Beauty can be found in many things but few can match the artistry of this flintlock pistol. Made by gunmaker Robert Johnson in 1842, this US Model 1836 martial pistol is a testament to a gunmaker that probably did more for American manufacturing than history will ever give him credit for. To really understand this pistol’s significance, we’ll need to step back a bit.
The gun I’m featuring today represents the end of a great era. The M1836 pistol would be the last flintlock pistol that the American military would commission. The development of fulminate-charged primers spelled a quick death for the flintlock, which had been in existence since about the 16th century. Percussion caps were far easier to use, far more reliable, and they were much more resilient to rain and snow and all of the other adverse conditions that a soldier might have to endure.
Flintlocks, on the other hand, were a remarkable adaption of stone-age technology. The principle is simple: rub a piece of flint against a piece of steel to get sparks. The flint wears off tiny fragments of steel, whose pyrophoricity (their tendency to heat up as they rapidly oxidize) is used to ignite some gunpowder held in a pan. It’s the mechanical equivalent of using a steel and flint fire starter to get a campfire burning—only in this case, it is ingeniously used to combust gunpowder inside of a firearm.
The astute reader will note that Colt also patented his revolver in 1836. This, of course, set off a cataclysmic series of changes in the gun making world, not the least of which was the nearly wholesale abandonment of guns based on the old lock / (wooden) stock / barrel design pattern. But change comes slowly to the military, and even in 1842 when this gun was made, the military was sticking to tried-and-trued flintlock technology.
Robert Johnson’s earliest years are shrouded in mystery. He was born in either England or Connecticut in or around 1780. He is listed in the 1810 Federal Census as living in Middletown with what I assume was his wife and children (and either some extended family members, or some lodgers). He had succeeded a successful local merchant in the dry goods business, which was probably how he funded his initial ventures into gun making. Johnson lived a short distance from one of the best known gunmakers of the time, Simeon North, and it’s a near certainty that North influenced Johnson’s decision to shift his business interests from dry goods to guns.
In 1812 Johnson posted an ad in a local newspaper warning all of his debtors to “pay immediate attention to the settlement of the same they will be obliged to settle with an attorney.” What Johnson was raising money for wasn’t documented verbatim, but it doesn’t take a lot of speculation to figure it out.
Middletown, like many towns along the Connecticut River, was a hive of mechanical innovation during this era. How it became the Silicon Valley of the 19th century has been debated by academics for decades, but it was likely a combination of its proximity to the river (a key energy source), the influence of well-educated cities like Boston, the presence of capitalists looking to invest in new businesses, and the high social value given to innovation and entrepreneurialism during the early republic years—even among the state’s rural citizenry. Of course, the placement of the United States Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts also gave the local gun industry a tremendous boost. The armory’s inability to meet the demand for martial weapons made it natural for private manufactories to step in.
Simeon North was the best-known private arms contractor to the US government, but Robert Johnson and his brother John D. Johnson were also making plans to capitalize on this growing need for weapons. Like North, the Johnson brothers understood that the volume of weapons needed by the military could be best achieve through the mechanization of manufacturing. Since they were getting paid per weapon, these shrewd Yankees quickly figured out that lowering their production costs would raise their profits. In fact, Johnson may have served as an inspector in North’s shop; an apprenticeship of sorts, where Johnson would have undoubtedly came up with his own ideas about how
Another cultural phenomenon that’s important to mention here is the distinction between the “old world” apprentice system and the “American system of manufacturing.” In the apprentice system, those that wanted to enter the trade would engage in lengthy apprenticeships with a master, where the skills and secrets of the trade would be taught in a practical, hands-on manner. The young apprentice would start with the most menial tasks, and would work his way up to being a journeyman (skilled, but not yet outstanding), and eventually to being a master of his trade. In fact, the term “masterpiece” comes from this labor model; that was the work product that an apprentice would produce to demonstrate his mastery in the trade. It was only when the “masterpiece” was accepted by his peers that his mastery of the art would be recognized.
Johnson, like some of his other forward-looking contemporaries, understood that the old apprentice system was not the most efficient use of labor. Teaching an apprentice to hand-file a lock plate was itself labor and time intensive, and a machine that could do much of this work would shave many hours off of the manufacturing process—and could probably be done by someone with far less skill.
Several decades before the term “American system of manufacturing” would ever cross anyone’s lips, Robert Johnson was one of a handful of mechanics that was laying the foundation for modern mass-production. He was one of the mechanics that help develop the milling machine—which, despite Eli Whitney’s claims, was not the invention of one person.
What makes this particular pistol so remarkable is that it was made at the intersection of so many competing forces. Its side plate shows clear evidence of having been cut by a machine, but the final fitment was still being done by hand. Parts were somewhat interchangeable with other M1836 pistols of the era, but only to a certain degree. The gun’s design shows a high degree of refinement, but it was a relic next to the svelte lines of the Colt revolver that would quickly eclipse these wood stocked pistols.
In 1845 a copartnership between George Persons, Linus Burr, and Peter Bennett took over Robert Johnson’s business, after which he undoubtedly settled down to enjoy his retirement.
Robert Johnson died on October 30, 1860, and he was buried in the Mortimer Cemetery in Middletown, CT.