This exhibition explores a fascinating and often overlooked chapter in the art of European gunmaking, presenting a selection of fourteen important London-made firearms drawn from the Museum's collection, many of which have rarely or never been exhibited. Focusing on pistols—a strength of the Museum's British firearms collection—rather than long guns, it includes works dating from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, among them highly embellished arms made for the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762–1830) and his circle. Thematically organized around technological innovations and style, the exhibition is the first in the United States to examine the art of the London gunmaker.
Beginning around 1780, a small group of talented gunmakers set up workshops on the outskirts of the London city center. Their names, Durs Egg, John Manton, and Samuel Brunn, among others, are largely unknown to those outside the arms and armor field. But their contributions to the art of firearms are almost without parallel. In fierce competition with one another for lucrative commissions, fame, and prestige, they brought the flintlock gun to a level of refinement never before seen. They all but discarded extraneous decoration, and instead favored the development of elegant yet ergonomic designs incorporating new technologies that served to enhance accuracy, handling, and speed. Through this exploratory process, a beautiful and distinctly British style of firearm was born. The gunmakers of this "Augustine age," as one writer of the period defined it, fittingly earned a devoted following among the British royal family and the aristocracy, in addition to great fame throughout Europe.
One of a pair of flintlock pistols (detail). Samuel Brunn (British, active 1795–1820), gunmaker; Michael Barnett (British, 1758–1823), silversmith. British, London, hallmarked for 1800–1801. Steel, wood (walnut), silver, gold. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund and Gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 1992 (1992.330.1, .2)