Arms in the Northwest
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Art. II . Arms in the Northwest, by J. Gottfred.

What kinds of arms did Europeans carry in the Northwest? It turns out to be an intriguing and impressive array, ranging from scissors to cutlasses to swivel guns— even a grenade launcher! In this article I will take a look at the kinds of arms which were carried by the fur traders, and get some sense of the availability of shooting supplies for the men who worked at or near the trading posts.

Long Guns

Without a doubt the vast majority of guns in circulation in the Northwest were shotguns, and the majority of those were the smooth-bored trade muskets.

The only rifles in the Northwest seem to have belonged to the Americans at the American Fur Company's Astoria fur post at the mouth of the Columbia River. Robert Stuart, Gabriel Franchère, Ross Cox, Alexander Ross, and Wilson Price Hunt all used the word 'rifle' in their narratives (Russell, 55). Also, in 1814, Alexander Henry (the younger) refers to 'Mr. R. Stuart's double-barreled screwgun, well known to them [the natives] all...' (Henry, 885-6) Unfortunately, this is all that he says about it.

Cannon— This example of a naval truck-mounted three-pounder is on display at Old Fort William, Thunder Bay, Ont.

Trade muskets were around in fair numbers. Between 1689 and 1780, the Hudson's Bay Company had sold roughly 20,000 guns out of York Factory alone (Ray, 74). It would appear that posts had muskets of various lengths in stock at most times. For example, in 1774, the Hudson's Bay Company sent Samuel Hearne, then at Cumberland House, one 4-foot gun, two 3½-foot guns, and one 3' 2" gun (Tyrell, 112-113). In 1798, William Tomison ordered four cases of 3½-foot guns and four cases of 3-foot guns (thirty-two guns in total) from York Factory (Johnson, 177). In 1796, Peter Fidler sent twenty-eight 3-foot guns (as well as 96 assorted bayonets and a gross of knives), by horse, from Buckingham House to Edmonton House. Fidler also notes in a postscript to Tomison that '[repairs to] the gun locks etc. shall be done as soon as possible.' (Johnson, 79, 79n). So, even from quite early, guns were available in fair numbers, right to the foot of the Rockies. You could buy a gun and all the required shooting supplies, even get your lock sent out for repairs, near modern Edmonton, Alberta. This was eight years before and 870 km (540 miles) farther west than from where Lewis & Clark set out from Fort Mandan to penetrate the wilderness of the American West— clearly the situation was quite different in Canada.

Shooting Supplies

Shooting supplies were readily available for those who frequented the trading establishments. For example, at Cumberland House in 1774, Samuel Hearne had 598 pounds of shot of different sizes in store (Tyrell, 112-113). Alexander Mackenzie took no less than eighty pounds of gun powder with him on his journey to the Pacific Coast in 1793 (Mackenzie, 300). He mentions this powder because the expedition almost came to a sudden end when it got wet and they spread it out on the ground to dry. One of his voyageurs then wandered over the spot with a lighted pipe!

In 1810-11, during his epic journey over the Athabasca Pass, David Thompson's trade goods included 8 North West guns, 93 pounds of balls, 37 pounds of beaver and pigeon shot, 93½ pounds of gun powder, 416 gun flints, and 44 gun worms (Thompson, Columbia, 255-257).

As a final example, the Hudson's Bay Company records show that during the winter of 1810 to 1811, Cumberland House, Brandon House, and Carlton House all together sold 1580 pounds of shot and 1190½ pounds of powder. These numbers are typical for the time (Ray, 152-153). Unfortunately these numbers tell us little about the demand for these goods, which may have outstripped the supply, thus creating local shortages. However, these examples certainly leave the impression that supplies were generally available.

Gun Quality

I have read no less than seven direct accounts of trade guns having burst in the hands of both Natives and Europeans (Henry, 109; Johnson, 16; Tyrell, 125, 258, 375). William Tomison even notes some gun barrels that 'got bent by accident' and which were repaired by the armourer at Edmonton House in 1798 (Johnson, 148). Does this mean that the guns were of shoddy construction?

