This pistol with a brass barrel, iron lockplate, and wooden fishtail stock was still loaded with two lead pistol shot when it was found by archaeologists in 2006 in James Fort’s second well. The flint-using gunlock with external mainspring is a rare and early variant of what is known as the Roman lock. Research prior to the recovery of this artifact indicated that the earliest date of production of the Roman lock variant was 1640. However, this artifact was found in a context which dates ca. 1610-1617, indicating that the Roman lock variant was being produced much earlier than was previously known. Elements of at least seven other pistols have been found at James Fort but this artifact is the most intact pistol recovered from the site. Well-preserved because of the anaerobic environment of the waterlogged well, the pistol has inspired many theories and questions about the circumstances surrounding its eventual deposition.
Firstly, this pistol was an expensive firearm and must have belonged to one of the fort’s gentlemen. It would have been a prized possession, and even if its original owner had died it probably would have passed into the hands of another owner. It is unlikely that the pistol would have been thrown away while still in working condition. Where it was found in the well supports this theory: it was at the very bottom of the well shaft, indicating that unlike other trash that later filled the well the pistol was lost when the well was still in use.
So how did the pistol end up in the well? Possibly by accident. Maybe the owner set the pistol on the side of the well while drawing up the well bucket for a drink and the pistol was accidentally knocked in. Or was foul play at hand?
The pistol was loaded and ready to fire. Was it intended to be used or was the owner simply prepared for unexpected circumstances? If the owner was involved in a dispute, the pistol could have fallen in as the result of a physical altercation that took place near the well. Or perhaps the pistol was stolen and intentionally dropped down the well shaft for revenge for an earlier quarrel or to reduce the likelihood of one party getting shot.
Whatever the reason for the pistol falling into the well, it seems that someone knew it had fallen in and perhaps was attempting to retrieve it. A halberd which had been modified into a hook was found just above the pistol. Maybe the halberd, with its 4-foot-long reach, was used in an attempt to retrieve the pistol when it too fell into the well.
The pistol was later conserved in 2010. In 2011, Jamestown Rediscovery partnered with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) to conduct further analysis and conservation. Additional analysis and conservation was performed in 2021.
Learn more about the Roman lock pistol on the Gentleman Soldiers website.