In the world of military firearms firsts, few guns are as visually unique as the Elgin Patent Cutlass Pistol. The roots of the pistol’s design extend back into the 17th century when a handful of English and European gun makers made and marketed to the public and commercial enterprises swords that incorporated flintlock pistols in their hilts, and blunderbusses and pistols with folding bayonets or daggers attached to their muzzles. Weapons of this type survive in notable numbers, showing that they enjoyed some popularity. And while such weapons were potentially useful for certain military forces, these combination arms saw little use by any official military force prior to the introduction of the Elgin Patent Cutlass Pistol.
The inventor of this unique weapon, New Yorker George Elgin, took advantage of the popularity of the famous “Bowie” knife, envisioning a new style combination firearm and edged weapon that would prove effective in close combat. On July 5th, 1837, Elgin was granted United States Patent No. 254 for his “Improvement in the Pistol Knife or Cutlass.” In the patent description, Elgin described the weapon as follows:
“a new and useful instrument called the Pistol-Knife or Pistol-Cutlass; and I do hereby declare that the following is a true and exact description.
The nature of my invention consists in combining the pistol and Bowie knife, or the pistol and cutlass, in such a manner that it can be used with as much ease and facility as either the pistol, knife, or cutlass could be if separate, and in an engagement, when the pistol is discharged, the knife (or cutlass) can be brought into immediate use without charging or drawing, as the two instruments are in the hand at the same time.”
With his patent secure, Elgin wasted little time attempting to capitalize on it. On September 8th, 1837, he wrote to the United States Navy Department proposing to deliver by October 25th 150 “Pistol Knives” for use in a planned expedition to explore the South Seas. The Navy accepted Elgin’s proposal and with it was born the United States military’s first official percussion handgun.
The pistols were produced by Springfield, Massachusetts, arms maker Cyrus B. Allen. The arms delivered to the U.S. Navy featured an octagonal 0.54 caliber 5-inch-long smoothbore barrel with a stout 11 ½-inch curved blade with a 6-inch false edge made by Nathaniel P. Ames mounted below. The blade and trigger guard are integrally forged, and a heavy knuckle bow extends rearward from the trigger guard connecting to the base of a smooth walnut grip. The left side of the box lock frame is stamped “C.B. ALLEN/SPRINGFIELD/MASS.,” the top of the barrel is stamped “ELGINS/PATENT,” and the breech is marked “CBA/PM/1837.” Each pistol was marked with a serial number stamped into the frame, barrel, and blade of the left side of the gun.
The cost of the Elgin Patent Cutlass Pistol made by Allen was $17.50. Each was delivered with a German silver-mounted leather holster/scabbard that incorporated a brass-tipped rammer, cleaning equipment, three spare percussion cap nipples, and a storage box.
The United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas spanned the years 1838-1842. The expedition was composed of five U.S. Navy ships and 350 men, including sailors, naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, a taxidermist, and a philologist. During the four years of the voyage the expedition surveyed over 200 South Pacific islands and made the first sightings of Antarctica. Scientists on the expedition collected over 60,000 plant and bird specimens; many of which served as the basis for the Smithsonian Institution’s earliest natural history collections.
The expedition occasionally found itself in conflict with Native peoples and the published narrative of the expedition documents that the cutlass pistol saw use during the voyage. On the Island of Malolo in Fiji on July 24th, 1840, members of a landing party were attacked by Natives and Midshipman Wilkes Henry pursued an islander and “cut him down with his bowie-knife pistol.” In another instance when the expedition was exploring the Sacramento River, an Indian “boldly seized the bowie-knife-pistol of Dr. Pickering,” a naturalist, and ran into the woods.
Upon the expedition’s return to the United States in 1842 the pistols went into Navy stores. Five years later it is possible that some of these pistols went on the U.S. Navy’s Dead Sea Expedition of 1847 as included in the list of armaments taken on the expedition are fourteen pistols including “four revolving and ten with bowie-knife blades attached.” Sources suggest that some Elgin Patent Cutlass Pistols remained in the U.S. Navy inventory until the 1860s and that some may have been used during the Civil War.
Skinner is pleased to present a fine example of one of these rare pistols in the October 2021 Historic Arms & Militaria auction. The pistol, number 34 of the original 150 produced, is in a remarkable state of preservation with smooth and attractively toned metal surfaces and clear markings. In addition, it is one of the few known examples with part of its original associated holster/scabbard. The scabbard includes the upper German silver mount and about three quarters of its leather body, but lacks the metal tip and rammer.
Historic firearms and edged weapons have fascinated collectors and historians for generations. In actuality, the cutlass pistol is a noticeably muzzle-heavy and somewhat unwieldy weapon. Perhaps it was those factors that kept the weapons from wider military use. While there is no way of knowing exactly which member of The United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas may have used this Elgin Patent Cutlass Pistol, this important weapon’s place in American arms history is secure by virtue of its unconventional design, extreme rarity, and distinction of being America’s first percussion military pistol.
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