A Short History of Scottish Firearms, Part I: Scottish Steel Pistols

By Eric McCracken of Wainwright, amateur historian and student of arms, for the Flagstaff Scottish Club, Sedgwick Alta.

Most people with an understanding of, or an interest in Scottish history and material culture know that Scotland has always developed quite uniquely from other European cultures; this unique development is well reflected in many different areas. The evolution of the kilt and Highland garb distinctly from English and European ‘trousered’ attire, and the development of piping and Piobaireachd instead of the continental classical music tradition, are probably the two most obvious examples. One aspect of Scottish history that is less commonly covered is the interesting development, mainly through the 17th and 18th centuries, of uniquely Scottish firearms.

In order to understand Scottish firearms history, one must first have an understanding of the broader historical context.

1. Early days:

The first European and Asian firearms were usually based around

shoving a burning match into the gunpowder to set it off, either by hand or with the matchlock system. This was somewhat dangerous, prone to causing burns and starting fires, as well as many other shortfalls. The German wheel-lock system (similar in premise to a modern cigarette lighter) alleviated some of these issues in the 1530s, but was never widely adopted due to its relative expense, complexity, and fragility.

2. Snaphaunce:

This is the first lock system that underwent unique

development in Scotland, namely the use of the “Highland lock” variant. It was invented around the 1550s and was quickly adopted through most of Europe, and in Scotland and Sweden, this system was popular well past it’s obsolescence. A precursor to the ‘true’ French flintlock, the snaphaunce had a springloaded hammer, actuated by the trigger, which struck a flint against a case-hardened battery (a steel striker.) This fired a spark into the flashpan, which had a separate cover for the gunpowder.

  • The Highland lock was a slightly different type of lock mechanism with a lateral sear to hold the cock in a half- or fully- cocked position, serving a similar purpose to the English doglock catch but in a more innovative fashion. The Highland lock was usually (but not always) used on Scottish pistols during both the Snaphaunce and Flintlock eras, but was abandoned by the advent of the percussion system. (Modern reproductions exclusively use French style tumblers, and omit the Highland lock.)

3. The true flintlock:

An evolution of the snaphaunce originating in

France, this gunlock combined the pan-cover and the battery (now called a frizzen) into one sleek, springloaded mechanism. The hammer now had a half-cock and full-cock positions as a safety feature--the pan could be loaded with the hammer at half cock, so that it wouldn’t fire until fully cocked. This was popular from the mid 1600s into the 1820s.

4. Percussion cap:

Invented around 1820, the percussion cap

system involved an explosive filled primer, called a cap, which was loaded onto a nipple. The hammer struck the cap, blasting a small flame through the nipple into the gunpowder in the barrel. This system was more consistent, powerful, safe, and waterproof than any previous system, also being more compact and streamlined. Caplocks were used broadly until the development of modern breechloading and repeating rifles in the 1860s.

There were essentially two particularly unique Scottish firearms: the Scottish snaphaunce musket, also called the Scottish National longarm, and the Scottish steel pistol (often called a silver pistol, though the use of steel was much more common). Only 28 original Scottish muskets still exist today; the majority were presumably destroyed during the English gun control regimes following the failed 1715 and 1745 rebellions. Many more pistols survived, as they were easier to conceal, and the government was more lenient with the rich Scots and military officers who preferred the steel pistol. After the putting down of the Jacobite Rising in 1745, these pistols continued to be made, both privately and on Government contract for the officers and men of Highland regiments in the British Army, contributing to the pistols’ continuing popularity; alas these regiments’ longarms were the standard “Brown Bess” musket, hence the total demise of the Scottish musket design.

The Scottish steel pistol was supposedly invented by Thomas Caddell around 1680. Caddell

was a Flemish blacksmith who settled in the village of Doune, Perthshire in 1645. There was a hardwood shortage in Scotland at that time (most walnut being imported from England) therefore Doune decided to use a steel stock for his pistols instead of walnut or other hardwood. They became quite popular in Scotland, and many makers copied his style, including most famously Murdoch and Campbell. To this day, Scottish steel pistols are sometimes called Doune pistols or Murdoch pistols.

