Imagine for a moment if you will that you are hosting a gathering with some friends on a cold winter night. You’ve wrapped up the dinner formalities of the evening, and are now indulging in spirits of whiskey and home brewed ale.
The mugs clanging against one another as you and your guests offer up toasts of prosperity and friendship. As the evening pushes on, your party guests begin to settle in along one side of the dining room table.
You slide open the pocket doors to reveal the adjacent parlor, or living room, as they are known today. The fireplace at the far end of that room is ablaze. Lined atop its mantel and along the base of its facade are strategically placed clay vessels that have been set out in preparation of the evening’s festivities. The dinnerware has been removed and now spread out on the table in front of your guests is an assortment of single shot pistols and rifles along with several boxes of small .22 caliber projectiles.
Okay let's stop right there for a second. Do you think this scene would be acceptable today? Mixing firearms and alcohol and shooting indoors? Would your guests join in the festivities? Would they feel uncomfortable and leave? Or even worse, would they oppose so strongly that they contact the authorities? Most likely you have a friend or two that would embrace this party, but many people in today’s society would shun such a gathering.
However, these types of dinner parties were not uncommon throughout Europe, and even in the United States up until about a century ago. Aristocrats and the Social Elite would entertain friends and business associates by opening their homes for parlor shooting. It seems a little crazy, but when we look closely at the guns and ammunition that were used, it wasn’t nearly as insane as it sounds.
Thanks to a French inventor named Louis Nicholas Flobert, these shooting games became possible, and weren’t as dangerous as they may appear at first glance.
Although, we will have to take a very firm stance and say that alcohol and firearms of any kind should never mix, regardless of any of the other variables.
Flobert was the inventor of the very first metallic cartridge. It was a rimfire .22 caliber cartridge with a ball inserted in the end. The projectile was powered only by a percussion cap and was void of any powder charge. This made it relatively quiet, and it propelled the projectile at a low velocity.
Flobert also went on to design several Parlor Guns to shoot his little cartridge. Single shot rifles and pistols that were mostly produced in Belgium, Germany, and France for the sole purpose of indoor shooting. The Flobert actions were simple in function and were built in three different configurations.
The first type had a heavy breechblock/hammer that was hinged, and a strong mainspring that held the action closed with no other locking mechanism. Its extractor was basically just a small lip on the edge of that breechblock/hammer. A second style was similar to the first, but incorporated a manual side lever for the extractor.
The third was the Warnant-Flobert type. The Warnant-Flobert action used a U-shaped breech piece, and had a separate firing pin, which flipped over and held the action closed and would serve as the means to operate the extractor when opened. The Warnant-Flobert style guns seem to be the ones that are most often discovered here in the United States.
At the time Flobert was likely unaware that his inventions, which he meant to be used as toys, would be so influential in the sport of target shooting, and that his tiny cartridge would become the basis of one of the most popular calibers in the world, the 22.
Upon its arrival in America, Flobert’s .22 BB Cap (Bulleted Breech Cap) or 6mm Flobert round became an inspiration for further ammunition development. In 1857, twelve years after he introduced the world to his cartridge, Smith & Wesson would design America’s first commercially successful firearm to use a metallic cartridge. The Smith & Wesson Model 1 Revolver, which was chambered in the .22 Short Black Powder cartridge. This gun may have never existed if it wasn’t for the earlier creativity of Louis Nicholas Flobert.
Then in 1860, Remington became the first American manufacturer to enter the market of parlor guns. They introduced the Remington Rider Single Shot Pistol. It was a .17 caliber gun that was comparable to Flobert’s, in the sense that it was a simple and weak action that was not designed for rounds with a powder charge. It was built to use only the percussion cap to launch the projectile. Its appearance was elaborate with brass grips and silver plating, but it offered none of the practicality that most American guns had. The Rider was made just for a short time with no real success and amounted to about 200 total pistols produced.
