20 November 2010

The Father of the American Underhammer System

It is so unfortunate when someone who really deserves credit for a truly great accomplishment is ignored and forgotten by history. Case in point, most of us learned in grade school that Marconi invented the wireless radio. Right? However, the facts indicate that it was actually the electrical genius, Nicola Tesla, who had patented the idea prior to Marconi. Some even say that Marconi flat out stole the idea from Tesla. Only recently has the credit been given to Tesla - now that he's been gone almost 70 years. There were others who capitalized on (translate as "stole") many of Tesla’s ingenius ideas, including another notable, Thomas Edison.

Within our own cherished realm of underhammer firearms, there are a few names that instantly command attention because of their contributions to the development, and hence, the history of underhammer firearms. Names such as Asa Story, Nicandor Kendle, David Hilliard, and Ethan Allen, as well as many others, come to mind as being the pioneers in the underhammer movement.

Clicking on the photos will enlarge them for detailed viewing. 
Clicking the Back arrow on your browser will return you to the text.

However, few of us underhammer aficionados have even heard of the Ruggles brothers, Fordyce and Adin, of Hardwick, Massachusetts. Fordyce Ruggles is another one of those genius minds that was lost in history and it was he who is the father of the underhammer system in America. Even a cursory comparison of the work of history’s underhammer notables with the original Ruggles design will show that those whom we consider to be the cornerstones were simply copycats of their day.

My very good mate from down under, Terry, recently came upon an article written by underhammer researcher and historian, Nicholas L. Chandler, in which the whole story about the origins of the underhammer system with the Ruggles brothers is disclosed. Following is Terry’s overview of the Chandler article. If, after reading Terry’s article, you would like the whole story, just follow this link: asoac.org/bulletins/96_chandler_ruggles.pdf  for the full pdf download of Mr. Chandler's excellent article.



Terry Berry

In our wonderful world of underhammer firearms, a multitude of gems surface from time to time, both in the physical items and interesting documentation on the subject matter. The recent posting of the great firearms made by Jonathan Bumstead, Richard Holmes, Mark Bond and Greg Sefton are fabulous examples of innovative thinking and execution by the builders.

I’m sure a lot of us who have the capability of building our own Underhammer firearm, still tinker around the edges, making numerous drawings and tossing around ideas between one another, without making it happen. I’m guilty of that affliction, but hope to make that underhammer dream into a reality soon. We will see. 

I think we all know the basic history of the Underhammer in America but do we know who made the very first firearm using that simple lock work?

It is believed by some that as Forsyth’s percussion cap entered the firearms scene, the Underhammer just evolved. The truth is, someone had to make one. Someone had to develop the idea and instead of putting pencil to paper and looking at the drawing and taking the idea no further, someone actually took the idea and made it into a reality. Who was that person?

Well, I was snooping around the internet looking for Underhammer historical information and I happened across a document that may shed light on who made the first American Underhammer firearm. A well detailed article on this very subject has surfaced, written by Nicholas Chandler. In his article, he reveals that the first underhammer was more than likely built by the brothers, Fordyce and Adin Ruggles, in a workshop just outside the Massachusetts village of Hardwick in Worcester County.

It seems that the Ruggles brothers established their workshop in December of 1825 and worked on their design for a pistol that was efficient, cheap to produce and cost effective, to enable the average man to afford to buy one.

This design was apparently successful enough to allow the US Patent Office to issue a patent for the “… invention and improvements … in firearms …” on November 24th 1826. It is unfortunate however, that the patent no longer exists due to loss, along with other patents, during the US Patent Office fire of 1836. 

“It is likely that this was the first US patent for an underhammer gun and the first for any percussion produced in quantity.” It seems that the Ruggles brothers had little or no experience as gunmakers but had mechanical ability through working with their father who was a millwright.

The west was opening up and large numbers of immigrants were arriving from Europe and along with some of the population of the east, they were heading west for greater opportunities and future prosperity. This mass movement of people provided a need for “… inexpensive and reliable firearms that could be carried to the new frontiers.”

