Civilian American muzzle loading pistols are much rarer than their British and Continental European counterparts and the U.S. martial pistols, especially in the early national period, are very rarely found together as matched pairs despite most were probably made that way. American gun makers more commonly produced rifles and fowling pieces. It appears demand was far less for pistols, and that the demand was largely filled by imported pistols from Europe. That changed as the country delved into the California Gold Rush, westward expansion, and the violent antebellum era as gun makers like Ethan Allen, Henry Deringer, and others began making more pistols for the growing nation.
The relatively few American-made pistols of the era varied somewhat but were often influenced by the fashion trends set by the London gunmakers. Nonetheless, the American pistols tend to have a more folksy, frontier appeal. Like their rifle counterparts, they are often referred to as “Kentucky pistols,” but they were primarily made in other parts of the country.
This percussion pistol pair made by Daniel Searles were converted from flintlock pistols and feature octagonal brass barrels with smooth bores and silver furniture. They were featured on pages 134 and 135 of “The Kentucky Pistol” by Chandler & Whiskerin.
Percussion Pistol Pair
This pair of pistols from the early 1800s features octagonal brass barrels with smooth bores, silver blade front sights, “D Searles Cincinnati” signed on top, and rear sight grooves that continue onto the niter blued tangs which have English style engraving. The locks were originally flintlocks and were likely converted for percussion caps in the 1830s. The locks are signed “Capper/& Co.” Capper & Co. marked locks are also found on other early 19th century American firearms, and the company also imported French swords c. 1800-1812. The furniture is all silver. The trigger guards have floral engraving on the bows and pineapple style finials. Pineapples were all the rage in the period and a sign of luxury. You could even rent them for parties! The stocks also feature engraved silver star inlays, silver wire inlays, and blank silver wrist escutcheons. The stocks have slab sided grips with a slight flare at the pommels similar to many English dueling pistols in the late 18th century.
This pair was made by the famous gunsmith and blacksmith Captain Daniel Searles (1782-1860). These pistols are among the few firearms by Searles known today. Among the others is a rifle owned by Robert Anderson of the U.S. Army, son of first Ohio Governor Richard Clough Anderson Sr. Robert Anderson is most famous as the commander of Fort Sumter as successionists let loose the first cannon volleys of the Civil War. Like these pistols, his rifle had silver mounts (see page 76 of Steel Canvas or The History and Art of the American Gun by R.L. Wilson).
Made by Capt. Daniel Searles, this percussion pistol pair is converted flintlocks and feature engraved silver star inlays, silver wire inlays, and blank silver wrist escutcheons. The stocks have slab sided grips with a slight flare at the pommels similar to many English dueling pistols in the late 18th century.
Searles was born in Maryland but was living at Fort Hamilton by 1804 when he advertised in The Western Spy and Hamilton Gazette for his missing horse. By 1811, he had moved to Indiana and served as a private in Colonel William McFarland’s detatchment of Indiana Militia during the War of 1812. While under the command of McFarland (1773-1845) Daniel met and married his commander’s sister, Jane McFarland (1784-1853).
Daniel and Jane had two children, Charles J. Searles (1811-1854) and daughter Louisa Searles (1813-1830) who are both listed as born in Indiana. Jane’s family had moved to Cincinnati from Pennsylvania led by their father Thomas McFarland (1750-1818), a veteran of 10th Pennsylvania Regiment during the American Revolution, in 1799.
The Battle of New Orleans and Searles’ Percussion Pistol Pair
During the War of 1812, Searles found his way down the Mississippi River, and he fought in the militia with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and then remained in New Orleans until the 1820s when he moved to Baton Rouge and established a gunsmith and blacksmith shop on St. Louis Street. Like Daniel Searles’ family, the McFarlands found their way to Louisiana where Thomas McFarland died a few years later.
Captain Searles won a silver cup as an award for a gun and pair of pistols he made and presented at the Meeting of the Agricultural Association held on December 6, 1841. Census records list him as a gunmaker as well, but local newspapers confirm he was a very talented craftsman and produced a wide variety of metal goods, including sundials. They also indicated he was “one of our oldest and most worthy citizens.”
The silver wire engraving and blank silver wrist escutcheons can be seen in this pair of closeups of this percussion pistol pair.
Tragic Death of a Pistol Maker
While in Baton Rouge, Searles famously produced knives for Rezin Bowie, including one presented by Bowie to Captain Henry Waller Fowler of the U.S. Dragoons (see page 109 of The History and Art of the American Gun). Census records list Searles as a gunmaker, but Captain Searles suffered a fate all too common in the 19th century: the early deaths of his wife and two children. Heaping more grief upon tragedy, Searles’ wife and son died just a few weeks apart in early 1854.
As he grew older, his health failed leaving him largely bedridden, and he became “weary of living” as the Times-Picayune reported. He had previously had his tomb engraved, had a winding sheet ready, shaved, and completed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. His business near the State House in Baton Rouge was taken over by S. Hyatt & Son around June of 1860.
Here is a closeup of the trigger guards from one of a percussion pistol pair that shows pineapple style finials and floral engraving on the bows of these converted flintlocks.
Percussion Pistol Pair and Bowie Knives
Daniel Searles was a craftsman and artisan whose work went beyond the fine pistols he made to include Bowie knives and other metalwork, but his pistols stand alone as nearing art pieces. While most American gun makers of the era were making utilitarian long guns, Searles’ fine pistols were and remain as rarities. This pair of fascinating converted percussion pistols show the fine quality and embellishment that Searles brought to his work. The guns features silver furniture, niter blue drum bolsters and silver star inlays and silver wire inlays in the stock that makes these guns rise above the martial handguns of the day. As a gunsmith, Daniel Searles’ craftsmanship stands the test of time and provides an opportunity and to own the work of an early American artisan.
Daniel Searles was an excellent craftsman who produced a number of goods including sun dials. Though none of his Bowie knives are offered in RIAC’s May Premier Auction he made them for Rezin Bowie, Jim Bowie’s brother, that was displayed at the Alamo where Jim Bowie died. The knife shown above was made by artisan Samuel Bell Coffin that is available in the May auction.
United States War of 1812 Index to Service Records, 1812-1815, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q29K-5BG5 : 8 March 2021), Daniel Searles, 1812-1815; citing NARA microfilm publication M602 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); roll 185; FHL microfilm 882,703.
“United States Census, 1850,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MCJ3-V8S : 22 December 2020), Daniel Searls, Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States; citing family , NARA microfilm publication (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
R.L. Wilson. The History and Art of the American Gun (New York City: Chartwell Books, 2015), p. 76 and 109.
The flintlock pistol pair made by Daniel Searles that were converted to percussion pistols later.
Rock Island Auction Company