Caplock Rifle of
Thomas May, Sr. (1787-1867)

Fred T. May

Photo of the rifle & related items | operation of flintlock & caplock rifles

In December 2005 I was very fortunate to see, hold and photograph a rifle that once belonged to my great-great grandfather, Thomas May, Sr. The present owner is Bill May, a great grandson of David May [1828-1864], youngest son of Thomas May, Sr. Bill's grandfather was David's oldest son, Thomas May [1853-1933]. Thomas was only eleven years old when his father died in the Civil War.

Thomas stayed on the May farm on Robinson Creek in Pike County and cared for his widowed mother, Mary Elizabeth Bickley May, until her death in 1907. He had a great interest in the history of the family and carefully preserved family possessions and records. He didn't marry until 1909 when he was 56 years old. His bride, Sarah (Sally) Little, was only 22. They had four children between 1910 and 1921. Thomas died in 1933 and Sally lived until 1965. Bill May was a young man when his grandmother died and recalls her often telling stories of the family. She identified the rifle and a gold watch as once being possessions of Thomas May, Sr.

More about the gold watch

Photos taken in March 2008   |    Closer look at an inscription

When Thomas May, Sr. had his will prepared by his attorney from Pikeville in July 1865, he was obviously concerned about the welfare of the family of his recently deceased son, David. Specific mention of this young family was the second item of the will. When Thomas Sr. died in 1867 the ages of David's seven living children ranged from 3 to 14.

    Secondly, I will to Thomas May, Alice May, Hatler May, William May [1], David May, Fanny May, Mary Elizabeth May, Children [2] of my son David May, and to Mary May his wife or widow, all the lands I own from my Randall grass field or sugar orchard up Robinson Creek and its branches, Except the piece or tract heretofore deeded by me to Thomas May, son of my son David May. It is my will that said Thomas shall have an Equal Share besides the tract heretofore deeded to him by me. So far as the said Mary, wife or widow of my dear son David, is concerned, this will is only to her a Dower interest in said land for her natural life or during her widowhood. Should she marry, it is my will that the whole of said lands go to said children.


    Though clearly written as William in the will, this must be Ashbell Patton Willard May (b. 1858).


    This is a complete list of all children of David May that survived childhood.

See full text of the will of Thomas May, Sr.

Thomas May Sr.'s caplock rifle, wooden ramrod with a metal tip, powder horn. The leather pouch contained a flashpan mechanism, two flints, a bullet mold and some lead.

According to a great-great grandson, Eldon May, it appears that the rifle was converted from a flintlock to a caplock rifle. As early as the 1820s such a conversion was being made by gunsmiths to make a more reliable firing mechanism. The flashpan mechanism in the pouch has an 1829 date engraved on it so Thomas probably didn't convert to a caplock rifle until the 1830s or 40s. The next time I have an opportunity, I need to photograph a closer view of the flashpan.

2008 NOTE

I returned to look again at the rifle and hunting pouch and took the following photo of the older flintlock firing mechanism. It has GUNN inscribed above the 1829 date. Below the date is a symbol of the eight points of a compass.

More about caplock rifles

The flashpan mechanism is added to the previous two views.

Purpose of the flashpan:

  • The flashpan is primed with a small amount of very finely ground powder, and the flashpan lid is closed;

  • the flint strikes the frizzen, a piece of steel on the priming pan lid, opening it and exposing the priming powder;
  • the contact between flint and frizzen produces a spark that is directed into the flashpan;
  • the powder ignites, and the flame passes through a small hole in the barrel (called a vent, or touchhole) that leads to the combustion chamber, igniting the powder there; and
  • the gun discharges.

Striker & frizzen

The image of a pheasant is inscribed on the side of the caplock mechanism.
The apparent indentation from a larger mechanism on the rifle stock probably is where
the flint-holding hammer was attached on the original flintlock rifle.

The manufacturer of the caplock mechanism hasn't been identified.
An enhanced view of an inscription on it is shown in this photo.