Prisons and Pirate Mutinies: the Duck’s Foot Pistol

Lot 391 in the September 2019 RIA auction.

Duck’s foot pistols are one of the iconic classic “weird gun” categories. The one exemplifies the typical pattern, with four barrels arranged in a wedge, fired simultaneously with a single flintlock action. Traditionally, these are attributed to people like prison wardens and ships’ captains, who might have to confront mobs of prisoners or a mutinous crew. Whether this is actually supported by historical fact or is just apocryphal communal belief, I do not know…

26 Comments

  1. Just a thought ; apart from defensive use in a naval setting, would it be any good in a offensive action like a boarding. a few guys jumping aboard with a cutlass and one of these might have a significant “shock and awe”-effect on a line of defenders on an open deck. I know blunderbusses were used to sweep a deck,but those are hard to use one-handed while swinging a blade in the other. 🙂

  2. There is a painting portraying the American Revolutionary War naval captain John Paul Jones in battle, wearing a half-dozen or so (single-shot) pistols across his chest on a bandoleer. (Rank has its privileges?) As this weapon has no belt hook and might not be “holsterable,” I think it was housed in a piece of furniture and should be considered a defensive rather than offensive firearm — perhaps a house gun, or the prison warden’s gun. The lack of brass fittings contraindicates naval use. Might the small grip mean it was intended for the lady of the house, with which to defend her honor, or the silver?

    • I suspect the lady of the house would have to jab the thing into the intruder and then yank hard on the trigger. Four bullets delivered all to the gut tend to encroach upon the recipient’s likelihood of being able to digest his last meal…

    • with naval officers and pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries, wearing four or more single-shot pistols hooked on the belt, stuck under a cummerbund, or hanging off a leather bandolier was quire common in a boarding action. You had that many shots (assuming they didn’t misfire) before having to resort to your sword.

      One famous painting of the death of Blackbeard;

      https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/gettyimages-517200612.jpeg?quality=85&w=1200&h=628&crop=1

      fairly accurately depicts what a real boarding action was like, rather than the “Hollywood” version. Lt. Maynard was in fact grappl8ing with the notorious pirate while trying to cock his pistol, until one of his men literally hacked Blackbeard’s head off from behind.

      In such a situation, having more than one loaded gun handy made very good sense.

      cheers

      eon

  3. I can’t imagine any practical way to carry such a thing. In a drawer at the Captain’s desk, on a shelf under the rack of cell keys, next to the candlestick by the front door…?

    • Maybe tucking the pistol on top of the belt? With the belt held between barrels 1 and 2? There appears to be enough space so that the butt would not dig into the body if carried that way.

  4. Hmm…

    Expanding upon Ian’s speculation that the duckfoot pistol is just a supplement to a sword, then perhaps the duckfoot is still useful even after it has fired or even before?

    Imagine left hand holding the duckfoot while the right wields the sword. The forked barrels of the duckfoot might serve as a blade catcher, if the left hand wields the duckfoot as a defensive shield. So left hand forward, left foot forward, a similar stance to using sword plus shield (or sword plus buckler). Loaded or fired, the duckfoot pistol might be able to serve as a substitute for a buckler.

    Just some speculation.

  5. Color me surprised! So the Duckfoot is a real historical pistol type? I’d always assumed it was some silly recent invention of a current black powder gun maker.

    Watching Forgotten Weapons is a humbling experience. But in the best possible way.

  6. I note that the action, or rather rear half, of this duck’s-foot pistol is basically a cheap box-lock pocket pistol. This was typical, since the design need a lock located where its flame can reach all barrels at the same time.

    That said, I’ve long suspected that most duck’s foots are 19th century or later fakes. Unlike blunderbusses or things like the Elgin “knife pistol”, they are not mentioned in naval stores inventories. And in the situation they were supposedly designed for, a blunderbuss loaded with buckshot would do a far more effective job of dealing with multiple opponents than one of these.

    cheers

    eon

      • I know that. But given the choice between four round balls and twenty-odd “swan drop” shot to “make good a stair, corridor, or other narrow place” (the exact Royal Navy instructions for the proper tactical use of the blunderbuss), which would you choose?

        Personally, I want the twenty or so buckshot. Just to make sure.

        cheers

        eon

  7. Whoa, hold up!

    These aren’t muzzle loaded!

    Crank off the barrel, load the stub of the barrel attached to the receiver, then screw the barrel back on. Better for waterproofing/ long term storage, and the ball can be big enough to seal itself in the bore.

    “Turn-off barrel” is another term.

  8. I wonder how the US NFA treats these. A machine gun is defined as firing more than one round per trigger pull. But these are C&R, older than 1898, muzzle loaders, and black powder, so they might squeak by. Would a modern black powder replica pass muster?

    • Hold it! A machine gun by law is a repeating weapon which fires multiple shots by multiple cycles per trigger pull. This excludes hand-cranked weapons and guns that have simultaneously firing barrels where the firing action itself (without human labor) does not automatically reload the weapon.

    • First, while there’s been some confusion on the topic in the past, the “machinegun” definition as currently interpreted only applies to firing multiple rounds in succession, not to guns that fire a volley simultaneously with one trigger pull. Witness the Standard S333 double-barreled revolver.

      Second, “any matchlock, flintlock, percussion cap, or similar type of ignition system” is specifically excluded from the NFA as an antique firearm, regardless of manufacture date. So even if it were a problem for cartridge firearms, a modern replica would be fine.

      • Now you’ve given me a new puzzle. Where does Dreyse needle gun ammunition fit into this? Probably counts as centerfire, and I gather one factor common to all those ignition systems is they require manual assembly. Although I imagine Dreyse ammunition would not hold up well to machine gun use.

        I also have visions of someone making a machine gun with separate feed systems for paper cartridges and percussion caps. That also seems pretty unlikely.

    • “(…)pass muster?”
      According to: https://archive.org/details/NationalFirearmsActOf1934
      The term “machine gun” means any weapon which shoots, or is designed to shoot, automatically or semiautomatically, more than one shot, without manual, by a single function of the trigger.
      This fire-arm is not automatic (i.e. loading new cartridge by harness energy powder gasses) and not semiautomatic (i.e. throwing case away after firing and action staying open), therefore in my understanding it is not machine gun as defined above.

  9. 1) Sort of a hand held Claymore mine (and you just might have a claymore in your other hand)
    2)I question the idea of a prison guard’s pistol. In the flintlock era,justice was quick and people weren’t sentenced to jail terms. You got a quick trial (the Assizes were quarterly)and were either flogged, executed or transported as a slave to either the Sugar Islands or Georgia or,later, dumped at Botany Bay to live or die.Accordingly, the prison populations were small as were the prisons to hold them pending trial. You didn’t have have massive prisons until the Napoleonic Wars, when they were built to hold POW’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Dartmoor#Early_history)
    3. There may have been some naval use, but I agree with the poster who stated that the lack of brass in the construction makes you wonder
    4. My belief is that most were sold for home defense or for protection if your coach was stopped by a highwayman
    5. “Maybe tucking the pistol on top of the belt? With the belt held between barrels 1 and 2?” Man, that sounds like a great way to shoot what sailors used to call “your wedding tackle” off

  10. The engraving could possibly be the word “Wraith” ?
    “the exact likeness of a living person seen usually just before death as an apparition”

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