Many historians have speculated have about the classic hand in the jacket pose for Civil War photographs. The most likely theory: the subjects were mimicking Napoleon’s trademark pose, immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait Napoleon in his Study. Where’d that come from? According to napoleon-series-org, “in 1738, Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the ‘hand-in-waistcoat’ posture as signifying ‘manly boldness tempered with modesty.'” So where did the French get it? One theory . . .

Long before Napoleonic France, the pose was popular with Romans wearing tunics. Considering what happened to Caesar, perhaps the Roman tunic was a handy place to hide a dagger. So maybe Civil War officers posed with their hand in their jacket because they were keeping it close to a concealed weapon.

Is that the bulge of a Smith & Wesson #1 under the left arm of the officer in the picture above? It is about the right size. The number one was one of the first easily concealable cartridge pistols. It was first produced in 1857 and was in great demand by officers in the Civil War.

As a .22 short, we might not think of it as having much stopping power. But considering the extreme reliability and convenience of the cartridge compared to the percussion arms of the era, seven quick shots would have been very attractive. As they say, what goes around comes around.

[Note: RF and JWT are traveling to Texas’ Bond Arms later this week, to sample some modern-day derringers. If you have any questions you’d like asked, please email them to thetruthaboutguns@gmail.com]

>©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.

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28 Responses to Napoleonic Imitation or Concealed Carry?

  1. Not a concealed pistol. It’s just poor tailoring.

    First, why would an army officer in a war need to conceal his sidearm? Second, how would he reach it way up there?

    • An ordinary sidearm, probably not. But concealed holdout weapons have been common, even among officers, since time immemorial. You don’t always want to advertise exactly how many weapons you do have, even if you are visibly armed.

  2. This is a very common military pose–before and after Bonaparte. Uniform jackets didn’t include pockets, and the proper deportment of a gentleman and an officer precluding stuffing hands into pockets. The handkerchief stuffed up the sleeve and the hand inserted in the placard became natural marks of military bearing. And in these old photographs you have to consider how long some of the exposures were (not to mention how long you would pose for a painted portrait). If you must stand still for several minutes, you need a steady pose you can hold…

    But I love the idea of the concealed weapon. If that truly is the natural place to rest your right hand, isn’t that where you position the butt of your sidearm?

  3. While we may not think of the .22short as much of a SD caliber today (it isnt’t, and wasn’t then), I would rather take a hit from a 9mm Luger in 2015 than a .22short in 1860 due to the ”medical” practices of the time.

    • Exactly. We say “well no one wants to be shot” nowadays, but back then it was almost a death sentence to get hit anywhere in the torso… If the leeches couldn’t suck out the poison, and the cauterizing didn’t kill the infection, then a long agonizing death awaited you…

      • You have a valid point.

        I have had a similar thought regarding the minimum acceptable caliber for an end-of-civilization firearm. In any scenario where there is no emergency medical care, no antibiotics, and typically no antiseptics, any gunshot of any caliber is life-threatening. Granted, many shots would not physically incapacitate an attacker for hours/days. Nevertheless, merely pointing any firearm would psychologically incapacitate an attacker immediately if the attacker appreciated the risk of infection associated with any gunshot.

    • Dean once posted a picture of himself wearing a pith helmet and the full “Higgins” line of clothing while going to the supermarket, so I bet no, this is not a joke.

      About the pose though. I’ve heard and read everything from “Napoleon had nipple erection and ejaculation issues” to the Roman Republican-esque pose. Unfortunately, these folks are dead, so we can’t ask why. May show up in a CW era diary though.

  4. Well besides the Napoleon connection photographic exposure dictated the subject be very still(or maybe the wool uniform made him itch)LOL

  5. Nice. That’s how I’m going to pose in all my photos from now on. If anyone asks why I’ll say – “manly boldness tempered with modesty.”

  6. Maybe it was an effort to make the pose seem ordinary and “civilized” even when not actually concealing (or when not concealing anything at the time they were wearing a uniform when they wouldn’t need to conceal) so that when they actually were concealing walking down the street out-of-uniform rocking that pose then a weapon would be that much quicker to bring to bear if needed…whether it was a Roman pugio or ‘Murican Model No.1.

  7. The reason for that pose is that the subject of a photograph back then had to remain exceedingly still for several seconds, and it’s exceedingly hard to stand and not have your hands move a fraction of an inch.
    Remember, photography back then is not at all like photography today. Not only did you have to remain exceedingly still, but it cost a relatively large sum of money, so it was taken very seriously by people having their pictures taken. You might have one picture of you per decade.
    BTW, they even had stands to help hold you still, and even pictures of the deceased were taken, because often that would be the only picture of the person.

  8. Hands were/are more difficult to paint, that’s why leaders posing for paintings often had their hands obscured in a jacket. This is not a new revelation. I imagine the pose just became a standard and it carried over to the photograph era.

  9. Painting hands is hard. Having your subjects adopt a pose like the one above took care of that problem. The subjects of photographs later on probably emulated the same pose they had seen in paintings.

    This and almost every other theory is reaching far less than the ‘conceal carry’ idea.

  10. “Most of the photo historians we contacted discounted what we considered to be the most likely answer: These subjects were merely imitating Napoleon and what came to be known as the Napoleonic pose. Maggie Kannan, of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other experts we contacted felt that many of the reasons mentioned in the Imponderable above were more likely.

    Just as subjects couldn’t easily maintain a sincere smile during long exposure times, so was trying to keep their hands still a challenge. Frank Calandra wrote us:

    The hand was placed in the jacket or a pocket or resting on a fixed object so that the subject wouldn’t move it [or his other hand] and cause a blurred image. Try holding your hands at your sides motionless for fifteen minutes or so-it’s not easy.

    Grant Romer adds that this gesture not only solved the problem of blurring and what to do with the subject’s hands while striking a pose but forced the subject to hold his body in a more elegant manner.”

    From: http://wesclark.com/jw/imponderables.html

  11. Smiling as I read this. The antis all assume that we are sitting here in our dirty T-shirts drinking brown liquor out of a jug, cleaning our “assault rifles” and planning the next spree killing that our militia can take part in before overthrowing the government after lunch.

    Talking about 19th century photographic techniques and art history dating back to the Roman Empire? Probably not what they expected 🙂

  12. You are either over-thinking this, or are being led by your biases. Look at almost any full length portrait of a man in a suit from the 20th century onward and you will likely see him with one or more hands in either his coat or pants pockets. Regency period coats and pants didn’t have pockets. Posing with your arms at your side makes you look stupid or useless, so to look cool and/or busy you find something to do with your hands….at least one of them.

  13. I wish I could shoot my S&W #1 second issue. Black powder .22 shorts are of course no longer made. I have heard you can shoot CB .22 shorts but I am not sure I want to blow up a gun made in the 1860’s and owned by my great grandfather.

  14. “Hands were/are more difficult to paint, that’s why leaders posing for paintings often had their hands obscured in a jacket. This is not a new revelation. I imagine the pose just became a standard and it carried over to the photograph era.”

    professional artists had apprentices. the apprentices painted military officer uniforms by the dozen, then the pro added the face. as noted by previous posters, the hand is the most difficult thing to paint. ergo apprentices painted military officer uniforms with a hand stuck in the uniform

    there are paintings of Ameican founding fathers with the roatation of the head not quite right in relation to the uniform, and with much greater detail than the uniform. this is an artifact of this process.

  15. Obviously they are simply tweaking their nipple.. not every mystery involves a gun! Hell ill bet its pierced, pain is pleasure!

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