A Rifle Fit for a Sultan


Turkish Hunting Set / 1732-33 /  Acquired by Henry Walters, 1903

One of the most dazzling objects at the Walters is an eighteenth-century bejeweled rifle set. The set includes the rifle, a dagger, a pen case, a penholder and reed pen, a cleaner, and a spoon. The entire set is decorated with diamond, rubies, and emeralds. A monogram (inscribed in diamonds; shown below) records that the set was made in 1732 and 1733 in the royal workshops of the Ottoman ruler Mahmud I.

When Henry Walters purchased the set in 1903, it came with a story, recorded by its owner, Robert S. Pardo. He wrote that the sultan, Ghazi Mahmoud Kahn I, commissioned a hunting rifle with which he could kill an animal without firing, and which he could use while hunting to sign an edict or decree. One after another, gunsmiths presented the sultan with rifles they believed would meet his conditions. None satisfied the sultan who broke each rifle, leaving the gunsmiths in disgrace.

Finally, one man presented his rifle for the sultan’s inspection. When he heard the order given to break the rifle to pieces, the gunsmith asked the sultan to examine the gun more closely. The sultan asked how he could kill an animal without firing the rifle, and how he could sign an edict with the rifle. The gunsmith showed him the hidden compartment containing an equally ornate dagger and pen case. That is the legend of how this rifle set, covered in gem-stones, and filled with hidden compartments came to be.

The gunmaker's initials set in diamonds.

The gunmaker’s initials set in diamonds.

This story was discovered while researching the rifle set. Conservators have found nothing concrete to support the tale, and many reasons to doubt its veracity. True or false, every item in the collection tells a story. Curators and conservators work to piece it together, examining each item’s history, composition, and necessary treatment. They unearth countless stories, fit together jigsaw puzzles of broken pieces, remove centuries of dirt and tarnish, and so much more. Using a range of techniques, technologies, and sciences, they study and repair items so they can continue to be enjoyed and explored for generations to come.

Each object presents its own unique challenges. The rifle set alone has many. It contains nearly 4,000 gem-stones. Prior to being bequeathed to the museum, many of those gems had fallen out of their settings, but recently two silver panels covered in diamonds were discovered and reattached to their original place on the rifle.

Just like the other 35,000 objects in the Walters’ collection, the rifle set requires ongoing attention. X-ray images have revealed an additional hidden compartment in the rifle which was sealed long ago. What’s inside? What was it used for? Only further research can answer those questions. And for that we’ll need your help!

Conservation at the Walters costs more than $1 million each year. But with a collection of more than 35,000 objects, that is less than $50 for each work of art. You can preserve these treasures for generations to come. Please make your gift today

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