From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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In 1785 Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fifteen-year-old nephew, Peter Carr, regarding what he considered the best form of exercise: "...I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks."[1][2]

According to family history, Jefferson's father, probably intending to test his young son's mettle rather than his skill for game, sent the ten year old boy, armed with a rifle, into the woods.[3] Jefferson was unsuccessful; however, on finding a wild turkey caught in a pen, he took the bird out, tied it to a tree with his garter, shot it and carried his prize home in triumph. Despite this beginning, evidence exists to show that he eventually became a fair marksman. At twenty-five he noted in his accounts: "Won at shooting 1/3."[4] In a later contest during a muster of Captain Jacob Moon's Albemarle County militia company he lost 2/3. But as he grew older, Jefferson limited his exercise to horseback riding while restraining his attachment for firearms and hunting.

References to ownership of arms and accoutrements may be found throughout his manuscripts and accounts. A cursory compilation shows that he owned a shotgun called a "two shot-double barrel," purchased in France, a number of pistols and other shoulder weapons. Further evidence that he used these may be found in the columns of his account books. In 1775 he paid to have a pistol repaired; a year later he bought a "double barrel gun-lock for £5-5; in 1799 he had Henry Yost, a Staunton, Virginia gunsmith, mend his pistols (possibly those he carried for protection when traveling) and, as late as 1817 he was charged eight dollars for having a gun put in order by a Charlottesville repairman.

Unquestionably, the finest arms that Jefferson owned were a pair of Turkish pistols received from the estate of General Isaac Zane in place of a money bequest. He described them and, at the same time, modestly alluded to his ability as a pistol shot: "They are 20. inch barrels so well made that I never missed a squirrel at 30 yards with them..."[5]

The slave, Isaac, in his inimitable Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, gives a clear picture of Jefferson the hunter. He recalls that his master hunted "squirrels and partridges; kept five or six guns...Old Master wouldn't shoot partridges settin'. Said 'he wouldn't take advantage of 'em' - would give 'em a chance for thar life. Wouldn't shoot a hare settin', nuther; skeer him up fust."[6] Isaac goes on to say that when Jefferson heard hunters down in his deer park at Monticello he "used to go down thar wid his gun and order 'em out."[7]


  1. Jefferson to Peter Carr, 19 August 1785, Papers 8:406-408.
  2. This article is based on James A. Bear, "Some Jefferson Ideas on Exercise, Guns and Game," Monticello Research Report, n.d.
  3. Reference needed; likely from Randall or Domestic Life.
  4. Ref needed.
  5. Reference needed.
  6. Isaac Jefferson, Memoirs, 17-18.
  7. Ibid, 21.

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