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How the bizarre duck’s foot pistol came into being

Reminiscent of a duck's webbed foot, the pistol had four barrels mounted on a single breech plate, writes Bill Harriman

Duck's foot pistol

The fan-shape arrangement of the barrels in the duck’s foot pistol made it an attractive weapon for anyone faced with an unruly crowd.

The history of the duck’s foot pistol

Until practicable revolver designs had been perfected in the 1830s, the only way to increase a gun’s firing rate was to give it multiple barrels that could either all fire at once or could be selected to fire at the user’s pleasure. The number of barrels was generally limited to a maximum of three, mainly due to considerations of weight.  The pistol equivalent of the volley gun was the ‘duck’s foot pistol’, which had four barrels mounted on a single breech plate.

This bizarre-looking firearm was given its name because the way that the barrels were mounted reminded people of a duck’s webbed foot. The barrels were splayed out in a fan shape of about 60 degrees, to give its bullets a spread in the hope that they would hit multiple targets. It was a close range anti-personnel weapon that was at its most effective when used against a crowd in a confined space.

Mob mentality

Prior to the creation of an effective police force in the 1840s, summary justice in Britain was based on an urban mob that materialised to deal with any event threatening the stability of society, from petty theft to murder. The 18th-century mob was the direct descendent of the medieval hue and cry, where bystanders were summoned to help apprehend a criminal. Mobs raged in size and savagery from a small group pelting a hapless prostitute to a heavily armed throng bent on turning society upside down, as witnessed in Revolutionary France in the 1790s.

The duck’s foot pistol was no more than a box-lock pocket pistol fitted with a broad breech plate in front of the priming pan. The barrels were screwed on to four separate breeches, which were all connected by vents to the priming pan. To load the duck’s foot, each barrel was unscrewed and the small chamber in the breech filled with powder. An oversized lead ball was placed in the small breech cup and the barrel screwed back on. The process was repeated four times. The priming pan was filled with very fine powder and the pistol was given a good shake to make it reach every barrel via the vents.

When the frizzen was closed and the pistol cocked, it was ready to fire. When the trigger was pressed, the cock flew forward under the pressure of the mainspring, it struck sparks from the frizzen and they ignited the priming powder. The resulting fire flashed through the vents, setting off the powder and propelling the bullets out of the barrels.

Pistols with ‘turn-off’ barrels tended to be ballistically very efficient because the action of screwing home the barrel actually forced the soft lead ball into the bore, ensuring a very snug fit.

Duck’s foot pistols owed much of their effectiveness to psychology. Mobs were rarely armed with firearms and their offensive capability was based on size, backed up with knives, cudgels and cobblestones. Consequently, a man wielding an impressive multi-barrelled firearm had an intimidatory affect. There was always a chance that the same man armed with a single-shot pistol might miss; the duck’s foot was a different matter and there was likely to be multiple casualties. Nobody wanted to be one of them.

Genuine duck’s foot pistols are very rare and fakes abound. Consequently, I was lucky to be able to examine a splendid example made in Birmingham and retailed by Forth of York. John Forth was in business at Stonegate between 1797 and 1820. This pistol was stamped with the crowned ‘V’ and ‘P’ marks used by the private Birmingham proof houses that pre-dated the creation of the Government Gun Barrel Proof House in 1813. Stylistically, you could narrow the timeframe down to circa 1805-1813, in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

Duck’s foot pistols would have been attractive to anyone routinely faced with an unruly and potentially violent crowd. Armed with one, a resolute man could subdue a baying mob. The reassuring bulk of one in your tailcoat pocket must have been a very comforting feeling.