Back in the early 19th century, simple, muzzle-loaded pistols were about the best you could hope for when it came to a sidearm. And that didn’t amount to much: They generally held only one round, were smoothbore (synonymous with the word ‘inaccurate’), and slow to reload. In this regard, edged-weapons such as swords or cutlasses still reigned superior for close-quarters combat. Ah, but if you could harness the range of the pistol while maintaining the dependability of the sword, you’d really be on to something. Enter the Elgin Cutlass Pistol.
Where you’ve seen it:
In the film Gangs Of New York, Leonardo DiCaprio hurls a knife at Bill “The Butcher,” misses, and draws one of these awesome contraptions just before catching a blade in the gut (right). Too slow, Leonardo. Too slow.
In 1837, a firearms designer named George Elgin, inspired by the exploits of frontiersman James Bowie—a man famous for his skills with a knife who had died just a year prior at The Battle of the Alamo—designed the Elgin Cutlass Pistol. The knife fighter’s influence is apparent in the Elgin’s design (something about that bowie knife hanging off the pistol’s frame). Production lasted only a year, and the total number of Elgin Cutlass Pistols produced rang in at 150. Not a lot. But what it lacked in numbers, it made up for with historical prominence: The Elgin was the first officially adopted U.S. percussion pistol, and is to this day the only formally adopted pistol/cutlass combination in U.S. history. Specifically adopted for use in the Wilkes South Seas Exploring Expedition—a four-year effort to survey the south Pacific—this unusual weapon proved its worth fighting off angry, spear-toting Pacific islanders.
The 11-inch-long bowie knife blade—with an integral trigger and knuckle guard—is attached to the underside of the octagonal-barreled pistol by a tongue and groove, and held in place with two screws. With the inclusion of the blade, the gun reaches 17 inches long. Might have had something to do with why it was perceived as a touch unwieldy. That in tandem with the fact that the Elgin was expensive to produce made its short production run a certainty.
Not really a cartridge, but a muzzle-loaded .54 caliber ball. Again, because the barrel of the Elgin was smooth, accuracy was limited. But hey, if, on the off-chance you did manage to hit your target, that big, 225-grain slug could do all kinds of damage—particularly since medical treatment at the time was mostly a combination of black magic and unreservedly hacking off affected limbs.
The Elgin Cutlass Pistol is a natural solution to a classic problem: If you can’t hit ’em, stab ’em! This may go without saying, but given the scarcity of this pistol, if you happen to find one of these in your grandmother’s attic, don’t keep the news to yourself. They fetch anywhere from $10,000-25,000 when they emerge on the market.
Featured image courtesy of Rock Island Auction Company.