This pistol is the weapon of a British cavalryman, of the type that would have been used at the Battle of Waterloo. All British mounted soldiers at Waterloo carried pistols, of the New Land Pattern recently standardised in 1796. They had extremely short range and were very inaccurate, especially when fired from the saddle of a moving horse. Many British troopers disliked them because of this, preferring to fight with swords.

Cavalry soldiers carried two different guns, carbines and pistols. Unfortunately, the firearms each required a different cartridge (containing ammunition), as a pistol needed to be loaded with less gunpowder than a larger carbine. This meant scrabbling for the right type of cartridge in the heat of battle – and if a pistol was loaded with too much gunpowder, it could blow itself out of the wielder’s hand when fired. Unsurprisingly, pistols were quite unpopular with many soldiers. They were only guaranteed to hit the enemy at very short range, sometimes if pressed right against their body.

Most pistol-shots at the Battle of Waterloo were probably fired by the French cavalry, when they attacked the Allied army in the afternoon of 18 June 1815. The Allied soldiers assembled into squares, with their bayonets pointing outwards. This meant that the French could not attack the enemy infantry past a hedge of spear-points. In frustration, they rode around the Allied squares, firing with pistols and carbines – sometimes trotting to within a few metres of the Allied forces, banging off a couple of quick shots, then retreating.

The New Land Pattern pistol (Land as opposed to a model for use at sea, by the Royal Navy) was first approved in 1796 and mass-produced by 1802. It was adapted from a design created for the East India Company’s private army. Many officers also purchased their own weapons from gunsmiths.

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This object is in the collection of Royal Armouries