The Gun That Killed James Garfield
A .44-caliber British Bulldog
Charles Guiteau used a British Bulldog pistol to kill the 20th president of the United States James Garfield on July 2, 1881 at the busy Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C.
Guiteau had stalked Garfield for a considerable time. He reportedly believed that killing Garfield, thus elevating Vice Pres. Chester Arthur to the presidency, would restore traditional Republican values.
Guiteau was insane. His family committed him in the 1870s, but he subsequently escaped.
The British Bulldog line of pocket pistols was incredibly popular. They ranged in size from the very small .32-caliber pistol to the larger .45-calibre models. All featured a solid, single-piece frame with a right-hand-loading port.
They could be fired by double or single action and had either five or six chambers, depending on the size and caliber. They can be found with both folding triggers and trigger guards.
Many Bulldogs were crudely-made, rough-looking pistols. Hundreds of thousands were manufactured between 1875 and 1930.
The pistol Garfield’s assassin used was a more refined, Belgian-made .44 caliber that he’d purchased for $10. Guiteau is said to have been surprised by the pistol’s heavy recoil, which knocked him off balance when he first practiced shooting into trees on the banks of the Potomac River.
True enough, the short barrel and powerful cartridge made the Bulldog difficult to control for inexperienced shooters. The pistol was inaccurate at ranges beyond 60 feet, as it had only a front sight. Guiteau managed to get within 20 feet of the president before firing.
Garfield was hit twice. One bullet grazed his shoulder while a second entered his lower back, just missing his spine and lodging just behind his pancreas. The president survived the night and remained alert. Doctors were unable to locate the second bullet but hopped that the president might still recover.
But infections resulted from the doctors’ probing and from clothes fibers. Garfield lingered near death for 80 days. He finally succumbed to his wounds and infections on Sept. 19, 1881.
Guiteau hanged on June 30, 1882. Authorities donated the pistol to the Smithsonian Institute, which later lost it.