Fascinating guns: a pair of percussion pistols from Manceaux à Paris - A gift from the Emperor!

A pair of percussion pistols from Manceaux à Paris
The elevation of the rear sights can be continuously adjusted on Manceaux's percussion pistols by moving the pin in front of the trigger guard up or down.

The technical details first: the pistols have a caliber of 12.3 mm (.48), their barrel length is 9.5”/242 mm each with an overall length of 15.7”/400 mm. They are numbered 1 and 2, the number 1 weighs 35.66 oz/1,011 g, the heavier number 2 is 35.9 oz/1,018 g. The guns have fully adjustable sights: the front sight on both can be moved laterally and the rear sight can be elevation-adjusted via a moving pin located in front of the trigger guard. The front sight is a nickel-silver element, semicircular when viewed from the side and beam-shaped when viewed by the aiming eye. The rear sight features a wide trough-shaped notch. At its deepest point there is a rectangular cut which corresponds with the front sight. The technical details also determine the purpose: the barrel profile and sights of these guns are at the transition between a duel pistol and a target pistol.

The stocks of the pair are made from walnut wood, varnished and decorated with semi-relief carvings. In the front are vines, blossoms and a coat-of-arms. The actual grip has further vines with a checkered area in the middle. The counter lock bears ornamental "C-Scrolls". The octagonal barrels are polished to a high gloss and flaunt a shade of blue known to experts as "midnight blue". Like the rest of the metal, the patent tail screw is kept in "French Grey" color, i.e. bright and slightly matt; it shows fine tendril ornament engravings. The barrels have suffered over the years and bear traces of moisture: in places the bluing looks as if it has been wiped away, so that the bare metal underneath can be seen. The carvings on the grips of the guns are sharp and unworn, just like the hammer spurs with a fine cross-hatching for better grip. Also the part of the trigger guard and trigger lever where the index finger rests when aiming and firing is not different in color from the rest of the metal. Both indicate that the former owners hardly fired the guns.

The bullet mold of the Manceaux set
The bullet mold of the Manceaux set features not only a cast burr cutter but also a unique lever system.

So much for the vile description, but it doesn't do justice to this pair. It is extraordinary because there is a combination of exuberant detail, craftsmanship and carefully selected materials. Since 1854 – this is the indication found on the guns – the wood of the Manceaux pistols has hardly been touched at all, the metal-to-wood fits still appearing perfect. Just like the outside of the box lid, there are no noticeable cracks or joints on the guns, no palpable transitions from lock to wood can be detected. And there are details everywhere: the lock plate fearures a lot of small, sickle-like, curved points all around and a terrace-like heel at the back end – but this has to fit neatly into the wood. That can be done by working more generously sized parts and filling the empty spaces with putty or resin. But you can also cut out this area with the precision of a heart surgeon, just like the nameless gun stocker did, so that the metal sits perfectly in the wood and no noticeable edges stand up anywhere. If you take out the lock (including drops of sweat and increased pulse rate), you can see that the corners on the lock plate are undercut at an angle. But for such a thing to fit neatly, the wood must be cut out in exactly the same way: "This is done as accurately as otherwise only surgical tools can do," says master gunsmith Jarzombek, the current owner of the two percussion pistols. On the inside, too, the wood was completely and precisely cut out and finely layered – even paper-thin bridges were worked out. And then Claus Jarzombek pointed out something else: "Take a close look – you can see the imprint of the slotted screws at the bottom of the wood inside.” 

Accessories of the Manceaux à Paris percussion pistols

The box of the Manceaux's pair of percussion pistols 
The box, decorated with nickel silver inlays, in addition to the Manceaux's pair of percussion pistols contains cleaning and loading accessories in velvet-lined compartments.

Besides the pistols, the accessories include a loading hammer, ramrod, wad hook, 2 boxes, all made from ebony. In addition, an ingenious bullet mold, a powder dipper, a wooden handle and a reversible flat screwdriver-nipple wrench combination tool. And with all this, the obsession with detail reigns again: the 2 round primer boxes each have a lid with a bayonet lock; each of them closes in 2020 as tight and clean as in 1854. Then the mold pliers for bullet casting, which are part of the set: every muzzle loader fan has already worked with molds whose articulated joint between the operating arms runs more or less smoothly. Not so here: not only an additional articulated joint stabilizes the movement of the pliers, but the parts move quietly and silky smooth. When the mold is closed, the eye can see a gap between the 2 parts that form the actual mold. But even here the sense of touch could feel absolutely no transition – precision engineering at its finest. Jarzombek: "The lever transmission on the mold is a unique feature, I only know it from the manufacturer of these two pistols.”

The manufacturer – Joseph-Francois Manceaux

percussion pistols from Manceaux donated by the Emperor
On top: "DONNÉ PAR L'EMPEREUR", donated by the Emperor. Recipient: "MR. FAGES (J. H.) / LIEUTENT AU 44E DE LIGNE", a lieutenant of the 44th Line Infantry Regiment.

