‘Make do and Mend’: Prussian pistols of the Napoleonic Wars

Two pistols from the Royal Armouries collection, illustrate perfectly the thrifty manner in which some Prussian firearms were put together in the late 18th – early 19th centuries.

RA XII.1843 (DI 2015-1495)
RA XII.1843 (DI 2015-1495)
RA XII.1844 (DI 2015-1497)
RA XII.1844 (DI 2015-1497)

At first glance, both pistols appear to be the Model 1789, however there are slight differences. For example RA XII.1843 , the darker stained pistol is 4mm longer in length than RA XII.1844 , the lighter coloured pistol.

The Model 1789 was in the height of service from 1790-1813 however, due to the poor state of the Prussian economy in 1815 it most likely also featured on the field at Waterloo. In order to get a sense of the Prussian Military’s situation in 1815, it is useful to understand the consequences of their actions against the French Empire in 1806.

Kingdom of Prussia at the time of Waterloo (1815). Credit BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/higher/history/nationalism/unification/revision/1/
The Kingdom of Prussia at the time of Waterloo (1815). Credit BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/higher/history/nationalism/unification/revision/1/

The Prussian defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte at Jena and Auerstadt, subjugated Prussia to France until 1812, when the 6th Coalition was formed. Prussia lost its rich provinces, thus reducing its territory, whilst its army was limited to 42,000 men. The French also destroyed vast numbers of Prussian small-arms, ammunition and artillery, whilst redistributing the most efficient of these to their own allies. After the defeat of the French in 1812, the Prussians began work on manufacturing the Model 1813 pistol. However, limited funds meant restricted quantities of firearms were being produced and so the Prussian army instead began modifying whatever was available to them.

The most interesting features of these pistols are the royal cyphers located on their grips, which indicate modification. Both pistols bear the cypher of Frederick William III who reigned from 1797-1840.

Frederick William III
Frederick William III
RA XII.1843 (DI 2015-1493)
RA XII.1843 (DI 2015-1493)

Interestingly the form of the ‘W’s on the cyphers differ. The ‘W’ on RA XII.1843 (above) doesn’t quite look like it belongs there, as the actual ‘W’ on the cypher of Frederick William III is double lined (see below). This suggests that this darker stained pistol was assembled during the reign of Frederick William III but adapted from an earlier model, with a ‘W’ added to the cypher of Frederick the Great, who reigned from 1740-1786.

The pistol’s overall length is also 15 mm too long for it to be a true Model 1789 suggesting that this is a Model 1731, used throughout the reign of Frederick the Great, reassembled between 1797 and 1815.

Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great, reign: 31 May 1740 – 17 August 1786

RA XII.1844, the second lighter coloured pistol (below) is also intriguing. In consulting the museum’s catalogue it has been previously identified as being from the reign of Frederick William II who reigned from 1786-97, successor of Frederick the Great and predecessor of Fredrick William III. Given that the pistol resembles a Model 1789 this is a savvy conclusion. Except that the cypher of Fredrick William II does not contain the letter ‘R’, though one is clearly shown below.

RA XII.1844 (DI 2015-1499)
RA XII.1844 (DI 2015-1499) with the double-lined ‘W” and additional ‘R’.
Frederick_Wilhelm_II
Frederick William II reign: 17 August 1786 – 16 November 1797

It is no wonder that this has been confused, as every King of Prussia for over 150 years (1701-1861) was either called Frederick or Frederick William! However the length of the barrel is still too long for it to be a true Model 1789. Therefore one could conclude that the lighter stained pistol was assembled partly from the barrel of the Model 1731, potentially with other parts developed for the Model 1789, which were not used until 1797-1815 during the reign of Frederick William III –  which accounts for the royal cypher being correct and untampered.

These two pistols have been on quite a historical journey, from the Model 1731 to the ‘hybrid’ Model 1789, and they both reveal much about the development and manufacture of Prussian firearms during the Napoleonic period.