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A Rifle with History

Otago Museum Conservation staff are today dismantling the only Collier 2nd model flintlock revolving rifle held in public collections around the world.

The Museum has responded to a request from Dr Ben Nicholson, of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, who is researching and writing a book on the 1818 revolving rifle and pistol, produced by Artemis Wheeler and Elisha Collier. Dr Nicholson arrives today, Friday 15 February, to examine the rifle and Melvin Cain, a descendant of Kāi Tahu rakatira Tūhawaiki, one of the early owners of this rifle, will also be in attendance.

Dr Nicholson is part of a research group of six people who have spent the past three years making an exhaustive study of the Collier flintlock revolving gun. He says that the early 19th century design for the Collier flintlock revolving rifle was rejected by both the British and French armies, so Elisha Collier built his revolver for the private market, making five-shot revolving pistols and five-shot revolving rifles for sport, self-defence or military use. The rifle had a production run of approximately 250 guns and is considered to be the first “mass-produced’ and partially machine-made gun of its type.

The research group has identified more than 80 of the original 250 Collier revolving guns in existence, two of which are known to be in New Zealand, a pistol in the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the rifle in Dunedin.The Otago Museum Collier rifle is believed to have the longest verifiable provenance of any known.

The Collier rifle held by the Otago Museum is reputed to have been owned by the Kāi Tahu rakatira Tūhawaiki. It’s possible that Tūhawaiki acquired the rifle while he was in Sydney with other Kāi Tahu chiefs between 1838 and 1840.

Tūhawaiki rose to prominence within Kāi Tahu after the warfare with northern iwi led by Te Rauparaha during the 1830s. He had a reputation for being a fierce, strategic, and charismatic leader. In addition to being a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi at Ruapuke Island on 10 June 1840, he was also a signatory to the sale of the Otago Block at Ōtākou in 1844. Tūhawaiki’s strong petitioning of the Methodist missionary Reverend James Watkin at Waikouaiti led to the appointment of the Rev Johann Wohlers to Ruapuke. 

Tūhawaiki was drowned in October 1844 off Paparoa Point (now known as Tuhawaiki Point) near Timaru, after being swept off his boat in a large wave.

Tūhawaiki was one of the last great rakatira of Kāi Tahu before the influx of European settlers to Otago and Southland.

Dr Nicholson’s research project includes a reappraisal of all relevant archival material relating to the Collier flintlock revolving gun, and a catalogue raisonné of all the identified guns.

The main reason for studying the Otago Collier SN 129 is to understand better the method of construction and the manner in which it is proof marked.

Media are invited to view the rifle and to speak with Melvin Cain, Ben Nicholson, and Museum staff at the Museum at 1pm on Friday 15 February.