Military History in 100 Objects – The Pistol That Killed 20 Million People

The Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo just minutes before their deaths.

The Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo just minutes before their deaths.

The pistol that started World War One -- Gavrilo Princip's FN 1910.

The pistol that started World War One — Gavrilo Princip’s FN 1910.

#16 – The Gun that Killed 20 Million People
Americans may tell you that the so called “shot heard round the world“, as referenced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn“, was fired at the outset of the American Revolution. But the phrase also works to describe the assassination of the Austrian Hungarian crown prince, Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 — the event that triggered the First World War. Interestingly, the infamous 9 mm Browning pistol used to murder the Archduke and his wife Sophie was long thought to have been lost to the ages, that is until it turned up in a Jesuit monastery in Austria in 2004. A 19-year-old Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip fired two rounds from the small six-shot Belgian-made FN Model 1910 handgun directly at the Austrian crown prince and Duchess Sophie as their motorcade passed through the streets of Sarajevo that fateful day. Princip was standing less than five feet away from his victims when he pulled the trigger. One of the bullets struck the prince in the neck severing his jugular vein; the other tore into the duchess’ abdomen. The royal couple bled out en route to the hospital. Princip, a member of the secret pro-Serb terrorist organization The Black Hand, was arrested on the spot. He later stood trial for murder. Ironically, the teenaged killer was spared a death sentence since he was considered too young, yet millions of others would die as a result of his actions. In the days that followed the shooting, Austria Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination and mobilized to invade its smaller neighbour. Russia leapt to the defence of its Balkan ally, while Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II pledged his unwavering support to the leaders in Vienna. France stood by Russia and Berlin ordered its army to prepare for all out war. Within a month, all of the major powers of Europe would be on the march. The resulting conflict would snuff out 20 million lives before its conclusion. The sickly Princip died in prison of tuberculosis in April of 1918. His notorious handgun, along with a number of items from Ferdinand and Sophie’s car, was given to Anton Puntigam, the priest that administered the last rites to the dying couple. Puntigam hoped to build a museum devoted to the Austrian prince one day and display the objects there. He before he could make good on the pledge. The late clergyman left the historic cache to his monastery. Decades later, the order’s own Austrian archivist unearthed the artifacts and handed them over to the Vienna Military Museum, just in time for the 90th anniversary of the First World War. The pistol went on exhibit with the Archduke’s car and his bloodstained tunic. In 2008, it was temporarily loaned to the Imperial War Museum in London.

Patton's famous .45.

Patton’s famous .45.

#17 – Tickling the Ivories
George S. Patton was well known for his fiery temper. In fact, the general’s short fuse famously got the better of him on several occasions. But one thing that supposedly really set him off was when people described his storied six-shooter as a “pearl-handled” revolver. It actually had ivory grips. “Only a pimp in a New Orleans whorehouse or a tin-horn gambler would carry a pearl-handled pistol,” he once told the press. Today, that very same sidearm is on display at the General George Patton Museum and Center of Leadership in Fort Knox, Kentucky. He bought the pistol, a .45 caliber Colt Model 1873 revolver, in 1916 for the then-considerable sum of $50 (about a third of his monthly salary at the time). Patton spent a few extra bucks having an ivory handle custom-made with his initials “G.S.P.” engraved on it. The Colt is currently exhibited along with the general’s trusty back up gun, a .357 Smith & Wesson Model 27. It too features a monogramed ivory grip. Both weapons were reportedly donated to the museum by the general’s grandson.

A Spencer repeating rifle.

A Spencer repeating rifle.

The plank Abe Lincoln shot with a Spencer rifle in 1863.

The plank Abe Lincoln shot with a Spencer rifle in 1863.

#18 – Lincoln: The Crack Shot President?
On Aug. 18, 1863, an inventor named Christopher Spencer arrived at the White House and marched right into Abraham Lincoln’s office carrying a rifle and a fist full of ammunition. The 30-year-old native of Manchester, Connecticut wasn’t there to harm the president, but rather to sell the commander-in-chief on the merits of his new-fangled Spencer repeater. Honest Abe agreed to witness a live fire demonstration and the following day, the two men, along with war secretary Edwin Stanton, met on the grassy Mall in Washington D.C. to test the weapon. Spencer brought along a small wooden plank to serve as a target and placed it 40 yards away. Moments later, the president raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired seven .56-56 rounds in rapid succession — all of them struck the target. At the end of the test, Spencer presented the rifle to Lincoln as a gift. In gratitude, the president told his guest to keep the small target as a memento of their meeting. Following the demonstration, the War Department ordered 13,000 Spencer repeaters. Eventually 200,000 were manufactured. Legend holds that prior to his audience with Lincoln, Spencer had tried to sell his lever-action rifle to the army, but was brushed off by thickheaded generals who had little faith in repeaters. Yet as historians point out, it’s actually a myth. While Spencer did meet with the president, many Northern regiments had been purchasing the rifles privately since the war’s outset. By 1863, an estimated 7,500 Spencers had been officially issued to soldiers in the Union Army. The navy had several hundred models as well, which were treated with linseed oil and beeswax to prevent corrosion at sea. Spencer actually visited the capital that summer in hopes of doing even more business with the military. As soon as the Civil War ended, orders for Spencer rifles dried up entirely and the army sold off its surplus models to European powers. By 1869, the company went belly up. Christopher Spencer focused on the sewing machine business and later founded another firearms company — one that designed pump-action shot guns. He died in 1922. The famous target plank that President Lincoln riddled with bullet holes ended up in the Illinois State Military Museum. It’s on exhibit to this day along with a Spencer rifle.

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