Links to History

My non-shooting friends have asked me, “Why do you like guns so much?” and my answer is that, in addition to getting you out into the fresh air, they link you to history, of which I am also very fond. The Civil War buff who has fired a Springfield rifle musket will appreciate that conflict at a different level than someone who has not. If you’ve fired a .45 Peacemaker, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday, and the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, and a host of others, it will resonate differently.

The most profound experience I've ever had along these lines came in 1967, when I took some of the photographs for a book titled Fired in Anger, by Robert Elman, an arms historian of the first water. It was a history of handguns with famous—and notorious—pasts, and their owners. For one chapter, I had the privilege of photographing the pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel, and got to hold the gun that killed Alexander Hamilton.

The duel took place at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804, between two of the most prominent men in American politics; former Vice President Aaron Burr, and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. There had been bad blood between them for years, and since this was a better and more honorable time in American politics, they decided to shoot each other rather than merely trade insults on the Sunday morning talk shows.

By 1804, dueling was looked upon with disfavor in the northern United States, and you stood a good chance of going to prison if you participated. (In the ante-bellum South, it was wildly popular, and you could get away with a properly conducted duel with little trouble). Dueling was regulated by the Clonmel (Ireland) Code, which was supposed to eliminate chicanery, but since dueling was a matter of life and death, the Code was probably evaded as much as it was honored.

Hamilton and Burr had it out with a set of flintlock duelers made by Wogdon of London, which was one of the best gunsmithing firms of the day. The Wogdons were .56-caliber, making them illegal under the Clonmel Code, which specified .50 as the max. (Perhaps you can follow this logic; I can’t.) They also were fitted with set triggers which, if you knew that the feature was available, would give you an edge. Hamilton, who knew about it, might have used it.

There are few certain facts about the duel. The two men probably stood 10 paces apart. Each man fired. Hamilton missed Burr, but Burr’s shot hit Hamilton above the hip on the right side, and Hamilton died of his wound the next day. There are two versions of what happened. One says that Hamilton fired first, missed Burr, either deliberately or not, and Burr then killed him. The other says that Burr fired first, hitting Hamilton, and Hamilton’s gun went off accidentally, discharging into the ground.

The second version gets some traction because Hamilton, as he lay dying, warned his seconds to unload and uncock his pistol lest someone be shot by it. The story is complicated by the custom of “deloping,” both parties deliberately missing by prearrangement, their honor having been satisfied merely by facing each other. Hamilton, say some, did not want to kill Burr. Burr, by all accounts, most certainly wanted to kill Hamilton. Each man’s seconds, obedient to the Clonmel Code, had his back to the action. This also came in handy in case the duelists should come to trial.

After the duel (which ruined Burr, even though he never faced charges) the owner of the pistols served in the Civil War, and carried the one used by Hamilton as his sidearm. Unfortunately, he had it converted to percussion ignition. The gun that killed Hamilton, however, remains a flintlock. In 1930, the Wogdons were sold (for a reported $2,500) to the Chase Manhattan bank, which owned them at the time I photographed them. There was an armed guard in the room with Bob and myself as I took my pictures, and his hand was on his revolver the whole time.

How does it feel to hold a piece of history? It gives you cold chills.