Swords, pistols, muskets, and accoutrements from the 18th and 19th centuries.
When it came to fighting at close quarters, small arms and edged weapons played a vital role in destroying an enemy vessel’s personnel. As the range closed during an engagement, Marines and seamen trained in the use of muskets and rifles peppered the opponent’s deck with a well-aimed hail of lead. With few hiding places on an exposed spar deck, the men stationed there could only hope that the bulwarks and hammock nettings stood high enough to intercept the brunt of the enfilade. Wooden ships rarely sank from the effects of long-range bombardment, and boarding decided many battles. As the hulls of the vessels crashed together, the cry of “Boarders away!” rang through the ship. The men denominated “boarders” on the quarter bill rushed to snatch up pistols, cutlasses, and pikes. The Marines concentrated their fire on the enemy’s decks, at the point chosen for boarding. Hastily formed into divisions by their officers, the men with the cutlasses and pikes boarded first, charging four deep along the gangways towards the quarterdeck. A reserve armed with muskets kept up a steady fire on the quarterdeck, the tops, and anywhere else an enemy dared show his head. Hand to hand combat was dangerous, brutal work, but nothing else could win or lose a battle as quickly.
A well-appointed American ship in 1812 should have carried three muskets, three cutlasses, four pikes and two pistols to every two guns (cannons). A ship as large as Constitution therefore needed at least 156 muskets, 156 cutlasses, 208 pikes, and 104 pistols. Considering that every vessel in commission required a proportionate number of weapons, it comes as a surprise to learn that early American naval small arms and edged weapons are today considered some of the rarest of collectibles. No matter how well the armorer or gunner did his job, no matter how well they cleaned, oiled, and packed them, service at sea created havoc with a ship’s store of small arms. Extant pieces often show signs of repair and restoration. Even the best bear the scars and wear of heavy use.
As a study collection, the USS Constitution Museum’s assemblage of Federal-era naval small arms and edged weapons is unparalleled. Compiled in large part by author, artist, and historian William Gilkerson, the collection was donated to the Museum by the late Sherman Morss in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Included among the many rare pieces are examples of the three cutlass patterns produced by contractor Nathan Starr between 1808 and 1826, and pistols manufactured by Simeon North in 1808 and 1813. The collection includes examples of the so-called Type 1, 2, and 3 American boarding axes, as well as an assortment of sea service muskets. A brass swivel howitzer probably cast by Paul Revere forms a cornerstone of the collection. A Model 1803 Harpers Ferry rifle taken from the maintop of USS President after her capture in 1815 complements the many imported British weapons. The student of American weapons, technology, industry, and naval history has much to learn from this collection.