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Rare Harpers Ferry Model 1855 Rifle Musket c. 1860

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Rare Harpers Ferry Model 1855 Rifle Musket c. 1860

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This is an historic, fine antique condition and correct Harpers Ferry Armory manufactured U.S. Model 1855 Rifle Musket with Maynard Tape-Primer Mechanism and desirable iron matchbox from 1860.

Following the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century, arms developers in Europe began to digest the lessons learned from the linear style of warfare used by Napoleon and his numerous opponents on the continent. One of the critiques of the infantrymen of the day was that the standard lead ball, which was only slightly less in diameter than the bore diameter, would become harder and harder to load as the bore became fouled with carbon and partially burned powder. In response, arms designers began to experiment with projectiles that were significantly smaller in diameter than the diameter of the bore, so that rapid loading could be accomplished. The problem that developed as a result was that although a smaller diameter projectile might be easier to load, there was a corresponding loss of accuracy from a bullet that would essentially bounce down the barrel along with decreased muzzle velocity from gas escaping past the projectile. Designers then began to look for projectiles that, while small for loading, would expand to "fit" the bore during firing. One method of resolving both of these problems was to use a soft lead bullet that was smaller than the bore diameter. The breech end of the weapon was designed with a shaft that protruded forward. When the softer bullet was rammed into the breech, the shaft would deform the projectile outwards causing it to expand to the diameter of the bore. While it worked in theory, this method was actually slower as experiments showed that breech end fowling, and the very act of ramming a piece of lead sufficiently to deform it enough to expand to the diameter of the barrel, increased loading times.

This problem was ultimately resolved in 1847 by French Ordnance Captain Claude Etienne Minie, who invented a projectile, which still bears his name, that was smaller in diameter than the bore but had a hollow base. Captain Minie's design was actually based upon the work of two other French Ordnance Officers who had started work on hollow base projectiles that incorporated a tapered wooden plug or sabot that was inserted part way into the hollow base. When the weapon was fired, the initial expansion of gases drove the plug into the hollow base, which then expanded the rear side walls of the projectile to the diameter of the bore. Captain Minie's design, which became known as the Minie Ball, replaced the wood plug or sabot with a metal one, which gave greater consistency in accuracy than the wood design. Minie's projectile design, in conjunction with a rifled barrel that he designed in 1849, was used to devastating effect during the Crimean War. The Minie Ball in a rifled barrel significantly increased both range and accuracy and rendered the linear, close-in style of fighting used during the Napoleonic period, obsolete. Unfortunately for the Americans soon to fight in the Civil War, the development of new tactics lagged behind the development of small arms.

Needless to say, the new Minie Ball and rifled barrel design of Captain Minie sparked considerable interest in the United States Army. In 1853, Harpers Ferry manufactured several experimental rifles with various bore diameters and rifling systems. Colonel Benjamin Huger conducted tests of these experimental rifles, as well as a number of European production rifles, at Harpers Ferry during the winter of 1853-1854. At the same time, Lieutenant James G. Benton was conducting parallel tests at Springfield Armory. Benton's experiments led him to develop a conical-pointed projectile with a hollow base that did not need the tapered plug or sabot to expand the walls to the diameter of the bore. Benton accomplished this by simply thinning the walls surrounding the hollow base so that the expanding gases alone could accomplish what had earlier required the use of the plug. Once Benton came up with this breakthrough, he began to work on improving the ballistics performance of the round by lengthening the front, conical portion of the round. Benton's final design would be the standard projectile used during the Civil War with such devastating effectiveness.

