Almost 400 years ago, a 20-year old cooper by the name of John Alden traversed the Atlantic on the good ship Mayflower. Along with his fellow travelers, Alden carried with him a collection of hopes, dreams, and a modified .66 caliber Italian single-shot wheellock carbine. That rifle, known as the Mayflower gun, now resides under glass here at the National Firearms Museum.
The Mayflower Gun could very well have been "one of the guns responsible for the first Thanksgiving," says Senior Curator Doug Wicklund of the National Firearms Museum.
The rare Italian wheelock rifle is the first gem in the "Old Guns of the New World" gallery. It made quite a turkey gun, although it's larger caliber made it a useful gun for deer and other game.
Alden brought the single-shot rifle to the Cape Cod region in 1620. Not one of the original congregation, Alden chose right from the start to stay in Plymouth Colony as one of the founders, rather than journey back across the Atlantic Ocean.
Although Alden was English, the gun was crafted in Italy and possibly sold by a European mercenary soldier, common at the time. Alden likely bought the gun used, but recognized it as higher quality than most guns of the day.
"For the era, it was an advanced gun," Wicklund said. "This one's still functional after hundreds of years."
According to markings on the barrel and lockplate, the gun was made or repaired by the Beretta family of armorers. The Beretta gunmakers were already in business back then. The stock is primarily of European walnut, but at some point very early in its
history, a front portion of the well-used stock was replaced by North American walnut. Through many years of use, the barrel is slightly hollowed out, eliminating most of the rifling. Because of that, if it were fired today, it would require roughly a .66 caliber.
"John Alden would have been well-served by this gun," Wicklund said.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Alden in "The Courtship of Miles Standish." In Longfellow's telling in the mid-1800s, Alden approaches Priscilla Mullins with a wedding proposal from Standish, only to have her famously retort: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"
Alden stayed in Massachusetts for his entire life. In 1653, he built a home in Duxbury, Massachusetts that still stands to this day. This rifle was among his many belongings at the time of his death. Mysteriously, the single-shot carbine disappeared somewhere around 1896. It wasn't until 1924 when the home underwent much needed renovations that the rifle was found in a forgotten cubbyhole near the front of the house. It was returned to his descendants and remained in their care until it was ultimately donated to the Museum for permanent preservation.