The Legend of a Trade Gun

By Chuck Hawks

Note: Although this story is basically speculation (read "fiction"), the gun described does exist. The places mentioned are real, and the descriptions of French Guiana are generally accurate. Bob Fleck, Jim Fleck and I are real people.

Guns and Shooting Online Technical Assistant Bob Fleck couldn't pass up a rusty old .45 caliber percussion musket that he saw at a flea market. The seller said that the gun had come from French Guiana, a 33rd world (or lower) colony best known for the infamous prison just off the coast on Devil's Island. Real French culture in the New World!

Bob enlisted me and his brother Jim to help him inspect the gun. The rust encrusted, side hammer relic had a 39" barrel and a chipped and weathered walnut half-stock. Some time in its past someone had fabricated a rubber butt pad cut from a bias ply tire and fastened it to the end of the stock with finishing nails.

Upon closer inspection we could see a crude, stamped "engraved" border on the lock plate and trigger guard, plus three stamped sunburst designs (one of which was seriously off-center). The execution of this embellishment could have been done better by a careful 6th grader.

The bead front sight was long gone and the thin-walled barrel appears to have been fabricated from mild steel. The relic's shape was slender and elegant, but the materials and workmanship were terrible. If there was ever a maker's name or trade name, it had long since rusted away. This is the remains of a weapon, a "trade gun," that shall forever molder in anonymity.

But surely, as Bob, Jim and I decided in a local coffeehouse over 20 ounce cups of Java, such a gun must have a story. Being the only gun writer available, it was left to me to piece together the legend. So I did . . ..

Sometime after 1875 an unscrupulous French trader sailed the coastal waters of Guiana. The Western border of French Guiana is marked by the River Maroni, which separates French Guiana from neighboring Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). This jungle waterway flows down from the Guiana Highlands, through forested sand and clay hills, to the alluvial coastline.

The town of Saint-Laurent is on the Maroni, a few miles up river from the coast. Saint-Laurent is the jumping off point for those traveling farther upriver into what was, in the 19th Century, the domain of primitive Indian tribes. Like all of the major rivers in the Guianas, bars and waterfalls block ship navigation up the Maroni.

It was at Saint-Laurent that our trader, whom we will call Francois, put in to re-provision his chartered trading schooner. Francois had disposed of most of his trade goods to the east, between the mouth of the mighty Amazon River and what was even then the fearsome Devil's Island. Remaining in the schooner's hold were some inexpensive hatchets, knives, blankets and glass bead jewelry. Along with these, and of particular interest to our story, were a small number of cheap, home made, percussion muskets along with a modest quantity of caps, powder, lead balls and shot.

The voyage had not been as profitable as Francois had hoped. It seems that earlier traders had skimmed off the best of the merger possessions amassed by the primitive inhabitants of this part of the world. Here, in the sweltering heat approximately 5 degrees above the equator, there were no precious gems or valuable resources to be found, but sometimes gold was washed down from the distant Guiana Highlands, to be collected by the natives and sold or traded.

The colony of French Guiana was (and is) a tropical land of mosquitoes, malaria and poverty. A land barely touched by civilization, and then only in the towns along the coast. Only gold, primitive art objects, caymen skins, jaguar pelts and the occasional "curiosity" had any commercial value to European traders or their merchants back in France. The meager haul from this voyage had included no gold and would barely pay for the trade goods and the charter of the schooner, leaving precious little for Francois himself.

This final stop at Saint-Laurent for provisions, before the long sail North to Martinique and then the longer passage East to France, offered a final opportunity to dispose of the remaining trade goods. It was here that Francois learned that, just possibly, an opportunity to make a nice profit might be found upriver.

