Texas collector, historian, makes remarkable discovery
BOERNE, TEXAS — Last year, I bought an unnamed and anonymous daguerreotype photograph found at a storage unit sale in Nashville, Tenn., which had no history to go with it.
The photograph, which appears as if it is a mirror, is housed in its original and typical leather covered wooden case with lid that closes to protect it. The image shows a formally dressed man sitting next to a table with a top hat on it. He is holding a finely made percussion — also known as "cap and ball" — target rifle. From the early style of the image it would date as a fairly early daguerreotype; made about the mid to late 1840s.
A daguerreotype photograph is the earliest style of photograph, invented in France in 1839, which became popular in the United States in the 1840s. There were no negatives; each is a unique image that is applied to a silver plated sheet of copper by a very rudimentary camera made mostly of wood.
As a collector of early American firearms as well as images of people with firearms, and realizing the rarity of an armed daguerreotype, I was hoping that somehow I could ascertain who might have made the rifle, which is very hard to do from an image with an individually made rifle from so long ago. I also dreamed about finding the actual rifle pictured, which really would be considered an impossible task after so many years. I personally have not heard of a single circumstance where a rifle shown in a daguerreotype could be identified.
A copy of the daguerreotype was sent around to various firearms collectors and dealers that I was familiar with. Within a very short time, a dealer friend responded that he had a rifle on consignment that he thought was similar to the rifle pictured in the image and sent pictures to me. I was astounded to see that the rifle was identical to the one pictured in the image from over 165 years ago. The survival rate of firearms from the 1840s is low — as is the survival rate of fragile and easily damaged daguerreotype images — and the fact that the rifle and the daguerreotype were both still around after this long time was really hard for me to comprehend. What was even more unlikely was that I could buy the rifle, right then, which I enthusiastically did.
When I received the rifle, I compared it with the details shown in the daguerreotype. It was clearly the same rifle pictured and the only detail that did not match was the exact location of the rear sight — the sort of thing that can be broken after so long of a time. The image shows a more complicated rear sight. There were some mass produced rifles being made in 1849, but as a cottage industry back then, single shot rifles were typically made by hand, one by one and there are always differences between them which makes each rifle unique. Every other feature of the rifle in the image matches what is shown in the daguerreotype and the fact that the rear sight was changed would have been to suit a different user some time in the past.
Rifles like this were used in shooting matches well into the 20th century. It would be as accurate today as it was in 1849.
The rifle is marked in three places as "A. Leonard/1849," including the barrel marked "A. Leonard/Cast Steel/S.R. V.T." Through further research, I learned "A. Leonard" was Artemas Leonard, of Saxton's River, Vt., who was born in 1804 and was a well known rifle maker who operated in that small city from about 1840 to 1859 when he died. He was known for making high quality hunting and target rifles and some pistols. The barrel also has a fourth stamping of "Geo. O. Leonard/Keene, N.H./Cast Steel" and "1867."
I have found a copy of the inventory of Artemas Leonard's estate when he died. It included four target rifles valued from $25 to $40 dollars each; relatively high prices of the day and presumably the rifle that is the topic of this article being the highest valued one. George Leonard, his eldest son, took over the business by himself around the time of his father's death in 1859 and moved to Keene, a more populated area which would certainly have been better for business (it should be noted here that George Leonard moved on to Red Bluff, Calif., in 1869 and died there in 1887).
The two parts attached to the muzzle end of the barrel are a false muzzle and a brass bullet starter. The false muzzle was inserted into the face of the barrel muzzle and would protect the sharpness of the rifling at the end of the barrel for accuracy's sake. After a carefully measured powder charge was poured down the barrel, the brass bullet starter was then inserted over the false muzzle and was used to push the bullet down the barrel to start it so that the bullet would be perfectly aligned with the centerline of the bore. After the bullet was inserted past these two parts, the starter would be removed, then a long ramrod used to fully seat the bullet down against the powder charge at the base of the barrel, the starter removed, a percussion cap placed on the nipple beneath the hammer so that when the trigger was pulled, the charge would be ignited, firing the rifle.
