by T. Logan Metesh, Firearms Specialist, NRA Museums - Friday, October 13, 2017
Follow-up shots were a challenge in the era of single-shot muzzleloaders. Most people resorted to carrying multiple firearms because of the amount of time it takes to reload one of these guns. Others opted for a knife of some kind as a method of protection once they had taken their only available shot. Others still combined the two strategies and carried multiple guns and a knife.
While feasible, none of these options are ideal. In a perfect world, a firearm would be able to fire multiple shots in a row before having to worry about reloading. Unfortunately, the technology just wasn’t there yet in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people from trying to design a firearm capable of multiple shots. Some designs were highly unusual and doomed from the start; others experienced different degrees of success. None were truly revolutionary, but many proved to be suitable workarounds for the time being.
In this period of firearms evolution, one way to have multiple shots was to have multiple barrels. Manufactured around 1800 in Europe, this flintlock pistol has four rifled barrels and four flash pans. The dual triggers are used to fire the two shots that are currently on the top of the pistol. Once those have been discharged, the user twists the barrel assembly until the two barrels that were previously on the bottom are now on the top. With everything back in proper alignment, the user could now fire two more shots before having to reload all four barrels.
This particular example is unique, and not just because of its number of barrels. The entire pistol is made of metal. There’s not a single piece of wood on it, and that’s the exact configuration in which it left the gunsmith’s shop. Though worn from centuries of use, the barrels, frame, and grip all have some degree of simple and tasteful engraving.
Within half a century from this pistol’s creation, Sam Colt perfected the formula for a reliable revolver. That singular development rendered single-shot and multiple barrel pistols functionally obsolete.
Looking back into history, we can now see that many of these designs – including the four-barrel flintlock pistol – were part of a short-lived transitory period between single-shot technology and the revolver revolution. Was the four-barrel design fast? Well, it’s a flintlock, so no. Was it ideal? Certainly not. Even so, it did accomplish something quite remarkable: it increased a person’s rate of fire to four in a time when most firearms had a rate of fire of one.
Check out this segment from Curator's Corner featuring the Four-Barrel Flintlock Pistol:
Check out this unique piece and others in person at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia. You can also tune into Curator's Corner on NRATV airing Thursdays at 3:35pm ET for more segments on historical firearms!