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Captain South’s Lorenzoni pistol

Research into this ‘Lorenzoni’ type repeating flintlock pistol has turned up an interesting (and Christmassy) human story. The pistol, which belonged to a Captain James South, connects Christmas dinner with chimney sweeping, from Florence, Italy to London. Jonathan Ferguson, Interim Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, explains how.

Ours is not the most obvious collection to have a Christmas association, but believe it or not we have at least one.

Captain South’s pistol

It’s a favourite object of mine; a so-called ‘Lorenzoni’ type repeating flintlock pistol belonging to a Captain James South, who is named on the folding handle on the case lid and also represented by a crest of a fire-breathing dragon’s head inside a ducal crown – the crest of the Wiltshire-based branch of the South family (Burke, p.950) engraved into a silver plate on the butt.

More on Capt. South later. The pistol is worthy of attention in its own right.
The origins of the Lorenzoni system are somewhat hazy. It was traditionally said to have been invented in the late 17th century by Michele Lorenzoni of Florence, a gunmaker to the Medicis, but the earliest example may be that in the Musée de l’Armée, made by Giacomo Berselli of Bologna in the late 1660s. In any case, the design soon arrived in England and was copied by John Cookson. The ‘Lorenzoni’ was a truly amazing piece of technology, essentially a flintlock Henry or Winchester in terms of speed and ease of operation. It could be built into either shoulder arms or, as here, pistols.

The mechanics

At the heart of the system was a vertically aligned rotating breech drum with cavities for bullet and powder charge. This did not work like a revolver, wherein the cylinder acts as the breech; it was simply the loading device for the conventional chamber, located at the breech in front of the drum.

black and white image of a flintlock pistol

Flintlock breech-loading repeating pistol (XII.4750)

The cocking and loading lever on the side of the gun was rotated (under-hand) half a turn forwards with the gun pointed at the floor, allowing gravity to convey a bullet and some powder from magazine spaces in the grip or stock into the drum, a bit like the counters in the child’s game ‘Downfall’.

At the same time, an extension to the chamber running underneath the frizzen (and serving as the bottom of the pan itself, incorporating the touch-hole) collected priming powder from a small magazine behind the frizzen. As the lever reached the end of its travel, a projection on the drum cocked the gun and pushed the frizzen/pan cover closed.

All that the firer then had to do was rotate the lever back to its starting position to rotate the loaded drum and its priming extension into firing position. The drum would then empty itself into the breech, first the ball, and then the powder ball. The bottom of the pan would now be filled with powder too, ready for firing.

Witness holes were provided top and bottom so that the user could check that his weapon was loading correctly, and could quickly verify whether he had any shots left. The bullet magazine held seven shots, and presumably enough powder to fire them. This is a large and heavy pistol at 478 mm (18.8 in) 1.75 kg (3.86 lbs), making it the size of a large holster pistol of the day but much heavier and less well balanced. The only convenient way to carry the piece would be in a saddle holster or in its case under a coach seat (in which case it cannot quickly be made ready for use).
Nonetheless, unlike early revolvers like the Dafte revolver seen in one of our YouTube videos, these guns were true repeaters, allowing rates of fire that would have astounded 18th-century observers.

That is, of course, if they worked reliably.

[This required extremely high standards of craftsmanship. If any mistake were made in the in the manufacture, the gun might jam or even ‘flash through’ to the powder magazine in the grip, doing horrific damage to the shooter’s hand (and/or face in the shoulder-stocked versions). This would seem an unlikely occurrence, but at least one surviving example seems to have been destroyed in this way.

Lorenzoni type firearms, therefore, tend to be of superior quality, made by noted gunmakers such as Cookson in the United States and, as in this case, H.W. Mortimer in Britain. Harvey Walklate Mortimer was the name of two London makers, father and son. This pistol is marked ‘H.W. Mortimer. London. Gun Maker to His Majesty.’ and its case contains a trade label in the form ‘H.W. Mortimer, Gun Maker, To His Majesty; 89 Fleet Street, London; Wholesale, Retail, & for Exportation’.

