It was the wheel lock pistol that finally offered a practical self-defence firearm to the civilians, and also a formidable, easy to conceal weapon to the highwaymen. This was the first design that could be carried loaded and cocked, ready for immediate discharge when in need. The flintlock, or more precisely its ancient version the snaphance lock was invented in Nordic regions sometime in the early 16th century as well, but it spread slowly. It’s perfected version, the French flintlock finally replaced the wheel lock mechanism completely sometime in the very beginning of the 18th century, until that time matchlock, flintlock and wheel lock arms served together in the armies and hands of civilian users.
The flintlock was simpler and cheaper than the wheel locks, and it required less skill from the maker. The system was also better for reducing the size of the firearm. There were pocket sized wheel lock pistols, but they were just too expensive and delicate for the average user. The flintlock mechanism therefore was the first real system that provided a solution for the miniature sized overcoat, boot or muff pistols.
The box lock mechanism
Probably the most advanced version of the pocket pistols is the so-called box lock pistols. The invention of this mechanism fades in time. We know that it appeared sometime around 1730, and its percussion version was still popular until the middle of the 19th century, when revolvers took over. One of the first gunsmiths to use the sliding safety attached to the top of the frame was Henry Nock (1741–1804) famous British gunmaker. This safety locks the cock in half cock position, and also locks the frizzen from unintentional opening. When the hammer is cocked, it automatically disengaged, but can be operated with the thumb as well manually. The sliding bar engages a recess on the back of the hammer, while its protruding pin in the front fits a hole on the bottom of the frizzen.
The main difference compared to the traditional side-lock is that the moving parts of the mechanism are placed in a metallic frame, they are not attached to the lockplate. The hammer is located in the centre of the action, the pan and the frizzen are placed in the centre as well, just in front of the cock. These little self-defence firearms are one of the very first pistols that can actually be broken down to main parts as we understand them today: to a frame and a barrel, while the wooden part is only a grip, not a stock anymore.
Most of them are early breech loaders as the barrel was to be turned off for loading. Each set therefore contained a key for removing the barrel. Loading was an easy process: the barrel was removed with the help of the wrench. The recess of the circular key engaged a lug on the bottom of the barre. Then the chamber was filled with powder and the over-sized round ball was placed on the mouth of the chamber. The barrel was screwed back in pace, the cock was put in half cock, the pan was primed, the frizzen was closed, the safety (if there was a safety on the pistol) was engaged. Before firing the hammer had to be pulled to the full cock position, then pulling the trigger fired the pistol. The bullet – a pure lead round ball – was not patched, nor it was lubricated, as fouling was not an issue. These pistols were used for only one single shot, reloading was not an option in a dangerous situation. This is why they often came in pairs.
The box lock is a practical and simple mechanism. The hammer is integrated with the tumbler, and the trigger is integrated with the sear. The frizzen is the same as in the case of the normal side lock flintlocks. There are three springs in the system: the main spring, supporting the hammer, the trigger spring, pushing back the trigger, so its sear can firmly engage the recesses of the tumbler part of the hammer, and the frizzen spring.
These pistols were mostly made from iron, but cast brass versions are also quite often. Many of them were made with double, triple or even four barrels, rifled or smooth. The trigger mechanism can vary as well. Later models can feature a folding trigger, that pops out when the hammer is fully cocked.
The “Boston” pocket pistol set
I was hunting for a complete cased set for a long time. They are just beautiful, and make a beautiful part in the collection displaying the history of civilian self-defence firearms. The origin of the “Boston” set actually has nothing to do with the city of Boston. The wooden inlay on top of the box is probably a marketing tool, so it would be better accepted on the colonies. Unfortunately, no maker’s marks are visible on the pistols, although the quality of the brace and accessories, just as the quality of the case is high. The only marking we have on the barrels and all accessories is the serial number of “44”, and the proof marks. Both barrels are marked with the Tower Private Proof marks – the crossed sceptres and crown stamped twice – used from circa 1740 until circa 1810. The private proofing service of the Ordnance Proof house of London, situated in Tower Wharf, was open for gunmakers outside London as well, so the exact location of manufacture is not recognizable from this information. This proofing service was available from around 1751 to 1810, until in 1813 the Birmingham Proof House was established for proofing civilian firearms. This pair of pocket pistol is most likely London or Birmingham made, and based on the style we can suppose it was manufactured sometime at the turn of the century, or a bit later.