French Captain Minie's contributions would not be the last Continental influence on the American's new design. The United States Ordnance Department received two examples of Britain's new Pattern 1853 Rifle Musket in 1854 for test and evaluation. The British Pattern 1853 Rifle would have a significant influence over the final American design. All of the previous years' work culminated in tests conducted from the fall of 1854 to the spring of 1855, when Colonel Huger and Lieutenant Benton conducted firing trials at Springfield and Harpers Ferry. The final result was a recommendation by the Ordnance Board of a new rifle with a .58 caliber three-groove barrel with a twist rate of one right-hand turn in 72". The grooves and lands were to be the same width and the groove depth would increase from the muzzle to the breech. The method of priming and firing the new rifle was based on the automatic tape-priming device patented by Dr. Edward Maynard, who was a dentist in Washington, D.C., after the government purchased the rights to Maynard's design for $50,000. The new rifle could also use standard percussion caps as needed. Interestingly, the Ordnance Board's recommendation for the new rifle was sent to, and approved by, then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America. Secretary Davis authorized the new rifle on July 5, 1855. Jefferson Davis' approval that year led to the development of the U.S. Model 1855 family of weapons, which included the rifle, a Model 1855 Carbine, and the Model 1855 Pistol Carbine.

The US Model 1855 Rifle Musket was the United States' first service pattern, standard issue infantry, musket configuration, rifled bore shoulder arm. All examples of the US Model 1855 Rifle were manufactured at either Springfield Armory or Harpers Ferry Armory. The initial tooling at both armories was influenced significantly by Ordnance Chief Colonel Craig who instructed the armories that the new Model 1855 rifles were to have "perfect uniformity," and that "[e]very possible exertion compatible with perfect accuracy of workmanship should be used to complete the Model Musket..." So exacting was Colonel Craig's expectation of "uniformity" that the established tolerances were reduced from the previous tolerance of .01", which permitted functional interchangeability of components, to only .0025", one fourth of the previously allowed tolerance.

This exacting demand for close tolerances significantly slowed down production such that not one US Model 1855 Rifle was completed in 1855 and only three were completed by June 30, 1856. The first 310 Model 1855 Rifles were completed during the first quarter of calendar year 1857. Springfield and Harpers Ferry would eventually produce three distinct types of Model 1855 Rifles. The first, generally known as the Type I, is characterized by a long range sight, graduated to 900 yards, no provision for a patch box in the stock, and a brass forend cap. The second, or Type II, incorporated a changed rear sight with a simpler two-leaf design configured for firing up to 500 yards. The third, or Type III, added an implement compartment (or patch box) in the right side of the stock, and changed the forend cap from brass to steel. These changes were made in 1859 and remained the same until the end of production of the Model 1855, which was in 1861.

The Model 1858 leaf-type rear sight was adopted on July 28, 1858, and was incorporated into production at Springfield Armory in August 1858. The new Model 1858 Rear Sight was not incorporated into production at Harpers Ferry, however, until March 1859. On April 21, 1859, the Ordnance Department issued a directive that all rifle muskets would now be equipped with a “grease or patch box” and, in the same letter, the iron forend cap was authorized. Both of these were incorporated into production on July 9, 1859.

This US Model 1855 Rifled Musket is the rare third or Type III design manufactured at Harpers Ferry Armory in 1860. During that year, Harpers Ferry only manufactured 7,349 Model 1855 Rifle Muskets. The year 1860 was one of great angst for Harpers Ferry, its workers and the town residents in general. The previous fall, on October 17, 1859, John Brown initiated his raid on the armory. The raid caused considerable fear and consternation at the armory and the town until US Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, in command of a contingent of US Marines, secured the armory from John Brown and captured him. The Armory and the town remained on edge throughout the next year, 1860, when this rifle musket was manufactured. The issues that ultimately led to the Civil War smoldered throughout the year and reached a near flash point when Abraham Lincoln was elected in November of 1860.

The Harpers Ferry Armory, still a national armory under the US Government, was in a very precarious situation in the waning months of 1860 and into 1861, being located as it was in what was then still the Commonwealth of Virginia. The history of Harpers Ferry as a federal armory ended dramatically late on the evening of April 17, 1861, when the young US Army officer in charge of the armory, hearing that Confederate troops were moving towards the armory with the intent of capturing it, set fire to armory buildings. Shortly before midnight on April 17th, there was a large explosion and ultimately the carpenters shop, the main arsenal and approximately 15,000 arms, were destroyed by fire. Harpers Ferry Armory was formally seized by Confederate forces on April 18, 1861, and captured considerable machinery and 4,287 finished firearms, of which this particular Model 1855 Rifle Musket was likely one. Most of the Model 1855 Rifle Muskets manufactured during 1861 were destroyed by the fire. The machinery was moved to Richmond, Virginia, where the Confederate Richmond Armory was put into operation. The Model 1855 Rifle Musket served as the basic design of the first Confederate Richmond Armory Rifle Muskets to roll off the production line in 1861.

