The Oriental Armoury at the Wallace Collection is currently undergoing conservation in order to be photographed for a new catalogue. Amongst this collection are numerous pistols and long guns dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, from areas such as the Balkans, North Africa, and Turkey. In this blog by Graeme McArthur, our Metals Conservator, takes us through the conservation of this collection.
For the conservation of firearms, safety is obviously a priority. These weapons were often carried loaded so that they were ready to fire; therefore it is perfectly possible for historic firearms to still be loaded. These firearms were breach loaded; first a charge of gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by the lead ball. Wadding was then forced in with the ramrod to ensure that nothing can fall out and to ensure that everything is packed as tightly as possible to maximise the power of the explosion.
The easiest way to tell if a firearm may be loaded is to use the ramrod. This should be the length of the barrel so if it will only go in partially there must be some sort of obstruction. Of course this does still not necessarily mean that the firearm is loaded, an x-ray is needed to be sure. A loaded historic firearm is not necessarily dangerous because they cannot be fired accidentally. However some collectors like to demonstrate their weapons and in this case it is very important to know that it is not loaded. There are methods to unload these firearms but they are very interventive and unnecessary in the museum context where the weapon will never be fired.
The vast majority of the firearms in the Oriental Armoury are flintlocks as pictured below; this technology was introduced at the beginning of the 17th century. It was based on the snaplock and the snaphance locks from the previous 50 years; these had very similar mechanisms but were less safe and reliable. To fire, a small amount of gunpowder must be placed in the pan and the frizzen closed over the top. The cock, which would contain a piece of flint, is then pulled right back i.e. ‘fully-cocked’ and the flintlock is ready to be fired. On pulling the trigger the flint strikes the frizzen creating a shower of sparks which ignites the powder in the pan. The barrel contains a tiny hole through which the jet of flame is directed, igniting the charge and forcing the ball out at high speeds.
Not all of our guns have the flintlocks. In the mid-15th century the matchlock first appeared, the gunpowder in the pan was ignited using a length of slow burning match. This meant that the match had to be constantly lit, a dangerous business when carrying around flasks of gunpowder! The wheellock was then invented c. 1500; this uses a very complicated mechanism to turn a steel wheel against a piece of iron pyrites thus creating sparks. This lock was expensive and thus was only used by the wealthy; because of the complex mechanism it was not particularly reliable.
The method of having gunpowder in a pan was eventually made obsolete by the invention of the percussion cap in c. 1820 which was applied to the British military musket (the Brown Bess) for the first time in 1842. Pulling the trigger releases a hammer onto the cap creating the required explosion and was therefore not affected by wet weather. This quickly led to the all in one breach loaded bullet used today.
These weapons have inspired numerous turns of phrase that are still commonly used today, such as ‘going off half-cocked’ and ‘flash in the pan’.
During conservation in the past, arms and armour objects were all coated with oil to prevent ferrous metals rusting. This has largely been successful in this respect and iron very rarely suffers from corrosion issues. Though the pistol below was seemingly reassembled with nothing to protect the steel and had corroded. Oil does badly affect organic elements such as wood, leather and textile with staining and weakening of the material. The oil attracts dust and as it ages it yellows making the surfaces appear very dark and dirty. It also reacts with copper alloy elements to create a ‘metal soap’, this is a waxy green corrosion product that is disfiguring and can stain organic materials. Oil can be removed from metal surfaces using white spirit but once it has penetrated an organic material it can also cause permanent staining. We now protect ferrous surfaces with a microcrystalline wax that dries hard and thus will not affect the organic components of objects.
Pistols in the Oriental Armoury are highly decorated, usually with silver or silver gilt. Silver reacts with sulphur dioxide in the air to form silver sulphide, commonly known as silver tarnish. This is usually very unsightly and not how the object was intended to appear, it certainly needs to be removed where possible before photography.
There are many ways of removing tarnish from silver and a lot of thought goes into deciding the best method for each object. There are a lot of factors to consider such as whether the object is gilt, in which case any abrasive method would remove this incredibly thin gold layer along with the tarnish. If the surface has very complex decoration any abrasive powders could become trapped and be difficult to remove again. It is very common to see residue from products such as Brasso left behind in the form of an unsightly white powder. Therefore rinsing with an appropriate solvent after cleaning is very important, especially with a chemical treatment such as Silver Dip that can keep reacting with the object’s surface. It is best to rinse this thoroughly under running water if possible.
Once we decide to go ahead and clean them the most objects have to be taken apart using special screwdrivers with sharp edges. This is because most of the slots in the screws have a ‘v’ shaped profile rather than a ‘square’ profile like modern screws. These screws are all hand-made as they pre-date machine made screws, thus each one is slightly different and it is vital to keep a record of where they came. We use a piece of foam with a firearm drawn on it as below to keep screws in their correct positions.
When conserving a lot of firearms at once it is easier to clean all of the locks together in a bath of White Spirit as show below. This means a lot of firearms are taken apart at once, so it is even more vital to ensure everything is correctly labelled.
Finally, to lacquer or not lacquer? At the Wallace Collection we tend to lacquer silver to prevent it tarnishing in the future. Every time a silver object is cleaned a small amount of silver is removed from the surface, hence well used household silver often has extremely worn surface decoration. There are now methods for preventing tarnishing, or greatly slowing it down, within museum display cases. However many of the cases at the Wallace Collection are around 100 years old and do not prevent the sulphur dioxide in the air from entering. Frigiline cellulose nitrate lacquer is used as it is relatively easy to apply and does not detract from the appearance of the silver. The problem with this lacquer is that it will start to fail after around ten years; therefore it needs to be continually removed and replaced. On some objects with very intricate silver decoration it would be too hard to remove the lacquer again so these must be left unlacquered. Again, decision making is a very important part of this process.
By Graeme McArthur, Metals Conservator
We hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into the conservation of our firearms, if you’d like to find out more about conservation at the Wallace Collection click here.