Short Takes

by Fred Ray on August 29, 2014 · 0 comments

Most students of the Civil War have at least heard of Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio lawyer who served in Congress and stood for governor of Ohio during the Civil War. Vallandigham was a prominent Copperhead Democrat who advocated a peaceful solution to the bloodshed, and was arrested, convicted by a military court martial, and eventually exiled to the Confederacy.  It was not the finest hour of American civil liberties.

What most people will not have heard of is his rather bizarre end. Vallandigham, a lawyer, was defending a man on a murder charge in 1871. He was given the accused perp’s pistol, with three live rounds still in it, and another unloaded one, which he sat beside it. He thought about how the incident could have happened, and then:

Still flushed with the success of his tests, the lawyer began explaining to a visitor that Myers had actually shot himself, then had a sudden brainwave – he’d stage his own demonstration.

He grabbed a pistol, put it in his pocket, drew it slowly, turned the muzzle on himself and pulled the trigger.

Bang. “The unfortunate advocate had demonstrated the reasonableness of his theory,” reported the Leeds Times, “but at the cost of his life.”

Vallandigham died the next day, but his client was acquitted.

A look at the London Proof House, which is still in operation. Given a Royal Charter in 1637, its job was and is to test the strength of gun barrels. With the introduction of firearms, bursting barrels had become a real problem so the proof house was established to “prove” each one before it could be sold.  In 1813 another proof house was founded in Birmingham (then the center of the firearms trade) which is also still in operation.

The actual process of proof is drastically simple and has been so since 1637 when the company was chartered. During the era of muzzleloaders, proof consisted of loading two over charged loads, firing them into an embankment and then observing for any barrel bulges or cracks. If the barrel burst, then it obviously failed, no money back (today it costs ₤30 for a shotgun, ₤25 for a centerfire, ₤15 for a rimfire rifle or barrel to be proofed). If it passed satisfactorily it is was proof marked in a certain location. This location is dependent on the customer but is usually somewhere visible on the barrel or above the chamber. With the “Bespoke” guns the practice is to mark them on the underside of the chamber, concealed within the stock (these guns are usually listed at ₤60,000 and up and are custom made for an individual shooter). A difference between the London and Birmingham Proof Houses is that London traditionally proof marks on the right side of a gun, and Birmingham on the left.

This is still done all over the world, and if you look closely at the barrel of any rifle made in the last 200 years you will see a series of arcane marks from the proof house to certify that the barrel will hold a full charge and then some without failure.

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