This piece was made by the father, who was born in 1753 (died 1819) and made Gunmaker-in-Ordinary to the King in 1783. Because Mortimer went into business with his son from 1800, we can, therefore, date this piece between 1783 and 1800. This fits well with both Captains South (see below). In order to fit a compact wooden case, the pistol is a ‘take-down’ firearm with a removable threaded barrel, which is of twist type and has a browned finish. This carries a folding front sight, although there is none at the rear. The piece is beautifully engraved overall, featuring trophies of arms (as befits a military officer) and select components (the cover/retaining piece on the left side of the drum, the priming magazine door, and the trigger guard) are fire-blued. Calibre is .52 in (13.2 mm), or 36 bore in the traditional system (the included bullet mould is marked ‘36’ accordingly). This makes for a very tight fit in the bore, which would have squeezed the bullet into a semi-cylinder upon firing. This would increase muzzle velocity rather like a turn-off barrel pistol, although without rifling to spin-stabilise it (as with the later percussion revolver where the loading process shaved a ring of lead from the spherical shot), the deformed bullet might negatively affect accuracy.

A .52 calibre pistol seems large today, but with the much lower velocities generated by black powder, this was actually a relatively small bore for the day. The lock is of ‘back-action’ type in order to allow room for the drum and lever assembly.

The Christmas connection

So far, so unseasonal. The Christmas connection I mentioned lies with the likely owner of this pistol, Captain James South. The most promising identification is Captain James South of the 52nd (or Oxfordshire) Regiment, and the only other candidate that might fit is Captain Thomas South of the 5th Hampshire Militia.

Both men held the rank of Captain at the close of the 18th century, and both served with county regiments bordering Wiltshire. However, whereas Thomas South held the rank of Captain for only three years (being promoted Major in 1795) and resigned in 1800, James appears as a Captain on half pay in 1799 and remained so until 1820, at which point he disappears from the Army Lists. Half pay was essentially a reserve system, designed to allow officers to pursue other business, academic, and gentlemanly interests, but (in a time of uncertainty) be recalled for active service as required.

It looks therefore as though his military career was long but uneventful, and that he took no part in the wars against France. Even if he had, his Lorenzoni (if indeed it was his) was not a serious fighting pistol; more an expression of interest in art and technology. In researching James South, I came across a wonderful reference online to the Church of St George the Martyr. This church bears two plaques dedicated to Capt. South. One reveals his age at death, but also his charity work. It reads:

“(to) the memory of James South Esq. late Captain in the 52nd Regiment of Foot. The benevolent Founder of the Chimney Sweepers Charity. He died May 10th. 1834. Aged 65 years”.

The other plaque in the church gives us our very Dickensian Christmas connection:

“A.D. 1834. Capt. JAMES SOUTH of Devonshire St. £1,000 consols for Christmas Dinners to Chimney Sweeps from all parts of London. & after passing of the Act forbid’g the employment of Climbing Boys. by order of Ct. of Chancery, to the maintenance of ST. GEORGE the MARTYR. Parochial Schools”.

Chimney Sweeps Act

The Act referred to was the Chimney Sweeps Act of 1834, which forbade the apprenticing of boys younger than ten and prevented children under 14 from taking part in the work itself (, n.d.). The wording suggests that South’s legacy was conditional on the Act making it through Parliament which, thankfully, it did. £1,000 is at least £88,000 in today’s money (a ‘consol’ was a type of government-issued bond). That would have bought a few Christmas puddings.

In reality, most of that was for the church itself, but the endowment came with the condition that the church provide a Christmas dinner for 100 apprentice sweeps every year, in perpetuity. Of course, they had to attend a church service first.

The pretty lavish-sounding dinner consisted of ‘half-a-pound of roast beef or boiled beef; half a threepenny loaf of bread, half-a-pound of potatoes, half-a-pint of ale or porter, half-a-pound of plum pudding and a new shilling’ (Cullingford, 2001, 115).

The same source mentions a Sir James South, but I don’t believe them to be the same man. In any case, this gift reflects Captain South’s status as a humanitarian who protested lax child labour laws that allowed very young children to work for very little in climbing chimneys.
We may never know for certain who Captain South was, but in any case, researching this pistol has turned up an interesting (and Christmassy) human story. The pistol remains an amazing piece of technology and art in its own right. It is not currently on display, but like all objects in the national collection of arms and armour, it is available for viewing by appointment.

References/further reading

Our friend Ian McCollum of ‘Forgotten Weapons’ has a page and a video devoted to the Lorenzoni Flintlock Repeating Pistol.

With thanks to Sarah Dallman of the National Museums Scotland library service.

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