On the Water

Matched Pair of Tow Pistols

This matched pair of pistols was manufactured in the late 1700s for sea service at close range. The barrels were made of bronze, on account of that metal’s resistance to corrosion. The pistol’s wide bore enabled easy loading. The pair was manufactured by John Tow, of Griffin and Tow, who made weapons for the British East India Company. Started in 1600, the publicly-owned EIC traded with the East Indies, China and India until the late 19th century.

During the Revolution and War of 1812, the American government did not have a sizeable navy to protect and defend its shores. Lacking the funds and time to build its own warships, Congress authorized hundreds of privately-owned armed ships to attack British vessels. These “privateers” were well armed, preferably to intimidate their prey into surrendering, or—if necessary—to actually fight. However, a sea battle was the last resort, for it could injure crews or valuable hostages and damage the privateer or its intended prize.

Privateer vessels needed large crews to board enemy vessels or to put their own loyal crews on captured vessels. They also needed large stocks of arms for fighting. Regular pistols and other short-barreled firearms were best suited to boarding or other close actions, but they had to be dropped or thrown after a single use, as reloading in the heat of battle was too time consuming. Routinely, only officers owned and were permitted to bear their personal arms. Weapons were stored under lock and key in arms lockers and distributed among the crew when needed. Although the men were highly motivated and unlikely to mutiny, crews were tightly packed aboard narrow, swift vessels and disagreements could occur. In addition, weapons had to be ready for use at any moment, and their condition was easier to maintain if stored together.

ID Number:
Place Made:
late 18th century
5 1/4 x 13 3/4 x 2 in.; 13.335 x 34.925 x 5.08 cm

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