What Gauges and Calibers Were Most Common in the Fur Trade?

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plmeek

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The straight forward answer is 28 balls to the livre for French trade guns and 28 balls to the pound for English Hudson Bay Company Northwest trade guns.

“Ok smart-a$$, I wanted to know the gauges and calibers and not this balls to the liver or balls to the pound BS.”

Well, that answer isn’t so straight forward. And like all good stories, it’s best to go back and start at the beginning.

Caliber and Gauge Now vs. Then

See, the words caliber and gauge are relatively modern, or at least their meanings are relatively modern. Caliber is used today in terms of the size of a bullet in a modern cartridge and the groove-to-groove diameter of a bore of a rifle (land-to-land diameter of a muzzleloading rifle). The term gauge is used as a measure of the internal diameter of a bore of a modern shotgun. These words had different meanings during the fur trade.

The word caliber is derived from the French word calibre. Calibre dates back to the earliest use of guns in France. Its original meaning is the number of balls to the French unit of weight, which at the time was livre. The English used another word for a similar measurement. They often used “bore” in reference to the number of balls to the pound, but they also wrote out “balls to the pound”.[1]

Even though the two terms were measuring pretty much the same thing, the French livre (489.5 grams) was bigger or heavier than the English pound avoirdupois (453.6 grams). In other words, a reference to a French ball 32 to the livre would be 2.6% larger in diameter and weigh 7.9 % more than an English ball 32 to the pound.

The meaning of the word gauge has always been an instrument or device for measuring the magnitude, amount, or contents of something, typically with a visual display of such information. Sometime in the 19th century it was adopted as a term to represent the internal diameter of a shotgun bore. Even though it might have been used with single and double barrel muzzleloaders in mid-19th century, it became standard practice with cartridge shotguns.

Similarly, caliber, in the modern sense, came into common use about the same time or maybe a little earlier. Samuel Colt used it to designate the nominal bore size of his cap-and-ball pistols, and it came into common usage in the US military with the adoption of the minié ball and the rifled musket.

Prior to about the middle of the 19th century, the number of balls to the pound (balls to the livre for French guns) was used in reference to the size of a gun’s bore. This goes back even further when cannons were developed, and their size was designated by the weight of the round projectile they shot such as a 6 pounder, a 12 pounder, etc.

But this was an indirect reference because balls-to-the-pound actually was a measurement of the size of a round ball that a gun shot. This may seem like a minor or even trivial distinction, but it is important.

Just keep in mind that in modern usage, gauge and caliber are measures of the internal diameter of the bore of the barrel. In the day, balls-to-the-pound was a measure of the ball diameter.

Windage

If a gun was said to “carry 28 to the pound”, it meant that it shot a round ball that had a diameter on the order of 0.550 inch. But as any modern muzzleloader shooter knows, it’s not very practical to shoot a gun with a ball whose OD is the same as the bore ID. In other words, allowance needs to be made for the patch around the ball and the buildup of fouling in the bore. This difference between the ball OD and the bore ID was called “windage”.[2] The windage varied between types of guns. It could be as small as 0.01 inch for a rifle and up to 0.05 inch for a military musket. A Northwest trade gun for the HBC that carried a ball 28 to the pound, therefore, would have a bore ID of 0.58 inch, assuming a windage of 0.03 inch.

To sum up, the modern terms of caliber and gauge is a measure of the barrel bore ID. The number of balls to the livre and balls to the pound are a measure of the ball OD. The difference between the two is called windage.

What do we know about the guns used during the fur trade?

I mentioned T. M. Hamilton and his work in another thread (What Constitutes a Trade Gun and a Trade Rifle?). His best book is Colonial Frontier Guns. This book was originally published in 1980, but unlike a lot of books from that period, it isn’t dated. Ironically, this is not necessarily due to the quality of Mr. Hamilton’s scholarly work, but due to the unintended consequences of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that was passed in 1990. This act has effectively shut down new archeological digs and studies, so little new material has become available over what Mr. Hamilton knew about.

