The Oldest Revolver in Existence

oldest-revolver_1If I asked you to name the maker of the oldest revolver in existence, who would you say made it? Colt? Smith & Wesson? You’d be wrong.

The oldest revolver know to exist in the world today was made in 1597 by German weapons blacksmith Hans Stopler and it is in the collection of the Maihaugen Folk Museum in Lillehammer, Norway.

The revolver belonged to Georg von Reichwein, a well-known officer who made his name defending Norway in the wars against Sweden in the early 1600s. Reichwein bought or received the revolver in 1636, according to the inscription on the gun stocoldest-revolver_3k, the year he was promoted to major and was put in charge of the forces stationed at the Bergenhus fortress in Norway. The gun is ornately decorated, with mother of pearl and engravings, so it’s doubtful it was meant for daily use.

Though it may be the oldest known revolver, it is definitely not the earliest one ever made, because the craftsmanship and sheer refinement of the weapon says it was built on well established conventions.

Like other guns of the era it is a flintlock, but instead of a single barrel and chamber, ioldest-revolver_4t uses a rotating cylinder with eight chambers and a fixed barrel. Each cylinder has a sliding cover to protect its flash pan and prevent chain fires — lighting up more than one charge at a time. That’s a bad thing!

The big difference in this revolver? It must be manually rotated! You point, pull the trigger, rotate the cylinder to the next chamber and repeat. According to the museum curator, the revolver was “made to injure other people. Not necessarily to kill, because in war at that time the most important was to injure other soldiers.”

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Tracy Garrett
History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

15 Comments

  1. I have never seen a gun more beautiful. It was interesting to learn about it too.

    1. It is gorgeous, isn’t it? Thanks, Janine.

  2. Wow, it is beautiful! Interesting that it was made it injure and not necessarily kill. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Susan P, that surprised me, too. Thanks for
      stopping by.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great into, Tracy. I always learn such interesting stuff from your posts. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Tanya!

  5. I had no idea there were revolvers this old, Tracy. What an interesting slice of history.
    I wonder why they didn’t catch on? I’m sure they needed refinement but instead they were really abandoned for about 250 years, weren’t they?

    1. Mary, from what I’ve read, the technology hadn’t advanced to the point that allowed mass production of the revolver cylinder. Each one in this period would have been hand smithed. That much work would make them far too expensive–and they’d take forever to create. This weapon is literally a work of art.

  6. Interesting post. It’s also interesting to note the kind of results one gets if you search for “revolver” vs. “firearm,” or even “gunpowder.” (Excuse me but the researcher in me is unrelenting!)

    The direct ancestor of a firearm was the “fire lance” from 6th century China. The Chinese invented gunpowder in the 9th century, and the firearm in the 13th century. The earliest surviving “hand cannon” from there is from 1288. Arabs had firearms by the 14th century, and the Mongols had the first cannon with nearly modern gunpowder at about the same time.

    As for Europe, it’s thought that gunpowder came through either the Middle East Silk Road or brought in through the north by the Mongols. In Europe the mentions of various “cannons,” “siege gins” or “firearms” are from the 1300s in Russia and Italy. The earliest surviving “firearm” from there is from 1396.

    From there development went to flintlocks, breechloaders, and of course revolvers each depending on the types of trigger, hammer, firing pin, and primer from various type of mechanisms that were developed. The first battle thought to have been won with these gunpowder weapons was in 1503 by the Spanish against the French in what is now Italy.

    From there we go to a repeating firearm or “repeater” which holds more than one cartridge and can be fired more than once between chargings; and, a “revolver” a type of firearm in which a rotating cylinder holds a number of cartridges. The paper cartridge came from about 1586.

    BTW, a bullet is different from a cartridge which is the firing mechanism. Bullets (stones, clayballs, etc.) are objects to be hurled at something else, say by a sling, and they predate firearms.

  7. I found some more info for anyone interested:

    “The first guns with multichambered cylinders that revolved to feed one barrel were made in the late 16th century in Europe. They were expensive and rare curiosities. Not until the 19th century would revolvers become common weapons of industrial production. ”

    “The earliest examples of what today is called a revolver were made in Germany in the late 16th century. These weapons featured a single barrel with a revolving cylinder holding the powder and ball. They would soon be made by many European gun-makers, in numerous designs and configurations. However, these weapons were difficult to use, complicated and prohibitively expensive to make, as such they were not widely distributed. It would be several hundred years before the revolver would see widespread use.”

    “Casimir Lefaucheux of Paris decided in 1832 to patent a breechloader where the barrel hinged downwards to reveal the breech ends…. It wasn’t until the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in London that breechloading guns were taken more seriously by British and American gun makers in particular…. After Casimir’s death in 1852, his son Eugene continued to market the pinfire design with great success…. The first cartridge revolvers were produced around 1854 by Eugene Lefaucheux.”

    “In 1836, an American, Samuel Colt patented the first revolver mechanism that led to the widespread use of the revolver.”

    “In 1854, Eugene Lefaucheux introduced the Lefaucheux Model 1854, the first revolver to use self-contained metallic cartridges rather than loose powder, pistol ball, and percussion caps. It is a single-action, pinfire revolver holding six rounds.”

    “On November 17, 1856, Daniel B. Wesson and Horace Smith signed an agreement for the exclusive use of the Rollin White Patent at a rate of 25 cents for every revolver. Smith & Wesson began production late in 1857 and enjoyed years of exclusive production of rear-loading cartridge revolvers in America, due to their association with Rollin White, who held the patent and vigorously defended it against any perceived infringement by other manufacturers (much as Colt had done with his original patent on the revolver). Although White held the patent, other manufacturers were able to sell firearms using the design, provided they were willing to pay royalties.”

  8. What a beautiful piece. As fine as the craftsmanship is, tis was definitely made by someone with experience in this field. Somewhere there have to be less elaborate pieces that were produced first.

    1. Patricia, I believe you’re right. I’ll have to do some digging.

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