The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Flint-lock pocket pistol
  • Flint-lock pocket pistol
  • Nicolas Noël Boutet (1761 - 1833)
  • Versailles, France
  • c. 1810
  • Steel, ebony, gold, engraved and burnished
  • Length: 13.8 cm, overall
    Length: 2.4 cm, barrel
    Width: 1.3 cm, calibre
    Weight: 0.276 g
  • Inscription: '1'
    Inscription: 'BOUTET DIRECTEUR ARTISTE'
  • A1221
  • European Armoury III
Commentary
Images & Media
Further Reading
  • Flint-lock pocket pistol, a pair with A1222. The very short barrel unscrews for loading and is provided with a lug on its underside for a key. This is engraved with the number 1. The barrel is engraved with bands of laurel and acanthus.
    The lock is of the box or toplock variety with centrally-mounted cock and pan. Behind the cock is a safety-catch button locking both cock and pan-cover. The top plate is engraved:

    BOUTET DIRECTEUR ARTISTE

    The steel is engraved with two small ovals containing minute buildings and trees, between which is a palm tree, and the side-plates of the lock with a lion's head surmounted by a bird and a harpy, respectively. There is a folding trigger, and this and the under-plate are engraved with two oval medallions containing a deer and a human figure and below a female terminal figure. The entire action and barrel retain their original burnished surface.

    The ebony butt is roughened by chequering and its contour is inlaid with a border of semi-circular, fan-shaped ornament and trefoils in gold.

    French (Versailles), about 1810.

    Hayward, Art of the Gunmaker, II, p. 340, pI. 62b.

    For the history of these pistols, see under A1131.

    It was not until some time after the First World War in Europe that restrictions on the carrying of concealed firearms by civilians began to be enforced on a large scale. For most of human history, the carrying of weapons about the person has been considered the private business of the individual. This little pair of French single-shot pocket pistols would have been carried freely for purposes of self-defence by a wealthy gentleman or military officer during the late Napoleonic period. They were formerly in the collection of the Russian émigré Prince Anatole Demidoff of San Donato in Florence, by whom they were appreciated as art objects rather than weapons; they were purchased by the 4th Marquis of Hertford at the prince’s death-bed sale in 1870. Their worth lay not in any practical utility but in the superlative quality of their construction and elegant ‘Empire’-style neo-classical decoration. Above all, their value was rooted in the name of their maker, which, only forty years after Boutet’s death was already a by-word for the very best ‘presentation’ firearms.

    Made in about 1810, the pistols are delicately engraved with typical neo-classical borders and motifs such as a lion’s head, a harpy, exotic birds, figures, deer, and human figures, all executed in the finest detail and with the most painstaking precision. Lesser pistols were usually blued, browned or colour case-hardened, but the surface finish here is a high burnish, virtually all of which remains, contrasting most effectively with the finely-chequered black ebony of the butts, each one picked out with a border of rich red gold. Apart from denoting fine quality craftsmanship, this chequered surface afforded an effective ‘non-slip’ grip when firing the pistols. ‘Turn-off’ pistols such as these did not require a ramrod to re-load, since the barrels unscrewed or ‘turned off’, enabling powder and ball to be loaded directly into the breech chamber. A feature of this type of pistol was that the projectile was always made slightly too large to pass through the barrel, ensuring that it remained securely in place until it was fired. Upon firing, the pressure of the exploding gases in the chamber built up in a split second to literally squash the lead through the bore of the barrel, allowing the ball to escape. This system meant that these diminutive, almost comical pistols packed an enormous punch, far exceeding what might have been expected from their small size.