Colonial Frontier Guns has a number of tables that are useful to understand the arms, particularly French arms, common in the North American fur trade.

Table I in Hamilton’s book lists various values of “Balls per Livre” and their equivalent diameter in French units of the day— pouce, ligne, and point —as well as millimeter and inches. Of interest in this table are the values for 28 and 18 balls to the livre. The diameters of these balls in inches are 0.563 and 0.652, respectively.[3]



Manufacturing Tolerances

Table II in Hamilton’s book is also important because it summarizes a set of “go” and “no-go” gauges used in the 18th century by French barrel inspectors. The important point from this table is that the manufacturing tolerance in French barrels based on the gauges was 6 French points or 0.045 inch.[4] It must be remembered that barrels were essentially hand made at this time and not made to the very tight tolerances that they are today. An acceptable barrel said to carry 28 balls to the livre could have an actual bore ID from 0.577 to 0.623 inches. Based on these manufacturing tolerances, it could be said that a French gun of 28 balls to the livre had a nominal bore ID of 0.60 inches and nominal windage of 0.037 inches.



Hamilton was aware of English bore gauges, but they appear to be later than the 18th century and suggest much smaller tolerances than the French gauges represented in his Table II. Manufacturing tolerances for the British military and the Hudson Bay Company were likely in place in the 18th century, but the exact magnitude isn’t known.

S. James Gooding notes in Trade Guns of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1679-1970 that the HBC was using the terms “High East India bore” and “Low East India bore”. “‘High’ meant that the ball fit the barrel with little windage while those of ‘low’ were to be of diameter in which the ball would roll freely down the barrel.” [5] This implies that the HBC had two standards of bore diameter tolerance.

Archeological Data

The Osage tribe occupied much of present day Missouri in the 18th century. They were the dominate tribe in the region and a major trading partner for the French. They lived in semi-permanent villages. A large number of barrel fragments have been collected from three of the known Osage village sites. Bore ID measurements have been made of these barrels and were presented by Hamilton in his Table IV. The data is presented graphically here as a frequency histogram.



The mode or most frequent bore ID is 0.60 inches which corresponds to the nominal bore size of a French 28-to-the-livre gun. If one uses the tolerance ranges from the “go” and “no go” gauges, then 46% or almost half of the barrels fall within the tolerance for the 28 balls-to-the-livre barrel.

Hamilton also looked at a significant volume of data for the diameter of round balls found at archeological sites. He presented this data in his Table V in the Colonial Frontier Guns book.

Here the same data is presented in a frequency histogram, which makes it easier to visualize and interpret than in tabular form. There are several caveats related to this data that are discussed in the footnotes.[6]



An attempt was made to separate the French data from the English data, but it wasn’t helpful. The French River data overwhelmed the other data and skewed the results. It wasn’t clear from Hamilton’s discussion whether the Granite River and Basswood River sites were believed to be French or English. Therefore, the combined data is shown in the histogram.

The mode, or the most frequent value, is clearly the .55 inch ball diameter. This is the diameter of a ball 28 to the pound, which shows the distribution may be dominated by English sites.

The manufacturing tolerance of the French barrels and a theoretical tolerance for English barrels are shown on the chart relative to the range in balls sizes that could fit each barrel (assuming a windage of 0.03 inches for each). There is an overlap region from 0.55 to 0.57 inches indicating that English barrels that fell above their mean tolerance and French barrels that fell below their mean tolerance could share the same balls.