On the one hand, William Tomison notes in his journal in 1795 that 'there is great complaints from all quarters against the guns, many Indians has lost part [or all] of their hands.' (Johnson, 16). And in 1779, Philip Turnor wrote to the London Committee stating:

'I think the trading Guns must be very slightly proved as one that I bought of Your Honors made by Wilson being loaded to four inches including powder, shot & wading the third time it was fired blowed into two pieces about 15 inches from the britch [breech] but luckily did no damage' (Tyrell, 258).

Turnor, the chief surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company (and the man who would teach David Thompson the art of Navigation) was no doubt a technically knowledgeable man who would be less likely than others to abuse his gun. His outrage at this experience suggests that this was unusual.

Other experienced shooters with presumably better quality pieces had difficulties as well. Alexander Henry possessed what he called an 'excellent' and reliable double-barreled shot gun which he used for some time (Henry, 95). This gun, which I presume was a fine English Fowler, blew up in his hands in 1801 when he was hunting buffalo (Henry, 187).

It seems clear that all firearms of the period were far less reliable than the pieces of today, but whether the trade muskets were even less so in a general sense is not entirely clear from these accounts. It would appear that at times, the quality of not only the guns but of other brazen wares did suffer, possibly as a result of fraud by the manufacturers (Ross, 46-47). It would be interesting to try to track down some data on the military's experience with the Brown Bess— what percentage of those guns burst under normal use?


Pistols seem to have been quite common in the Northwest. Many clerks, partners, and even voyageurs carried them. There are over a dozen references to different persons carrying a pistol or brace of pistols in the Northwest (Thompson, Narrative, 366; Harmon, 32; Henry, 404, 589-590, 900; Mackenzie, 313; Tyrell, 225, 228).

Alexander Mackenzie carried a brace of pistols, a hanger (sword), a long gun, and a dag on his trip to the Pacific coast (Mackenzie, 205, 313, passim), and at various times David Thompson reports carrying long knives, a long gun 'slung on his back', and a brace of Mortimer 18 gauge, 18-inch pistols (Thompson, Narrative, 46, 185, 366). In fact, Thompson's pistols are part of an interesting story, as he lent one of them to a Hawaiian called Coxe for the return trip up the Columbia from Astoria in 1810.

Yes, a Hawaiian. In fact, the first men to navigate the Columbia River from its mouth to its source included an Englishman (David Thompson), four French Canadians (Michel Bordeaux, Pierre Pareil, Joseph Coté, & François Gregoire), a Hawaiian (Coxe), and two Iroquois (Charles and Ignace). They all left Astoria in the company of David Stuart, Mr. Pillet, Mr. Ross, Mr. McClellan, Mr. de Montigny and an Indian woman transvestite called Qánqon and her wife. See? Truth is stranger than fiction! (Thompson, Narrative, 365, 366, 269; Franchère, 84, 85; Henry 647n).

Swords, Knives and Other Side Arms

In addition to Alexander Mackenzie's hanger already mentioned, there appear to have been several cutlasses in circulation in the Northwest. Philip Turnor mentions their use at Cumberland House in 1779 (Tyrell, 225), and Alexander Henry recounts his clerk Charles Hesse using one on his wife in a fit of jealousy at Pembina River Post in 1803 (Henry, 231).

Long knives were popular. David Thompson carried two, and his men each carried one during their return trip from Astoria in 1810 (Thompson, Narrative, 366).

Simon Fraser's clerk, Jules Quesnel, carried a dagger in a scabbard in addition to his pistol (Fraser, 112), and Alexander Ross apparently carried a dirk (Henry, 837).

