The British Sea Service Pistol

The British Sea Service Pistol

British Sea Service Pistol, pistol, gun, black powder, weapon, history, Nelson, Trafalgar, flintlock, musket, blunderbuss


The Royal Navy issued flintlock pistol known as the British Sea Service pistol was one of the most common firearms in the 18th and early 19th century. The Board of Ordinance oversaw the manufacture and distribution of these pistols which were issued from the early 1700s until 1815. The pistols were assembled in the Tower armory but the pieces came from various sources. Made of brass, steel and wood, the user loaded it by ramming the ball and black powder down the nine or twelve inch barrel. The length of the barrel depended on the year it was made, with earlier versions being longer and later versions being shorter. It was a solid weapon meant for use in close fighting during boarding. The pistol had a special hook on it for securing it to a sailor’s clothing, and this hook was missing from the Army version of this weapon.

British Sea Service Pistol, pistol, gun, black powder, weapon, history, Nelson, Trafalgar, flintlock, musket, blunderbuss

The user of the pistol only got one shot. Afterwards, it was pretty good for whacking the enemy but not much else, unless a seaman could find a place to hunker down and reload, which, in the heat of battle, wasn’t likely. Also, since hitting someone with the pistol could damage it, there is some debate as to whether or not empty pistols were used for this purpose.

The fact that the pistols were government issue did not mean that they were accurate or safe. They weren’t. Flintlocks had a bad habit of misfiring and the harsh sea air aboard ship could wreck havoc on their springs and hammers. The phrase “a flash in the pan” came about in reference to misfires. A flash in the pan is when the flint ignites the gunpowder, or charge as it was known, in the pan but does not fire the ball. With the enemy bearing down on you, this would not be a good thing.

British Sea Service Pistol, pistol, gun, black powder, weapon, history, Nelson, Trafalgar, flintlock
Officers usually had their own weapons especially made for them, but many weren’t above using the standard issue Sea Service pistol. In the painting Nelson Boarding the ‘San Josef’ at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent by George Jones  you can see Admiral Nelson holding a Sea Service pistol. Thousands of the pistols remained in circulation for decades after they were no longer issued and it wasn’t just the British who used them. The weapon ended up in several countries, including America, as various enemies captured British supply ships during the numerous wars. Even the East India Company preferred the pistols. 


British Sea Service Pistol, pistol, gun, black powder, weapon, history, Nelson, Trafalgar, flintlock, musket, blunderbuss, percussion capThe heyday of the Sea Service pistol would come to an end in the mid 18th century when flintlocks were replaced by percussion cap pistols, However, the Sea Service still remained as many were changed into the less hazardous, but no more accurate percussion cap design. An example is the pistol at right. Although not a Sea Service pistol you can see the percussion cap. Despite the changes, the Sea Service pistol remained a workhorse and a staple of life aboard ship. One of these pistols also plays an integral part in the plot of A Debt Paid in Marriage, the first book in my Business of Marriage series from Harlequin Historical. 

For a more detailed article about the pistol check out https://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2016/1/27/i-have-this-old-gun-british-pattern-1801-sea-service-pistol/

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