Weapons changed as settlers arrived and the state developed
by BETH ALTENA
As big game disappeared from Michigan’s landscape and the needs of pioneer settlers changed, so did the weapons they used in day-to-day life, explained Rockford resident and firearms historian Jon Stamp.
Stamp was the presenter during the November Rockford Area Historical Society meeting at the Community Cabin on Thursday, Nov. 3. He described the evolution of the weaponry the state’s earliest settlers relied upon as they increasingly conquered the wilderness of Michigan since the early 1600s.
Stamp said Michigan is unique and has history of non-native American activities as far back as there is for the country’s east coast. When the first white settlers arrived, Michigan was home to about 15,000 Indians. They were Algonquians and included regional tribes of Miamis, Chippewa, Menominee, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Wyandot. White settlers came to the area as far back 100 years before the Revolutionary War because the area was rich in the fur trade industry.
Stamp said he is a shooter and historian and not really a historical reenactor. Original guns are far too valuable and many times too rare to use for shooting and reenacting. Therefore, replicas or custom-built weapons are used for these purposes. He showed the crowd a replica of a gun that would have been typical to early settlers, a smooth-bored flintlock musket, that could be loaded with whatever was available—round lead ball, birdshot, buckshot or in extreme cases even tacks or pebbles. It was fired by a piece of flint gripped in the hammer hitting a piece of steel, creating sparks to fire off the weapon.
The British had a paper cartridge in which gunpowder was wrapped. The sparks lit the packet of gunpowder, firing the gun. They used the weapon for fighting and had the typical technique of standing a certain distance from the enemy line, shooting at them and then rushing forward to fight with the bayonet on the end of the weapon. The lack of open fields here confused the British and French.
Settlers more typically stored their gunpowder in a horn and poured a measure into the barrel of the weapon. The pretty big caliber ball often used in the musket meant the user had to be as close as 25 to 50 yards to hit a target.
Native Americans also used a muzzle-loading weapon, but often a lighter version. The muzzle-loader was the most common weapon of the Revolutionary War, Stamp explained.
The rifle was the next weapon of choice in this area. Grooves in the barrel increased accuracy. The wider-built weapon was often crafted from tiger striped or curly maple and often had a compartment built in to hold tools for cleaning the weapon. It had a wooden loading rod, not steel, and could often be adjusted to have a hair trigger. Much more fragile, collectors are likely to find originals broken. The wood, rather than steel rod was to reduce damage to the grooves in the barrel. The gun was likely to be found in settlers’ households and was not a gun created for the military.
Stamp noted that the guns of the early eras were not particularly serviceable in rain or snow. He said Washington crossing the Delaware unchallenged was the result of his timing. He went across in winter, when people didn’t usually fight because of the undependable nature of the flintlock musket in adverse weather.
In the early 1800s the fur industry trade was dying out, but in 1830 the Erie Canal opened, bringing settlers who wanted the rich agricultural land of southern Michigan. If the state is divided by a line from Bay City to Grand Rapids, below that line the state had many openings in the oak forests, making it easier to develop. Timber was not yet in demand, so the hardwood oak and walnut was mostly girdled to kill the tree and then burned.
About that time a new firearm system was developed: the cap and ball percussion system. It is comparable to a kids’ cap gun. The cap sealed onto a nipple on the weapon, which was struck to fire the weapon. Old flint weapons could be converted to this system. Converting an old gun to a new system was useful, because most people here didn’t have much money to purchase new guns.
In the 1830s and 40s guns were crafted in a leaner manner, using less wood and more refined design. A most common weapon of this time was often made from old parts of former guns. The buck and ball fowler would be an example of a gun crafted from an old musket barrel that dates a hundred years earlier. This could be loaded with round ball buckshot or bird shot, and was used to shoot everything including birds, ducks, small game, deer and bear.
The next common weapon, Stamp said, was made from old parts of former weapons. The buck and ball rifle was most likely shot with wadding and could be loaded for anything from bear to bird. Stamp showed one with a mark which identifies it as from the mid to late 1700s and issued from the Midland area.
A most common cap lock found on the farm was a double barreled shotgun. “By this time the big game was gone from Michigan,” Stamp said. “The largest game you might come across would be a bear. There were no more moose, elk or wood bison.”
Stamp said the guns common then were mostly imported from England and Belgium and were readily available through local merchants and mail order catalogues. He showed one that came from under the bed of an elderly farmer in Iowa. He kept it loaded as protection from Irish railroad workers who were laying tracks near the farm. His grandson, not knowing the gun was loaded, pulled it from under the bed, aimed at a wall and blew a hole through it.
The next gun Stamp displayed was one with a rifle barrel on top and a shotgun barrel below. It had two cocks, one for each barrel and was apparently built for a woman or a child because of its small size. This type of gun wasn’t shot from the shoulder, but braced against the upper arm.
“Michigan fell in love with these; I don’t know why,” Stamp said. “There was no safety. They could go boom if they were dropped or bumped.”
The weapon he displayed was built, according to its stamp, by W.K. Strong in Big Rapids, who built guns in the 1880s to 1890s.
After the War Between the States, there was a huge influx of Civil War weapons to Michigan. Winchester developed a loader during the time of the Civil War.
Montgomery Ward sold a breach-loading shotgun for about $3. It was loaded at the breach, not the muzzle, and used a cartridge. Now shells were brass and, after shooting, the spent cartridge was removed and replaced.
Stamp, a lefty, said collectors will look in vain for a left-handed gun because few were made. In the good book, no one stands on the left hand of God, only the right, so left-handed people quickly learned to hide their irregularity.