Captains Lewis and Clark frequently referred to the "fusils" "fusees," or "fuzees" in the hands of Indians.1 Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, on September 26, 1804, Clark noted that some of the Indians were "badly armed with fuseis." The word evolved from a Latin vernacular word, focus, meaning "fire." By the 17th century it came to denote a light musket or firelock.2
From the seventeenth century on, French fur traders and later the British supplied their Indian clients with smoothbore muskets both as gifts and in trade for pelts. By the late 1700s the style of these guns had standardized into a form the Indians came to prefer. Those flintlock muskets, which were universally called by their French name "fusils," generally were lighter and more slender than contemporary military muskets, were of .60 caliber (24 gauge).3 They had an oversize trigger guard, a flat brass butt plate attached with nails, and a side plate of a coiled sea serpent. It was long thought that the extra-large trigger guard was made to accommodate a gloved hand. But recent inspection of original documents from the Hudson's Bay Company reveals a request sent to gunmakers in England in 1740 stating the Indians demanded large trigger guards because they liked to use the first two fingers of the hand to pull the trigger. Apparently that grip was more stable when firing from horseback than just the index finger.
On January 15, 1806, Captain Lewis commented on the armament of the Chinook Indians, incidentally revealing the quality of their arms, and their tendency to abuse them (cp. "Thunder Gun ").
their guns are usually of an inferior quality being oald refuse American & brittish Musquits which have been repared for this trade. they are invariably in bad order; they apear not to have been long enouh accustomed to fire arms to understand the management of them. They have no rifles, . . . obtain their ammunition from the traders; when they happen to have no ball or shot, they substitute gravel or peices of potmettal, and are insensible of the damage done thereby to their guns.
Even though the Hudson's Bay Company and other traders passed tens of thousands of trade fusils to the Indians, the guns are quite scarce today. In the hands of the Indians, the guns suffered extensive use and abuse. When they were beyond repair, they were broken down for scrap. The buttplates were typically used as hide scrapers, and the barrels were flattened at the muzzle to serve as digging implements
1. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), chose the Americanized spelling—fusee.
2. The word firelock at first (in the 17th century) denoted the mechanism by which sparks were produced by flint struck by a piece of steel, in order to ignite some priming powder in the pan of a gun. That mechanism soon came to be called a flint-lock, and that term soon came to denote the weapon as a whole.
3. Gauge is a standard of measurement applied to shotgun barrels. It represents the number of lead balls exactly the same diameter as the inside of the barrel that will add up to one pound in weight.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program.