Staring Down the Beauty of a London Gun

Behold the Beauty
March 17, 2020 Updated: March 17, 2020
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Cast in silver, Medusa screams out on the pistol butt of a beautiful, 19th-century, walnut and rosewood flintlock pistol. Hercules’s victory over an Amazon makes an appearance on an oval medallion on the trigger guard, and a sea nymph feeding a sea leopard is featured on the engraved sheet-silver inlay that runs along the stock.  

Gunmaker Samuel Brunn
Many of the ornamental motifs on this flintlock pistol are taken from ancient Rome. Here, a nereid (sea nymph) feeds a sea leopard; 1800–1801, by gunmaker Samuel Brunn and silversmith Michael Barnett. British, London. Purchased through the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund and gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 1992. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The lock and barrel are made of blued steel. In bluing, the gunmaker puts the steel through a chemical process that turns it blue-black and protects the gun from wear and rust; it also reduces glare from the steel when the pistol is shot.

Gunmaker Samuel Brunn
Detail of the flintlock pistol’s blued steel barrel with gold inlay, 1800–1801, by gunmaker Samuel Brunn and silversmith Michael Barnett. Purchased through the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund and gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 1992. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Gunmaker Samuel Brunn
Detail of the flintlock pistol’s blued steel lock and barrel engraved and gold-inlaid with trophies of arms and foliage; 1800–1801, by gunmaker Samuel Brunn and silversmith Michael Barnet. British, London. Purchased through the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund and gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 1992. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The blued steel’s gold inlay depicts foliage and trophies of arms. Depicting trophies of arms, symbolizing military prowess and victory, is a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome when warriors honored the gods by piling up the arms and armor of those they’d just conquered. 

The neoclassical pistol is one of a pair considered to be the most highly decorated of any known English pistols, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. The Prince of Wales reputedly commissioned Samuel Brunn, a London gunmaker and sword cutler, to make the pistols. A sword cutler is the craftsman who assembles all the parts of a sword. 

Gunmaker Samuel Brunn
Pair of flintlock pistols, 1800–1801, by gunmaker Samuel Brunn and silversmith Michael Barnett. Purchased through the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund and gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 1992. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The pistols combine French and British design elements. The mount designs, made by London sword-hilt maker and silversmith Michael Barnett, were inspired by British firearms, and the stock decoration was influenced by French Empire firearms.

London Gunmaking

Brunn’s business card shows the Prince of Wales’s crest, which is inscribed on the bottom with “Ich Dien”—German for “I serve.” And serve Brunn did: Brunn received commissions from the prince and his friends. And even after the prince became King George IV, Brunn continued to make guns for him.

Gunmaker Samuel Brunn
Trade card of sword cutler and gunmaker Samuel Brunn, 1797–1803, by an unknown artist. Engraving; 4 3/4 inches by 3 1/16 inches. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Brunn’s clients included those in the navy and army, and his central workshop location at Charing Cross in London would have been ideal for serving these customers, being so close to Buckingham Palace and the government departments at Whitehall. 

Brunn was one of a small group of London gunmakers who set up workshops in London around 1780. These gunmakers mainly focused on enhancing “accuracy, handling and speed,” according to The Met. The results were exquisite, elegant pistols with pared-down decorations that are simply British by design. 

‘The Art of London Firearms’

John Byck, assistant curator in the department of arms and armor at The Met, brings the work of these gunmakers to the fore in the exhibition “The Art of London Firearms,” the first American exhibition on the subject. 

The exhibition tells the story of London pistols and the London gunmakers who made almost unparalleled contributions to firearm manufacturing. Of the 14 mid-18th and early-19th-century pistols on display, some are being exhibited for the first time, and others are rarely shown. 

The exhibition “The Art of London Firearms” runs until May 17. To find out more about the exhibition and to check on temporary closures due to the coronavirus, please visit MetMuseum.org