Others have attributed Hamilton's apparent misfire to the hair-triggered design of the Wogdon duelling pistols, both of which survive today. Only Hamilton, familiar with the weapons, would have known about and been able to use the hair-trigger. However, when asked by Pendleton before the duel if he would have the "hair-spring" pistol, Hamilton reportedly replied "not this time." The "hair-spring" pistol provided an advantage because it took less time to fire, being more sensitive to the movement of the trigger finger.
The pistols belonged to Hamilton's brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who was a business partner of both Hamilton and Burr. He purchased the pistols in London in 1797. They had previously been used in a 1799 duel between Church and Burr, in which neither man was injured. In 1801, Hamilton's son, Philip, used them in the duel in which he died. In 1930 the pistols were sold to the Chase Manhattan Bank, now preserved by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The guns are on display in the Executive Conference center of 277 Park Avenue in Manhattan.
For the United States Bicentennial anniversary in 1976, Chase Manhattan allowed the pistols to be removed and loaned to the U.S. Bicentennial Society of Richmond. When the original pistol was examined, the concealed hair trigger was discovered.
Alexander Hamilton married General Philip Schuyler's daughter Elizabeth. In 1791, Aaron Burr was elected NY State Senator instead of incumbent Philip Schuyler. Hamilton stopped liking Burr. At a dinner in Albany, NY in 1804, Hamilton was reported to have said that he had a despicable opinion of Burr. This newspaper article was brought to Burr, who sent it to Hamilton, asking if it were true. Hamilton would not deny it. Letters were exchanged, and Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel for not retracting the personal attack. Both were former Revolutionary War veterans, (Burr, 48. Hamilton 49 years old) experienced in gun use, and military "honor". Hamilton accepted the challenge, and was thus allowed to use the pistols of his choice. He chose to use his rich brother-in-law's pistols, made in London.
In 1975, during the United States bicentennial celebrations, the Smithsonian Institute examined the 180 year old pistols, and discovered that there was a secret hair trigger. By pushing the trigger forward hard, only 1/2 pound of pressure, and not 10 pounds of pressure were needed to fire the 1/2" diameter lead ball bullet. These were improper weapons for a fair duel.
Burr and his second, and Hamilton and his second rowed across the Hudson River to Weehawken, NJ at 7am on Wednesday, July 11,1804. The seconds loaded the pistols and handed them to Burr and Hamilton. Burr's second William Van Ness could not have known about the hair triggers as well as Nathaniel Pendleton. There is no outward sign that the hair trigger exists. When the loaded pistol was given to Burr, he would not have known to push the trigger forward hard, to set the hair spring. Indeed, had he tampered with the trigger, he risked a premature firing. So the scientific conclusion is that Hamilton had the knowledge to fire with 1/2 pound pressure, while Burr had to fire with 10 pounds of pressure. Hamilton bought to the duel weapons for his own unfair advantage.
Hamilton had previously written letters that were to be opened if he died, or destroyed by him if he lived. These letters said he did not intend to fire at Burr, thus making him a martyr.
As the pistols were handed to Burr and Hamilton, the seconds asked if they were ready. Hamilton said no, and adjusted his eyeglasses. He looked through the sighting on his pistol, then said yes he was ready. Burr said he was ready.
Unlike the wild western cowboys, there were no holsters used in a duel. The opponents faced each other sideways to minimize body target surface area. They could not have been aiming at each other before the word "Present" was given. The most probable position was for the loaded pistols to be aimed straight up.
Pendleton said "Present" and within a few short seconds, two clouds of smoke went up. Both bullets were released. The bullet from Hamilton's gun was launched too early and went high. It broke a tree branch about 10 feet over Burr's head. Pendleton recovered the branch the next day. Burr aimed into the smoke cloud, not at Hamilton's head or heart, but lower, and hit Hamilton in the liver, lodging the bullet in his spine. Burr stumbled on a rock, and VanNess thought he was hit, but he was not. Hamilton fell, and Burr started forward toward him. Pendleton went to Hamilton and began shouting for Dr. Hosack waiting in the boat. VanNess grabbed Burr and stopped him from going to Hamilton, leading him away, and out of site of Dr. Hosack.
The two boats rowed back to New York City. Burr sent a letter to Dr. Hosack hoping Hamilton would recover and asking to visit him, but the letter went unanswered. Hamilton died 31 hours after his wound.
The November, 1976 Smithsonian magazine article notes that many shooters shoot high when using a hair trigger. As the pistol is lowered, with the finger on the trigger, the slightest movement produces the 1/2 pound pressure needed to fire the weapon. In his haste to fire at Burr before Burr could fire at him, Hamilton shot high as his pistol was arcing down. From 1804 until 1975, Burr was subjected to unfair criticism that Hamilton meant him no harm, and Burr was thus cast as the villain. But Hamilton, not Burr acted outside the code of honor. The account by Pendleton that he asked Hamilton if he wanted the hair trigger set did not mean Burr had an equal opportunity, or heard Pendleton (if Pendleton really asked it at all) nor does it justify the use of a weapon that functions differently than it appears to someone who is handed it loaded. For a more detailed explanation, refer to Roger Kennedy's Burr Hamilton and Jefferson pages 83-85.
