The Mayflower transported some 102 passengers and 30 crew across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to the New World in 1620. Among the items these brave souls took with them on their arduous journey were some of the first firearms the world has known.With the Atlantic crossing happening nearly 400 years ago, we don’t have an itemized manifest of what was on board, but the Pilgrim Hall Museum has made some very educated guesses. The infantry of the time was composed of pikemen and musketeers, so an assortment of both edged weapons and firearms would be carried.Pikes would prove to not be very practical in the wooded countryside of America, as the long staves required space to maneuver. More useful would be the swords that cavalry commonly carried. Swords had evolved well past the two-handed models of Braveheart fame by the 1600s, with the more nimble rapier being in favor. Unlike the broadsword, the rapier’s stiff, sharply pointed blade was used primarily for thrusting, not cutting.
But the densely forested settings of the New World were better suited to firearms, which at the time were smoothbore, muzzleloading muskets.
Though rifling had been invented in Augsburg, Germany in 1498, it would not become commonplace in firearms manufacture until much later, simply because the tooling needed to create lands and grooves was too advanced for the time. The process was improved in 1520 by August Kotter, a German armorer from Nuremburg, but it would not be widely adopted until the 19th century.
Ignition systems were also in their infancy during the Pilgrims’ time, with the self-contained metallic cartridge still centuries away. To get spark to powder, these early hand cannons predominantly used matchlock and wheellock mechanisms.
Before the invention of the matchlock, firearms were ignited by applying a lit match to the priming powder by hand. This was a difficult task to accomplish while aiming; sometimes a second individual was enlisted. The matchlock eliminated this by holding a burning slow match (sort of like a fat fuse) in a clamp at the end of a small curved lever, when the trigger was pulled, the match was dropped into the flash pan and ignited the priming powder to fire the gun.
The wheellock is a more advanced system, representing the next major development in technology and the creation of the first self-igniting firearm. A wheellock is a friction mechanism that utilizes a rotating steel wheel to create a spark instead of a burning fuse, which in turn ignites the priming powder in the flash pan and fired the gun. The best explanation of the wheellock’s operation can be found in the Zippo lighter, where a toothed steel wheel is spun in contact with a piece of sparking material to ignite the lighter’s fuel.
Such an ignition system can be found on the Mayflower Gun, a 400-year old Italian-made wheel-lock carbine that crossed with the Pilgrims and was present at the first Thanksgiving. The gun was lost to history until a home renovation in Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1924 uncovered the priceless artifact hidden in a secret compartment next to the front door, where it was probably stashed to be at the ready in the event of an attack.
“Aldens occupied the house from 1653 through 1896,” says Phil Schreier, senior curator for the National Firearms Museum, speaking of the family of John Alden, one of the Pilgrim leaders of Plymouth Colony and signers of the original Mayflower compact, who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. “This home survived nearly 350 years without being ravaged by fire—a common fate of early American residences.”
The rifle is a single-shot originally chambered in .50 caliber, says Schreier, but after years of use, repairs, and modifications, the gun would require a .66-caliber ball. Schreier says there is no doubt this gun was at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony in 1621. It was also undoubtedly used by Alden to hunt (it’s possible that he used it to kill a wild turkey) and to defend the young colony.
If you’d like to see the gun you can visit the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum. The museum’s curators believe this gun is connected to the original Beretta family of armorers because of the markings on its barrel and lockplate, as well as the finely crafted nature of the wheellock mechanism.
It should be noted that the guns carried on the Mayflower were likely not the first firearms in the New World, with that honor belonging to the guns carried by the Spanish Conquistador. Juan Ponce de Leon, who initially ventured to the Americas with Columbus, then led his own expeditions to the Florida peninsula in 1513 and 1521. He carried a long-barreled, musket-like firearm, ignited by a matchlock, on his travels, according to this unbelievably and unnecessarily anti-gun biased NPR article.
The guns were known as “arquebus,” from a Dutch word meaning “hook gun.” Accounts of Hernando DeSoto’s 1539 voyage to Florida refer to “arquebusiers,” or soldiers tasked with manning the matchlocks. As these accounts occur 81 years before the Mayflower reached its destination in 1620, the arquebus was most likely the first firearm to reach America.