Some Observations Concerning Northwest Trade Guns

I once met a well-known and respected Anthropologist who had published a number of extremely learned papers on the Fur Trade.  She felt the assessment of the impact of guns on the lifestyle of Native Peoples had been tremendously exaggerated.

This hypothesis was based on a single demonstration at which a group of interpreters had taken well over a minute to load their black powder rifles and then all five of them had missed a six-inch target at fifty yards.  Our scholar remained skeptical when I explained that fur trade guns were smoothbores, not rifles, and so could be loaded much more quickly.  I pointed out that a British infantryman was trained to load and fire his musket four times a minute (the Manual of Arms actually calls for fifteen shots in three minutes and three-quarters) and that at fifty yards there is very little difference between the accuracy of a musket and a rifle.  But, having been brought up on tales of the American Revolution, the Battle of New Orleans and those ‘Kentucky Rifles’, our anthropologist remained firmly unconvinced.

This was my introduction to the fact that some academics know little or nothing about firearms, ballistics or even being out in the bush.

Anybody who has spent hours poring over fur traders’ journals knows the frustration of trying to glean small pieces of information about the ordinary, everyday things.  Indeed many traders failed to record these things because they were ordinary and mundane.  One of the objectives of Living History is to temporarily recreate a way of life, to actually see and do and feel the things our forebears did.  Through this process we begin to learn some of the things they took for granted. One area routinely given short shrift in the journal record is details about the guns used in the fur trade.

Northwest Trade Guns were around in relatively huge numbers compared to any other gun.  They were in production longer than any other gun in history.  Despite what is written in modern Black Powder publications, it was the Northwest Trade Gun that was by far the most common firearm in the Canadian Northwest, the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri River fur trade.

Because they were around for such a long time a number of myths sprang up about Northwest Guns.  The main ones are:

·      Northwest Guns were deliberately made with unnecessarily long barrels because their price was a pile of Beaver pelts the same height as the gun;

·      Northwest Guns had a large-bowed trigger guard so that they could be fired by someone wearing mittens;

·      Northwest guns were substandard, shoddy firearms that were notoriously unreliable and they often exploded injuring or killing the shooter.

I have read each of these statements in books and articles about the fur trade.  They are not usually backed up by any reference but are presented as the kind of fact that ‘everybody knows’.  It was only after I had built a Northwest Gun of my own and began using it to shoot both shot and roundball that I realized it was up to re-enactors to rescue the reputation of these fine firearms.

Let us start by examining the myths mentioned above in the light of practical experience.  First, the pile of beaver pelts.  Both the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company operated a standard of trade.  This meant that the price paid to the trapper for his fur stayed the same from year to year, no matter what was happening in the European fur markets.  The price of a gun was between twelve and twenty ‘Made Beaver’, and this remained the price right up to the first years of the twentieth century.

Strangely, the story of piling up beaver pelts is only told about the Hudson’s Bay Company.  For a time I lived in ‘The Land of the Little Sticks’ (Canada’s Northwest Territories) and I heard this story from many of the Native trappers, especially the Elders.  However I never actually met anybody who could say ‘It happened to me’ or ‘I watched it happen to so-and-so’.  All I ever found was hearsay evidence.

The HBC, of course, have always denied that they did it.  My conclusion is that, while it may have happened it was not common practice.  Was this the reason for the long barrel?  The answer here is a definite ‘No’.  Many guns produced in the eighteenth century had barrels equally long and even longer.  Fowlers with barrels of 54 inches were not uncommon.  Originally Northwest Guns came in barrel lengths of 48 and 42 inches (‘four foot’ and ‘three and a half foot’ guns.)  Ballistic theory at the time held that longer barrels produced greater accuracy, more power and better shot patterns.

I have guns of both 42 and 36 inch barrels and, at the ranges I shoot, there is no discernible difference in the accuracy with a single ball or in the power (i.e. the aiming point or ‘hold’ I use).  Sometimes the shot patterns do seem a bit tighter with the 42 inch barrel.  Modern ballistic techniques can prove that there is no appreciable increase in the power or accuracy for barrels longer than 33 inches.  A number of traditionalists, however, remain unconvinced.

Next, the mystery of the large-bow trigger guard.  I have read many documents, letters and journals but none of them explain why the Northwest Gun has such a large trigger guard.  A number of historians have assumed that it allowed the gun to be fired while wearing mittens.  This has been repeated often enough to become accepted as truth.  We have to assume that these historians don’t go out in the cold, don’t wear mittens, don’t shoot guns and don’t go hunting.  In fact, you can’t fire a Northwest Gun with mittens on.  I’ve tried it.  I’ve also been hunting in the winter often enough to know that if it is so cold that you can’t take a mitt off long enough to shoot a gun then there is no point in being out hunting.  Big game goes to ground to wait out a cold spell, and so do Native hunters.