This particular musket has its original Model 1858 two-leaf rear sight in fine condition. The Rear Sight Base is single-stepped at the front and is 1.25" in length and has an additional step to the rear. The original elevation leaves are present and they rotate easily on the non-recessed, single slot lateral screw. The upper leaf is “L”-shaped that terminates into a “V” notch. The short branch “V” notch is sighted for 100 yards and the long branch is sighted for 300 yards. The second, longer leaf also has a “V” notch at the top and is sighted for 500 yards. The Rear Sight base, its original spanner bolt and the leaves all exhibit a nice plum patina. There is some corrosion on the back of the leaves.

The Stock is its original oil finished black walnut that is 52 13/16" long. The original steel Butt Plate has the curved rear profile and convex rear surface with 2 1/8" long, round-ended tang. The Tang has the "US" stamp. The Butt Plate Screws are both single slotted and the Butt Plate has the correct notch on the right side for the implement compartment lid. The Butt Plate shows evidence of only very minor pitting in a few areas and the National Armory Bright finish has largely turned a mixed aged brown and pewter patina.

The implement compartment is an oval recess that was designed to hold a spare nipple, ball screw and wiper. The original Lid measures 2 5/8" by 1 3/8" is attached by a hinge plate to the iron cover base. The base is secured by the original three single slot screws. The exterior surface of the cover and lid has a very nice aged pewter patina. The interior of the implement recess appears in its original configuration and it has a two letter set of inspection initials. The implement lid secures properly when closed. There are two cartouches on the left stock flat but the initials are no longer visible. The Stock has numerous dings and scratches but no cracks are noted.

In the lockplate recess, there is a serif inspection letter stamp. The “mares leg” protrusion in the recess, where the Maynard Tape Primer mechanism rides, is still in place.

All three original Barrel Bands are present. The Bands, each approximately 5/8" wide with flat surfaces, each gradually taper towards the muzzle for a secure fit and each is correctly marked with a serif "U" on the right side, level with the Band Retaining Spring. The three Bands all exhibit a smooth plum patina throughout with traces of the original National Armory Bright finish along the edges. The Band Springs, or Band Retainers, are also all original and are located forward of their respective bands. The Middle Band has its original Upper Sling Swivel riveted to a lug on the bottom and it rotates freely. The Forend Cap is steel and is secured by an interior-run screw that secures it to the Stock. The Forend Cap exhibits a smooth plum patina. The original Ramrod is 39 5/8" in length and has the cupped "tulip"-shaped head. The Ramrod has the correct retaining swell approximately 5" to the rear of the head and the rear end of the Ramrod is threaded for 5/16" to attach the ball screw and wiper. The Ramrod exhibits a mixed pewter and plum patina throughout. The Ramrod Channel in the Stock shows normal dings from use and from removing and reinserting the ramrod during firing and the Ramrod still secures in the swell portion of the channel (Model 1855 Rifles did not use a ramrod friction retainer to secure the ramrod when stowed).

The original Trigger Guard and Trigger Plate are present. The Trigger Plate, which measures 7 5/8" by 5/8" wide, exhibits a nice, smooth plum patina throughout. The Trigger Plate is secured with two single-slotted screws.. The Trigger Bow is approximately 15/16" wide at the bottom and is still tightly secured to the plate by internal slotted nuts. The Lower Sling Swivel is correctly riveted to the front of the Bow and it rotates freely. The original Trigger is present and is suspended from a lateral machine screw through an internal lug on the Trigger Plate and the screw still moves freely. The Trigger exhibits a smooth plum patina on the bottom, exposed portion.

