November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving’s First Rifle: The Mayflower Wheel-lock Carbine


Story by: Kristin Alberts

What’s even more American than turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie these days? An Italian gun, that’s what. The only known surviving firearm that crossed the wild Atlantic aboard the good ship Mayflower, settled with the pilgrims at Plymouth Colony and ultimately helped the first colonists not only survive, but prosper. Meet the Mayflower Gun.

The Gun

Affectionately dubbed the Mayflower Gun and thought of as an American icon, the gun is actually an Italian-made wheel-lock carbine. This single-shot musket was originally chambered in .50 caliber rifle, though ages of heavy use have worn away the majority of the rifling. Given the combination of natural wear, repairs and modifications, if the gun were to be loaded and fired today, it would require a .66 caliber.

According to curators at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum—where the gun has found a most comfortable home—markings recorded on both the barrel and lockplate demonstrate a connection with the Beretta family of armorers.

One of the features making this musket instantly recognizable is its namesake. The surviving detail of the actual wheel-lock device—the rotating mechanism, which provides spark and ignition, not unlike that of our modern day cigarette lighters—is a thing of fine craftsmanship and beauty. The wheel-lock’s engineering, execution and efficacy far exceed those of its predecessor, the matchlock.

The man: John Alden

Without the adventuresome spirit of one young man with an eye for quality arms, the Mayflower Gun would not be a part of our American history today. Enter, John Alden. Alden was around 20 to 21 years of age at the ship’s departure. However, his original intent was never really to set sail. John AldenHe was simply hired as a ships cooper—a barrel maker by trade—at the yard where ships docked. But being a young man with much hope and courage, he decided to board the Mayflower for its daunting passage. Sometime near debarkation, it is speculated that Alden purchased the firearm used, perhaps from a traveler or mercenary as was common in those days. Of the guns widely available at that time, this was one of the finest and most expensive, so certainly young Alden was wise beyond his years.

Following an arduous three-month winter passage at sea, battered by the north Atlantic’s gales, the Mayflower reached its destination in 1620. History recognizes John Alden as the first man to step ashore, and when Alden’s feet hit terra firma, this gun was most likely his sole means of protection. Though the early years at the new settlement were marked with many tribulations, Alden prospered. Along with the other men who made the passage, he was one of the signatories of the Mayflower Compact, documenting the freedoms and liberties of the new colony. Among his many ventures, Alden is remembered for his service under Capt. Miles Standish, with whom he is rumored to rivaled over the courtship of the woman who eventually became Alden’s wife.

Part of this story is recounted in Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Between the years 1633 to 1675, Alden served not only as assistant governor of the Plymouth Colony, but often, due to absence, fulfilled governor duties. He was known to have served on many juries including participation in at least one witch trial. Through all this time, including a move inland and away from the original colony, the Mayflower Gun remained in Alden’s possession. At the time of his death in 1687, the gun began its long succession of Alden family ownership.

The History

The Alden family dwelling, like the gun, has survived for nearly 400 years. The Mayflower gun was discovered—still loaded, nonetheless—in a secret protective cubbyhole near the front door of the home during a 1924 renovation. The Alden home, which was occupied by family members until the mid-1890’s, is currently a National Historic Landmark in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Though it is certain that other settlers would have carried similar arms, this is indeed the only known surviving piece, likely because it was tucked away and forgotten after its years of service had ended.

Because the gun was something of a large caliber at the time, it would likely have been used to take down deer and other large game as well as birds—perhaps even a Thanksgiving longbeard. Naturally, the original stock was fashioned of fine European walnut, though sometime in the gun’s history, a worn portion of the front stock was replaced with American walnut. There is great beauty in the wear patterns of the wood, simply for knowing the many hands and circumstances that have handled this weapon. The Mayflower Gun is currently on display at the NRA Museum.Oh, the stories it could tell of game hunted, lives taken and families saved! This tool was at once a protector and a provider. In fact, the Mayflower Gun may well have been present—or at least played a role—at the 1621 birth of the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today. The gun, in fact, is one of the few surviving pieces known to have made the trip aboard the Mayflower.