Kennedy's footnote on page 85 says: " One competent writer has suggested that they were not trick pistols "unless Burr did not know about the hair trigger" and that both Burr and VanNess "seemed to know about the hair trigger in advance." the trickiness was there, in the hidden contrivance, and in the fact that Burr could not have the experience of working with it in advance, while Hamilton and Church possessed the weapons. And I have found no evidence that Burr knew of the existence of the trick, though he had held one pistols in his hand during his duel with Church. If he commented on it, I have not found the comment."
Burr's supporters in the Aaron Burr Association since 1946 knew his character was not consistent with that of a villain, and have tried to convince history teachers that teaching children to hate an innocent person is wrong. We don't need villains to be united. Attacking someone's character does not make the attacker superior. The press destroyed Burr's reputation, while Burr stood silent in Hamilton's death. Hamilton's biographers were hailed, while Burr's were spurned. Burr could not prove the trick pistols were used, and took the blame for the duel. Throughout our history, we have rallied on the backs of those we condemn. 200 years after the duel, this negative behavior by our teachers and politicians must stop.
On the July 9, 2004 Ferry Tour of Historic Hamilton and Burr Landmarks seen from the NY harbor, blame for the Duel was cast on Alexander Hamilton's fabulously wealthy brother in law, and Angelica Schuyler's husband John Barker Church. He had changed his name to John Carter and fled England after a duel involving gambling. He had money and was allowed to audit General Philip Schuyler's books. He met daughter Angelica, promised her riches and eloped with her to Schuyler's dismay. Here's the time line:
1796 English Parliament member John Church does not buy dueling pistols off the shelf like at Walmart, but has the famous London gun maker Wogdon make a set of pistols with a concealed hair trigger giving the user a slight advantage in a duel. The pistols violate the Code Duello, but no one knows this.
1797 John Church returns to New York with them.
1797 John Church is with Hamilton when they go to James Monroe's hotel room, and Hamilton and Monroe insult each other with Monroe shouting "Get your pistols." (Eventually the duel does not go forward, when Monroe's friend and chosen second Aaron Burr says Settle.)
1799 John accuses Aaron Burr (who defeated not only Hamilton's father in law for the 1791 senate seat but John Church's father in law as well) of taking a bribe from the Holland company. Burr and Church row to New Jersey. Ron Chernow incorrectly claims that they used Burr's pistols. Perhaps Burr used his own, but Church as the challenged one certainly used his own high tech (for then) weapon. He was way too rich to use Burr's pistol. Burr's second has trouble ramming the bullet home. (Reasonable since Church's pistols were .54 caliber oversized for dueling, and a patch with grease was necessary for a conventional lead bullet ball.) Davis tells us the second hit the ramrod with a rock, and it still wasn't home, so he gave the pistol to Burr and said -Try it because Church is ready; we'll reload on the second shot. They fired. Church hit Burr's coat, and Burr missed Church. They began to reload when Church realized his secret advantage was not failsafe, so he apologized to Burr and "declared he had been indiscreet and was sorry for it."
1801 John was "project manager" and planner of the duel between Alexander's oldest son 19 year old Philip and attorney George Eacker, who gave a pro Burr and anti Hamilton speech. Young Philip had certainly been impressed by his rich uncle's prized possessions. Philip and a friend insulted Eacker in his theater box, so he challenged Philip. They rowed to New Jersey where the word Present was given and both waited for about a minute, before Philip leveled his uncle's pistol to fire at Eacker, but Eacker was faster and killed Philip.
1804 After this disastrous family dueling history, Alexander takes on the dueling mantle to show his wealthy brother-in-law he can do it right. Even though he had been involved in a dozen duels before as a second or through negotiations where a duel was avoided, this was Hamilton's first and only duel. He tried to use the hair trigger to his advantage, but as Merrill Lindsay notes, he booby trapped himself, firing too early and high.
1804 An ad appears in the Post for dueling pistols with hair triggers. Hamilton fans say this means they were commonplace, and Burr must have known about them. Burrites say this is nonsense.
1862 The pistols John took with him to Oswego New York are used in the Civil War.
1930 Chase Manhattan Bank buys them and places them in its vault.
1975. The Smithsonian Xrays them and discovers the concealed hair spring trigger.
Conclusion: History text books written before 1976 blame Burr for Hamilton's death. This CSI (Crime Scene Investigator) analysis of the science of the improper pistols blames Church and Hamilton.
August 2012 Videos of secret hair trigger assembly
Hair trigger 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trZ_j1RysOE
Hair trigger 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GofgeWV8iw0
Hair trigger 3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UKqqbFBUTE
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