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

[A PERSONAL NOTE: My middle name happens to be Wheelock, as in “Gerard Wheelock Van der Leun.” This is a family tradition from my mother’s side of the family which is descended from Ralph Wheelock, our own original Puritan, and a member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636, 6 years after the settlement of Boston, and at the peak of the “Great Migration”. (Yes, we’ve been in America for that long. And yes, my mother’s mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.)  Ralph Wheelock most likely used one of these name-sake carbines.]

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 Alden 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 Guns.com 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 Guns.com HT: The Incredible Story Of The Mayflower Gun @ Waznmentobe

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • charles November 23, 2017, 3:07 AM

    Thank you. I had never heard of this gun.

  • ghostsniper November 23, 2017, 4:43 AM

    In the 18th century the musket was the “assault weapon” of the time, and it had a bayonet mount but not “that thing that goes up”.

  • Joel November 23, 2017, 8:48 AM

    What a great topic for a Thanksgiving post. Thank you.

  • John the River November 22, 2018, 5:46 AM

    Happy Thanksgiving Gerald and to all.

  • MMinLamesa November 22, 2018, 6:11 AM

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving Gerard. Mom too!

  • Hangtown Bob November 22, 2018, 8:40 AM

    Having just read this and having just met your beloved mother, Lois, I feel that I now have a slight personal and rather tenuous relationship with the first Thanksgiving.

    Thank you, Gerard Wheelock Van Der Leun

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours…….

  • Snakepit Kansas November 22, 2018, 8:41 AM


  • Terry November 22, 2018, 9:36 AM

    Great piece of American history. Thank you for posting.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Soylent Green November 22, 2018, 10:18 AM

    Gerard, I am a descendent of John Howland, another Separatist who traveled with John Alden and perhaps knew your ancestor Ralph Wheelock. It’s a small world… Happy Thanksgiving to you.

  • Aldo Cella November 23, 2018, 4:42 PM

    My ancestor George Soule was a signer of the Mayflower Compact and of course attended the original Thanksgiving feast. I have no doubt that very wheelock was in his hands a time or two!
    And yes, my grandmother also was, and my mother is, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

    Happy Thanksgiving Gerard! (and to the rest of the usual suspects, too!)

  • Rob De Witt November 23, 2018, 8:05 PM


    Thanks to a Mormon lady friend, and despite having lived my life as an orphan, I discovered at age 70 that there were De Witts, my forebears, born in Nieuw Amsterdam in the very early 1600s. The Mayflower arrived in 1620, the Dutch sold Nieuw Amsterdam to the English in 1667, and thereafter it was known as New York.

    You and I were both born in 1945, in vastly different circumstances; and yet, here we find ourselves.

    Thank you for everything, and a blessed Thanksgiving.

  • Terry November 28, 2019, 9:33 AM

    Gerard & Rob. You can add me to the born in 1945 club. I also am a descendant of a man by the name of Hunt (my last name as well) that had “dealings” with Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas story fame).

    My family had all sorts of letters and such going back to 1606 at Jamestown. A cousin of mine has supposedly taken possession of all the records of the family. She won’t communicate with me.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

  • Mark Gowen November 29, 2019, 6:41 AM

    Just when I thought you couldn’t get any cooler. Wheelock. I continue to be impressed. (Not sarcasm). My favorite daily read.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Anne November 25, 2020, 8:56 AM

    Dear Gerard:
    I am so thankful for this gift you give daily. It is the sweetest moment of my day and helps me to try to hold on to grace.
    Thank you,
    P.S. Would you please clarify: I was of the impression that your mom has passed away. Is this correct?

  • EX-Californian Pete November 25, 2020, 9:31 AM

    GREAT article to start off the Thanksgiving holiday!
    You’ve probably already guessed that I’m a “Gun Nut” and collector, and I really love reading about historic and antique weapons that are part of our rich heritage. This website just gets better every day.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  • Auntie Analogue November 25, 2020, 10:20 AM

    Happy Thanksgiving, All! May you keep your powder dry and your bird moist.

  • Vanderleun November 25, 2020, 10:39 AM

    Yes, Anne, my mother passed away two years ago.

  • ghostsniper November 26, 2020, 4:36 AM

    Been 2 years already? Holy Kow!
    Is it me, or does it seem this thing called time is flying past at the speed of light?
    Been almost 2 years (Feb) since my youngest brother died from a heart attack and I still can’t believe it.

  • Snakepit Kansas November 26, 2020, 5:22 AM

    Dad has been gone for just over a year now. We all had a snort of his favorite Scotch on his birthday this past summer in honor of his memory. We will have some words honoring him at dinner time today. There is still very much to be thankful for including the memories. Happy Thanksgiving all!

  • Kevin in PA November 26, 2020, 8:16 AM

    Happy Thanksgiving to all AD friends!
    We have much for which to be thankful, in spite of the shit-storm 2020 has been.

    Gerard, what a terrific share from those folks at ammo.com. They have been posting some great stuff in recent months and your connection to the “Wheelock” adds nice flavor to the story.

  • Elder Son November 26, 2020, 11:17 AM

    My 10th Great-Grandfather/mother is William White and his wife Susanna Jackson (White). Their son, my 9th Great-Grandfather/mother Peregrine White and his wife Sarah Basset (White), he was the first English child to be born to the Pilgrims, was one year and 4 months when the Settlers and Wampanoag Indians shared the autumn harvest. And to that, I am grateful.

    Son of the Pilgrims. Son of the Indian Wars. Son of the American Revolution. Son of the Civil War.

    Joe Biden: Forgo Your Traditions White Man: https://magaville.wordpress.com/2020/11/26/joe-biden-forgo-your-traditions-white-man/

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