Some, more recent, authorities have begun to refer to a ‘gloved hand’.  Although this is much more practical there is no documentary or material evidence of anybody wearing winter gloves in the fur trade period.  Another story is that Northwest Guns had mainsprings that were so fierce they could only be fired by pulling the trigger with two fingers.  This ignores the obvious fact that the strength of the mainspring doesn’t have any bearing on the trigger pull but, even so, there is no documentary evidence for this either and I would expect a two-finger trigger to be longer than usual.  So, why did these guns have an oversize trigger guard?  I don’t know.  And, I suspect, nobody else does for sure.  The trigger guards were not welded but were bent out of a bar of iron – probably they were stamped out.  Perhaps someone with metallurgical knowledge can tell me if it is possible to bend an iron guard into a smaller bow without breaking it?

The final myth, about the poor quality of Northwest Guns, is the most damaging of all.  If these guns were as bad as some historians claim, then why were they kept in production with almost no changes to their design for one hundred and fifty years?  Even at the height of cutthroat competition between the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies, neither concern tried to change the design nor the quality of the guns they were bringing in to trade.

There are a number of factors that have conspired to create this bad reputation.  First, there are journal entries that talk about people being injured by guns ‘bursting’.  There are also letters to the London Committee or Agents complaining about the quality of different batches of guns.  But there were also complaints about the quality of the blankets and kettles supplied but nobody has assumed that they were all substandard.

I have a theory that there are two separate sources of this reputation.  These are guns most often described as ‘cheap’.  In the twenty first century this has certain connotations and stigma, but what did eighteenth century people mean by this adjective?  I believe they meant economical or thrifty.  The most expensive part of any gun, then as now, is the builder’s time.  Having built a number of different muzzleloaders myself, I can testify to the elimination of many of the time-consuming tasks in the building of a Northwest Gun.  Indeed this aspect gives these guns some of their more identifiable features; the straight and square buttplate which is nailed into place; the lack of a ramrod entry pipe which usually strengthens the mouth of the hole where the ramrod enters the stock; the lack of a trigger plate, which led to the tang bolt going up from the trigger guard to the tang; the ramrod thimbles and trigger guard which are surface mounted rather than being inlet into the stock.  All these features are designed to do one thing; to save the builder time during the assembly process in order to keep costs down.

Although build to a standard pattern, each Northwest Gun was hand crafted by an experienced gunstocker.  They were inspected by ‘viewers’ especially hired by the fur companies.  Like all guns made in England they had to be officially ‘proofed’ before being sent out to the Northwest.  Gun barrels were proofed by firing them with a standard ball and four times the normal charge of powder.  Once a gun had passed the viewer’s examination it was stamped with a viewer’s mark of both barrel and lockplate.  On English guns this mark was a fox.  Official proof marks were also stamped into the top of the barrel at the breech end.

The second cause of problems with Northwest Guns was the treatment they received.  They were designed for everyday use by people born into a Neolithic hunting culture.  Never cherished or cared for, many of the surviving guns in museum collections show evidence of an incredibly hard life.  Although designed to take hard use there is some abuse that no gun can withstand.

Once I had my gun at a Native camp in the Mackenzie Mountains in the Western NWT.  The very presence of the gun was encouraging the Elders present to reminisce about their own guns.  Many of them had begun hunting in the early part of the twentieth century using muzzleloading guns.  They told me stories of having only three musket balls to last for the whole winter.  If an animal was shot at and missed they would ignore the animal and go digging through the show to retrieve the ball.  Big game such as moose or caribou was shot in a fleshy part so that the ball could be recovered in the skinning process without being flattened or distorted.  Hunters could not afford to fire or unload their guns each night, so they stayed loaded for many days with predictable corrosive effects on the touchhole and breech plug.  They were seldom cleaned and hardly ever cleaned properly.

Since these guns were carried loaded every day there was a good chance the ball would be dislodged and move away from the powder charge.  Also, guns were fired when the barrel was plugged with snow.  Either of these conditions would cause the barrel to burst.  I was cleaning my gun while listening to these stories when I got the ramrod jammed.  After giving it an extra hard tug I managed to pull off the ramrod tip, which was then stuck halfway down the barrel.  No problem, the Elders told me, they would simply take the barrel out of the stock and lay it across a fire until it was red-hot.  The patch would burn up allowing the ramrod tip to fall out!  Most modern steels won’t take that kind of abuse, let alone an eighteenth century barrel with a lap weld along the bottom.  It is no wonder so many Northwest Guns had short, brutal lives.

Significantly, all the Elders had very fond memories of their old muzzleloaders.  They had the reputation as guns that never missed.  At demonstrations at Fort Edmonton I enjoy telling visitors that there is no modern gun that can do what my versatile Northwest Gun can do.  Light enough to be carried all day long, a 24 or 20 gauge (.58 or .62 calibre) has a large enough bore to kill big game animals, but it can also be loaded with shot and used to take small animals like muskrat or ptarmigan.  And there, finally, is the reason for the longevity of the Northwest Gun.  They were the first guns designed and made specifically to be used in North America and the design evolved until it fit the market demand perfectly.