Firearms fairs and the reputation of the French rifles

Lewis and Clark have often referred to “fusils” (rifles) that Native Americans had in their hands. Near Fort Peter, South Dakota, on September 26, 1804, Clark recorded that some indigenous tribes were better armed than others.

It was from the mid-17th century that French-speaking fur traders supplied their aboriginal clients with hunting rifles, both as gifts and as part of bartering. Native Americans were sophisticated and clever customers. They quickly saw the benefits of firearms over spears, bows and arrows for hunting purposes. In addition, the rifle had a superior range and required much less training prior to its use. At the request of Native American hunters, a larger trigger was added to the rifle for better grip when shooting on horseback. Lighter and thinner than British rifles, the French-made “fusils” were by far the preferred ones.

A firearms fair at the Gilbert site (Texas) around 1750 (artwork by Charles Shaw)

From the beginning of the 18th century the French and Canadian traders held firearms fairs in open air throughout Colonial French Louisiana to the clientele’s  satisfaction. These outdoor fairs are the genesis of today’s popular gun shows in the American West. Following the discovery of a large number of hunting rifles in East Texas during the 20th century (see Texarkana), detailed comparative studies have revealed a significant French influence in the design and decoration of these firearms that enjoyed a reputation for strength and reliability.