Comparison of the drawings of the Kendall and Hilliard action, below,
reveal the true inspiration for their design as the Ruggles Patent.

The only firearms available to these westward bound settlers, were guns made in England and Europe or guns manufactured with imported parts by American gunmakers. By their nature, the complicated guns thus made, were expensive and more than often out of the financial reach of the westward bound.

It seems that the Ruggles brothers responded to this glaring demand for inexpensive and reliable arms and set out to design and patent a pistol that could be made with materials on hand in the rural areas and by mechanically minded people without necessarily being trained as gunsmiths. “The end result, was a uniquely American product that was cheaper to make than either its imported or domestic counterparts.”

The total number of parts of the Ruggles firearm is 10, with only 4 of them moving. The trigger, trigger spring, hammer and hammer spring. Therefore, this simple design compared very favourably against the more than 20 parts for the standard and by comparison, complicated side lock pistol.

“With this patented design, intricate, close tolerance lock parts and precise inletting of the grip to accommodate the lock, side plate, trigger guard and barrel, were eliminated. The underhammer pistol parts could be made by a mechanic with a basic skill level. The result of the Ruggles patent is a new all-American pistol, made by local labour, from local materials, at a competitive cost.”

With a secure patent, the Ruggles brothers began producing pistols and fowlers and they promoted their products heavily, at local fairs and gatherings and news articles were written admiring the brilliance of the unique and reasonably priced invention.

“What happened next is truly bizarre. On January 29 1828, 14 months after his patent was issued, Fordyce was testing one of his pistols in a field near Ware Village, not far from his shop. After awhile, he went to a tavern to warm himself.  A young man seated himself near Fordyce and, unobserved, took the weapon, (which was loaded) from his pocket. He then proceeded without examination, to snap it, the muzzle being less than two feet from the unfortunate owner. It exploded and the ball entered his breast, lodged in his body and Fordyce expired as a consequence of the wound.”

A tragic event to say the least. It must have been devastating for the business and family members. However, recent documents uncovered show that Fordyce’s brother, Adin, was not totally devastated by this terrible event. In the months following, Adin and two others, Samuel Pike and Daniel Billings, applied to the US Patent Office for a patent for a pistol.

 It is common knowledge that the Hilliard design is a modification of 
the Kendall which was a modification of the work of Asa Story. 
All are copies of the original Ruggles patent.

It is not known whether this new application changed the specifications of Fordyce’s pistol, or was made because of the belief that with his death, a new patent was a requirement. Subsequently the application was rejected, due to the fact that the applicants could not come up with the $30 fee and only one witnesses signature appeared on the document, instead of the required two.

After this patent rejection, Adin Ruggles and his wife Cynthia and the family, along with Samuel Pike, moved from Hardwick to Stafford. The Hardwick shop was sold and a new establishment was set up in Stafford, where after acquiring land, he built and equipped a new workshop and continued to produce the Ruggles designed pistols, fowlers and rifles.

In 1833, Ruggles was pushed to higher production by the visit to the New England states by President Andrew Jackson. The President had been travelling the northern areas and had stopped overnight in Hartford after celebrations and parades put on by the city. Selected people were invited to meet the President and Adin Ruggles was one of them. At his meeting, he presented President Jackson with a brace of “silver mounted rifle pistols.” It is said that the President was favourably impressed by these firearms. This was a tremendous boost to Adin Ruggles.

Again, in 1833, Ruggles entered into an arrangement with “E. Hutchings & Co. of Baltimore MD.” This business was well-placed to provide the many immigrants that berthed in Baltimore harbour, with the necessary supplies for their trek westward, including  the“Patent Pocket Rifle” made by Ruggles.

Unfortunately, fate struck again on November 18, 1833. Just when business was picking up for Adin Ruggles, he was accidentally shot and killed by a workman who was test firing a pistol out the back door of the workshop.

