In the fall of 1620, a 100-foot long ship loaded with 101 passengers and 29 crewmen anchored off the coast of what was to become Plymouth, Mass. after a harrowing journey across the North Atlantic in hopes of building a new life in a new world.
Two people had already died en route, many were ill and nearly half would be dead within a year.
You need only look at a map of this week’s weather for New England to understand these settlers had arrived at a bad time of year to found a colony, but one of the heroes of the expedition was an extraordinary young man who left us an extraordinary piece of firearm history.
John Alden wasn’t a pilgrim.
Estimated to be around 20 years old at the time the Mayflower arrived off Plymouth Rock, Alden was the ship’s cooper — a barrel maker and apparently a rugged and resourceful individual. Rather than return to England, Alden signed the Mayflower Compact and became an official member of the pilgrim expedition.
He married, had 10 children and built a home in 1653. It was undergoing restoration in 1924 when a secret compartment near the front door was discovered.
Inside was a firearm Alden had in his possession when he and the pilgrims first landed in the New World nearly 300 years earlier.
Alden’s descendants eventually donated the gun to the National Rifle Association Museum.
There was a lot of firearm innovation underway around 1600.
The matchlock musket was the prevalent firearm through most of the 1500s in Europe and the design left much to be desired.
Powder and ball or shot were loaded down the barrel and the firing system consistent of a slow-burning punk-type fuse that lowered to touch off an ignition charge that subsequently set off the main charge in the barrel and sent the projectile on its way.
At 12 to 15+ pounds these long guns were heavy, unwieldy, had little hope of hitting a deer-sized target beyond 50 yards consistently.
They often were serviced by a two-man crew that fired the gun off a monopod rest.
Matchlocks were prone to failure in damp weather and gave enemy archers something to shoot at in the dark as the matchlock fuses glowed like lit cigarettes.
The search for a better gun led to the wheellock, one which is thought by some to have been invented by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
The gun John Alden brought ashore with the pilgrims was such a weapon.
Alden’s gun was unique in several respects. It was a carbine, making it lighter than a matchlock musket and easier to handle in brush or close quarters.
The wheellock firing mechanism was complicated. It had a spring-loaded wheel to produce the main ignition spark, making it more resistant to damp weather and the first firearm a person could carry concealed under clothing.
Alden’s barrel was rifled and chambered in .66 caliber, which would have afforded him greater accuracy than more prevalent smoothbore guns at the time, and provided plenty of knockdown power for taking big game.
The gun at the NRA museum shows ample evidence of care and maintenance over time, which was essential with wheellock guns because of the number of parts involved in their firing mechanisms. That complexity led to the down demise of the wheellock design in favor of simpler emerging flintlock technology, early models of which were called snaphaunces.
Historical evidence shows an assortment of firearms came across the sea with the pilgrims.
Most were smoothbore muskets or fowling pieces along with a few snaphaunces (early flintlocks), perhaps a few pistols and two or three wheellocks of which one was Alden’s.
There’s no evidence of the blunderbuss typically depicted with pilgrims.
The blunderbuss was an early short-barreled shotgun one could load with rocks, scrap metal, sand or anything put down the flared, funnel-shaped muzzle.
Its use became widespread across Europe in the mid-1600s but only a few found their way to the New World.
The pilgrims arrived with an assortment of obsolete, ineffective firearms but at least one man with them carried what would have been the AR-15 of his time and it likely put meat on the first Thanksgiving table.
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