Pair of Pistols

An Important Cased Pair of Flintlock Pistols, by Joseph Manton for the Noted Sportsman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Thornton, 1796 

London. Wood, steel, brass and gold.


Included in the sale of contents of High House, Campsea Ash, Suffolk (Viscount Ullswater), conducted by Garrod, Turner and Son, Ipswich, 24– 31 October 1949

Listed as in the collection of (Dr) R. J. Rabett in W. K. Neal and D. H. L. Back, The Mantons: Gunmakers, London, 1967, p. 226


The Art of the Armourer, an Exhibition of Armour, Swords and Firearms (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 19 April–5 May 1963), Arms and Armour Society, London, item no. 264; The Craft of the Gunmaker 1640–1870: A Special Exhibition of a Notable Private Collection, Guildhall Museum Rochester, Kent, August 1991–January 1992, catalogue number 29 (illustrated on and inside front cover of catalogue)

Thomas Thornton is remembered today as arguably one of the most flamboyant and energetic English sportsmen of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, passionately following

horse racing, hunting, shooting, fishing and falconry and willing to spend huge sums to do so. In 1806, in a published account of his hunting exploits, he famously said of himself:

Indeed, it may be fairly presumed that the author possesses a greater quantity of sporting apparatus of the most valuable and curious manufacture than any other sporting gentleman in England; as he has been at a very considerable expence [sic], and spent a great portion of time and pains in the accomplishment of this desired end.

Thomas was the son of William Thornton, MP for York, and colonel of the West York Regiment of Militia and was probably born in 1751–2. When his father died in 1769 Thomas inherited a significant fortune and following his coming of age used it to indulge his passion for sporting activities.

In 1791 he bought the estate of Allerton Mauleverer, situated between Harrogate and York, from Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, with the intention of turning it into his country seat and a major sporting location. With the permission of the duke he changed its name to Thornville Royal, and it will have been during his years at Thornville Royal that Thornton ordered this fine pair of pistols from Joseph Manton.

Thomas inherited his father’s position as lieutenant colonel in the West York Regiment of Militia, and a surviving portrait shows him wearing his uniform. In 1794 he was with his troops at Roborough Camp, near Plymouth, and following what may have been an overexuberant demonstration of loyalty from his men a dispute rose up between him and some of his officers. He was court martialled and subsequently felt he had no alternative but to resign his commission. The injustice he felt at his treatment was something which stayed with Thornton for the rest of his life.

Thornton was an ardent Francophile, and in 1802, in the brief peace following the Treaty of Amiens, accompanied by his mistress he undertook an extensive sporting tour of France. A detailed summary of this tour, in the form of letters addressed to the earl of Darlington, was published in London in 1806 in two large volumes. The appendix of the second volume contains some images of Thornville Royal, including its library, a falconry mews and an imposing gatehouse.

This work illustrated a number of technically unusual and now historically important firearms, including one of a pair of threebarrelled pistols by Durs Egg which, while in Paris in 1802, Thornton presented to Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul, and a fourteenbarrelled volley gun.

In addition to Thornville Royal, Thornton owned a number of properties, including Falconer’s Hall, near Boythorpe, East Yorkshire, while his London home was Kenyon House, described at the time as being large and old-fashioned. In the years following his Scottish tour, however, Thornton suffered increasing financial difficulties and in 1808 he sold Thornville Royal and moved his huge and diverse entourage of staff, horses, dogs and birds of prey to Spye Park in Wiltshire which he leased from Sir Andrew Boynton Holt.

His passion for France had by no means expired, however. He leased the chateau of Chambord and styled himself ‘Prince of Chambord and Marquis du Pont’. His zest for life, tempered only by his enduring sense of injustice at his treatment over the Roborough Camp affair, meant that he enjoyed a colourful and profound love of hunting in all its forms for the rest of his life. This eventually caught up with him, however, and in 1821 he was compelled to sell his French properties. He died in his lodgings in Paris on 10 March 1823.

