Pocket Pistols

In 1785 Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fifteen-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, regarding what he considered the best form of exercise: "... I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."[1]

Evidence exists to show that Jefferson himself was a fair marksman. At twenty-five he noted in his accounts: "Won shooting 1/6."[2] In a later contest, during a muster of Captain Jacob Moon's Albemarle County militia company, he lost 2/6.[3] But as he grew older, Jefferson limited his exercise to horseback riding while restraining his attachment for firearms and hunting.

References to ownership of arms and accoutrements may be found throughout his manuscripts and accounts. A cursory compilation shows that he owned a shotgun called a "two shot-double barrel," purchased in France, a number of pistols, and other shoulder weapons. Further evidence that he used these may be found in the columns of his account books. In 1775 he paid to have a pistol repaired; a year later he bought a "double barrel gun-lock" for £5-5; in 1799 he had Henry Yost, a Staunton, Virginia, gunsmith, mend his pistols (possibly those he carried for protection when traveling) and, as late as 1817, he was charged eight dollars for having a gun put in order by a Charlottesville repairman.[4]

Unquestionably, the finest arms that Jefferson owned were a pair of Turkish pistols received from the estate of General Isaac Zane in place of a monetary bequest. He described them and, at the same time, modestly alluded to his ability as a pistol shot: "[T]hey are 20. inch barrels so well made that I never missed a squirrel 30. yards with them."[5]

- Text from James A. Bear, "Some Jefferson Ideas on Exercise, Guns and Game," Monticello Research Report, n.d.

Primary Source References

1785 August 19. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."[6]

1790. Shipped back from France (Grevin list): one pair large pistolet in leather case, one pair plated pistolet, one fusil à deux coups, one pistol and its case, two pistol cases, one powder horn, one morocco ammo pouch.[7]

1798 January 30. (Thomas Mann Randolph to Jefferson). Referring to a gun found in the possession of an enslaved man at Belmont: "The gun I suspect to be yours but cannot positively decide being familiar only with the Pistoias."[8]

1803 October 9. (Jefferson to Paul Verdier, innkeeper at Orange Courthouse). "I left at your house, the morning after I lodged there, a pistol in a locked case, which no doubt was found in your bar after my departure. I have written to desire either mr Randolph or mr Eppes to call on you for it, as they come on to Congress, to either of whom therefore be so good as to deliver it."[9]

1803 October 9. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I left at Orange C.H. one of my Turkish pistols, in it’s holster, locked. I shall be glad if either yourself or mr Eppes can let a servant take it on to this place. it will either bind up in a portmanteau flap, or sling over the back of the servant conveniently."[10]

1811 September 6. (Jefferson to Francis Wayles Eppes). "... it will then be a question for the consideration of your papa and yourself whether you shall not return with us & visit your cousins. this will be acceptable to us all, and only deprecated by the partridges & snowbirds against which you may commence hostilities."[11]

1816 August 15. (Jefferson to Payne Todd). "You must now accept a keep-sake from me, which may suit you as a sportsman, better than myself who have ceased to be one. I send by the stage, to be lodged for you at Orange C. H. a box containing a pair of Turkish pistols. they were originally with wheel-locks, which not being convenient, I had locks of the modern form substituted, but so that they can be changed for the former in a moment. they are 20. inch barrels so well made that I never missed a squirrel 30. yards with them. I fixed one in a wooden holster to hang in the loop of the pommel of my saddle to be handily taken out & in ... I had other holsters also made for both to hang them at the side of my carriage for road use; & with locks & staples to secure them from being handled by curious people. one of the wheel locks is a little out of order, and will require a skilful gunsmith to put to rights."[12]

1816 December 17. "Note he [Thomas Jefferson Randolph] has paid Garner 8.D. for having had a gun of mine repaired."[13]

1817 January 20. "Pd. Davis for mending gun lock 1.D."[14]

1819 November 28. (Eliza Trist to Nicholas Trist). "Mr. Jefferson I hear takes his daily rides and some one told me that they saw him in Milton with a Gun on his shoulder in pursuit of Partridges."[15]

1822 July 20. (Jefferson to Peter Minor). "I ask the acceptance, by your son, of a keep-sake from me. it is an article of the tackle of a gun-man, offering the convenience of carrying the powder & shot together. I presume he is a gun-man, as I am sure he ought to be, and every American who wishes to protect his farm from the ravages of quadrupeds & his country from those of biped invaders."[16]

1823 July 15. "[P]d. Mr. Winn for a gun for Benjamin 18.D."[17]

1824 July 4. "Drew on Raphael in favr. J. Kelly for 17.D. for a gun."[18]

Shamshir Sabre

1825 September 1. (Jefferson to Louis Xaupi). "An application from young gentlemen of the Univty for the appropriation of a room wherein they might recieve instruction in the use of the small sword having led me to the consideration of that subject previously to the reciept of your letter of yesterday, I inclose you my answer to them, which I pray you to recieve as equally an answer to yourself. The other part of your request, for the use of a room for instructing them in the art of dancing, stands on more favorable ground. it's object, is the embellishment, and not the destruction, of the lives of our young citizens, and the Visitors seem to have provided for it in the statute which enacts that one of the elliptical rooms on the middle floor of the Rotunda shall be used for 'schools of instruction in drawing, music or any other of the innocent and ornamental accomplishments of life.' dancing is generally, and justly I think, considered among innocent accomplishments; while we cannot so consider the art of stabbing and pistolling our friends, or dexterity in the practice of an instrument exclusively used for killing our fellow-citizens only and never against the public enemy."[19]

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to Carr, August 19, 1785, in PTJ, 8:407. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ MB, 1:81. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ MB, 1:150. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ All references are from Jefferson's memorandum books. See MB, Index: Miscellaneous Articles, Firearms.
  5. ^ Jefferson to John Payne Todd, August 15, 1816, in PTJ:RS, 10:321. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ PTJ, 8:407. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ The Grevin packing list is located in the William Short Papers at the Library of Congress. See Short to Jefferson, November 7, 1790, in PTJ, 18:30-39n, for an editorial note summarizing the list. Transcription and editorial note available at Founders Online.
  8. ^ PTJ, 30:69. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  9. ^ PTJ, 41:486. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  10. ^ PTJ, 41:485. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  11. ^ PTJ:RS, 4:131. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ PTJ:RS, 10:320-21. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  13. ^ MB, 2:1329. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  14. ^ MB, 2:1330. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  15. ^ Nicholas Philip Trist Papers, Library of Congress.
  16. ^ Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  17. ^ MB, 2:1397. Transcription available at Founders Online. Benjamin Franklin Randolph's fifteenth birthday was July 14.
  18. ^ MB, 2:1404. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  19. ^ Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Polygraph copy available online. Transcription available at Founders Online.