Pistols at dawn: science versus oral history

Neutron techniques reveal the history of of two pistols.

A pair of early 19th century flintlock pistols from the collection of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was analysed non-invasively by x-ray fluorescence, neutron diffraction and neutron tomography, to elucidate the provenance and technical history of the artefacts. The pistols were thought to include barrels made of iron from meteoric origin. Differences between the two pistols at first sight suggested that they were not an original pair. However the alloy compositions of the handles were found to be an identical high-nickel brass that was traded in the late 1800’s, and the inlaid metal matched between them as well. This means that the objects were probably made at the same time. A possible explanation is that one was made by a master gunsmith and that the second, shorter, pistol with coarser decoration was made by an apprentice. The pistol barrels appear to be terrestrial, not meteoric iron. The analysis therefore challenged the story associated with the objects, but provided an insight into historical metals and gunsmithing.

EG Godfrey (ISIS)

Contact:  Dr E Godfrey, E.Godfrey@stfc.ac.uk

Research date: December 2008

Further Information

E Godfrey et al., in Metal 07, proceedings of  ICOM-CC metals group conference, Amsterdam (2007)

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