I was musing the other day on how, despite the gilded splendor of Mayfair balls and the civilized rituals of Polite Society, Regency life was really fraught with danger at every turn. Footpads, highwaymen, unscrupulous villains of every sort—not to speak of Napoleon’s armies marching through all of Europe . . . was it any wonder that most every gentleman’s basic necessities included not only breeches and boots but also aa pistol. Or probably two, as most bucks of the ton would want to have his own matched pair of dueling weapons, just in case.
Now, it’s not that I was in a murderous mood, mind you. But it did get me to thinking about Regency firearms . . . and one name immediately flashed to mind. Manton. Now, how many times have you read that one of our storybook heroes—or heroines—saves the day with a deadly accurate shot from weapon crafted by Joseph Manton? Like Almack’s, Gunter’s and Astley’s, Manton is an iconic name in Regency-set books. So I decided to peer beneath the puffs of black powder smoke and take a closer look at this Prince of Precision—for his firearms were considered the best that money could buy.
Born in 1766, Joseph Manton was apparently an ardent sportsman in his youth, and like most of his contemporaries spent countless hours walking the English countryside banging away at birds and game. The firearms of the day weren’t all that accurate, a fact that must have sparked Manton’s creativity because he began to experiment with new ways to add rifling to a gun barrel. (Rifling is a spiraled grooving cut into the inside of the barrel which imparts spin—and thus far greater accuracy—to a bullet. Thus rifled weapons, as opposed to smoothbore weapons, are far more deadly.)
Manton’s sporting guns gained a reputation for quality and accuracy, and he went into gunsmithing business with his brother John, who was also interested in shot and powder. The partnership didn’t last long and John broke away to form his own business crafting firearms. For the rest of their lives they would be rivals, and while John Manton’s weapons are also considered fine firearms, it was Joe Manton whose name became synonymous with the best pistols and rifles that money could buy.
Manton was soon making weapons for more than just sport. A technical wizard, he was constantly tinkering with gun design, and throughout his professional life developed many new innovations which changed the way weapons were made. One of his early inventions was a wooden cup, or sabot, for bullets that improved loading time and accuracy. (Don’t ask me to explain the scientific reasons, but it is considered the precursor to modern shell casings.)
He also noticed that most people tended to aim low when firing a weapon, so the front sights of his guns were made to compensate for this. In addition, he noted that in dueling, the recoil of a pistol often kicked the barrel up, throwing off the aim. So he added extra weight to the barrel, which made his pistols steadier, and thus they aimed truer. (Ummm, if I were heading out to a dawn meeting on Houndslow Heath, I certainly know whose pistol I would want to be packing in my pocket!) Needless to say, his expertise earned him a loyal following, including the Duke of Wellington (see left for the Duke’s rifle and shipping label affixed to the gunbox.)
Manton’s firearms possess a lethal beauty. They are not only precision instruments of death and destruction but are also, quite simply, works of art. The craftsmanship is superb and the decorative touches are exquisite. The stocks—lovely burled walnut and other rich woods—are etched with intricate patterns to ensure a good grip, while the engraved embellishments have a sublime delicacy that belies their practical purpose.
This artistry didn’t come cheap. One of the sources I read said that a Manton single-barreled fowler sold for 25 guineas, and a "London Best" double sold for 55 guineas—princely sums for the era. (Manton weapons still command a pretty penny today. They are highly prized collector’s items and go for very high prices at auction.) It’s also no surprise that a number of his apprentices went on to become some of the most legendary gunmakers of the 19th century, including James Purdey, Joseph Lang and Charles Lancaster.
I came across a rather humorous story that recounts how Manton’s coach was once stopped by a highwayman who ordered him to “Stand and deliver.” Recognizing the weapon as one of his own, Manton supposedly sputtered, “Damn it, you rascal, I’m Joe Manton and that’s one of my pistols you’ve got! How dare you try to rob me!” To which the highwayman responded, “You charged me ten guineas for this pistol, which was a damned swindle— though I admit it’s a damned good barker.” The thief then compromised and agreed to rob gunmaker of only ten guineas. Despite the deal, Manton was said to be so incised by the robbery that he promptly went back to his workshop and designed a double barreled carriage pistol. (See right. No doubt the story is apocryphal, but it’s amusing nonetheless. And the truth is, Manton was fascinated by double barreled weapons and created a number of them, including fowling guns and rifles like the one owned by Wellington.)
A lesser known aspect of Manton’s lillustrious career was the fact that he also worked with the British government on cannon design, and pioneered many innovations that presaged developments in modern ballistics. Sadly, he ended up in a prolonged and expensive legal battle with the Board of Ordnance over patents and payments. He ended up losing his fortune and was declared bankrupt in 1826.
I love learning these little tidbits of history, and feel they add to my appreciation of the era, whether I’m reading novels or non-fiction. What about you? Do you find it fun? And are there any iconic Regency people or places that you would like to know more about?