It seems that another European, shaken and eager to depart Guiana, had stumbled into Saint-Laurent. He had recently run into a tribe of savages upriver, living in the wide band of jungle between the coast and the highlands, and felt lucky to have escaped alive. These people (allegedly) occasionally murdered Indians from other tribes, but had considerable respect for Europeans and their firearms. Sometimes they would trade nuggets of gold and bizarre curiosities for weapons and blankets, but sometimes they would fall on intruders and simply take what they wanted. Among the "curiosities" were rumored to be the bleached skulls of enemies, carved bones, scalps, and preserved and shriveled heads.

Francois knew that such oddities could be sold to collectors back in France for a healthy sum. The trip upriver would take perhaps two weeks, time well spent if it transformed this money-losing voyage into a profitable venture.

Accordingly, two days later Francois, four of his crew and five native paddler/guides departed upriver in five canoes laden with provisions and the last of the trade goods. Among these was a certain smooth bore musket with a half stock, crude lockwork and a barrel tube so thin as to make the gun more hazardous to the shooter than the target.

The European members of the party carried several modern cartridge revolvers and two single shot cartridge rifles for their personal protection. A sidelock muzzleloading musket that strongly resembled the trade guns but was more stoutly constructed was to serve as a demonstration gun. This would be used to show the natives how to load and fire the trade guns, without actually having to shoot one of those inferior weapons, a classic bait and switch sales technique.

Francois and his party did make contact with the right tribe upriver and the remaining blankets, trade guns, powder, shot, percussion caps and other goods were unloaded in exchange for a small but respectable amount of gold, a good haul of skins, carved icons and a couple of "curiosities." (One of which can be viewed today in a well-known Parisian museum of natural history.) Francois and his crew successfully avoided becoming an entree on the local dinner menu, returned safely to Saint-Laurent and set sail for Martinique and out of this story.

The trade gun that concerns us wound up in the possession of a tribal medicine man, along with a small quantity of powder, shot, a couple of balls and a half dozen musket caps. This particular smoothbore gun had been cobbled together from parts of other guns by a French settler who died of malaria during his second year in Guiana.

The medicine man attempted to load a single .45 caliber ball, rather than the recommended light shot charge, and found that the field ramrod that came with the rifle was too flimsy to fully seat the ball. He found, trimmed and peeled with his knife an almost straight stick (actually a section of pithy reed--remember we are talking jungle river here) and fashioned a home made ramrod. Unfortunately, this broke when he put a bit too much pressure on it and the slightly bowed lower section lodged in the barrel.

In desperation he placed cap after cap on the nipple, as he had been shown how to do, and tried to shoot the stuck ball and broken stick out of the barrel. Fortunately, the humidity had affected the black powder and the gun refused to fire, no doubt saving him some fingers (at a minimum).

Once the caps were gone, all hope of clearing the barrel died and the trade gun was propped in a corner of the man's hut, where it became part of his "medicine." Secretly he realized that he had been ripped-off by the French trader, but no mention was ever made of this. And no attempt was ever again made to fire the gun.

Uncleaned and unprotected from the humid climate, a patina of rust soon covered the trade gun. After the passing of the old medicine man it became the property of his son, and in turn his son, but since it could not be fired it was by then ignored and all but forgotten.

Ultimately the old gun passed through several hands, was nearly consumed by rust and became a curio. Some enterprising tourist eventually brought it to the U.S. and it wound up in the flea market where Bob discovered it.

In all its long life the old gun had never been fired, had done no one any good, and had been traded or sold at a profit only twice: once by Francois when he put one over on the medicine man and the second time by the guy who sold it to Bob for the princely sum of $65. Still, it came with the makings of a colorful story . . ..

Postscript: The broken section of reed stick was still in the barrel when Bob bought the gun and was removed by him. The stuck ball is still down there, frozen in place by time and rust. Bob flooded the barrel and nipple with penetrating oil to insure that under no circumstances can the remnants of the ancient powder be ignited. The trigger and hammer still move and work after a fashion. The mainspring is still in place, but lacks the power to force the hammer all the way down to the nipple.

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.