by T. Logan Metesh, Firearms Specialist, NRA Museums - Friday, September 22, 2017
The German ball butt dag was made around 1675. It’s a .51 caliber wheellock pistol and lives up to its “ball butt” moniker with the large and elaborate ball on the end of the gun’s grip. While decorative, the ball also proved to be functional in more ways than one.
One, yet practical, purpose was to counterbalance the gun’s weight from the lock and barrel. It also ensured the user had a good grip and to prevent the hand from sliding when drawn. Another purpose was to turn the gun into a club. Since a wheellock is time-consuming to reload, the user could simply turn the pistol around after it had been shot, and use it as a blunt object is necessary.
There have been other accounts in history where the use of a firearm also served as a blunt object. The 30 Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648) documented cavalry soldiers turning their pistols around after shooting them and effectively using them as clubs. This practice continued for centuries, as there are some accounts of using an empty pistol as a club during the Civil War and into the Indian Wars in the 1870s.
These firearms may have been cumbersome, but some sure did look good! The German Ball Butt Dag, for instance, is inlaid with bone and ivory details, featuring scrollwork and assorted faces and figures. This is not something you would typically see on a run-of-the-mill pistol. The amount of time and energy (and not to mention money) it took to embellish this particular pistol made it all the more special. It was more than likely on commission by a wealthy individual who would not have taken it into combat.
Another interesting aspect of the wheellock mechanism is that it was the first step toward concealed carry. While this particular example may seem comically large by today’s standards, its ignition mechanism is what made it concealable. Previous matchlock firearms could not be concealed because of the burning match cord. The wheellock allowed this pistol to be concealed underneath a coat or a cloak.
Check out this segment from Curator's Corner featuring the German Ball Butt Dag 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!