As autumn takes hold in the East of England and summer holiday stays by and with family are over, once again there’s more time for writing. ‘Easter At Netherfield’, my second ‘Pride & Prejudice’ sequel is taking form. As I’ve said before, apart from the main theme, I don’t plan my books very rigorously, but let them develop as characters say surprising things and take unexpected turns. But back to the research for my books.
When writing ‘Intrigue At Longbourn’ which is set at the end of the eighteenth century, one area I had to research was flintlock pistols, their use and loading, since the Reverend Wilde had cause to ride about 130 miles in short stages (to lessen the wear on his horse Bella) and wished to arm himself for protection against possible attack by common thieves, footpads and highwaymen.
I puzzled over how he would carry a pistol on a horse if not about his person. If he kept the pistol in a saddlebag, how would he quickly draw the pistol if the need arose? Holsters attached to a belt worn around the waist of the sort one sees in Wild West movies were never in use in England so far as I could discern. Research on various sites, including a post by a US gun collector on the site americansocietyofarmscollectors.org, revealed the use by English army officers of horse pistols.
The site says: “They were carried in double holsters, slung over the pommel of the saddle, in similar form to those used as late as the Mexican War here. The English saddle having little or no horn, however, meant that the bridge between the holsters was solid, and not opened in the center to accept the horn. These holsters had flaps over the butts of the pistols and straps for attaching, since there was no saddlehorn to hold them. Few have survived, especially with the flaps intact. I imagine it was tricky to extract and fire with one hand while controlling the horse with the other. Re-inserting the fired pistol would have been a twohand job in the best of circumstances, which probably explains both why the flaps were removed and how a lot of pistols got separated from their mates.”
Luckily for him, Mr Wilde had a horse pistol given to him by an older brother who had fought in the American Revolutionary War which he took with him, holstered on one side of a double holster strapped to his saddle.
PD James, the author of the renowned ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’, in a Radio Times interview of 2013 expressed surprise at how the many relatively small matters, like the kind of gun used and how it could be fired and re-loaded, could take such time to research. I found the same. Flintlock pistols of the period did not come with pre-manufactured bullets, though some gun-users made up a twist of paper containing the powder and sometimes a ball. But the package still had to be opened, the powder emptied into the muzzle and the ball and paper inserted, the paper acting as wadding, then the charge rammed home.
The pistols required two different forms of gunpowder, that is a finer priming powder for the pan, and a coarser standard powder for the main charge, necessitating two containers, a main flask and a smaller priming flask. Loading the gun involved emptying the powder for the main charge into the muzzle, inserting the ball and wadding, and then ramming home the charge. The pistols came with a ram rod in a receptacle attached to the barrel. It was safer not to load the priming powder until the gun was to be fired, or else the gun could go off accidentally.
Clearly, these pistols would have been cumbersome and slow to use in a combat situation.
In ‘Intrigue At Longbourn’, Mr Wilde was obliged to enter a factory building at the end of his outward journey and did not wish to enter the building unarmed. He therefore withdrew his pistol from the holster and thrust it into his belt, a move not without its risks in case the pistol went off accidentally for it was already loaded. His powder flasks and other balls were in a pocket. He pulled his coat tightly round his front, fastening it with a button in an effort to keep it closed to hide the pistol and the pouch. He wanted the pistol with him in case of trouble but didn’t want it on open display.
I watched a really useful You Tube video of the loading and firing of such a pistol, showing the priming powder being poured into the pan, a quite delicate operation of an exact amount of powder. The short video showed quite clearly the flash as the priming powder exploded after the trigger had been pulled and then a short delay of several seconds before the main charge was ignited and the loud bang as the ball was fired. As above, the tricky operation of pouring gunpowder into the small pan and the delay in the weapon firing the ball would have been exceedingly awkward in a combat situation.
The photo attached actually shows duelling pistols. The article of Lynn M Charault posted on the site americansocietyofarmscollectors.org includes some good photos of horse pistols: https://americansocietyofarmscollectors.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2003-B87-English-Officers-Holster-Pistols-of-the-.pdf
Sometimes, the priming powder in the pan would ignite but fail to set off the main charge so that the gun would not go off, giving rise to the idiom ‘a flash in the pan’!
As usual, a considerable amount of research led to just a few sentences in the book itself.