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Mystery Pistol

July 2024
2min read

A half dozen readers responded to a rather puzzling picture that appeared in August, 1975, in our article on the Hamilton-Burr duel. Among them was Robert Thaden of Golden, Colorado, a man who knows his shooting irons:
The illustration on page 50 shows a pair of pistols. The one on the right is a full-stocked flintlock pistol; the one on the left is a half-stocked cap-and-ball (percussion-lock) pistol.

The point is that it is, I think, impossible that both of these pistols were used in the Hamilton-Burr affair. The one on the right, perhaps. The one on the left, I think not. In the first place, pistol duels ordinarily were fought with very well made, very plain and unornamented full-stocked pistols, either flint or percussion, depending on the date of the duel. In the second place, the Code Duello would not sanction the use of pistols of mixed types. In the third place, the participants would not have accepted the use of pistols of mixed types, because the fellow choosing the flintlock would be at a considerable disadvantage, not only because of the relative unreliability of ignition of the flintlock in comparison with the percussion lock, but also because of the slower “lock time” of the flintlock. In the fourth place, memory seems to tell me that percussion locks were not developed until a few years after 1804, the year of the Hamilton-Burr duel.

The above comments, if correct, prompt questions. …

We addressed these questions to Mrs. Annchen T. Swanson, the public-relations officer of the Chase Manhattan Bank, in whose collections the pistols reside. Mrs. Swanson, who said that Mr. Thaden was “absolutely correct in his observation,” gave us the following authoritative explanation:
During the Civil War, Richard Church, the grandson of the original owner of the pistols, Alexander Hamilton’s brother-in-law John B. Church, organized a volunteer company. Having no other arms at hand, he changed the lock on one of the pistols from the old flintlock to the then more modern percussion cap. The frizzen of the original lock can be seen in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. Both pistols have a hair trigger without the set trigger behind it. This was unusual in 1796, when the pistols were purchased.

Those hair triggers have been the source of quite a fuss recently. Last spring Virginius Dabney, the former editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch , who is now chairman of the United States Bicentennial Society (a commercial organization), published an article in New York magazine with the dramatic title “The Mystery of the Hamilton-Burr Duel.” His story was related in the tone that one might adopt for an article raising doubts about the guilt of John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln assassination. Dabney spoke portentously of “questions” that “should be answered” lest “uncertainty … surround America’s most historic confrontation on ‘the field of honor.’”

It seems that in the summer of 1974 Dabney’s society borrowed the pistols from the bank to serve as models for a limited edition of expensive reproductions. When the pistols were disassembled, they were found to contain hidden hair triggers. With these triggers set, the pistols fire very quickly and with only the slightest pressure, as opposed to the ten or twelve pounds of pressure normally necessary to discharge the pieces. Dabney felt that the discovery of the hair triggers raised a number of vital questions: “What part did they play in the tragic denouement? Did Burr know of their existence?” and so forth.

In fact there has been no real discovery at all; the hair triggers have been known about since a week after the duel, when Nathaniel Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, published an account of the meeting in the New York Evening Post . In it he said of Hamilton: “When he received his pistol, after having taken his position, he was asked if he would have the hair spring set.” Hamilton replied: “Not this time.” We mentioned this comment in our article on the duel, and, curiously, so did Dabney in his, though the article went blithely on just as if that revelation made no difference.

As for the rest of it, it is patently absurd to suggest that Hamilton, a man of rigid honor, would knowingly enter a duel concealing an advantage from his opponent. It is unlikely that the hair triggers played any role at all, and if they did, it makes little enough difference. What we know, and what is important, is that the tragic meeting ended with Hamilton dead and Burr’s career in ruins.

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