Pistols from the Hamilton-Burr Duel
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
Perhaps the most famous duel of all time occurred between former secretary of the treasury and retired two-star army general Alexander Hamilton and the then-current vice president Aaron Burr.
The Albany Register published a letter believed to have been written by Hamilton in which Burr was referred to as "despicable." Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel as a result of this perceived slight of his honor.
Before getting too far ahead of the story, we must go back to Europe for the birth of Robert Wogdon in 1737. Apprenticed to an Irish gunsmith at the age of 11, he was perfecting his craft under his own name by the age of 27.
By the time Hamilton and Burr duelled in the early part of the 19th century, Wogdon had just begun to enjoy his retirement, having become the most recognized name in the gunsmithing world when it came to duelling pistols.
In 1797, Alexander Hamilton's brother-in-law, John Barker Church, had obtained an exquisite pair of custom-made dueling pistols made by Wogdon. The guns had several special features, including heavy brass forends for steadier aim and both front and rear sights for a more precise shot.
Gathered at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr prepared for the duel. Hamilton fired the first shot; he missed Burr and struck a tree near him. (There is much debate surrounding whether or not he missed on purpose.) Burr then fired his pistol, hitting Hamilton in the lower abdomen with a .54-caliber lead ball.
Hamilton died the following day in New York, aged either 47 or 49, based on varied accounts of his year of birth. Burr was charged with murder, but the charges were dropped. He finished his term as vice president in 1805 and lived to be 80, dying in 1836.
A photo believed to date to 1904 shows the pistols in their current configuration - one flintlock and one percussion. Thus, that is how they appeared when purchased by Chase Manhattan Bank in 1930. The guns are permanently displayed there, but they were temporarily on display at the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC when I saw them. (Why there? Hamilton played a role in establishing the Postal Service.)
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