Primary Source Material

Hamilton lists, as examples of the volume of ball and shot that the French shipped to Louisiana in 1733, “20,000 livres of bullets weighing 28 to 32 to the livre…These were shipped intermingled as to size, in kegs.” Again in 1734, they shipped “20,000 livres of balls weighing from 25 to 28 to the livre [and] 30,000 livres weighing from 28 to 32 to the livre…They were shipped in kegs containing 25 to 28 balls to the livre in one category, and 28 to 32 to the livre in the other…there would be about twice as many 28-to-the-livre balls shipped…as any other sizes because the 28-to-the-livre balls were included in each lot of kegs.” [7]

The reason for this can be found in The French Trade Gun in North America by Keven Gladysz where he writes,[8]

Keven Gladysz said:
A letter addressed in approximately 1710 by Pontchartrain, French minister of Marine, to the Intendant Bégon at Rochefort, provides us with important comparative information regarding the differences between the fusil de chasse [likely corresponding to the Tulle model] and the marine musket of the period: "What we call fusils de chasse are guns whereby the gun locks and furniture are more delicately made [proportionately smaller in size] than those for the troops. The barrels are also much lighter, using less matter [iron]. The calibre is of 28 balls per livre and those for the troops are of 18 balls per livre. This means that if we wanted to use fusils de chasse for the troops, those who distribute the balls would need to give to each soldier using a fusil de chasse, balls of 28 balls per livre, and they are too light to be used with a socket bayonet. These types of guns are usually meant for Canada and Acadia."
This indicates that 28 balls to the livre was the French standard for civilian and trade arms while 18 balls to the livre was the standard for military arms.


S. James Gooding in Trade Guns of the Hudson's Bay Company 1670-1970, thought that 28 balls to the pound was the standard size of HBC's trade guns, also. He writes:[9]

S. James Gooding said:
…In the orders issued after December 6, 1717 which would be required for shipment the following year, bore size is not found in the minutes and it appears as if a single size had become standard. There is no indication what that size was.

…it is not until the indent of 1830 that John Locke & Co. combined the name and the size: “Low India Shot, 28 [bore].”

This is somewhat confirmed by a large brass gang mould in the HBC collection. It is undoubtedly the one included in the 1797 armoures’s indent which casts 20 balls of .550 inch diameter—exactly 28 bore.

Only one record has been found which describes trade gun bore with precision. On 21 August, 1723, Richard Staunton, Governor at Fort Albany wrote:
If your honours think fit, I wish your guns may the next be better than last year’s. Mr. Myat informs me they were bad and unsizeable in their bores: I wish therefore you may be pleased to let their bores and ball to be answerable, which if with conveniency may be done will be very taking to the natives. The guns bores to be 59/100 parts of an inch.
…Although I have not been able to document that it was always 28 to the pound before the purchase from Locke & Co. in 1830, it does seem that this was the standard indicated in the minutes of 1717 quoted above.

Very little is mentioned in the literature about the bore sizes of trade guns ordered by the North West Company, the American Fur Company, and other independent traders. The North West Company had their trade guns marked just like the HBC and competed directly with them. It seems reasonable that they ordered trade guns to the same bore size standards as HBC, too.

The AFC orders quoted in the literature often lists the number of trade guns ordered by barrel length, but no indication of bore size. If this information is included in the primary source material, the authors of the reference books didn’t bother to list it in their quotes. It’s also possible that the bore size was a well-known standard and it wasn’t necessary for the fur company to state it in their orders to the gun makers just as the case with the serpent side plate.

A review of individual guns in James A. Hanson’s Firearms of the Fur Trade and Ryan R. Gale’s For Trade and Treaty indicated a wide range of bore sizes for Northwest trade guns pictured. It’s not known how these bores were measured. One common method uses a modern shotgun bore gauge like the one shown below. These can result in erroneous measurements because of muzzle wear as well as the way the muzzle was originally finished on the gun.



Guns in the 18th and early 19th century often had the bore near the muzzle relieved for about half the diameter of a ball to aid in loading. The relief in the bore allowed a patched ball to be thumb started, then rammed down the barrel with the ramrod. The type of bore gauge pictured above would be measuring the relieved and sometimes worn section of the bore and not the true bore ID.

