William I, Prince of Orange – better known as William the Silent – holds the unenviable place in history of being the first person in the world assassinated with a handgun in 1584.
Born into a wealthy family in the Spanish Netherlands, William became active in politics and grew to dislike the way the Spanish leaders were treating the people in the Netherlands. He helped some “political activists” (as we would call them now) in some successful fights against the Spaniards and eventually ran afoul of the Spanish king.
In 1580, he was declared an outlaw and became a wanted man. Enter Balthasar Gérard, a loyal subject of Spain’s King Philip II.
On July 10, 1584, Gérard purchased a pair of wheellock pistols and went to a previously-arranged meeting with William at his house. There, he pulled out the pistols and fired both of them at the prince, killing him.
Gérard was captured and sentenced to death, but first he was tortured, which included whipping, being hung from a pole with weights attached to his feet, burning his feet and pulling the flesh off, branding his armpits, putting him in an alcohol-soaked shirt, pouring burning fat on him, and driving nails underneath his fingernails and toenails.
All of this was in addition to his actual execution, which was equally excessive. First, his right hand was to be burned off with a hot iron. Then, sharp pincers would be used to tear at his flesh in six places, after which he would be quartered and disembowelled alive, his heart ripped from his chest, flung at his face, and finally, his head was to be chopped off.
I have been informed by an arms scholar from the Netherlands that the pistols were destroyed, despite what the internet says. However, William’s home still stands, and the bullet holes are still clearly visible in the wall.
Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.