The German Connection

Pair of duelling cum target pistols by Kuchenreuter of Regensburg, in Bavaria. Fitted cases with accoutrements do not come much more elaborate or beautifully made — to say nothing of complete — than this one.

by Terry Wieland

Any treatise on duelling pistols invariably begins in London and usually ends up right back there, after a side trip to Paris to drool and gush over a spectacular pair by Boutet or Le Page. Sometimes, passing reference is made to a famous Vienna gunmaker, like Novotny, or to pistols made at the Russian armory in Tula and now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Right there, you have the low-rent tour of the high-rent world of duelling pistols. (By the way, the word “duelling” still has two ‘ells’ when modifying the word “pistol,”  but nowhere else. Ask me not why; it just is.)

Young German men from 1770 to 1850 were no less determined to defend their honor than Brits or Frenchmen. But, while the sword passed out of fashion in France and England after about 1750, it hung on in Germany much longer, and dueling societies existed at Heidelberg and other universities long after Oxford and the Sorbonne were amusing themselves in debating clubs, or reading Marxist tracts. Well into the 20th century, a dueling scar was a desirable fashion statement for German men. 

Percussion target/dueler by Anton Burckhardt of Weimar. In all likelihood, Burckhardt was the retailer, and Kuchenreuter may well have been the maker. It is a classic German pistol from the period around 1850. The grip shape and angle closely resembles guns from Paris by Boutet or Le Page.

After London and Paris, the other great center for duelling pistols was Liège in Belgium, usually copying British style, but since Belgium had little in the way of a military tradition to support dueling as a culture, these were mainly for export. Today, a Belgian pistol will bring a tenth or less what you might pay for a London gun of comparable quality. What’s in a name? Lots.

This is not to say a Robert Wogdon or John Manton or James Purdey duelling pistol costing ten grand is not worth the money, only that a Liège product costing a tenth of that is a lot more than one-tenth the gun.

The same is true of German duelling pistols, which often are not billed as duelling pistols anyway, but rather “target” pistols.  That alone is likely to drastically reduce both demand and price. Yet these pistols, mostly percussion guns from what I’ve seen, can be, and usually are, superb examples of the gunmaker’s art. W. Keith Neal and John Atkinson, both experts on duelling pistols, and authors of books on the subject, mention the Kuchenreuter family of gunmakers in Regensburg, in eastern Bavaria, as the pre-eminent German name.

The Burckhardt has a typical German set trigger, adjustable down to the touch of a feather, and a trigger-guard spur for a steadier hold.

Target shooting has always played a major role in German society, with huge national matches for rifles — Schützenfests — held right into the 1930s.  It’s logical, then, that they would also stress accuracy in their single-shot pistols. Percussion pistols had rifled barrels, superb set triggers, trigger-guard spurs, and adjustable sights, all in aid of accuracy and all cutting-edge for the period.

In terms of styling, they usually emulated the French, with grips that curved down in a right angle, ending with a bell-shaped pommel. Where the British, by 1790, were emphasizing guns that were superbly made but austere to the point of severity, Germans of the period loved their guns to be ornate, with wood carving as well as engraving, and gold and silver inlay. This did not make them shoot any better or worse, but the harsh truth is that ornate, obviously expensive guns, tend to survive through the centuries, where plainer ones do not.

An added complication is that Germans followed the same tradition with target pistols as they did with rifles.  The name you see engraved or inlaid in gold on the barrel is almost never the maker, only the retailer.  Shown here is a gun I acquired recently. The name on the barrel is Anton Burckhardt, but I can find no mention of him in any of the references. The gun itself, however, bears a close resemblance — in form, if not dazzling ornament — to the pair of Kuchenreuters also shown, and Kuchenreuter may well have made the Burckhardt.

The set of Kuchenreuter pistols shown here sold at Rock Island in 2016 for $16,100. A comparable pair made by Henry Nock in London, cased but with minimal accessories, and considerably less ornate, sold four years later for $51,750.  

Ask me which I prefer, and I would answer thus: Which I would rather have, and which I would rather pay for, are two different things.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Gray’s shooting editor Terry Wieland long resisted attempts to interest him in black powder and muzzleloaders.  So much for that.