The archeological data and the period documents are pretty clear that French trade guns were made to carry a nominal 28 balls to the livre, which had an OD of 0.563 of an inch. The French “go” and “no-go” gauges as well as the empirical archeological data show the French barrels had a nominal bore ID of 0.60 inches and nominal windage of 0.037 inches. The French trade gun bore, therefore, was a little smaller than a 20 gauge shotgun.

The Hudson’s Bay Company records suggest that 28 balls to the pound was the standard for their trade guns. This equates to a ball size of 0.550 of an inch, which agrees with the empirical archeological data for balls. Assuming a windage of about 0.03 of an inch, the standard bore ID for a Northwest trade gun was 0.58 of an inch.

Those are the nominal sizes. Since the manufacturing tolerances for the French bore ID’s were from 0.577 to 0.623 inches, actual guns could range from about 24 to almost 19 gauge or .58 to .62 caliber, using modern terms.

The HBC trade gun would have had some manufacturing tolerance, too, and likely ranged from about 26 to almost 21 gauge or .56 to .60 caliber, in modern terms.

There was some overlap in the bore sizes for the French guns and the British guns. This would allow French guns on the small side and English guns on the large size of allowed tolerances to shoot the same balls.

Hamilton pointed out that the French controlled the key waterways to much of the fur country in North America (see map below). He wrote:[10]
…the English traders had to bring their goods over the mountains by pack-train, while the French brought theirs in by boat. The English, with their broader economic base were able to undercut the French in the Mississippi Valley in selling guns, beads, and blankets; all highly profitable items on a pound for pound basis, but when it came to lead, the English, in effect, left it to the French to supply the ball and shot for the Indian’s English-made gun.


This may partially explain why the French brought in round balls that ranged from 32 to 25 per livre, a range of 0.500 to 0.585 inches in diameter. These could be shot in bores from 0.530 to 0.615 inches in diameter which covered the likely range of bore sizes in English trade guns (.56 to .60 caliber).

Summarizing

For French trade guns, the standard size was a nominal 28 balls to the livre. Expressing this in bore size and modern shotgun gauge, we get,

28 bttl = 0. 563" + .037" windage = 0.60" bore or close to modern 22 gauge

Given the manufacturing tolerances of the day, actual guns could range from 24 to almost 19 gauge or .58 to .62 caliber.

Similarly, for Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northwest trade guns (and likely other fur companies’ NW trade guns), the standard size was 28 balls to the pound. Expressing this in bore size and modern shotgun gauge, we get,

28 bttp = 0.550" + .030" windage = 0.58" bore or close to modern 24 gauge

Assuming manufacturing tolerances similar to the French, actual guns could range from 26 to almost 21 gauge or .56 to .60 caliber.





[1] T. M. Hamilton, Colonial Frontier Guns (Union City, Tennessee: Pioneer Press, 1987), 125.

[2] Ibid., 125.

[3] Ibid., 130.

[4] Ibid., 126.

[5] S. James Gooding, Trade Guns of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670-1970 (Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 2003), 64,65.

[6] Hamilton pointed out that Michilimackinac was occupied by both the French and the English and the balls recovered reflect a mix of origin. Hamilton recognized that the balls from the French River site are an anomaly in that they are much smaller than some of the other sites. He didn’t have an explanation for this, but he thought they might be contemporaneous with the small bore barrels recovered from the Osage sites. The data from the Basswood River site has balls in the range of .54” to .55” combined in one group as was the balls in the range .56” to .57” another group and the balls in the range .58” to .60” in a single group. These are evenly spread over the individual intervals in the histogram.

[7] Hamilton, Colonial Frontier Guns, 129.

[8] Kevin Gladysz, The French Trade Gun in North America 1662-1759 (Woonsocket, RI: Mowbray Publishers, 2011), 77.

[9] Gooding, Trade Guns of the HBC, 65, 66.

[10] Hamilton, Colonial Frontier Guns, 129.


 

Kozmo

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Awesome post! Very well written and informative. I've been considering a trade gun build so this was timely info!
 