These pistols by Joseph Manton are among the few weapons surviving from an extraordinarily fine cabinet d’armes once owned and enjoyed by this most remarkable man.


W. K. Neal and D. H. L. Back, The Mantons: Gunmakers, London, 1967 

D. H. L. Back, Great British Gunmakers: The Mantons 1782–1878, Norwich, 1993

Arthur G. Credland, ‘Colonel Thornton’s Coach Gun and Other Weapons, with Notes on the Career of a Great Yorkshire Sportsman’, Arms and Armour, vol. 2, no. 2 (2005), pp. 155–73 (the pistols are discussed on p. 163)


The pistols bear the serial number 568, confirming that they were made by Joseph Manton in 1796. They are structurally the same in all details, including both being fitted with a socket in the rear face of the grip to enable each to be fitted with the single detachable skeleton butt provided in the wooden case. Unusually, the pistols and the detachable butt are set upright in the deep case, almost certainly so that the maker’s name and a motto, inlaid in gold on to the upper three facets of each of the barrels, were clearly visible when the lid was opened.

Each lock has a flat lock-plate set flush with the stock and each has a gold-lined waterproof pan, a roller frizzen and a sliding safety catch behind the cock. It is inlaid in gold with two trophies of arms, one on the tail and another ahead of the cock. This contains an oval panel engraved with JOSEPH MANTON. The body of the elegant swan-necked cock is inlaid in gold with a cornucopia from which emerges a small spray of flowers and a leafy frond while the upper jaw is inlaid with symmetrical formal Mannerist scrolls. The outer surface of the roller frizzen is inlaid with a motif of stylized swags and foliage.

The stocks extend to the muzzles, each has a wooden ramrod with a horn tip and is retained by two blued iron ramrod pipes. The barrels are secured by two slides with plain oval silver escutcheons. The forward tang of the large iron spur trigger guard has a pineapple finial and the bow is engraved with a trophy of arms. Behind each barrel tang the stock has an oval gold escutcheon engraved with the complete arms and mottoes of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Thornton; VERITAS PREVALEBIT / QUAM IPSE, can perhaps best be translated as; Truth will prevail / as much as the gun itself. Seen in the circular band around the arms; SESE TE VOCIR SED VIDEO AUCTIUS, has defied accurate translation by even a skilled Latin scholar, but he has suggested that it bears similarity to the device of the Dutch printer Janssonius Van Waesberge (1676–1750) which has vulgo caeca vocor, video sed acutius ipso (by the crowd I am called blind, but I see more keenly than it does). The motto as it appears on these Manton pistols (with the correct form vocor but also with the error of auctius for acutius) is also known from a small paper roundel pasted, upside down, on the verso of R6 in a copy of Edward Chamberlayne’s Angliae Notitia, printed by J. Playford, London, in 1684. This bookplate may have been the pattern from which the escutcheon was engraved; it seems certain that the book is from Thornton’s library. Below each escutcheon is an oval iron socket for the fitting of the detachable skeleton stock. Each socket has a removable iron cover for use when the stock is not in place. Each octagonal-section browned twist iron barrel is of 38 bore and has very fine quality inlaid gold decoration, including an inscription. The uppermost facet is inscribed JOSEPH MANTON’S PATENT LONDON, while the upper left and right facets read:





The rest of the decoration includes bands and swags of husks or bell-flowers at the muzzle while further bands of this motif and finely-executed trophies of arms decorate the breech and barrel tang. The green baize lined mahogany case has on the outside of its lid a brass flush-fitting handle. The case contains not only the pistols and their detachable stock but also a three-way powder and ball flask of brass bound in red leather, a ball mould and a rare Manton breech scraper. On the inside of the lid of the case is the trade label of Joseph Manton of the design recorded as in use between about 1795 and 1805, giving his Davies Street, Berkeley Square, address.

Case dimensions: Height 16 x Length 42.5 x Depth 18 cm / 6.3 x 16.7 x 7 in

Pistols each: 37 cm / 14.5 in    length of barrels: 23 cm / 9 in


Posted on January 31, 2017 and filed under Other.