Whenever I travel, I’m always on the hunt for a good museum. I can’t help it; the history nerd in me reigns supreme. Additionally, I’m always on the hunt for firearms of any kind in whatever museum I find. That was the case when I recently visited the Milwaukee Public Museum.
The MPM has been in possession of the world-class Nunemacher arms collection for a century or so. Within the collection is one of only two Ferguson rifles known to be in a collection that is publicly accessible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Nunemacher’s collection isn’t on display and what is on display is simply used as set dressing for the larger dioramas.
Nonetheless, I was able to find some arms of interest – including this one.
It clearly started life as a flintlock and was crudely converted at a later date. Beyond that, I couldn’t glean anything more about the gun right then. So, I snapped a couple photos and filed it away in my brain to dig deeper once I got back home.
What I discovered is that the gun is what the Flayderman’s Guide refers to as a “Chief’s Grade Flintlock Trade Gun.” These arms were made specifically for presentation purposes to Indian chiefs as part of a treaty or other diplomatic offering between a tribe and the English. Defining features include a Native American armed with a bow and arrow in an oval attached to the gun’s wrist, and an image of a boar’s head and a curled hunting horn at the rear of the lockplate. They were made by a variety of different contractors and all have some slight variation.
This particular piece has a faint script engraving of “Wheeler” in front of the hammer on the lockplate. That means it was made by Robert Wheeler (1767-1813), who operated a gun shop in London. His is one of the many shops to have had a contract with the Hudson Bay Company to make these trade guns for them.
The percussion conversion is not a style that I had seen before. Granted, necessity is the mother of all invention and I’ve seen some pretty unusual conversion methods. This gun appears to have had the “first method” – also known as the French style – of conversion performed on it. This involves removal of the frizzen and its spring and the mounting of a drum in the vent hole. Mounted to the drum is a cone upon which a percussion cap is placed. A new, percussion-style hammer is then usually installed where the flintlock hammer had been located.
Such was not the case with this gun. Instead, the flintlock hammer was retained and a chunk of slightly curved metal was clamped into its jaws. This piece of metal had a face that was fashioned to properly strike and ignite the cap.
So while I was supremely disappointed that so very little of the Nunemacher collection was on display, I was delighted to see this piece because it added to my repertoire of percussion conversion methods and it led me to some research that I wouldn’t have otherwise done. All in all, a successful visit, I’d say.
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.