USA – When you ask historians and firearms enthusiasts what gun they believe was the most important in the making of America, you often hear how the Winchester rifle settled the west, how the Colt Single Action Army made men equal, or the M1 Garand helped win World War II.
But there is a gun, not necessarily by one maker, but a type that helped make America before the country even existed and lasted even into the cartridge era, long after it was obsolete, and that was the flintlock trade gun.
The flintlock trade gun became the backbone of the early firearms trade between the nations wishing to settle this land and the various Native American tribes that sought guns in an effort to expand their territories and put them onto an equal footing with their rivals, both Native and European.
The firearms trade among the Native Americans started in the northeast and later expanded south, but the majority of the demand was between the French and their allies, the Dutch with the Iroquois and other tribes, and later the British once the Dutch gave up their claim to North America. Other countries were involved, the Spanish in the south, especially what became Florida, and even the Swedish had a small string of trading outposts before the French & Indian War.
The guns traded to the Native Americans were all pretty much of a similar design. A flintlock, smoothbore firearm with a bore size somewhere between .58 and .62 caliber. The barrel length was shorter than that of the military muskets of the day because Native Americans wanted their guns lighter and easier to carry in the woods. The French Fusil de Traite, which roughly translates into “gun of the trade,” or the Fusil de Chasse “gun of the hunt.” As well as the Dutch and later British guns, which were made by various gun makers, all were sought after and helped spark the fur trade that fueled the industry that built large trading posts that quickly turned into towns and settlements.
The trade with Native Americans was so crucial that companies turned the pelts being harvested into currency towards purchasing a gun, known as the “standard of valuation.” In 1748, the Hudson Bay Company listed that standard as a gun with a four-foot barrel being equal to 12 beaver pelts, a gun with a three-and-a-half-foot barrel being equal to 11 beaver pelts, ten pelts would get you a gun with a three-foot barrel. One beaver pelt would get you either a pound and a half of powder, five pounds of shot, or 20 French flints.
The gun themselves were even, in a way, marketed to Native Americans, especially the Eastern tribes. To the Iroquois, for instance, a gun was not just a tool. It was something spiritual. The term is known as orenda, an invisible power in all objects, animate and inanimate, that is transmissible and capable of being used by those who possess that object. A black powder gun, when fired, made a noise like thunder, and in the belief of the Iroquois, that sound wasn’t meteorological, but it came from the thunderbird, and to hold that power in hand was very important. Even the brass serpent on the opposite side of the lock held meaning. In various tribes, it represented the rival of the thunderbird, which went by different names. The Iroquois, it was Djodi-kwado’, the horned underwater serpent with horns and scales of copper, that represented death and darkness but also success in hunting. To the Abenaki, rivals of the Iroquois, the serpent represented Pita-skog, the great snake. To the Cree, it was called Misi-kinepikw, which meant the same thing as the Abenaki’s deity, but in another language.
First seen on the guns built by the Dutch, the serpent was seen on trade guns for well over one hundred years. The Museum of the Fur Trade has a flintlock trade gun made in 1751 that is nearly identical to the gun made in the same pattern some one hundred and thirty years later in 1874 by the Parker, Field & Company of London for the Honorable Company. Both guns were made with the same serpent pattern on the left side of the stock. For a flintlock, smoothbore trade gun like the one made by Parker to be sought after in the 1870s, well after cartridge-firing guns came into existence, shows how desirable they were even then to Native Americans.
The Hudson Bay Company, still in business after three centuries and having excellent records, purchased some 48,000 trade guns from seventy-nine different gun makers for trade with Native Americans, all of a similar pattern between 1674 and 1781. This doesn’t account for all the guns traded to Native allies of the French, the rivals of the Hudson Bay Company, or the small and private sellers who acted on their own or at the behest of the French or British governments.
I’ve always been fascinated with the trade guns that were all over the frontier in the northeast. Especially since I live here and I have a fair amount of Mohawk heritage, so last year, I purchased a Pedersoli Indian Trade musket in .62 caliber, the equivalent of a 20 gauge. The gun is exceptionally well put together, and I can see why these guns were so favored for their weight and size. Despite having a 36-inch barrel, it feels much lighter than it looks and carries well, much lighter than a full-length musket.
On my first outing with I used .595” roundballs with 65 grains of Goex FFG black powder and tow wadding instead of a patch on a man-sized target at 45 yards. All three shots were a bit low, but they all hit, which given a smoothbore gun, can be par for the course. My next attempt was with .600” roundballs, loaded bare, just on top of the 80-grain FFG Goex powder charge, and cut paper for the wadding at 40 yards on a similar target. The first two shots were almost dead center and close to each other, with the third shot dropping low and to the right and the fourth low on the target but more centered.
Since I intended to hunt with the trade gun, I patterned it #7 ½ shot at both 30 and 40 yards using 70 grains of FFG Goex powder on a life-size squirrel target. At 30 yards, there were eight pellets in the target, but at 40 yards, there were some 15 pellets in the same target. So far, the gun, in its first hunting season, has accounted for three squirrels, all at around the 30-yard mark or so. I can say it has to be one of the most fun and satisfying guns to take into the woods.
The flintlock, smoothbore guns that were traded to Native Americans helped start the industry that lasted for a couple of centuries and led the expansion west to open new territory. Thousands of those guns made their way into the hands of Native Americans in trade for the pelts that were shipped to Europe and financed businesses that led to the founding of cities like St. Louis, Duluth, and Chicago. Without that important trade where Native Americans were willing to trap beaver pelts that were in such demand in Europe in exchange for the guns that they wanted so badly, would America have become the nation it did?
Those trade guns have a claim to being the most important gun in American history because, without them, there might not have even been an America.
About David LaPell
David LaPell has been a Corrections Officer with the local Sheriff’s Department for thirteen years. A collector of antique and vintage firearms for over twenty years and an avid hunter. David has been writing articles about firearms, hunting, and western history for ten years. In addition to having a passion for vintage guns, he is also a fan of old trucks and has written articles on those as well.