On Display

Those near Fairfax, Virginia can visit this amazing and well-traveled weapon at its home in the NRA’s National Firearms Museum. It is currently being featured on display as part of the “Old Guns in a New World” gallery, an exhibit in which firearms bridge the gap between the Old World and the new colonies. In addition to this one, the Museum is home to 14 other galleries housing more than 2,700 firearms of remarkable significance. Admission is free and the museum is open daily. For those interested in learning more without making a physical visit, detailed virtual tours are easily navigated at their website.

In Thanksgiving

Nearly 400 years have passed since the Mayflower Gun traversed the Atlantic to forever become a priceless, tangible slice of American history. In the spirit of Thanksgiving celebration, the time is right to remember not only all those who came before us, but also the hardships they faced to get us where we are today. In reminiscing on this beautiful Mayflower Gun, we here at are thankful for our first amendment freedoms. So with a nod of the clichéd black pilgrim hats, take some special time this holiday to enjoy family, friends, freedoms and of course, firearms.

From Gun News at HT: The Incredible Story Of The Mayflower Gun @ Waznmentobe

Posted by gerardvanderleun at November 26, 2015 12:29 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Simply marvelous.

Posted by: ghostsniper at November 26, 2015 2:15 PM

Did I mention that my full name is Gerard Wheelock Van der Leun?

Posted by: vanderleun at November 26, 2015 3:33 PM

Did I mention that my full name is Gerard Wheelock Van der Leun?

Is that true, or are you woofin? If true, way to go Gerard's parents. Us Dutchies are powerfully American, all right. I discovered a couple of years ago, through the agency of a Mormon woman, that my earliest American ancestor was born in the year 1600 in what would become known as New Amsterdam, in 1667 to be renamed New York.

So much for "we're all immigrants here," huh?

Posted by: Rob De Witt at November 26, 2015 6:08 PM

I worked with John Alden back in the late 80's. He was a direct descendant of the Mayflower John Alden. It was curious how we would have company meetings at Longfellow's in Saratoga, NY.

Posted by: sTevo at November 27, 2015 5:29 AM

Great article and absolute proof that firearms are a huge part of American heritage. And, imagine that; it's a Beretta!!

Posted by: Jack at November 27, 2015 7:13 AM

It had rifling? Amazing if true.

Posted by: Frisco Scooter Trash at November 27, 2015 7:33 AM

Yup..... Named Wheelock after the Wheelock-Whitney branch of the Massachusetts Bay Colony courtesy original American ancestor, Ralph Wheelock.

Ralph Wheelock - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The family sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636, 6 years after the settlement of Boston, and at the peak of the "Great Migration".[6] Ralph's wife, Rebecca, reported gave birth to their daughter, Peregrina, on the voyage. He and his family settled in Watertown, Massachusetts upon arrival. After moving to the town of Dedham, which Wheelock had a major role in establishing, children Benjamin, Samuel, Record, and Experience were born. The family lived there for over a decade.
In 1651 Wheelock and his family moved to Medfield, Massachusetts, which he founded and where he spent the remaining 32 years of his life. Eleazar Wheelock was born to Ralph and Rebecca at Medfield. One of Eleazar's grandchildren, also named Eleazar, would go on to become the founder of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Posted by: vanderleun at November 27, 2015 9:37 AM

I found the fact that it was a rifle interesting also. Some high-end sporting arms had rifling back then; it was much less common for military weapons to be rifled, since in the wheelock and early flintlock eras, rifle balls were usually slightly bigger than the bore, and wedged down the barrel with mallet to get the proper seal. This made them too slow for all but a few specialist units of an army, which could get a much higher rate of fire with smoothbore muskets, but acceptable for a hunter, who could take advantage of the greater accuracy. (The greased patch was a later innovation that allowed the use of a smaller ball in a rifle, and a better rate of fire). The Alden gun is a beautiful firearm, though.

Posted by: waltj at November 27, 2015 10:16 AM