Notchy Bob

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Spectacular! This is the best organized analysis I have seen. A lot of work went into this post, and it is much appreciated.

Notchy Bob
 

Notchy Bob

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I found a couple of quotes that may be pertinent, and worth repeating.

The first one is from Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories in 1859 and 1860, by the Earl of Southesk:

“My men had various guns and rifles of their own; none were worth much, except a highly-serviceable double-barreled gun belonging to M’Kay, of the best possible pattern for general use in that country [the Canadian plains]. It was as thick in the metal as a rifle, and carried a bullet accurately to more than a hundred yards, and as its bore was of the size (28) universal in the company’s trade, supplies of ball could be got anywhere and almost from any person. Small as these bullets are – for being round, they had none of the expansion of a conical ball, especially a flanged one such as that shot by my rifles, which were really but little different in the gauge – they are large enough, if well directed, to kill any beast in America; stores of them, moreover, can be carried in little bulk – an inestimable advantage for the ordinary hunter.

“This handy and neatly-finished gun, which was made in London at a trifling cost (₤12 if I rightly remember) could also throw shot with a power that I have never seen equalled [sic]. Good as my Purdey smooth-bores were, M’Kay used to kill ducks at distances fairly beyond my range” (p.38)

The Earl was a keen sportsman and shootist, and he was quite familiar with the sporting arms of his day. While he traveled the plains at a date outside of the pre-1840 timeframe that interests most fur trade reenactors, the frontier was still pretty wild then.

******

I found the next quote while browsing some back issues of The Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly (MOFTQ). It has to do with rifles used by the trappers rather than smoothbores, but I think it's worth noting in this discussion. Anyway, this is from The Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1969), p. 1, in a short article entitled “Fremont’s Trappers.” The original quote is by Lieutenant Frederick Walpole of the Royal Navy, from his book, Four Years in the Pacific, in Her Majesty’s Ship, “Collingwood,” from 1844 to 1848. The quote relates to John Charles Fremont’s visit to Monterey, California in 1846.

“During our stay in Monterey, Captain Fremont and his party arrived… Fremont rode ahead… After him came five Delaware Indians… The rest… rode two and two, the rifle held by one hand across the pommel of the saddle…. His original men are principally backwoodsmen, from the state of Tennessee and the banks of the upper waters of the Missouri… The butts of the trappers’ rifles resemble a Turkish musket, therefore fit light to the shoulder; they are long and very heavy, carry ball about thirty-eight to the pound. A stick a little longer than the barrel is carried in the bore, in which it fits tightly; this keeps the bullet from moving, and in firing, which they do in a crouching position, they use it as a rest.”

There is a lot of information about the rifles carried by the frontiersmen in that short paragraph... A lot to digest. Regarding bore size, a thirty-eight gauge ball would measure 0.497" and weigh 184.21 grains. Allowing for some windage, this would suggest approximately a .51 or .52 caliber rifle. Assuming the good lieutenant provided us with an accurate assessment, I think it is still a bit of a stretch to believe that all of the trappers carried rifles of the same gauge or caliber, although it would have simplified supply if they did.

If we may digress, I think the rod carried in the bore came up in another discussion on this board not long ago. Some people questioned it, but here is a primary reference.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 

Bo T

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Interesting treatise. However, didn't the livre vary immensely before 1799 when (I believe) a platinum standard for the kilogram was established? I am not sure about the British pound but there is a possibility that there was historic variance there also. So, depending on the historical period and the location a livre might be lighter or heavier than an English pound. Dang lack of standardization anyway.
 

plmeek

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Are you thinking of the unit of measure or the currency? The both had the same name.

I find no mention of the livre, as a unit of measure, changing in Russel Bouchard's The Fusil de Tulle in New France 1691-1741 or T. M. Hamilton's Colonial Frontier Guns or Kevin Gladysz's The French Trade Gun in North America 1662-1759.
 