The original Lockplate measures 5 7/16" by 2" and is flat with beveled edges along the perimeter. The Lockplate is marked "1860" horizontally to the rear of the Hammer. The front of the Lockplate is marked "U.S./ HARPERS FERRY," all fo which are still crisply stamped. The Lockplate has a plum and pewter patina. The original Maynard Tape-Primer Assembly is present and is fully functional. The magazine is approximately 1/4" deep and is designed to hold a roll of 50 primers. The original Pawl, which advances the roll of primers, is present. The original Primer Magazine Cover is present and is correctly marked with the spread eagle looking to the eagle's left (towards the muzzle). The Cover is secured by the original spring stud or detent and it opens and closes easily on the vertical pin through the hinge. The Lockplate is secured from the left side with the original single-slotted Side Screws and Washers. The original Hammer is present and measures 3 1/16" tall with a convex surface. There is a small serif “V” stamp on the front face of the hammer. The thumb piece is straight and has the correct borderless checkering. The bottom of the Hammer nose has the cutting edge, which would cut the tape upon firing. The Hammer exhibits a smooth plum patina throughout. The Hammer Screw is a flat, single slotted screw with rounded edges. The original Nipple Bolster is present and has a convex outer surface with single-slotted clean out screw. The Nipple itself exhibits a smooth plum patina and is clear to the bottom of the inside of the Bolster. The original Clean Out Screw has a slightly marred slot. There is evidence of old pinprick pitting on the forward-facing portion of the bolster from firing.

The internal two-position tumbler, for half- and full-cock, still works perfectly and the mainspring is still strong. The Trigger release is still crisp at full-cock. The inside of the lock exhibits a smooth pewter patina with considerable traces of the original dark oil finish on the actuating parts. All of the original screws, to include the Bridle, Tumbler and Sear Spring screws, all have unmarred slots.

The original 40" long rifled barrel is present with octagonal surfaces at the rearmost 2 1/4". The front of the Barrel has the original Base and integral Front Sight Post brazed to the Barrel approximately 1 1/4" behind the muzzle. The Front Sight also served as the bayonet lug. The bore still shows original rifling from the observable portion near the muzzle.

The top, rear of the barrel has the correct “1860” date just forward of the breech plug tang. The rear of the Barrel has the correct "V," "P," and eagle head stamps on the left quarter flat. The bottom of the barrel has a serif “H” inspection stamp and a witness line that aligns with a corresponding witness line on the bottom of the breech plug. The original breech plug and tang is present and is secured by a single-slotted screw with an unmarred slot. There are several inspection stamps on the back side of the barrel. The protected portion of the barrel still retains the majority of the original National Armory Bright finish with small areas of discoloration. The top, exposed portion of the barrel exhibits a largely smooth, plum patina along its length. The plum patina on the exposed portions of this rifle musket prohibited any significant corrosion from invading the steel during this rifle’s life and the rifle has never been cleaned.

U.S. Model 1855 Rifles are very rare today and Type III examples with the patch box are considered the most desirable. Only 70,254 Model 1855 Rifles, of both types, were manufactured from 1857 to 1861, 47,115 at Springfield Armory and 23,139 at Harpers Ferry Armory. Surviving examples are scarce in any condition, particularly when one learns that these rifles, being state of the art at the time, were immediately pressed into service by both the Union and Confederate Armies upon the commencement of hostilities in 1861 and were used throughout the war. This particular Model 1855 Rifle Musket from Harpers Ferry in 1860 is in its original, as-found condition and is a beautiful example. As most of Harpers Ferry’s 1860 Model 1855 production was still on hand at the Armory when it was captured in April 1861, it is highly likely that this particular rifle was captured by Confederate forces and immediately pressed into Confederate service. This is a beautiful time piece from the historic Harpers Ferry Armory manufactured the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, just after John Brown’s 1859 raid and just before the Armory’s capture in the Spring of 1861. This rifle musket still functions perfectly.

This musket is an antique so it can be shipped to anyone. It will also come with a historical writeup and a CD containing all of the photos. I accept Visa and MasterCard and charge NO FEES. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you would like additional photos posted.


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