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German gunsmith put quality, style in small package


Overcoat pistol, John Schirer, Charleston, S.C. 1810-1820. Images courtesy The Charleston Museum.

These highly compact firearms from Charleston gunsmith John Schirer offered little in the way of accuracy. As one who tended to prefer style to substance, however, this was of no real concern to either him or his clientele. With the turn of the of the 19th century bringing on a new era of sophistication, most of his customers had long ago moved away from the large-stocked and somewhat clumsy horseman pistols and were now favoring firearms a bit more refined, or at least more convenient. Thus, with the overcoat pistol design geared for close-range self-defense (and not much else), those seeking the right tool for such a task need not look any further than Schirer’s Meeting Street shop.

It remains unclear exactly where or from whom Schirer learned his trade. Born in Germany, near the French border, in April 1774, his arrival in Charleston was not without a few serious setbacks. Married in 1805 but widowed barely a year later, Schirer’s luck continued to worsen. Behind debtor’s prison bars during the summer of 1807, a full two years passed before his name at last resurfaced in several City Gazette advertisements.

Although not quite ready to relocate in 1819, a small fire caused by a lightning strike — one that sent “a severe shock” through Shirer’s shop and even discharged a rifle that happened to be loaded at the time made the decision for him. Reopening in 1820 on Queen Street, “four doors from Church-street opposite the Planters Hotel,” it was at this new shop that Schirer would invent and patent a remarkable method of custom tailoring a person’s firearm by “crooking” its stock. As the Augusta Chronicle would announce on April 29, 1826, only Charleston’s John Schirer could “bend the stock of any gun to suit the precise [fit] required, without injuring the gun or changing the form of the butt.” Sadly, John Schirer never saw what lasting effects his extraordinary invention would bring. He died a year later and was buried at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

J. Grahame Long is the chief curator for The Charleston Museum, author and proud contributor to the Charleston Mercury.

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