Unbelievably, the business continued with Cynthia Ruggles at the helm and the business enjoyed its greatest period of production output. After several years of minor changes to grip design, barrel length and decoration, a standard production model evolved that was sold from 1834 until the Ruggles factory closed in 1838. Between these dates, the factory turned out thousands of pistols to meet the demand, with virtually all of them following the standard pattern.

It is believed that up to five talented gunmakers working for Cynthia Ruggles made their own pistols following the Ruggles patented design but placed their own names on the guns. Obviously done with her blessings. How many of these were produced is unknown. Cynthia Ruggles retained ownership of the factory and obviously guided it to the success it finally saw. Unfortunately, Fordyce and Adin never saw the final result of their innovative, simple and absolutely brilliant patented design.

It is incredible to think that the simple mechanism still holds us spell bound to this very day and all the “improvements” that flow through our fertile minds merely defeat the principle of sound, simple, and efficient design. However, it is in mankind’s makeup to try and improve that which cannot be improved, suffice to say that maybe, just maybe, someone out there will create the underhammer with one moving part instead of two.

Nicholas Chandler's article is a great piece of history and a very interesting read. For any student of the early American firearms industry to not have access to this vital information will leave him with a void and an incomplete knowledge of the subject. Chandler's article is very well-researched and opens up a brand new window of knowledge into the early American firearms industry.

Our sincere thanks to Terry for sharing his review with us.

Cheers mate!



Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Renner,

I just want to say thank you for your diligence in providing a high quality blog for us underhammer people. I have been following your blog since you started it almost four years ago and I can say that there is nothing on the web quite like it for quality of content concerning underhammers.

In all those years I have never seen a mention of membership. With a name like The Underhammer Society, I have to wonder if there is an actual membership roster that one can join. I would like the T-shirt, as they say, if there is a membership available. If there isn't maybe there should be.

Once again, you have provided us with some obscure information about underhammers that I have not found anywhere else. Thanks, too, to your readers, like Terry and others, for contributing to this great site.

Please keep up the great work!

Best regards,
T.S. Johnson
Minneapolis, MN

Roger Renner said...

Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for your appreciation. It's good to get some feedback once in a while to be sure I'm on the right path.

As for a formal membership roster, the answer is "no." However, the t-shirt idea is a good one. I'm sure plenty of our readers might like a nice Underhammer Society t-shirt if one was available. I know I would.

If enough readers knock on that door, I may be inclined to answer it with a membership offer to include a cool underhammer t-shirt.

If any of you readers are interested in such an idea, just drop me a line and we can discuss it.


Nick Chandler said...

A friend of mine just forwarded these comments on the blog and I am gratious for the kind words. If you like this article, however, you will really like my new book, "Early American Underhammer Firearms", published by Mobray Publishing, Woonsocket, RI. Stewart Mowbray did the photography and there are over 350 full color photos in the book. Would appreciate feedback and discussion on any of this either through this blog or my email, 4parts@earthlink.net.
Nick Chandler

Roger Renner said...

Dear Mr. Chandler,

It is indeed a pleasure to hear from you and I salute and thank you for the work that you have done to bring to all of us a greater understanding of and appreciation for underhammer arms.

I would be most pleased to review your book and promote it in The Underhammer Society blog. If your article is any indication as
to quality of research and graphics in your book,Early American Underhammer Firearms, I am sure it will become a Standard Reference that every underhammer aficionado will want to have in his or her library.

I tried to contact you directly by e-mail, but it bounced back from the address you provided.

However, if you wish to call and discuss the matter, please feel free to do so. I am available most any time at 702-723-3425 - except dinner time - 6-8 PST.

I look forward to working with you if I may be of assistance.


Roger Renner, Founder
The Underhammer Society

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About Me

Roger Renner

Hi. I've been a student, admirer, and designer/builder of underhammer guns for over 30 years. In that span I've built over 200 semi-custom underhammers exploring the possibilities from the ordinary to the exotic. In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company to explore the market's interest in a high-quality underhammer rifle. Thankfully, that interest was, and still is, there. I sold PRC in 2006 but continue to craft high-end underhammers as I am truly afflicted with underhammeritis - which can be contagious!