If you’ve ever sat around the table at the holidays talking about random topics that may or may not be adjacently related to the topic at hand, you’ve probably talked about the Pilgrims. When we were in grade school, stories of the Pilgrims tended to involve planting corn and making pies with a side of Plymouth Rock sing-alongs. Now that we’re sitting at the grown-up table, isn’t it time to start discussing the Pilgrim’s firepower? Did the Pilgrims have guns? Of course they did! Here’s some gun history to drop at holiday dinners this year.
There were, indeed, firearms at the first Thanksgiving. Among them was the Wheellock, which was the gun designed after the matchlock. John Alden, a 20-year-old who came over on the Mayflower, is typically credited with bringing a Wheellock with him to the Colonies.
Against all odds, Alden’s home survived the destruction and fires that so commonly beset the Pilgrims, and in 1924, historians decided to renovate it. At that time, a Wheellock was unearthed, and all signs point to it having belonged to Alden.
A Wheellock has a spring-loaded wheel made of steel that turns—like a wheel—against a piece of pyrite to create sparks. The sparks, in turn, ignite the gunpowder that’s been loaded into the pan. Flame from the gunpowder travels through a touchhole in the gun to set off the charge loaded into the gun’s barrel, making it fire a lead ball. The Wheellock was originally a .50 caliber weapon, so it’s safe to say those lead balls could do some real damage.
The matchlock was the predecessor, design-wise, to the Wheellock. It had fewer moving parts which made it a great deal more affordable, but it also required more work to use.
These were probably the most common firearm at the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. After all, they were budget-friendly and could get the job done as long as the user was acquainted with the gun’s operation. It’s a safe bet those first Thanksgiving turkeys were taken with matchlocks.
Matchlocks had already been around for more than 150 years when the Pilgrims arrived in America. The guns were designed in 1411 and improved upon for decades, although they remained slower-functioning than the actions that came after. To use a matchlock, the user needed both hands on the musket. A length of cord, or rope, was held alongside the gun with one end located near the touchhole.
One of the big problems of this system, aside from its lack of stability and speed, was that the constant burning smell gave away positions during fights. It seems likely the burning smell also tipped off some of the warier game animals.
One of the firearms found among colonial ruins and depicted in historical sketches and carvings is the miquelet. The miquelet lock is a specific mechanism that is credited heavily to Spain, but it was used all over the world. Guns utilizing this mechanism could be pistols or rifles. It was neither the priciest nor the cheapest type of firearm available to the Pilgrims but, instead, fell somewhere in the middle.
At first glance, it’s easy to think the miquelet and other mechanisms have a crazy number of exterior moving parts. If they’re all on the outside where they can be bumped or damaged, doesn’t that make it far easier to ruin a gun?
Although it is true this left moving parts that were vital to the gun’s function exposed, it also points to the fact that modern firearms found a way to cover those parts. Today’s guns have even more moving parts than Pilgrim-era ones did, you just can’t see them as easily.
Saker and Minion Cannons
It wouldn’t be a party without the era’s version of heavy ordnance (and really, cannons qualify as heavy ordnance no matter who you ask). The Pilgrims did bring cannons with them and, in fact, placed them in a fort for defensive purposes.
The fort was also used for a meeting hall and church—at least at first—and the cannons were strategically placed to protect the area if they were attacked. The saker and minion were two common types of cannons used at the time.
Some solid information on these cannons comes from Gutenburg.org:
These guns were probably not new, and they may well have been part of the armament of the Mayflower itself. The largest of the cannon mentioned by name was a minion. This would have been a brass gun, which weighed between 800 and 1200 pounds. It would have had a bore of about 2.9 inches diameter and fired an iron ball weighing 3½ pounds for distances up to 1600 yards. The saker was slightly smaller, probably weighing 650 to 800 pounds. It would have had a bore of about 2.7 inches in diameter and shot a 2¾ pound ball up to 1700 yards. Since cannon designations were used rather loosely by the artillerists of the time, there is room for considerable differences in these dimensions. On Burial Hill in Plymouth are two early English cannons, one a minion and the other a small saker or sakeret. These guns were used as the models for those mounted in Pl[y]moth Plantation’s reconstruction of the original fort. Since it is presumed that the Pilgrims’ guns came from the armament of the Mayflower and since they were dragged up the hill and mounted immediately, it has been assumed that they were placed on carriages from the ship, and so naval carriages of the period have been reproduced for the reconstructed fort.
This is one we have to include because it’s become the preeminent firearm featured in imagery of Pilgrims. We’ve all seen drawings, paintings, and cartoons of Pilgrims wearing the classic buckle shoes and toting a heavy blunderbuss.
Here’s the thing: The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and the blunderbuss didn’t come into existence until after that. So, did the Pilgrims arrive in the Colonies carrying the classic blunderbuss as shown in a ridiculous number of images? No, they did not.
According to historians, only two blunderbuss guns have been found among colonial ruins. That isn’t shocking considering the timeframe of their creation. How they became a firearms touchstone for modern Pilgrim imagery, we have no idea. If you’re curious, though, we have a few blunderbuss facts for you:
- The reason for the flared end of the barrel was to make it easier for soldiers or other mounted on horseback to load the weapons without spilling gunpowder or missing their mark while using a rod as they moved. Frankly, it’s kind of ingenious.
- The word “blunderbuss” is derived from the word “donderbus” which translates to “thunder box.” It’s Dutch.
- The blunderbuss was seen more commonly during the American Revolution.
How many guns actually arrived in the Colonies in the hands of Pilgrims is unknown. How many firearms do you think they brought along for the first ride? Tell us in the comments below.