The vast majority of these pistols were profusely engraved all throughout, often with traditional thistle or floral schemes (labour was cheap and materials were expensive!). Caddell’s business was maintained through five generations, including four generations of men named Thomas Caddell.

Early steel pistols consistently used the snaphaunce lock, despite the true flintlock having been invented decades earlier in France. As with in Sweden, the snaphaunce remained popular in Scotland long after its relative obsolescence. The exact reason for this is unknown.

The steel pistols had a few more innovative features, including a vent-hole pick that plugged into the bottom of the stock. This pick could be pulled out and used to clean the vent-hole

and the pan. (Or the nipple on later percussion pistols, although they sometimes omitted the vent-pick in favour of a compartment to hold spare caps). Scottish pistols also always lacked a trigger guard, and had a round ball for a trigger; supposedly this was due to expedite drawing and firing. The same reason is given for the rather unusual stock shapes. Scottish snaphaunces can also be distinguished by usually having had a disc-shaped wall to the outside of the flashpan, a feature sometimes seen in other countries but not as often as in Scotland.

The nominal steel pistol was usually made with a hollow steel stock, however they were

occasionally made in brass, silver and possibly other metals. Sometimes they were made from steel with silver inlays; it is thought that these inlaid pistols had their steel blued to contrast against the bright silver. Later pistols, more decorative in purpose (although still functional) were sometimes nickel-plated steel. Nickel was usually called “German silver” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The development of the Scottish pistol can be divided roughly into three periods, which more or less correspond with the centuries of use:

The 1600s:

The earliest Scottish pistols, usually having the snaphaunce lock, were usually

shaped with a “heart-butt” or a “fish-tail” butt. These earlier pistols were also usually more slender, and sometimes had more profuse engraving than later versions--particularly on the lock mechanism. More pistols from this era were made in brass than in later years.

The 1700s:

The classical period of the Scottish pistol. During this century, the classic features developed, including the use of the French flintlock mechanism, the addition of the vent-pick, and the development of the usual squared-off butt shape with “ram’s-horn” finials. Simple, unadorned versions were mass-produced and issued to infantrymen in Highland regiments, and elaborate and fancy ones were built for and used by officers and aristocrats on both sides of the ‘15 and ‘45 risings. Supposedly, the first shot of the American Revolution was fired from a Scottish pistol carried by a British officer.

The 1800s:

During the Highland Revival period, there was an interest in all things Scottish, sparked by King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, and spurred on by Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria. The Scottish steel pistol was revived, with a few changes: after the 1830s they were usually built using the new percussion cap system, they had a more curved and compact shape (following the fashion of English duelling pistols), and the design was more standardized.

Victorian pistols tended to be percussion-cap except for those made in the early 1820s. These pistols were generally made by English gunmakers for noble Scottish customers and their pipers, who considered the pistol an essential part of formal Highland dress. The Scottish gunmaking industry had been essentially killed off from the mid to late 1700s, by a deadly combination of gun control from the Disarming Act and the Act of Proscription, as well as undercutting by more inexpensive Birmingham gunmakers.

Percussion cap steel pistols were produced from around 1820 to around 1880. Highland dress, being wildly elaborate and formal at the beginning of the Victorian period, was slowly parsed down over time and by 1900 the wearing of pistols with the kilt was no longer popular. The basket-hilted sword suffered a similar fate, and generally speaking the wearing of the dirk lasted only into the 1930s. Interestingly, the wearing of the powderhorn (a hollow cow’s horn used to carry and dispense gunpowder for a muzzleloading pistol or long-gun) was still relatively popular even after the wearing of pistols became unpopular-- often they continued in use as a whisky flask or a snuff mull! Today, the sword and pistols are never worn in contemporary Highland dress, excepting military uniforms and historical clothing, and the dirk is reserved for pipers or the most formal of occasions. Today, only the sgian-dubh (a small utility knife worn in the sock) remains to remind us of the old days when all Highlanders who could afford it were armed to the teeth.