Gun Making in the Valley

by Thom Tomascek

Was an Upton doctor responsible for the career of a one of our Nation’s leading 19th Century gun makers?

In 1831, with the industrial revolution fully under way in the Blackstone Valley, Ethan Allen of Bellingham, not to be confused with his namesake nor directly related to Ethan Allen of Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys fame, opened a cutlery, commercial knife, and shoemakers’ tool manufacturing factory in Milford, Massachusetts. Later that year Allen moved to the nearby village of North Grafton to take advantage of a new factory in closer proximity to the rapidly expanding city of Worcester. Allen had planned to continue a career in commercial tool manufacturing until meeting a local doctor who altered his career path in a manner that would have a major impact on America’s gun making business.

In the neighboring town of Upton, a medical doctor by the name of Dr. Roger N. Lambert invented and patented a walking cane that was designed to protect the user from both animal and personal attack. Canes were popular as a status symbol of power in 19th Century America as they became part of the garb for the gentleman of the day. The Lambert cane utilized a percussion firing system common at the time to combine a 33 inch utility cane with a 41 caliber single shot gun. The cane incorporated the highest quality rosewood for the shaft and a bulky elephant ivory knob style handle. Solid silver ferrules concealed the trigger and percussion mechanism. The user simply pulled the ivory knob to cock the hammer and drop the concealed trigger. The cane could now be aimed and fired. The only marking on the gun was “Lambert’s Patent”.

In need of a manufacturer Dr. Lambert approached and later contracted this service to the local cutler, Ethan Allen. It is interesting to note that Asa Waters and his brother Elijah of Sutton had a complete gun-making arsenal in nearby Millbury Center. Perhaps there was an earlier friendship between these two partners as the Waters’ arsenal was experienced in manufacturing similar firearms since 1808.

It is not known how many of these gun canes were manufactured but one can surmise that there must have been problems with the barrel clogging with dirt and debris and assuredly these sophisticated custom canes must have been costly when compared to low cost single shot European and domestic hand guns that were being massed produced. Today, very few of the Dr. Lambert’s canes exist. They are highly collectible and when offered for sale can demand over $1,000.

The Lambert-Allen story doesn’t end here. Dr. Lambert soon left the Blackstone Valley area to move to Lyme, New Hampshire, where his father was the first minister of the church built in 1811. Dr. Lambert continued his career in medicine and then became the town tax collector from 1876-1877. In 1932 he was presented a gold-headed cane as given tot he oldest resident in town by the townspeople. He was 92 at the time.

A career change was now in store for Mr. Allen. In late 1836, Ethan Allen and a brother in law, Thomas P. Wheelock, now experienced gun makers by trade because of Dr. Lambert’s cane gun contract, began manufacturing the famed commercial underhammer single shot pistol that sold throughout the Nation as the Allen “Pocket Rifle”. After manufacturing a few thousand of these guns, Allen was granted a patent in 1837 for the first double action pistol in America. This technology allowed for the firing of the gun by merely pulling the trigger as opposed to the time consuming efforts of pulling the hammer back before firing. This patent and another for the famed multi-barreled pistol known as a “Pepperbox” in the same year expanded Allen’s business tenfold. The pepperbox was appropriately named because of its close resemblance to the commercial pepper grinding mills that were in popular use during the period. The Allen pepperbox was invented and subsequently marketed to directly compete with Colonel Colt’s multi-shot cylinder pistol. The main difference between these two inventions is that the Colt pistol utilized a revolving cylinder with one barrel while the Allen invention required multiple barrels. Like Colt, Allen employed the nascent method of fabricating commercial products with interchangeable mass produced components. As a result of large orders for the pepperbox pistol Ethan formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Charles Thurber in 1837. The firm now known as Allen & Thurber relocated to a much larger brick stone plant near downtown Norwich, Connecticut, in 1842.

Following five very successful years in Norwich, Allen relocated to an even larger manufacturing site in Worcester. In 1854, Ethan’s long time associate and brother in law Thomas Wheelock became a full partner. Charles Thurber retired in 1856 and Thomas Wheelock passed away in 1864. It was during this period that the Ethan Allen’s gun saw its greatest success. With the Nation’s westward expansion, the California gold rush of the late 1840’s and especially the Civil War, the need for personal protection was enormous. Although Allen never received any state or federal government contract for his firearms he successfully marketed his products as a personal side arm to both soldiers and civilians.

Following the passing of Wheelock, Allen formed a new partnership with his two sons in law, Henry C. Wadsworth and Sullivan Forehand. This partnership lasted until the passing of Ethan Allen in 1871 at the age of 63. Due to a reduced need for protective handguns at the end of the Civil War and competitors who offered lower cost single barrel pistols, such as Colt, Smith & Wesson, and other lower cost domestic and European manufactures, the firm now know as E. Allen & Company closed. For an unknown reason Allen was never successful in producing rifles to service America’s growing recreational hunting trade. A successor known as Forehand & Wadsworth continue operations in Worcester until the firm was taken over by Hopkins and Allen, the Allen Family of Springfield, in 1902.

Because most of Allen’s guns are not serial numbered it is difficult to estimate the exact number of guns that were manufactured under Ethan Allen’s management. However, one can be quite certain that there were over 500,000 manufactured. Hundreds of families in the Blackstone Valley owed their livelihood to Allen and untold lives were saved because of Allen’s gun inventions. However, one must ask what would have been the fate of the Allen manufacturing dynasty if Dr. Lambert had approached Colonel Colt of Colt Gun making fame or another in his pursuit of a local cane gun manufacturer. Perhaps the success of the Allen gun should belong to the obscure Dr. Lambert of Upton and not Ethan Allen of Milford? But in either case thanks to two local entrepreneurs the Blackstone Valley became an epicenter of America’s formidable 19th Century gun making trade

 

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