Bo T

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My understanding is that a livre refers to a certain mass of silver as does a pound sterling when they refer to currency. They are both units of mass. However, before being standardized, those units of mass could vary. Even today an ounce of lead weighs less than an ounce of silver.:oops:
 

plmeek

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Very few of us have photographic memories where we can read or see something once and accurately recall facts, figures, and dates. I certainly don't. I have to look up source information on a regular basis to make sure I am recalling the information correctly. All too often, my memory is wrong to some degree or another.

That's one of my biggest pet peeves with many of the posts on forums like this. People rely on their memory when they write their post and don't quite get it right.

In my opinion, Bo T has done this in both his posts in this thread. I'll take his posts one at a time and try to unpack the several areas where his statements have gone awry.

My understanding is that a livre refers to a certain mass of silver as does a pound sterling when they refer to currency...
The pound sterling at one time represented a certain mass of silver, but that was in the early Dark Ages. The pound sterling and the French livre had its beginnings in the units of measure and currency that Charlemagne introduced in his empire. His units were based on Roman units.

By the middle of the Medieval Period, the pound sterling started to change. In 1158, a new coinage was introduced by King Henry II that changed the purity of the silver coin from 0.999 (99.9%) fine silver to 0.925 (92.5%) silver. Further changes were made around 1300, when the tale (money) pound, or pound sterling, first began to differ from (weigh less than) the tower pound. By an Act of the 13th year of Henry IV's reign (around 1412), the pound weight of standard silver was to contain thirty shillings in tale, or one and a half pounds sterling; thus the pound sterling reduced to two-thirds of a pound weight, or 8 oz tower. The pound sterling was adjusted in weight several more times subsequently.

Silver coinage was drastically debased, and the pound sterling was redefined to the troy pound of 5,760 grains (373 g) in 1526.

Pound sterling - Wikipedia

...They are both units of mass. However, before being standardized, those units of mass could vary. Even today an ounce of lead weighs less than an ounce of silver.
There is a lot in the statement quoted above. Some correct and some not. Pound sterling and pound weight can both be considered units of mass, but with the introduction of the troy pound, they became two different systems of units. There was a third system of units developed for apothecaries.

A troy pound (373.24 g) contains 12 oz while an avoirdupois pound (453.59 g) contains 16 oz. This is why an avoirdupois ounce of lead weighs less than a troy ounce of silver, but an avoirdupois pound of lead weighs more than a troy pound of silver. Two different systems of measurement.

In addition to being measured in different units from mass, both the French currency in livre and English currency in pound sterling went through many devaluations and changes from a silver standard to a gold standard to a free floating currency. While the French livre and British pound as currencies frequently changed, the livre and pound as units of mass did not.

...didn't the livre vary immensely before 1799 when (I believe) a platinum standard for the kilogram was established? I am not sure about the British pound but there is a possibility that there was historic variance there also. So, depending on the historical period and the location a livre might be lighter or heavier than an English pound. Dang lack of standardization anyway.
Not according to this information.

Units of measurement in France before the French Revolution § Mass

After Charlemagne attempted to establish standard units in his empire, changes were made in the 14th century and in the 15th century when the standard was based on the Parisian pile de Charlemagne. The Parisian pile de Charlemagne didn't change again until the metric system was adopted.

The Wikipedia article does point out the units of mass were not consistent across France, but varied by town or region. However, the military and trade guns made in Tulle and Saint-Etienne would have been made to the King's standard or the Parisian pile de Charlemagne units of mass and wouldn't have changed over the course of the 18th century.

The British system went through similar changes in unit of mass over the centuries as the French livre with the last change in 1588 when Queen Elizabeth increased the weight of the avoirdupois pound to 7000 grains and added the troy grain to the avoirdupois weight system.

As a unit of mass, the British pound and the French livre did not change over the period discussed in my treatise on ball and bore size of French and English trade guns. I'm not sure where Bo T got the impression that they did unless he confused the units of mass with the currencies by the same name which did under go many changes in standards and devaluations.
 

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