Guns and gun parts on archaeology sites

On November 6, 2014 Cultural Resource Program Manager, Eva Jensen working in the Great Basin National Park (USA) noticed an object leaning on a Juniper tree. Getting a closer look she discovered that the object was a rifle. Further inspection and research revealed that it was a Winchester Model 1873 Rifle.
The rifle leaning against the Juniper tree.
The rifle leaning against the Juniper tree. The Great Basin National Park Facebook page has more great shots of the rifle

This story got me thinking about guns and gun parts that have been found on archaeology sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. Of course many sites in the province have cannons, cannon balls, discharged shell casings, gun flint and lead shot. But I was thinking more about hand-held guns, rifles and muskets etc.

Cannon found at Mortier during the Burin Peninsula Heritage Inventory (Barnable)
Cannon found at Mortier during the Burin Peninsula Heritage Inventory (Barnable)
Gun Flints, copper casing found in Greenspond
Gun Flints, copper casing found in Greenspond

For example, in 1998, Jacques Whitford Environment Limited archaeologists found the barrel and brass side plate from a flint lock musket during the Churchill River Power Project Environmental study on the shoreline of Atikonak Lake. The barrel appeared to contain a touch hole, indicating a flint lock rather than a percussion action. The breech plug was intact, minus the associated barrel tang. The contour of the barrel suggests the exposed upper portion of the breech was finished in a partially faceted design, while the lower portion, which would have been hidden by the stock, possessed a plainer, rounded contour. Although generally difficult to date owing to the widespread use of multiple variations of the motif throughout the period, the fine definition of the scales and other details of this particular side plate suggests a variant dating from ca. 1800 to the 1830s or 1840s (JWEL & IED 2000:208).

Searching through files and reports I was able to find an assortment of gun parts and gun related tools from sites throughout the province.

I also sent out a request to my archaeology colleagues to see if they had stories or photos of guns and/or gun parts found on archaeology sites. I received a great sampling of artifact shots.

Dr. Barry Gaulton of Memorial University of Newfoundland sent me a couple of pictures of gun locks that have been found at the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland.

Gunlock from Ferryland
Gunlock from Ferryland
Gunlock from Ferryland
Gunlock from Ferryland

The Colony of Avalon website also have some examples of gun parts found in Ferryland.

TOP-Lock from a 17th-century "snaphaunce," so called because its action resembled the pecking of a chicken. First half of the 17th century. BOTTOM-An English "dog lock," so called because a small dog, or catch, held the cock in place and prevented the musket from discharging accidentally.
TOP-Lock from a 17th-century “snaphaunce”, so-called because its action resembled the pecking of a chicken. First half of the 17th century.
BOTTOM-An English “dog lock,” so-called because a small dog, or catch, held the cock in place and prevented the musket from discharging accidentally.

Dr. Michael Deal, also at Memorial University of Newfoundland, sent me several photos of guns and gun parts that came from aircraft wrecks from the island portion of the province.

In 1943 a Lockheed Ventura (CjAe-61) was going out on an anti-submarine patrol when the plane crashed and burned. It was carrying, among other things, loaded 50 cal. machine guns. When the plane crashed and burned some of the bullets exploded.

In 1945 a B-24M Liberator (DgAo-01) being deployed to England crashed Northeast of Gander. Because the plane was being ferried to England it carried no bullets but it did have its armament of 50 cal. machine guns. Shown in the photos is one of the 50 cal. machine guns that was found on the edge of the debris field. There is also a shot of the same gun in the lab and another shot of the gun propped against one of the B-24 turrets. The officers on board had hand guns (45 cal. pistols) and Dr. Deal found one of the 45 cal. gun clips (shown in conservation) and several bullets and casings (one shown in situ).

Jamie Brake, the Nunatsiavut Government Archaeologist, was very helpful and gave me a good example of a gun part found on an archaeology site.

In 2012 at the site of Middle House Cove 1 in Double Mer Jamie and his colleague Tony Wolfrey found a gun barrel eroding out of a bank. The remains of a buried house foundation are in a clearing just back from the shore, and, as can be seen in the photos, the gun barrel was found in front of the clearing.

Jamie also told me an interesting story about a musket ball found in a piece of wood which was cut by Tyler Pamak behind his cabin in Tikkoatokak Bay. The piece of wood with the ball was brought to Nain. Last summer a dendrochronology grad student named Jay Maillet happened to be working in Nain. He did a preliminary analysis on the wood and believes the ball was shot into the tree around 1884!

Musket ball lodged in the tree (Pamak)
Musket ball lodged in the tree (Pamak)

Yet another interesting story from Jamie was regarding a soapstone musket ball mould. The object appears to be one half of a musket ball mould and was recently picked up in Nain and shown to Jamie. If you look closely at the object in the photo below you can see two small grooves (two arrows on bottom) that may be for lines that would be used to hold strings which would hold the two halves of the mould together. The single arrow on the left points to what may be a funnel in to which molten lead was poured to make the ball.

Soapstone musket ball mould
Soapstone musket ball mould

To support the possibility that this is a musket ball mould Jamie found the following reference:
On the inside of the flap of the woman’s duffle dicky of the east coast of Hudson bay and Ungava there is a little line of pewter ornaments which jingle as she walks. These are made of old spoons obtained from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and termed pi’xo-tit. The spoons are melted and the fluid metal poured into a mould made of two slabs of steatite (Hawkes 1916:39).


Hawkes, E.W.
1916  The Labrador Eskimo.

Jacques Whitford Environment Limited/Innu Economic Development Enterprises Inc.  (JWEL/IED)
2000 Churchill River Power Project, 1998 Environmental Studies. Final Report, HROA, Labrador Component 98.22


6 thoughts on “Guns and gun parts on archaeology sites

  1. Fascinating finds, but I’d like to make a plea for accuracy in the terminology applied to modern ammunition finds.
    ‘Bullets’ are the heavy pointed bits fitted in the business end of a ‘cartridge’. The complete item is a ’round of ammunition’ [or just ’round’, but NOT ‘bullet’!] which after firing leaves a spent ‘case’ or ‘cartridge case’. In the case of muzzle-loading firearms the cartridge is made of paper which is consumed in use, and survives only very rarely eg in a pouch.
    Sorry to sound pedantic, but as archaeologists we should take care to be more precise with nomenclature than the general media.

    1. Thank-you for the information and corrections. I appreciate the help, this is not close to my area of specialty in archaeology so I always appreciate help.

    2. Very interesting article, but as Mr. Taylor has said…”accuracy, please” (paraphrased, of course). I’ll have to further clarify his comments in that a “round of ammunition” is a colloquial term for “cartridge”, which is the correct term.
      Also, in correct usage, what you illustrated as a “gun clip” is incorrect. It’s simply a “magazine”, or “gun magazine”, if you will. I see that the incorrect terms that you’re using actually come from the original sites. Quite surprising to me that no one has corrected them prior to this, but I suppose any time is a good time.

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