The appearance of two triggers is known as a double set trigger where the rear trigger would be pulled back to enable the front trigger which was adjustable for the pressure needed to fire the rifle. Many times this is also described as a "hair trigger."
Target or match rifle shooting began being popular in the 1840s primarily in the northeast and spread everywhere in the United States following the Civil War. The process described was to assure the ultimate in accuracy of the time. The fact that the separate loading parts, usually missing, are still with the rifle as it was pictured so long ago is not common in rifles of this type found today.
The rifle is larger than the pictures would indicate without any comparison to other rifles. It has a one-and-three-eights-inch wide octagonal barrel that is 32-and-one-half-inches long and is .47 caliber. The overall length of the rifle is 48 inches and it weighs 19 pounds. It has a nicely checkered and inlaid walnut stock with a double cheek rest and is equipped with a double set trigger. The inlays and trigger guard are all of brass and are nicely engraved as are the iron parts. The fore end nose cap is pewter.
The present tang rear sight is exactly the style used by George Leonard and with the marking of his and the 1867 date it would make it very likely that George changed the rear sight to suit a customer and must have sold his father's rifle when he stamped his own name and later date on the barrel before he moved to California in 1869. The front sight has windage (lateral) adjustments and shows to be the same as the sight pictured in the daguerreotype although it is out of focus.
An earlier Vermont collector was discovered to have owned the rifle for some time — it likely never left the Vermont/New Hampshire area after George moved on.
The man and this rifle are pictured surely around the time of the rifle having been made (1849) and the daguerreotype itself certainly dates from about that time. It is known that Artemas Leonard made this rifle and at the time of its manufacture and the style of the daguerreotype that both were done at about the same time. Before target rifle matches became really popular with turkeys, money and other things being awarded as prizes, many times shooting matches were an after church event and were less organized.
The man in the image has some nice clothes on along with a top hat next to him on the table that he is seated beside. So, one has to ask why all of this together? I believe that it is rifle maker Artemas Leonard himself who is pictured at the time of this image and date of the rifle, Artemas would have been 45 years old, which appears to be the approximate age of the man in the image. He obviously was making target rifles when the image was taken and where else to show his expensive wares than at a rifle shooting match where the accuracy of his rifle could be illustrated? Could it be that he showed up before or after church where nicer clothes would certainly be worn?
This part of our discussion cannot be proven but circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that it indeed Artemas Leonard, rifle maker of Saxton's River, Vt., pictured with his prized rifle. It could not be his son George who would have been only 20 at the time of the image. We know that the rifle was still owned by the maker when he died some 10 years after this photograph was taken. He was a large man based on the size of his hands and body relative to the large size of the rifle.
So in summary, the earliest form of American photography, the daguerreotype, showing a firearm is rare. As we go through identifying the rifle, then finding it still exists, then being able to purchase the exact rifle and its original appendages to go with the image, assembling both from two different locations all after some 165-plus years, the odds get longer and longer. Then, to be able to substantiate that the man shown with the rifle in this image is likely the maker that can be identified makes this discovery truly remarkable.
I have yet to locate the exact grave marker of Artemas Leonard, but it is reportedly in the old cemetery located just across the river from Saxton's River proper. He once lived on Rockingham Street that is now Pleasant Street and from Google Maps, comparing an 1860 street map image showing his estate's property, appears to be where a house at 19 Pleasant Street is now. The footprint from both maps appears to be about the same and I am wondering if maybe it could be the same house that has been maintained all of these years that Artemas Leonard lived in when he made this fine rifle.
If there is anyone who is familiar with any local history of Artemas Leonard I would sure like to hear of it. Please contact me at email@example.com or 830-230-5220.
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