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What Constitutes a Trade Gun and a Trade Rifle?

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40 Cal.
Dec 3, 2007
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Denver, CO
The subject line of a recent thread on another forum was “Whites using Trade Rifles?” The poster went on to elaborate, “My question is wheather [sic] or not any white people, settlers, plainsmen, guides, etc. ever would have used these Indian trade rifles?”

The question was adequately answered on that forum, so I don’t intend to address it here. But some of the answers, and possibly the question itself, highlighted to me that not everyone understands what a trade gun or a trade rifle is.

Sometimes words and phrases become overused in that they are used so often by so many and in different context that they tend to lose their meaning. The phrases “trade gun” and “trade rifle” are becoming that way. Their use can be very confusing to someone new to the hobby and even to some old timers.

The terms are generally associated with the fur trade and sometimes explicitly the Indian trade, though there were non-Indians involved in the fur trade who often used the same arms.

It can also get a little confusing because just about any type of smoothbore or rifle could have and likely was traded to Indians somewhere at some time. But if we call every muzzleloader that could have been traded to Indians in even small quantities a trade gun, then the phrase simply becomes synonymous with “muzzleloader” and has little or no meaning.

Then what does constitute a trade gun and a trade rifle?

To answer this, it’s probably worthwhile to provide some background information. On the dedication page of his encyclopedia volume, Firearms of the Fur Trade, James A. Hanson wrote,






Joseph Mayer
T. M. Hamilton
Charles E. Hanson, Jr.
S. James Gooding
George Shumway
Russel Bouchard
Jan Piet Puype
Claude Gaier
Dewitt Bailey
Lee Burke

These are the people that have researched, studied, classified, and defined what is a trade gun and what is a trade rifle.

T. M. Hamilton stands out for his work in the field of archeology and identification of gun parts. Even though he was not formally educated and trained as an archeologist, he became highly respected in the field and considered the expert on archeological gun parts. He wrote many articles and books on the subject and developed a classification system for the parts he saw most abundant in various archeological collections around the US and Canada.

He ended up with eighteen different classifications of trade guns that he labeled types, ranging from Type A to Type R. Most muzzleloader enthusiasts are familiar with his French Type C and Type D and his English Type G trade gun classifications.

Others on the list such as Charles E. Hanson, Jr., S. James Gooding, George Shumway, Russel Bouchard, and Dewitt Bailey have spent considerable time and effort in researching period documents. All have published extensively on their subjects.

Charles E. Hanson, Jr. has written about Northwest Trade guns and was the first to comb the records of the American Fur Company and identify and classify the trade rifles that were associated with the Rocky Mountain fur trade. S. James Gooding has published the seminal work on the study of trade guns of the Hudson’s Bay Company. George Shumway was the first to publish research on English made trade rifles. Russel Bouchard wrote about the many French trade guns used in New France. Dewitt Bailey has researched the British government records and written about the various trade guns, pistols, and rifles that the government ordered for North American Indian trade and diplomacy.

Collectively, they have defined the terms trade gun and trade rifle. So what is it?

The first aspect is that the gun has to appear in the archeological and/or archival record in significant quantity. Second, it has to have a fairly wide geographic distribution. Third, and most importantly, it has to have unique or identifiable characteristics.

This later requirement means the gun or rifle must follow a specific pattern.

Up until the middle of the 19th century, guns were predominately made by hand. Even so, armies found it advantageous to have some standardization in their arms. To achieve this standardization, their gun manufactures were required to copy patterns of gun parts and whole guns as closely as possible. The parts weren’t interchangeable, but they were visually the same.

Most of the trade gun and trade rifle makers also made military arms, so they were very used to building a gun or rifle to a pattern.

Many of the modern names we apply to these different patterns weren’t used in the period. The companies ordering guns from the manufactures often referred to Northwest trade guns as just “common” trade guns. What we call Chief’s grade was usually a “fine” or “best” gun. Even so, both the company and the manufacture had a specific pattern in mind that was being ordered.

The Indians were often influential in developing these patterns. They associated spiritual significance to certain decorative features such as the serpent side plate while other features such as English proof marks were indicative of quality. The architecture of the rifles made in Lancaster, PA became so popular with Indians in the Old Northwest Territories that the English copied it for trade in the Great Lakes region as early as the Revolutionary War and possibly earlier. Decades later, the AFC was still ordering “Lancaster” pattern rifles for the Great Lakes region and the Rocky Mountains. These “Lancaster” pattern rifles were often made in Philadelphia, near Nazareth, PA, or even in New York rather than just Lancaster, PA.

With the exception of the Northwest trade gun, which has no civilian counterpart, guns and rifles made for the fur trade were simply less expensive versions of civilian fowlers and rifles. The fact that many manufactures such as Wilson and Ketland of England and Deringer, Henry, and Leman of America made civilian guns in varying grades causes the line between a trade gun/rifle and a civilian gun/rifle to be blurred. In some cases, essentially the same arm being made for the fur trade could also be found for sale in a country hardware store.

To sum up, a trade gun or trade rifle is not just any arm that might have been traded to an Indian or used by a non-Indian trader or trapper. It has to be an arm that was traded in significant quantities, across a geographic area, and fit a specific pattern of construction and appearance. They often had civilian counterparts, and in fact, most of the guns that survive in collections today that are called trade guns or rifles were never owned by natives or trappers. They are just of the pattern that were traded to Indians and carried by trappers, traders, and plainsmen.
Mar 23, 2015
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Nice overview Plmeek. It covers what I think of when speaking of a trade gun whether rifle or smoothie when referencing the fur trade era.
Oct 27, 2019
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That was a great article Mr Meek
I love that info and it's hard to find these days for me anyway.
So thank you so much.

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