In Germany, France, Switzerland and other areas of Europe, the sport of Parlor shooting reached its peak of popularity in the late 19th century. To own a Zimmerstutzen (a German word that loosely translated to room or parlor rifle) became sort of a status symbol of prosperity. Those that could afford them would hone their shooting skills during the cold months and host parties like the one we described above.
European gunsmiths would soon bring the concept of Zimmerstutzen to America. The process of building these guns was slow and tedious as they were typically hand-crafted guns to fit the individual shooter, much like the German gun builders did for the Schuetzen Rifle (an elaborate and heavy single shot rifle made for long range target competition). Most American builders at the time seemed to show little to no interest in building firearms that weren’t designed to advance battlefield or hunting efficiency. This left the niche of luxury target arms to the few European gun makers that specialized in the art of handcrafting these unique guns.
A few years after Flobert invented his bulleted breech cap, a French gunsmith named Jean-Baptiste Revol was just one of several European builders to find some success building the Zimmerstutzen in America. He worked out of the city of New Orleans and built custom Zimmerstutzen rifles for the wealthy. We have witnessed a few samples of his work in collector’s auctions over recent years, although they didn’t appear to garner a lot of interest compared to other commercial arms of the day.
The late 1800s was a time of great developments for the firearms industry and the invention of metallic cartridges would create the opportunity for a steady flow of new advancements, which would happen quite rapidly and would carry over well into the 20th century.
However, at the same time western interest in Parlor Shooting was slowly beginning to disappear, and by the end of WWI it was no longer common for people to shoot inside their homes or to spend their money on guns with no practical application. But the concept that began with Flobert’s little .22 caliber cartridge had already provoked a whole other shooting experience. This new pastime would still be based on low velocity, close range firearms, but the shooting was moved outdoors. Gallery shooting booths were popping up all over America. In amusement parks, arcades, and at fairgrounds, shooting at targets to win a prize would become as American as baseball and apple pie.
Some of the best known names in the industry began to recognize that it was time to get in on the low velocity rimfire market. The result of their involvement led to a few of the best gallery guns that were ever made. Colt downsized their smooth action Lightning and Winchester created the 1890 and later the Model 62. Although these rifles, unlike the early Flobert guns, were designed to be more than simply just short-range target rifles, they did function perfectly in that role.
The Colt Lightning was manufactured from 1884 to 1904 and it was initially meant to be a companion rifle for owners of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver. The Lightning was Colt's first ever slide-action rifle and it was chambered in similar caliber’s to the SAA, such as .32-20 and .44-40. However, Colt would soon introduce the second model Lightning in 1887. It had a smaller frame and was Colt’s first attempt at a rimfire rifle. These guns came in .22 Short and .22 Long, they had a standard 24" barrel with a blued finish and a case hardened hammer with a walnut stock. These rifles were truly some of the very first guns used in traveling shooting galleries.
The Winchester Model 1890 may have come a few years after the Colt, but it saw a much more widespread use in shooting galleries across the country. In fact, it became the standard gallery gun for many carnivals, arcades and family attractions. It weighed approximately 6 lbs with a 24" octagon barrel and sturdy top ejecting action with a plain walnut stock. It could be easily disassembled for repair or cleaning and it was caliber specific. Meaning that the gallery guns chambered for .22 Short would not feed any of the more powerful .22 caliber rounds. Winchester manufactured the 1890 until 1941, when the Model 62 replaced it. Today, it is more common than not to find these rifles with mismatched parts as many gallery owners would repair and clean their guns all at once, paying little attention to which stocks and triggers belonged to which receivers.
The story of parlor and gallery guns is like so many firearm stories, the conversation could go on and on as each bit of information and interesting detail is uncovered. And like many other firearm origin tales, it reveals a timeline and chain of events that shows how a single small invention could have an impact on so much more. We’ve seen early firearm breakthroughs that have helped mold entire cultures by creating recreational pastimes, inspiring new manufacturing practices, changing the way goods and services were advertised, provoking further invention, etc. So although these particular types of guns are not the most sought after collectibles, we should take the time to recognize and appreciate their contributions to our history, our culture, and to the firearm industry itself.