Web Blast: The Aston/Johnson Martial Pistol Of 1842

The Beginning Of The End Of An Era

By Mike Cumpston
Photos Mike Cumpston and Johnny Bates

Medley 1

Mike shot the Model 1842 one-handed at 50′. Accuracy was acceptable
for a smoothbore. No mean feat with a 15-pound trigger.

Leslie Poles Hartley and later Jeff Cooper observed, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” At best, we view the past “ … through a glass, darkly,” but nothing serves to clarify the vision as effectively as actually using an artifact from a distant time. A well-preserved Aston/Johnson martial pistol provides a glimpse of the world as it was a century and a half ago.

Medley 2

Five shots at 50′ fired one handed. The heavy trigger pull is probably a sensible safety
measure for something waved about by horsemen, but it would make 6″, 50′ accuracy
very unusual in actual combat. The addition of four or five buckshot over the ball
provides a pattern of a 1′ and more at this distance.

In the early 1840s, Henry Aston, Ira N. Johnson and a number of associates set up a factory in Middlefield, Connecticut, to complete a government contract for martial pistols of the 1842 pattern. The smoothbore Aston/Johnson used the same 54-caliber ball as the new Mississippi Rifle from the Eli Whitney Jr. factory. While it was strongly associated with the cavalry of the day, the 1842 was actually a general service pistol along the lines of the British and French percussion handguns adopted the same year and many examples bear naval markings. Some 34,000 pistols saw production by 1850 and, upon completion of the contract, Johnson continued making the pistols under his own name. He filled an order for an additional 10,000 between 1853 and 1855. The Palmetto Armory added 1,000 units to the total.

The Aston/Johnson pistols, in their most familiar role, replaced very similar flintlocks in the saddle holsters of mounted troops. They saw considerable use on the Oregon Trail and in the United States/Mexican war of 1847-48. Issued in pairs, they afforded the Dragoons a couple of extra shots after they discharged their muskets and closed with an enemy.

Medley 3

The Lock appears to be in factory-new condition right down to the delicate fire blue on the sear, bridle, and screws. This indicates the heavy trigger pull is original and not the result of later repairs or modification.

The 1842 is a sturdy pistol with reinforcing brass mounting and a substantial “ball” capping the butt to serve as a cudgel. Many surviving pistols, in otherwise fine condition, have damaged stocks resulting from that practice, or perhaps from over-zealous loading. Our I. N. Johnson is dated 1855 on the lock plate with the barrel tang stamped “1853.” It is not a “parts gun” as such discrepancies in dates are the rule rather than the exception. The wood is free of cracks and the lock components appear to be factory-new. The internal parts are brightly polished except for the bridle, sear and screws which retain the original fire blue. Sighting equipment consists only of the front blade. The smooth bore, the single sight and especially, the 15-plus-pound trigger pull significantly moderated our expectations of gilt-edge accuracy.

Were we to shoot from horseback or the pitching deck of a ship, our effective range would be measured in feet rather than yards. Standing flat-footed, firing from one hand, carefully milking the trigger, our best groups range from 4″ to 6″ at 50′ and do not exceed 1′ on our worst day. Johnny Bates took a firm two-handed grip and put all five inside the B27 silhouette at 25 yards. Buck and ball loads consisting of a 54-caliber ball and four or five 31-caliber shot remain on the silhouette from the 50′ mark generally landing in patterns of 1′ to 18″.

Medley 4

Over penetration was clearly not an issue as our Pattern 1842 pistol’s 230-grain
roundball offered penetration of only one 1″ pine board, but not the 2×4 behind it.

Major Frederick Myatt, M.C., in his book, Pistols and Revolvers, lists velocities in the 500 to 550 feet per second range for a wide range of smoothbore martial pistols. We found 30 grains of Goex FFg would drive the .535″ patched ball to 532 fps. This is consistent with Myatt’s findings and the results we have obtained with several large-caliber flintlock pistols when using recommended loads. We have also found velocities, point of impact and accuracy remain about the same whether these smoothbore pistols are loaded with patched ball or prepared cartridges with the paper envelop used for wadding. The slow-moving 230-grain ball develops 145 ft-lbs at the muzzle. This is 4 ft-lbs less than the 818 fps .32 S&W Long 100-grain wadcutter load. The ball consistently penetrates 3/4″ plywood. It drives about half way through a seasoned pine 2×4. We shot it through a 1″ pine board backed with a 2×4. This squashed the ball, blew a large exit hole in the thin board, but the 2×4 stopped it cold. A Model 31 S&W .32 drove the wadcutter bullet through the 1″ pine and deep into the thicker board. The Colt revolvers in concurrent development not only surpassed the old single-loader in terms of rapidity of fire, but also afforded profound advantages in terms of range, accuracy and raw power. Nevertheless, the lethality of the .54 caliber smoothbore was firmly established by several centuries of mayhem accomplished with pistols having similar ballistics.

Medley 5

The 1842 Aston/Johnson was the first percussion martial pistol adopted for
general issue by the United States. It replaced a similar flintlock pistol from
the late 1830s. The lockplate date identifies this as a late production pistol.
Barrel tangs often bear different and earlier dates.


Loading Sequence Of The
Aston/Johnson Martial Pistol

Medley A

Making sure no embers remained in the barrel, Mike used a flask with
30-grain spout. A spent .45-70 case is a safer way to transfer powder.

Medley B

The .535″ ball with .010″ patch was a good fit. Original pistols were loaded in
this manner or with paper cartridges containing powder and ball. After tearing
the paper, the shooter would decant the powder into the barrel and then stuff
the ball in using the cartridge paper as wadding.

Medley C

The hinged ramrod is an identifying feature of martial pistols. They were a lot harder to lose.

Medley D

The musket caps provided positive ignition.

Medley E

Recoil of the shot is gentle as the ball travels a leisurely 530 fps or so.

4 thoughts on “Web Blast: The Aston/Johnson Martial Pistol Of 1842

  1. scott franke

    I just received a US IN johnson marked 1855 from my father. It has been in the family for over 100 years it shows surface rust but it is in working order.the stock is in good condition but if there was any cartouses they were removed.It also has a ball starter it looks like it could be part of the original equipment. any way I enjoyed seeing you fire the gun in the picture because I would never fire the one I have

  2. Bill Kalenborn

    I got one from my grandfather. no rammer, a bit corroded. His father had it in Kansas ca 1880’s. (Grandpa found it when he was a kid, waved it around, simed it at his sister, aimed it into the street and pulled the trigger, shot a horse in the butt. His dad was *not* happy and made him hold it at arms length for a godawful long time.) At college fifty years ago, I took it to the ROTC range and the sergeant and I tried it out. (firing it with a cord at first to test) Fired chinese checker marbles wadded with toilet paper. Pretesting my ammunition, if one would not roll down the barrel and got stuck, I could pop it out with a cap. Fired consistently about a foot high and to the left at 10 yards. Fired at a pond about 200 yards away with little drop. It balanced and aimed very naturally — just like pointing your finger.

  3. Zachary

    It would be great if someone made a repro of this pistol, they are so cool and would be perfect for a civil war reenactor!

  4. Peter Bruns

    I Have a 1846 IN Johnson with a US GWH-P 185 stamped on it. I am having a terrible time finding a lock and hammer assy. The pistol is in very good condition and would be better if it was complete. Does anyone out there have any suggestions, it would be greatly appreciated.


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