A Tale of Two Williams

August 18th, 2023

By John Marks, Curator

photo of a rifle

Side lock rifle created by William Gardner

Last month a gentleman inquired what we knew about the gunsmith William Gardner. The name rang a bell as I knew Historic Geneva had at least one of his guns in the collection. I was able to show the man our Gardner rifle, which was helpful to him. However, we had little information in the archives. Certain that I could find something on the internet, down a rabbit hole I went.

The Geneva newspapers had no notices about Gardner or his shop. The two newspapers each ran favorable obituaries about him when he passed away. I learned William Gardner (1793-1882) was born in Canandaigua, came to Geneva in 1815, and married in 1817.

The Geneva Daily Gazette wrote, “His trade was that of gunsmith, and before the making of firearms by machinery many of the best specimens, particularly of rifles, were the production of his handiwork. His shop was headquarters of military men and sportsmen for a wide circle around Geneva to whom he dispensed hospitality with a liberal hand.”

Top of rifle barrel

Rifle created by William Gardner

A broader internet search was both interesting and frustrating. Several men named William Gardner made or invented firearms at different times and in different places. (If interested, you can pursue that for yourself.) The results narrowed when I added “Geneva, New York” but were still sparse. The one hit that caught my eye mentioned Gardner and William Billinghurst in the same article.

Billinghurst rang a bell because, again, I knew we had an object he made in our collection. It was a mystery object for a long time, but we discovered it’s a side-mounted fly-fishing reel.

Photo of a open design fly fishing reel

Fly fishing reel patented by William Billinghurst.

In 1823 William Billinghurst (1807-1880), became a gunsmith’s apprentice, moving to Rochester in 1827. In 1841 he bought out his teacher and opened a shop under his own name. In 1859 he patented a design for a fly-fishing reel. The open cage allowed the silk fishing line to dry without being removed from the reel. The disc design took in more line per rotation than other reels, and it was smaller as well.

What connected these two Williams? In 1841, Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro D’Alacantara wanted a “valuable Yankee rifle” made for him. An American named Badell said he should contact William Gardner, “as being the only gunsmith of much celebrity with whom he was acquainted.” Gardner received an order for three rifles: for Badell, for an unnamed person, and for the emperor. D’Alacantara wished his rifle to “unite beauty and perfection in the manufacture of the article.” Gardner agreed to make the first two rifles but feared his work might not be good enough for the emperor. He asked Billinghurst to make the emperor’s rifle, which he did. The Rochester newspapers reported this honor, as well as rifles Billinghurst made for other dignitaries over the next decade.


One response to “A Tale of Two Williams”

  1. Charles Bauder says:

    John, Great article and research. You have very good handle on Historic Geneva’s collection.

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