On the lock plate, in an arch, an inscription refers to the gunsmiths behind these guns: "J. MANCEAUX A PARIS". And that was not just anyone. If you look up the name Jules Manceaux in the "Neues Støckel", the "International Encyclopaedia of Gunsmiths, Firearms Manufacturers and Crossbow Makers from 1400 to 1900", you will find it's proven to be Jules Manceaux (attested from 1838 to 1872). In fact, there were at least two generations of the Manceauxes – this is showed in the research by the renowned Dutch antique gun dealer and expert Peter Dekker of Mandarin Mansion. Dekker names Joseph-François Manceaux and his son François Jules Manceaux and writes that the family originally came from Versailles, but opened their shop in Paris in 1806. According to this, Manceaux senior represented the factory located in Klingenthal, Alsace, and founded in 1730 as "Manufacture Royale d'armes blanches". Dekker: "Both father and son successfully applied for various patents for the design of firearms and armor, from sheaths to breechloaders and helmets. François Jules Manceaux alone held some 20 patents." According to Støckel, these included a barrel rifling machine (1854) and the percussion system for breech loaders of the Manceaux-Vieillard type (2 patents in 1856 and 1858). In addition to running his own business, the junior also ran the state factory in Tulle from 1838-45 and was probably active in Corrèze. 

Percussion pistols from Manceaux: inscription 
The inscription on two lines reveals purpose and time: "ECOLE NORMALE DE TIR 1854 / 2E PRIX D'ENSEMBLE" – the percussion pistol set formed the 2nd prize of a shooting school.

According to Dekker, François Jules Manceaux in particular produced various presentation weapons, one more elaborate and magnificent than the other. These included various sabres, knives and daggers in the Ottoman style, but in a much more elaborate form. He also made various presentation firearms: in 1843, according to Dekker, he supplied the pair of pistols that the French King Louis Philip I (the "Citizen King", 1773-1850) presented to the Scottish-born naval hero Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860). As Jarzombek remarks, the decoration was more expensive, but there were not yet the "crazily elaborate" fitting job as in the pair of pistols shown here, for instance around the lock plates with the many details mentioned and the rear-end angled towards the grip. In 1852, according to Dekker, a set of presentation pistols for Si Mohammed bel Heidie from the then Prince Napoléon followed, also made by Manceaux using locks from the workshop of Jean Frédéric Monier. 

Zaida Villegas-Villegas shows one of the two Manceaux pistols
Waffenbörse Kassel 2019: Zaida Villegas-Villegas shows one of the two Manceaux pistols at Claus Jarzombek's exhibition stand.

What was the purpose of the two percussion pistols made by Maceaux?

As mentioned at the beginning, the set is a gift from the highest circles: the barrel of each pistol bears on its upper face, inlaid in gold, the imperial crown and the letter "N" for Napoleon, followed by the words "Donné par l'empereur" ("Donated by the Emperor") written in italics. The purpose and date are also noted: "Ecole Normal de Tir 1854 / 2e Prix d'ensemble", which was the 2nd prize in a shooting school competition. And the name of the winner was also engraved: "Mr. Fages (J. H.) / Lieutent au 44e de Ligne". So Lieutenant Fages, who was in the 44th Line Infantry Regiment. A unit with a long tradition: founded in 1642 by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who was the leading cardinal in France at that time (whom the writer Alexandre Dumas also described in the second installment of his series about D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers). Under different names, the unit was commanded by different regiment owners (until 1793) and then commanders. It saw combat operations since the French-Spanish War (1635-59), through the War of Succession of the 18th century, the Napoleonic era and in the middle of the 19th century during colonial operations in Algeria. The 44th fought in the 1870-71 war, in 1914 they even recorded the first French casualty of the First World War, Corporal Jules-André Peugeot. In World War 2 they were deployed near Dunkirk, after the conflict they were back in Algeria. The unit still exists today and is known as the "44e Régiment d'Infanterie (44e RI)". As I said, it's a traditional, multi-decorated unit, which today is used for staff support and is involved in surveillance missions abroad. 

The fascinating percussion pistols from Manceaux à Paris 
The complicated contour of the engraved lock plate required extremely precise cutting of the wood. Under the hammer, the inscription "J. MANCEAUX A PARIS".

So much for the description, which does not do justice to the historical significance or the quality of the guns. To start with the effort involved: "Approximately 800 working hours," estimates Claus Jarzombek who, as a master gunsmith, can judge that very well. If  you assume that there was an amount per hour worked corresponding to an equivalent of 100 euros today, you can calculate what the pair would currently cost. This was a luxury of the upper class back then. Of course, it should also be noted that with firearms like these precious pieces it was not necessarily a question of getting paid for them in pennies and nickels. Rather, the associated order was a matter of prestige. The result served as a proof of one's skills. So the whole thing fell under advertising in the broadest sense.

Despite all this, the sheer amazement remains at the richness of detail in these pistols, at the sense of aesthetics and line management, and at the textbook precision with which everything is executed. In keeping with this, I would like to conclude with a question from a colleague: "If that was just the prize for second place in the competition, what did the winner actually get?”.

The box and pistols came from Waffen-Design Claus Jarzombek – thank you very much!

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