately dubbed the Mayflower Gun and thought of as an American icon, the gun is actually an Italian-made wheel-lock carbine. This single-shot musket was originally chambered in .50 caliber rifle, though ages of heavy use have worn away the majority of the rifling. Given the combination of natural wear, repairs and modifications, if the gun were to be loaded and fired today, it would require a .66 caliber.
According to curators at the NRAs National Firearms Museumwhere the gun has found a most comfortable homemarkings recorded on both the barrel and lockplate demonstrate a connection with the Beretta family of armorers.
One of the features making this musket instantly recognizable is its namesake. The surviving detail of the actual wheel-lock devicethe rotating mechanism, which provides spark and ignition, not unlike that of our modern day cigarette lightersis a thing of fine craftsmanship and beauty. The wheel-locks engineering, execution and efficacy far exceed those of its predecessor, the matchlock.
The man: John Alden
Without the adventuresome spirit of one young man with an eye for quality arms, the Mayflower Gun would not be a part of our American history today. Enter, John Alden. Alden was around 20 to 21 years of age at the ships departure. However, his original intent was never really to set sail. John AldenHe was simply hired as a ships coopera barrel maker by tradeat the yard where ships docked. But being a young man with much hope and courage, he decided to board the Mayflower for its daunting passage. Sometime near debarkation, it is speculated that Alden purchased the firearm used, perhaps from a traveler or mercenary as was common in those days. Of the guns widely available at that time, this was one of the finest and most expensive, so certainly young Alden was wise beyond his years.
Following an arduous three-month winter passage at sea, battered by the north Atlantics gales, the Mayflower reached its destination in 1620. History recognizes John Alden as the first man to step ashore, and when Aldens feet hit terra firma, this gun was most likely his sole means of protection. Though the early years at the new settlement were marked with many tribulations, Alden prospered. Along with the other men who made the passage, he was one of the signatories of the Mayflower Compact, documenting the freedoms and liberties of the new colony. Among his many ventures, Alden is remembered for his service under Capt. Miles Standish, with whom he is rumored to rivaled over the courtship of the woman who eventually became Aldens wife.
Part of this story is recounted in Longfellows poem The Courtship of Miles Standish. Between the years 1633 to 1675, Alden served not only as assistant governor of the Plymouth Colony, but often, due to absence, fulfilled governor duties. He was known to have served on many juries including participation in at least one witch trial. Through all this time, including a move inland and away from the original colony, the Mayflower Gun remained in Aldens possession. At the time of his death in 1687, the gun began its long succession of Alden family ownership.
The Alden family dwelling, like the gun, has survived for nearly 400 years. The Mayflower gun was discoveredstill loaded, nonethelessin a secret protective cubbyhole near the front door of the home during a 1924 renovation. The Alden home, which was occupied by family members until the mid-1890s, is currently a National Historic Landmark in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Though it is certain that other settlers would have carried similar arms, this is indeed the only known surviving piece, likely because it was tucked away and forgotten after its years of service had ended.
Because the gun was something of a large caliber at the time, it would likely have been used to take down deer and other large game as well as birdsperhaps even a Thanksgiving longbeard. Naturally, the original stock was fashioned of fine European walnut, though sometime in the guns history, a worn portion of the front stock was replaced with American walnut. There is great beauty in the wear patterns of the wood, simply for knowing the many hands and circumstances that have handled this weapon. The Mayflower Gun is currently on display at the NRA Museum.Oh, the stories it could tell of game hunted, lives taken and families saved! This tool was at once a protector and a provider. In fact, the Mayflower Gun may well have been presentor at least played a roleat the 1621 birth of the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today. The gun, in fact, is one of the few surviving pieces known to have made the trip aboard the Mayflower.
Those near Fairfax, Virginia can visit this amazing and well-traveled weapon at its home in the NRAs National Firearms Museum. It is currently being featured on display as part of the Old Guns in a New World gallery, an exhibit in which firearms bridge the gap between the Old World and the new colonies. In addition to this one, the Museum is home to 14 other galleries housing more than 2,700 firearms of remarkable significance. Admission is free and the museum is open daily. For those interested in learning more without making a physical visit, detailed virtual tours are easily navigated at their website.
Nearly 400 years have passed since the Mayflower Gun traversed the Atlantic to forever become a priceless, tangible slice of American history. In the spirit of Thanksgiving celebration, the time is right to remember not only all those who came before us, but also the hardships they faced to get us where we are today. In reminiscing on this beautiful Mayflower Gun, we here at Guns.com are thankful for our first amendment freedoms. So with a nod of the clichéd black pilgrim hats, take some special time this holiday to enjoy family, friends, freedoms and of course, firearms.
Wheellock rifles were used for hunting well into the flintlock era as they gave reliable & quick ignition. The drawback as noted was cost.
He had a good trade (barrelmaking). He probably could afford good weapons. He certainly made a good choice there.
“Assault” wheel lock with “cop killer” ammunition.
A state of the art weapon...at the time.
Editorial note: the article used the words musket and rifle interchangeably, but this is not accurate. This gun is a musket, a smooth bore weapon fired at the shoulder.
Rifles are distinct from muskets by having a rifled, or grooved barrel interior that imparts a spin to the bullet, drastically increasing its accuracy and range. Effectively, they have only existed since the middle of the 19th Century, but were a major breakthrough.
Typically, a musket only had a range of 50 yards, with an effective range of half that, at best. The rifle increased the range to 300 yards, with accurate fire perhaps 2/3rds of that distance.
Hat tip to French Army captains Claude-Étienne Minié of the Chasseurs d’Orléans and Henri-Gustave Delvigne.
By the time of the US Civil War, until rifled artillery could be developed, rifles had a range just slightly less than field artillery. Bad for field artillerymen.
You are saying this sentence is incorrect?
So is it a musket or a rifle?
The purchase of that wheelock carbine for Alden was roughly equivalent to one of us purchasing a luxury automobile. That was a BIG ticket item for him.
“Effectively, they have only existed since the middle of the 19th Century, but were a major breakthrough.”
Not so. I used to think the same thing, until my son sent me this. They were rifling barrels in Europe in the mid 1700’s......
And riflemen in the Rev. War could hit a 7” target at 250 yds. WITH OPEN SIGHTS! I’ve got some great rifles, but couldn’t do that with any of them.......
As someone has already pointed out on this thread, rifling hadn't been invented yet, and any competent gun writer oughta know that.
Because of the commonality of the term “musket” in military drill and terminology, it appears to have been used even early on as a synonym for “military long guns”. I have seen the term “rifled musket” in contemporary letters from the Revolution.
Two complete and six fragmentary wheel locks have been discovered at Jamestown which pre-date the Plymouth Colony by more than a decade.
Thanks I enjoyed this article...
John Alden’s House in Duxbury, Massachusetts
I suspect that you are correct. I will point out, however, that rifling had been experimented with as early as the mid 15th century. Odds are good though that John Alden’s weapon was not a rifle.
Excuse me but rifling had been invented at that time, actually, even earlier. It was not used often as rifles were difficult to load fast after being fired a couple times due to black powder residue build up in the barrel and were also expensive, therefore smooth bores, or muskets, were normally purchased.
Barrel rifling was invented in Augsburg, Germany at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1520 August Kotter, an armourer of Nuremberg, Germany improved upon this work. Though true rifling dates from the mid-16th century, it did not become commonplace until the nineteenth century due to loading difficulties and cost of manufacture.
Most likely this intelligent young man realized that where he was going money was worthless and a fine weapon was priceless. He likely spent every penny he had to buy the best weapon available. Good call.
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