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Curious Case of the Non-Trabuco Gun

Gun, date unknown
Maker and origin unknown
Wood and steel; 33.5 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Church
An interesting antique firearm in the collection of the Bowers Museum once on display as part of the former permanent Spanish Exploration exhibition (1992-2006) was recently investigated by Bowers’ research team. The museum’s records show that the gun was found in the Trabuco Canyon area where the 1769 Spanish Exploration team led by Gaspar de Portola was rumored to have lost one of their guns. The party named the canyon for the type of lost gun they carried (Trabuco). While there was never proof to show that the gun was the same as the one lost, it carried the rumor that it was indeed the fabled gun. Recently museum records were revisited, and a troubling discovery was made. The gun was said to have been a “blunder-buss, flint-lock rifle,” with its “hammer, stock and trigger missing.” This assessment was dubious, as the gun had little to no characteristics of a flintlock or a blunderbuss, which is an early shotgun with a flared muzzle.
It soon became apparent that the object, referred to among staff simply as “the gun” (or jokingly as “the non-trabuco”) because of its unknown origin or type, was something of an anomaly. The crudeness of the design and the lack of any maker’s marks or embellishments indicated the weapon was probably homemade, and not manufactured by a professional craftsman or company. Because the gun lacked any indication of having a complex lock mechanism, it was theorized that the gun must be a form of matchlock, or hand cannon. Shot and powder could be loaded down the barrel, and a lit piece of rope, called a slow match, would be used to ignite the charge through the small hole on the top, called a touch hole.
This explanation, however, was problematic. In Europe, matchlocks were only used until the early 1700s. This meant that the gun pre-dated any Spanish contact in California. Was the initial assessment influenced by the legend of the trabuco and the location of the find? And how exactly did a European matchlock find its way into Trabuco Canyon before the arrival of the Spanish?
At this point, experts in firearms history were contacted, and the results were surprising. Several independent opinions suggested that the gun with unusual characteristics was not European, but most likely of East or Southeast Asian origin; dates of its manufacture varied. One theory was that it was developed by Burmese tribesmen, who often crafted their own copies of Chinese matchlocks. The short barrel and large caliber of the gun (about 12 gauge) suggests it was used as a “rampart gun” in defensive warfare. Loaded with buckshot, it would be fired at point blank range as enemy soldiers stormed a fortified position.
Though this information reaffirmed the homemade matchlock theory, it did little to explain how the gun ended up in Trabuco Canyon. This mystery may never be solved, but the curious case of the non-trabuco is a fascinating look into the way history is constantly being changed, updated, and rewritten.

This blog is dedicated to former Bowers’ volunteer Alex Theologidy whose dedication to research and history is forever deeply appreciated.
All text and images under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
Purepecha (Phurépecha) Ceramic Pipe
Telefomin Doorboard, Papua New Guinea


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Monday, 20 May 2024

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