Handling a barrel of authenticity

National Firearms Museum gun dates to Pilgrim colony

November 23, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

FAIRFAX, VA. -- Press the smooth, walnut stock against your cheek and squint down the ancient barrel to line up the well-crafted sights. Rest your finger on the surprisingly dainty trigger and hold your breath. Then imagine, as John Alden must have, a wild bird less than 100 yards away at the forest's edge and squeeze off a shot.

Maybe Alden didn't put wild game on the table for that first celebratory feast in 1621. But chances are that as a hired hand for the Pilgrims he did.

And his weapon of choice - and one of the earliest rifles to make it to the New World - sits in a glass case at the National Firearms Museum here.

There are lots of myths surrounding the Mayflower: about Myles Standish's ham-handed courtship of Priscilla Mullens; about Plymouth Rock being the place where the Pilgrims put ashore for their permanent settlement; about Pilgrim attire (forget the black clothes and buckled hats and shoes).

Except for a few diaries written at that time and artifacts dug from the ground, there aren't a great number of items to tie the Pilgrims to the present day, which is what makes Alden's gun remarkable.

"When you think of all the events this gun went through and people it was around, Squanto [the Indian] and Myles Standish - even though he didn't get the girl - it's just a neat old gun," says Doug Wicklund, the National Firearms Museum senior curator.

Guns of that era weren't inscribed with serial numbers, the ironclad proof connecting Alden to the gun. But museum officials say there are a great number of factors that give them confidence of the gun's place in early American history:

First, Alden was hired by the Pilgrims to be their cooper, or barrel maker. He would have been in charge of the Mayflower's drinking water supply and would have been in the first armed party to go ashore to find water and food. Weighing just 6 pounds - much lighter than other guns of its time - the weapon "was meant to shoot game and you could carry it a long time and a long way," says Karin Johnston, assistant curator.

A gun fitting the description of the museum rifle is listed on the ship manifest. Among Alden's possessions at the time of his death in 1687, according to Plimouth Colony probate records, are "two old guns."

The museum was contacted by the Alden family in the mid-1930s, when members found the rifle tucked under the eaves of John Alden's home in Duxbury, Mass., across Plymouth Bay. Tests on the metal and wood place it in the right time period.

"All of it leads you to the conclusion that this was his gun," Wicklund says.

When asked what the Alden gun is worth, Johnston pauses and smiles. "That's the No. 1 question we get," she says. "From a collector's standpoint, there's only one of these."

Although it is a museum piece now, kept in a locked, specially lighted, climate-controlled case, the Alden rifle was put to the test many times.

Originally a .50-caliber gun, it had been fired so much that the barrel was widened to about .66-caliber.

"It used to be a rifle, but now it's almost a smooth bore," Johnston says.

A penlight pointed down the barrel picks up only shadows of the grooves that guided the ball-shaped ammunition and ensured that Alden's shots ran true.

The original stock of walnut was replaced at some point with American walnut.

Wicklund says molds exist to make ammunition, and the barrel of the gun is still strong enough to sustain being fired. The stock, however, might not hold up.

But in its prime, the rifle was capable of delivering an accurate shot to about 150 yards.

"More than enough," says Wicklund with a smile, "to get a turkey."


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