Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get That Pieper?

Pieper side view
Side view of the .32-caliber Pieper Volley Gun in the collection of the LaPorte Historical Society.

Sometimes it seems like I live my life in a small cardboard box in the middle of a swamp. There’s just no other way to explain how I manage to miss things that are right under my nose. Things like the LaPorte County, Indiana, Historical Society Museum, for example.

I first heard of the LaPorte County Historical Society’s William A. Jones Firearms Collection from my brother, who casually mentioned it during a conversation two years ago. Had I ever been there, he asked? Nope. Tell me more. And this is what he told me:

Back around the turn of the century, Laporte, Indiana, was a popular playground for Chicago’s industrial elite. With its clean air, tranquil lakes and small-town charm, it’s no wonder that LaPorte eventually attracted the attention of a fellow named William A. Jones, owner of a sizable iron foundry in the Windy City. When Jones visited LaPorte near the close of the nineteenth century, he fell in love with the place.

When he retired from the foundry business, William A. Jones was free to indulge his three passions: travel, firearms, and  LaPorte, Indiana. First things first: he immediately built a mini-mansion on the shores of LaPorte’s Pine Lake. Then he set off to search the world for rare and interesting guns, eventually amassing a collection of nearly a thousand of the coolest guns you’ve ever seen. When Jones died in 1921, he left his collection to the City of LaPorte, which in turn donated them to the Laporte County Historical Society.

Intrigued, I wasted no time in visiting the museum and found that my brother was right on the money. What a collection! I was so impressed that I photographed several of the museum’s guns for the 16-page color section of the 17th edition of Standard Catalog of Firearms. Later, the museum invited me back to give tours of the Jones Collection.

During these tours people would frequently ask me, “What’s the most interesting gun in the museum?” And I’d say, “That’s simple. To me, it’s the seven-shot Pieper Volley Gun.”

Never heard of the Pieper Volley Gun, have you? Neither had I until I stumbled across it in the LaPorte museum. If the LaPorte museum’s W. A. Jones Collection of Antique Firearms contains the damndest stuff you’ve ever seen, then their Pieper Volley Gun has got to be the double-damndest.

Most of us know the name Pieper from the variety of inexpensive, single-shot Flobert rifles that Pieper and other Belgian gunsmiths churned out by the boatload. There’s a tendency to dismiss these rifles, and all vintage Belgian arms, as junk, which they’re not. After all, when John M. Browning was looking for someone to build his Auto-5 shotgun after Winchester gave it a thumbs-down, he chose Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale. And, more tellingly, American shooters embraced Pieper’s little .22 Flobert rifles so enthusiastically that Winchester Repeating Arms felt compelled to go into the low-end .22 market with their Models 1900 and 1902 single-shots. If shooters back then didn’t turn up their noses at Belgian guns, I’m not so sure we should do so now.

Were all turn-of-the-century Belgian guns top-quality? Certainly not. Neither were all American guns. My point here is that it’s dangerous to dismiss an entire class of firearms unilaterally, because sooner or later (usually sooner) an exception will pop up and prove you wrong. The Pieper Volley Gun is just such an exception.

Henri Pieper was born in the German town of Soest in the Westphalia region on October 30, 1840. After receiving some basic training in machining and a stint at a woolen mill, he apprenticed with a gunsmith named Warstein. A telented metalworker with an interest in firearms, Pieper emigrated to Belgium in 1859 and subsequently mastered his craft in Herstal, Verviers and Liege.

Around 1866 Pieper opened his own firearms factory at #12 Bayard Street in Liege; he made rifle barrels. Apparently business was booming, for by 1870 his shop had grown to occupy 6,000 square meters. That same year he partnered with a barrelmaker named Nessonvaux in the Vesdre valley.

The business end of the Pieper Volley Gun.
The business end of the Pieper Volley Gun.

Henri Pieper seems to have a pretty good head for business. In 1887, he joined a conglomerate of high-profile Belgian arms makers including Jules Ancion, the Dumoulin brothers, Joseph Janssen, Pirlot-Frésart, Draws up-Laloux & Co., Albert Simonis and Emile and Leon Nagant. (Of these, American shooters are probably most familiar with the shotguns, cape guns and double rifles of Dumoulin and the famous Nagant gas-seal revolvers, which were probably designed by Pieper.) Along the way, Piper found also manufactured bicycles and one of the earliest automobiles, the so-called Pieper “Bicyclette.” As if that weren’t enough, Pieper also found time in his schedule to act as one of the co-founders of Fabrique Nationale, the largest armsmaker the world has ever seen.

Most Pieper firearms are stamped with the “ELG” proofmark that indicates Belgian origin, and often with other proofs as well. In addition, Pieper marketed firearms not only under his own name but under the following trademarks: Bayard; Eagle Gun Works; E.Leroy; Modified Diana; Diane; The Leader; Bayard Arms Company; Pieper Arms Company; Premier Arms Company; Damascus Compound; National Arms Company; Henry Arms Company; Royal Gun Works; Le Rationnel (sometimes seen as “The Rational”); Pieper Top Bolt; Schutz Marke; E-K; Eclipse Company; Metropole; Pieper’s Compressed Steel;  Monarch Arms Company; and probably many other trade names as well.

Although Henri Pieper held 69 Belgian patents, much of his firearms production was based on existing designs such as the Flobert rifle, the Warnant rifle, the Remington Rolling Block Rifle, and the Nagant revolver. I have also seen copies of the Stevens single-shot Lord pistol that bore the Pieper name, and it seems fair to say that Pieper was primarily a firearms maker and only secondarily a designer. After an all-too-brief lifetime of churning out hundreds of thousands of sporting arms and military weapons, he died (probably from overwork) on August 23, 1898, at only 57 years of age.

The Pieper company was subsequently reorganized as “Etablissements Pieper” and continued for a time under the direction of Pieper’s son Nicolas. The strain of diversification, particularly in the area of automobiles, brought the company to its knees, and in 1905 the board of directors invited Nicolas Pieper to take his hat and go.  The company was once again reorganized, this time as “Les Anciens Etablissements Pieper,” and moved to an entirely new factory in Herstal in 1907. The thrice-born company concentrated solely on the manufacture of weapons and sporting arms; it’s estimated that at its peak, Les Anciens Etablissements Pieper was turning out 60,000 shotguns, 30,000 automatic pistols, 30,000 rifles and 12 million cartridges a year! This may explain why we find so many Pieper guns floating around. Les Anciens Etablissements Pieper actually survived both world wars — no mean feat when you’re headquartered in Belgium — and continued making arms of nearly every description before winking out for good in 1956.

The Pieper Volley Gun that resides in the Laporte County Historical Museum (www.laportecountyhistory.org) is an odd duck indeed. It is based on the Remington Rolling Block Action, which was one of the simplest, strongest single-shot actions of the late 1800s and one that successfully bridged the blackpowder and smokeless eras.

This is a web-exclusive feature by Dan Shideler, Editor of the “World’s Greatest Gun Book,” — Gun Digest.  To learn more about the 2010 edition of Gun Digest, Click Here

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