The bores are smooth, the calibre is 54-bore (0.442” or 11,23 mm), a very common calibre for pocket pistols like this. The length of the bore is 60.5 mm or 2.38”. The powder chamber holds c14 grains of 3Fg Swiss powder. The grip is made of walnut, and it is finely chequered. The back of the grip is decorated with silver wire inlay. The sides of the frame are engraved with arm trophies. The total length of the pistol is 19.06 cm (7.5”). The weight of the unloaded pistol is only 230 g meaning it is really an everyday carry arm.
As the hammer and frizzen are placed on the top of the action, there are no sights on the pistols. This does not seem practical from a modern view, but let’s not forget that these arms were intended to be used from a point-blank range as a last line of defence.
The case is just as elegant as the brace. The internal lining in green cloth, and the set is complete with a barrel wrench and a bullet mould, both marked with the serial number of 44. It has two compartments with lids: one for bullets, one for spare flints.
Shooting the Boston pistols
Probably I will not tell a secret if I state that the boxlock pocket pistols were not designed for target shooting. They completely lack sights, the barrels are short and smooth. We can pretty much be sure that these pistols were intended to be the last line of defence. The charge of the pistols is relatively small. It is limited by the volume of the powder chamber that is 13-14 grains depending if the shooter charged the pistols with 2 Fg or 3 Fg powder. I used 2 Fg Swiss powder and casted balls with the tiny bullet bold included in the set. The balls dropped from the mold with .454 – .457” diameter from pure lead. The little metal handles get really hot quite quick, so wearing the safety gloves during casting is a must. The muzzle velocity and energy of these little pistols is quite far from today’s self defence cartridges, but I am sure they still do the job from point blank ranges. The muzzle velocity was 109 and 131 m/s for the two pistols. The difference was probably caused by the uneven shape of the cast bullets. The muzzle energy was only 55 and 80 J. Not too much indeed. Accuracy was another issue. From 5 meters, with using the top of the jaws and a frizzen as alternative sights I was able to hold the group in the size of the black of the pistol target. From 10 m it was a challenge to have a hit in the target.
Disassembly and cleaning the pistol
Cleaning the pistol is not a difficult task. First put the hammer in half cock, then open the frizzen. Remove the priming powder if there are any in the pan. Now unscrew the barrel with the wrench, and remove the bullet and powder if your gun was loaded. Use some damp patches to clean the bore, some rubbing with a bristle brush will help. Now use dry patches in the bore and finally an oil saturated patch for conservation. The outside of the bore can be cleaned with an oil saturated rag. You don’t have to completely disassemble the action for cleaning. Use a thin cleaning rod, and damp patch to clean the powder chamber. Use a dry patch and an oiled patch to finish the process, just as you did with the barrel. The pan, hammer and flint can be cleaned with the help of an old tooth brush, and minimal amount of water. Dry them with a dry cloth, and then apply a light coat of oil to all metal parts. Finally use a pin to clean the touch hole. Before the next shooting session, do not forget to flash a priming charge in the pan before loading the main charge.
The disassembly of the pistol starts with removing the grip. There is a screw behind the trigger guard, and a pin holding it. Remove them gently. Now pull the hammer to full cock, insert a wooden dowel between the frame and the main spring, and let the hammer fall forward. Now you released the tension from the axis of the hammer, so you can unscrew it, and remove it. Now unscrew the two screws holding the top cover of the frame, so you can remove the main spring and the trigger spring. The trigger is held by a pin. Gently hammer it out but be careful for the direction, usually it moves from the right to the left.
Balázs Németh, September 2021