An Iconic Southern Pistol in the Style of Elisha Bull by Mike Miller
There are some antique flintlock arms that seem to epitomize a genre or “school” as well as capture the personality of the maker and the time and place in which it was created and used. The fine silver mounted “Death or Victory” pistol by Elisha Bull of Tennessee is just such a piece. Well known riflesmith Mike Miller of Paducah, Kentucky has graciously built and donated a near-bench copy of this famous pistol as one of the centerpieces for this year’s CLA live auction.
The pistol is well known and was posted on the Risers’ “Contemporary Makers Blog Spot” in October 2010. The Bulls, along with their in-laws the Beans, were among the best – and best known – of the Tennessee gunmakers of the early 19th century. Their rifles – and their reputation – were carried across the spreading southern frontier from Tennessee to Texas in the early 1800s. The family moved from Maryland to the Tennessee frontier after the Revolution, buying land from famed Captain William Bean in the late 1780s. Elisha was born in what is now Tennessee in 1791. Who he learned gunmaking from is unknown, as a formal master-apprentice relationship among most early mountain gunmakers either went unrecorded or perhaps was even alien to the strong sense of independence of the Scottish and Scots-Irish backcountry settlers. Elisha was joined in Tennessee by his older brother John by 1800, and the two made similar and beautiful rifles and pistols into the second quarter of the 19th century. John married Fetna Bean, sister of famed and ill-tempered gunmaker Russell Bean, continuing the tie between the families. Russell Bean was manufacturing guns for sale as far downriver as New Orleans by the 1790s, so it is highly possible that Elisha learned his trade from the Beans, or perhaps from his brother John if John had worked as a gunmaker in Maryland before rejoining his family in Tennessee as some have speculated. Some of the Bulls’ work strongly resembles the work of the Beans, but regardless of who taught who, in the first quarter of the 19th century the Bulls had developed distinctive styles of graceful architecture, mounts and decorative metalwork. Elisha was in Washington County, Tennessee prior to the War of 1812, and later worked at Bull’s Gap and in Grainger County.
The War of 1812 in the southern backcountry was primarily a war among frontier militia and tribes that either sided the British or the Americans, and the Death or Victory pistol strongly evokes those times. When I first saw it, my primary thought was that it pretty much sums up – without words – everything you would want to convey about what makes so many of these flintlock arms fascinating. It has an elegant simplicity about it – not plain by any means but not gaudy – and a lot of character put there by a maker not bound by the traditions of a conventional school of gunmaking. Several great silver-mounted Tennessee pistols such as this are known to exist by makers including the Bulls, Baxter Bean, and J. Cox, but this Elisha Bull piece is the cream of the crop. Casting silver or brass mounts is a process that is most efficient when working in volume. However, these silver mounted southern pieces demonstrate the mindset of the mountain gunmakers who typically worked in iron mounts – in that on the occasions they chose to make mounts from silver or brass, they were fabricated and hand formed in pieces and joined, in a manner similar to iron mounts – and never cast as was done by English gunsmiths other schools of American gunmaking. While the influence of late 18th century dueling pistols is evident in the hardware forms and features such as the single set trigger and checkering of the grip, the manufacture was adapted to the efficient style and maker’s sense of economy.
The coin silver mounts are decorated in simple yet elegant engraving on the sideplate and triggerguard with the phrases “Liberty” and “Death or Victory” capturing the defiant and patriotic spirit of the era.
This splendid piece is believed by many to be Elisha’s personal sidearm that he made for himself when he served in Captain David Vance’s Company of Bunch’s mounted East Tennessee volunteers from 1812 to 1814. Just as with swords, such personalized arms pistols were often carried and used by militia officers.
Mike Miller is one of the best known contemporary makers working in many schools or styles of southern arms and is well known for his high-quality metal and wood work, producing well-crafted pieces that capture both the elegance and folky grace of the best southern work. He works in all styles of southern rifles from the Shenandoah Valley to the Tennessee mountains and most enjoys working in genres that have not been heavily copied by contemporary makers, such early Carolina Piedmont, Central Kentucky and other styles. He also is one of the few makers out there who offers full custom work such as hand-rifled and profiled barrels and hand-made locks if a customer desires. Mike strives to make each of his pieces unique. So the Bull pistol project is right up his alley. Mike and his art was recently the subject of a feature article in MUZZLELOADER Magazine (May/June 2014)
For this pistol, Mike worked off his own in-hand observation and measurements of the original. He donated and hand profiled, reamed and rifled the swamped barrel to match the original barrel. Mike’s pistol is .43 caliber. Mike also donated a premium piece of maple for the stock and the sterling silver for the mounts which he formed and fabricated by hand. The lock is a one-of-a kind English style lock that was made by Rice as a prototype many years ago, and matches the original lock very closely. Mike donated, modified and hand-tuned the lock to perfection. Mike also hand-made the single set trigger from scratch to exactly duplicate the original. Mike’s decorative skills are evident in the graceful shaping of the stock and elegant yet folky engraving and carving of the grip, in form true to Elisha’s work form 200 years ago. Also, as an owner of Mike’s work, I can tell you that his guns are shooters –his locks are tuned to be among the fastest and he has a great reputation with serious shooters as well as collectors.
Mike’s hard work, skill and generosity offer the chance to own a piece of great contemporary art that faithfully captures the spirit of one of the most significant southern firearms of any era. We appreciate the chance to offer such an exquisite piece at this year’s auction.
More of the original pistol can be seen at: http://contemporarymakers.blogspot.ca/2009/10/elisha-bull-death-or-victory-pistol.html
Mike Miller can be contacted at:
4020 Minnich Ave.
Paducah, KY 42001
(Larry Pletcher editor, www.blackpowdermag.com)