The world’s oldest revolver known to exist can be found at the Maihaugen Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. At over 400 years old it’s still in incredible condition and is a real treasure. The markings indicate that it was fabricated in 1597 and engravings show that it belonged to an officer serving during the Thirty Years’ War.
In addition to its advanced design by period standards, the revolver is ornately decorated. The revolver is fully engraved and inlaid with gold and has a personalized silver butt plate bearing its owner’s name.
It is engraved “Georg Reichwein 1636” — the gun belonged to Georg von Reichwein, a German officer hired to strengthen Norway’s defenses during the troubled times. The Thirty Years’ War was fought from 1618 to 1648 and was one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts in history.
Like other guns of the era it is a flintlock, but instead of a single barrel and chamber, it uses a rotating cylinder with eight chambers and a fixed barrel. Each cylinder has a sliding cover to protect its flash pan and prevent chain fires — lighting up more than one charge at a time.
It’s clear that the gunsmith or “weapons blacksmith” Hans Stopler knew what he was doing. This is no working prototype or proof-of-concept. It’s a highly refined firearm, something that would stand out without any embellishments. It may be the oldest revolver but it’s easy to see that it’s built on established conventions — surviving or otherwise, this isn’t likely to be the earliest revolver ever made.
Each pan cover travels in tight tracks and is individually sprung to prevent the covers from opening unintentionally. The cylinder is indexed to ensure proper barrel alignment and locks into a spring-loaded detent. And the frizzen has been worked to mount to the barrel lug since the gun can’t use side plates.
To turn the next chamber into position the user has to rotate each chamber into place by hand — cocking the hammer does not turn the cylinder. Still, with eight shots between reloads, this revolver embodies sixteenth-century fire superiority. Cock the hammer, turn the cylinder, slide the pan cover off and fire again.
In 1636 Reichwein was promoted to major and was put in charge of the forces stationed at the Bergenhus fortress in Norway. Denmark-Norway was directly and briefly involved with the Thirty Years’ War during the Torstenson War from 1643 to 1645 but had been building up their defenses long before then.
Sadly the Maihaugen Museum doesn’t have the world’s oldest revolver on display all year ’round. Like many museums the Maihaugen has more artifacts than floor space and the gun spends much of its life in storage. They do bring it out for special occasions such as the recent 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution.