The concept of percussion ignition was invented in 1805 by a Scottish Reverend named Alexander Forsyth. English-born artist Joshua Shaw invented what we know as the percussion cap in 1822. Living in the United States, Shaw patented the cap in the US and not his native England to avoid legal action against him by Reverend Forsyth.
Despite the advances of percussion ignition in England and the United States, the US Military was still contracting single-shot flintlock pistols for another 14 years after the invention of the percussion cap; 20 years after the cap’s invention, in 1842, percussion ignition was finally adopted as the new service standard in the United States. Even so, military contracts for flintlocks continued to be filled for two more years.
This timeline means that the Model 1836 pistol was the last flintlock design to be officially issued to American troops.
Weighing in at two pounds, 10 ounces, the .54 caliber pistols fired a lead ball weighing half an ounce, propelled by 50 grains of blackpowder. The two main contracts for the guns were fulfilled by firms run by Robert Johnson and Asa Waters, both based in New England (Connecticut and Massachusetts, respectively).
Johnson’s contract began in March 1840 with a five-year order for 15,000 pistols. Priced at $7.50 each, Johnson agreed to make 3,000 pistols each year. His firm was a natural choice because it had previously produced 3,000 Model 1836s in the second half of 1836 and first half of 1837. That contract had a price of $9.00 per gun.
Asa Waters was the son of a Revolutionary War gunsmith. He learned the trade from his father, whose factory is reputed to be the first to use water power to make arms. His contract began in February 1840 and was for the exact same amount and price point as Johnson’s.
The Model 1836s were obviously a successful design. Despite their size and weight, it was universally held that these guns balanced well and were of superb manufacture. It is because of this (and the military’s slow embrace of the percussion system) that the Mexican-American War was fought with flintlock weapons. It wasn’t until 1848 that the government armories did an inspection of their weapons and ordered all serviceable pieces to be converted to percussion. Many of the Model 1836s would later be converted to percussion in 1850. Some of those guns even saw use in the early stages of the Civil War in 1861.
Because of the transition period, Model 1836 pistols hold a special place in military history. They signal the end of one era and the beginning of another. The mechanism that was used to win the Revolutionary War was on its way out. A new form of ignition would go on to be used in the Civil War.
It’s still possible to find these Model 1836s at gun shows, but most of the examples are percussion conversions. Flintlock specimens still exist, but they’re harder to come by and command a premium over their percussion siblings.
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.