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Muzzle Blasts Online
Muzzle Blasts Online Cover
Aug 1999/Sep 1999 Volume 4, Number 4

Arrows, Eagles, and Olive Branches

The eagle in the finial of a patchbox was depicted as a symbol of national pride by the muzzleloading riflemaker.

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Figure 1: Double-headed eagle in the Hapsburg coat of arms.
The eagle has been the choice of many nations as the symbol of state. The Romans regarded the eagle as the vehicle for the souls of their emperors after death, and they employed emblems of the great bird on the standards of their famous legions. Likewise, the eagle led the soldiers of Charlemagne into battle for the Holy Roman Empire and later provided a useful identity for the polyglot Crusaders in their quest for the Holy Land. The royal families of Europe and Asia, such as the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, symbolized their reigns with stylized, double-headed eagles (Fig. 1).

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Figure 2: Original rendering of the first Great Seal of the United States by Charles Thomson in 1789.
The first eagle to be a contender for America's national seal was sketched in ink (Fig. 2) by Charles Thomson, then Secretary of the Continental Congress. The American bald eagle was the model of strength and ferocity, but the bird as drawn had a rather bizarre look with its disproportionate legs and wings. The eagle was depicted as preparing to fly, with its left talons grasping an olive branch (symbolizing the quest for peace) and its left talons clutching a sheaf of thirteen arrows (emblematic of the thirteen states' readiness for war if the need arose). Despite its lack of artistic appeal and anatomical correctness, it was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782, and became the Seal of the United States on Sept. 15, 1789 under the newly ratified Constitution.1

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Figure 3: The eagle in the Great Seal of the 1840's came very close to the permanent version now in use.
Over the next half-century, the motif of the eagle clutching the arrows and the olive branch evolved into a more sophisticated design, and by the 1840's had been fairly well finalized, with the eagle's outstretched wings reaching upward, its midsection bearing a shield of 13 stripes, and its beak holding the now familiar "E Pluribus Unum" banner (Fig. 3). During the period leading to the refinement of the Great Seal(1790-1840), the eagle became very popular as a generic symbol on business offices, municipal buildings, park entrances, ship's bows, furniture and stationary, left down to beer steins and coat buttons. Small wonder that in this period, which encompassed the "Golden Age" of muzzleloading riflebuilding, the eagle in its various forms and poses found its way into the engraving of patchbox finials, cheekpiece ovals, and other inlays.

Figure 4: Pen and ink sketch of an eagle carved by William Rush, Philadelphia, 1810.
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Various forms of the eagle that have been employed as inlays on or behind the cheekpiece of muzzleloading rifles.
Prominent riflemakers during the Golden Age (John Armstrong, Joel Ferree, John Noll, Nathaniel Rowe, and Peter White, among others1,2 engraved eagles on metal cheekpiece inlays. The pose that would seem most compatible with an oval field is that of the crouching eagle (Fig. 4), which gives the appearance of being ready to fly and pounce on some prey below its perch. Although this form of the eagle was popularized by the carvings of William Rush early in the 19th Century3, it never seemed to catch on with riflemakers. The eagle with its head erect in watchful vigilance, its wings outstretched, its talons clutching a banner as shown in figure 5, was more widely depicted. Don Eads found a somewhat more benign eagle on the cheekpiece of an original Ohio rifle (Fig. 6), which gave the stately bird more of the look of a seagull spotting its next handout from a bunch of beach babies. For an inlay to be placed behind the cheekpiece in lieu of carving, the shield-bearing eagle in figure 7 would be more appropriate than one posed with outstretched wings because it has a more compact shape compatible with the available space.

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Figure 8: Engraving pattern supplied with commercially available patchbox with eagle finial (see list of suppliers).
A large patchbox incorporating an eagle into its finial in a manner reminiscent of the Vogler patter on some North Carolina rifles is commercially available (see supplier list), complete with engraving pattern (Fig. 8). The engraving of the eagle on the patchbox finial of the header photo was modified slightly (Fig. 9) to bring the silhouette closer to the arrows-eagle-olive branches motif of the U.S. Great Seal. The patchbox pattern has sufficient metal in the area above the bird's feet to allow modification so as to bring its outline more into conformity with the eagle's outstretched legs. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and so after engraving it, I modified it still further to make it more engraver-friendly as shown in figure 10.

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Figure 9: Close-up of eagle patchbox finial as engraved by the author.
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Figure 10: Engraver-friendly version of eagle pattern for patchbox finial.

If none of these eagle renditions suit your fancy or the decor of your rifle-in-progress, turn over to the back side of a dollar bill (assuming you can keep a dollar these days long enough to inspect its detail) and adapt the current version of the Great Seal to your decorative tastes. If you are currently too broke for that alternative, you still might be able to beg two bits off your kids before they are off to the video games arcade; there's a passable eagle on its "tails" side. And, if even your kids turn you down, there's always the public library with its helpful librarian willing to give you a free look at the majestic eagle embossed on the cover of the Encyclopedia Americana. No matter where you find them, arrows, eagles, and olive branches are going to be around for a long, long time. Many are useful motifs for rifle-building projects.


1. Metzgar, T.J. and Whisker, J.B. 1988. Gunsmiths of Western Pennsylvania. Vol. 1. Old Bedford Village Press, Bedford, PA.

2. Johnston, J.R. 1976. Kentucky Rifles and Pistols 1750-1850. Golden Age Arms Publisher, Columbus, OH.

3. Isaacson, P.M. 1975. The American Eagle. Little, Brown & Co., Boston, MA.


Don Eads' Muzzleloader Builder's Supply, phone (615) 799-2128, fax (615) 799-9962 for eagle patchboxes and engraving patterns

Brownell's, Inc., phone (515) 623-5401 for engraving tools and supplies.

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