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Smithsonian article on Alexander Hamilton's trick pistols

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Smithsonian magazine article: November, 1976

Pistols shed light on famed duel by Merrill Lindsay

(Transcription below)

The sensational duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr has taken its place among American legends, along with Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Hamilton says the legend, brilliant former Secretary of Treasuryand driving force of the Federalist Party (who sought a strong central government), was ruthlessly gunned down by Burr, Vice President under Jefferson and later tried for treason because of his mad plan to set up a Mississippi Valley empire. Hamilton, mortally wounded in the shoot-out, gasped that he had never intended to fire. The truth is, the pistol in Hamilton's hand did indeed shoot harmlessly high, its ball striking a tree behind Burr, 12 feet up. Hamilton has always come across as the good guy, tragically slain. Burr has always worn the black hat.

Until recently, few have questioned this legend. And no one has looked at an important piece of surviving evidence - the pistols with which the duel was fought.

Let us explore a few facts. Burr came of illustrious parentage: his father was the second president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey), his mother was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards. In the Revolution, young Aaron was a gallant officer under General Benedict Arnold during the disastrous march on Quebec; later saved his brigade during the battle of Long Island; later still served creditably at Valley Forge and Monmouth. In politics he won the same number of votes as Jefferson for the Presidency, became Vice President upon decision by the House of Representatives. One edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, "His fair and judicial manner as president of the senate, recognized by his bitterest enemies, helped to foster traditions in regard to that position..." He was "generous to a fault, and was intensely devoted to his wife and daughter."

Hamilton, illegitimately born on one of the Leeward islands in the Caribbean, rose to prominence during the Revolution when he served as an artillery officer under Washington ands also as aide-de-camp to the Commander in Chief. He married into the powerful Schuyler family and played a major role in forming a nation rather than a confederation of states.

Historians have pointed out that Hamilton, who hated Jefferson, hated Burr more and threw his lot against Burr and the Federalists in their preference for Burr's Presidency. Hamilton also contributed, along with his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, to Burr's defeat in his bid for the governorship of New York in 1804, the year of the fateful duel.

No one talks about the very real financial conflict between the two. Hamilton had played a major role in founding the Bank of New York and the Bank of the United States, which for a time enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Burr had an interest in the Manhattan Company, which had been set up to supply clean drinking water to the city of New York. Burr obtained a charter from New York State for the new water company. that company's charter included a clause giving it the right to engage in "moneyed transactions." So the Manhattan Company opened its first bank in competition with Hamilton in 1799, and on the day before its opening, Hamilton's brother-in-law, John B. Church, an experienced dueler who had killed his man in England, insulted Burr. the insult was deliberate, obviously planned and issued in front of Burr's friends. Burr, who could not have relished fighting Church, felt required to challenge him. The duel was fought with Church's pistols. Burr had a button shot off his coat. Church was unharmed.

(page 96)

Five years later, in 1804, a letter in the Albany Register, signed by an upcountry clergyman, referred to Hamilton's "despicable opinion" of Burr. Burr demanded satisfaction. Hamilton chose to fight with Church's pistols. The pistols that Hamilton provided had concealed hair triggers - what a modern target shooter would call a single-set trigger. Church had bought the pair in London. By using them, Hamilton could surreptitiously set his hair trigger without anyone's noticing. This would give Hamilton a theoretical advantage by allowing him to shoot very quickly with a tiny, half pound squeeze on the trigger. Burr's gun had the same trigger, but Burr probably didn't know it. He would fire with the ordinary 10 or 12 pound pull. Although Hamilton owned a fine pair of correct English dueling pistols, he elected to borrow the trick pair from Church. With this pistol, the hair trigger set, Hamilton, I maintain, booby-trapped himself that morning of July 11, in Weehawken. Tensely, the two men faced each other. As Hamilton lowered the gun on its target, he was holding a little too tightly and accidentally fired before he had Burr in his sights. Burr squeezed hard and slow and put an aimed shot into Hamilton. The lead .54 caliber ball found Hamilton's liver and killed him within 36 hours. I have booby trapped myself many times shooting target guns with single- or double-set triggers, and my only excuse was the tension of a competitive match. Even though no one was pointing a loaded pistol at me, I squeezed too hard too soon and blew my hopes by throwing away a shot, high in the sky. It is hard to know the intent of the dying Hamilton, who said that he had no intention of shooting Burr. He was either trying to make Burr out to be a cruel scoundrel which he succeeded in doing, or he was trying to divert attention from the pistols, realizing that they would do him no credit if the trick were found."

"Actually, the Church pistols have several unusual characteristics which should have disqualified them for use in duels. They have not only concealed set triggers, but weighted bronze fore-ends, adjustable front and rear sights and a .54 caliber bore. While some of these features could be found on a cased pair of gentleman's pistols, none of them would appear on a proper set of dueling pistols.

The caliber for duelers had been established at .5- big enough to do plenty of damage. Proper dueling pistols do not have adjustable sights. Dueling with pistols usually required you to bring your arm down and pull the trigger when your index finger was pointed at your antagonist. You were not to take cold-blooded aim and drill your quarry through the left nipple.

How can we be sure that these pistols are indeed the ones that killed Hamilton? The bank Burr founded, which is now Chase Manhattan, has done research in the archives and documents connected with this bit of history. A bank publication establishes that these pistols were used in tree duels. The first, as noted, was between Church and Burr. The second was between Hamilton's son Philip and a J.G. Eckhardt - and Philip Hamilton was killed.

After the third and final duel, the pistols were returned to Colonel John B. Church by Hamilton's second, Nathaniel Pendleton. Colonel Church's great granddaughter, Mrs. Mary Helen Church Gilpin, has written about the subsequent history of the pistols:

"John B. Church purchased a large tract of land in Allegheny County in western New York and built the first stone house west of the Allegheny River, calling it Belvedere. In 1805 his son Philip, my grandfather, married the daughter of General Walter Stewart and brought his bride to the old homestead, and it was there that my father, Richard, was born in 1824, his death occurring in 1911. I, too, was born at Belvedere in 1872, and it was in this historic old place on the Genesee River that the pistols and the many interesting letters were kept for generations."

During the Civil War, Richard Church organized a volunteer company and, owning no side arm of his own, he had one of the Burr-Hamilton pistols converted to percussion from the original flint. Fortunately, only one of the pistols was converted. In 1930, Colonel Church's granddaughter sold the two cased pistols to the Chase Manhattan Bank, where they have resided either in the bank's museum or vaults ever since. It was on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial anniversary that David Rockefeller, Chairman of the Board, generously gave permission to the U.S. Bicentennial Society of Richmond, headed by historian Virginius Dabney, to remove the pistols from the vault and have them reproduced. The reproductions, which have been made with complete fidelity to the original surviving flintlock, were made under my supervision by the Italian gunsmith, Walter Agnoletto, who restores ancient arms for museums all over the world.

We had to take the original pistol completely apart to authenticate the reproduction. It was when we removed the lock from the stock that the long-kept secret of the concealed hair trigger came to light."

(The end.)

August 2012 Videos of secret hair trigger assembly

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