Knives were popular trade items and they were also used as payment to hunters and guides. In 1790 Philip Turnor gave his guide two clasp knives for services rendered (Tyrell, 560), and a Hudson's Bay Company hunter named Benjamin Bruce was paid (in part) one yew-handled knife, two butcher knives, four common clasp knives, two double bladed knives, and a pair of scissors for his work at Chesterfield House in 1802 (Fidler 319n4). Amongst the goods that David Thompson took over the Athabasca Pass with him in 1810-11 were six dozen large knives, fourteen small knives, five fine knives, two knives and forks, one case of razors and a strop, and five pairs of scissors (Thompson, Columbia, 255-257).

It seems that every man would have had some sort of small knife about his person either of the clasp or hunting variety, while clerks, factors, and partners likely carried a brace of pistols and either a sword, dagger or long knife of some sort.


There are several records of small artillery pieces being used in the interior of the Northwest. Peter Fidler had a cannon style swivel gun (probably of the pound-and-a-half type) at Chesterfield House in 1802 (Fidler 320n5).

Simon Fraser carried another swivel gun with him on his journey down the river that bears his name. At one point they went to demonstrate it to the natives, and upon loading it with three gills of powder, it promptly blew to pieces and wounded the gunner. How impressed the natives were is not recorded! (Fraser, 133).

Swivel Gun — This example of a pound-and-a-half swivel gun on display at Old Fort William is of the type carried by Alexander Henry the younger. (Pictured next to a keg of supplies. The armourer's legs in the background for scale.)

In 1814 Fort Astoria had a cannon style swivel gun and several heavy guns which had been brought by sea. These included a four pounder and six long naval six-pounders from the Isaac Todd (Henry 759, 807, 907). In fact, Alexander Henry the younger noted that canoes leaving Fort Astoria enroute to Fort William carried with them one brass four-pounder with carriage, one iron swivel gun, and one brass swivel gun (Henry, 876).

Henry himself was a great believer in artillery. He carried a pound-and-a-half cannon style swivel gun across half the continent and frequently used it to threaten the Blackfoot (Henry, 546). He also carried a kind of small mortar called a coehorn which was used for launching grenades. He had it mounted in an oak carriage when in use (Henry 428, 430). (One is tempted to imagine that perhaps the reason this colorful character drowned at Astoria in 1814 was due to the weight of ordnance in his pockets...)

Implications for Re-enactment

The implications of all this for re-enactors seems clear : for an historically typical portrayal, choose a shot gun, either a fowler or, more typically, a trade musket.

If you are portraying a clerk or factor, consider augmenting your long gun with a hunting hanger or cutlass, dagger or dirk, and a brace of pistols.

Of course, everyone should be well-equipped with long knives, clasp knives, and the like— and don't forget, you can keep your hair in trim with scissors and even shave with a proper razor in places as far afield as Kootenae House!


Franchère, Gabriel. A Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America. Milo Milton Quaife (ed). Lakeside Classics : Chicago, 1954.

Fraser, Simon. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-1808. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Macmillan : Toronto, 1960.

Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country : The Journal of Daniel Williams Harmon, 1800-1816. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Macmillan : Toronto, 1957.

Henry, Alexander (the Younger). New Light on the Early History of the Northwest : The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry... Elliot Coues (ed.) Reprint-Ross & Haines : Minneapolis, 1965. Originally published 1897.

Johnson, Alice M. (ed.) Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence : Edmonton House 1795-1800, Chesterfield House 1800-1802. Hudson's Bay Record Society : London, 1967.

Mackenzie, Alexander. The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. W. Kaye Lamb (ed.) Cambridge University Press : London, 1970.

Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade. University of Toronto Press : Toronto, 1974.

Ross, Eric. Beyond the River and the Bay : Some Observations on the State of the Canadian Northwest in 1811... University of Toronto Press : Toronto, 1970.

Russell, Carl P. Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men. University of New Mexico Press : Albuquerque, 1967.

Thompson, David. David Thompson's Narrative, 1784-1812. Glover, Richard (ed.) Champlain Society : Toronto, 1962.

Thompson, David. Columbia Journals. Barbara Belyea (ed.) McGill-Queen's : Montreal, 1994.

Tyrrell, J. B. (ed.) Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor. Reprint : Greenwood Press : New York, 1968. Originally published 1934.


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