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The Blunderbuss: History's Forgotten Muzzleloader
One-hundred-and-three persons out of 100 persons in a recent survey of Californians did not know what a blunderbuss was, nor did they care. We did not expect them to. Californians haven't given a rat's nekkid rear end about history since well before the Donner Party passed up that case of Vienna sausages at the Dollar General.
Even in the most backward of nations like Idaho, which spelled backward is Ohadi, they study history. For example, you can go to Boise and ask a recent transplant from Beverly Hills what fur trading outpost was built in 1834 on the Oregon Trail and they will give you a blank stare. But if you find yourself in downtown Weiser on a Saturday night and ask the same question, they will tell you, "anda nangkwa bon-go gwidape gimme gimme," which roughly translates "Where I come from isn't all that great, my automobile is a piece of crap..." Which means they learned to dance in the 1990s.
We, however, learned to dance in 1814, which is when the blunderbuss was at the height of its popularity, and this brings me to one of my pet peeves - the blunderbuss does not get its due in history.
There had to have been a lot of flintlock blunderbuss shotguns at the battle of New Orleans in 1814. Johnny Horton in the song the Battle of New Orleans said, in part, and I quote:
Old Hickory said we could take 'em by surprise
If we didn't fire our muskets
'Til we looked 'em in the eye
We held our fire
'Til we see'd their faces well
Then we opened up our squirrel guns
And really gave 'em, well
I always liked that line. They "And really gave 'em, well." Well, that's a deep subject.
The flared muzzle of the blunderbuss increased the spread of the shot and
allowed for fast reloads, funneling powder and shot, making it a good choice for a man on horseback or in a carriage.
In the days of the pilgrims, yea me hearties, and in the day of the pirate out on the high seas, the blunderbuss was often fired by a fuse. Like a shoulder-mounted cannon, it was loaded with a suitable amount of powder and a charge of shot (or a ball) and the fuse touched off.
The word blunderbuss is thought to come from the Dutch donderbus, meaning thunder pipe. Early thunder pipes were decorated with dragons hearkening to the fire-breathing beasts of legend.
After the flintlock came into common use in the late 1700s, the blunderbuss became an even more useful tool.
Cheap to produce with a crude wooden stock and a short, often unfinished barrel, from the dirty streets of London to the mean back alleys of Boston and a lot of places in between, a blunderbuss was a gun for the carriage or the ship, and a defender of home and hearth.
It is a certainty that a lot of Conestogas and Studebaker wagons headed toward Oregon Territory (pronounced Oree-GONE by Missourians that were populating the new frontier) in the 1840s had a flared-muzzle shotgun tucked away inside. These were working guns, for close range self defense or to procure wild poultry like sage hens for the larder.
The Portuguese marines, the British Royal Mail, the Nottingham Police and even the Lewis & Clark expedition used blunderbusses mounted on swivels in the front of their pirogues.
From say 1770 to 1830, the blunderbuss would have been a flintlock and after that, the percussion lock would have been in more evidence. Even into the Civil War, the blunderbuss was still in common use.
Its advantages were it was concealable, did not take up a lot of space in storage and could sweep a swath of deck, a stretch of road or a patch of prairie when necessary, in the hands of a determined man, woman, or child.
The blunderbuss is still a great option for today's muzzleloader. It's the next big thing!
Author & Photos | Gary Lewis
Gary Lewis is host of the TV show Frontier Unlimited and the podcast Ballistic Chronicles. Visit garylewisoutdoors.com