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Rare US Model 1817 Flintlock Common Rifle, R. Johnson, c. 1821

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Rare US Model 1817 Flintlock Common Rifle, R. Johnson, c. 1821

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This is a scarce Robert Johnson contract U.S. Model 1817 Flintlock Common Rifle from 1821.

Rifle development in the early years of the United States was based on the frontier use of Kentucky and Pennsylvania rifles. The first regulation U.S. rifle was the US Model 1803, manufactured at Harpers Ferry in 1803, firing a .54 caliber ball from a relatively short (compared to earlier civilian rifle designs) 33" barrel. The Model 1803 Rifle was manufactured until 1807 and several of these rifles are known to have accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the west coast. Model 1803 Rifles were also carried by Zebulon Pike during his southwest expedition in 1806-1807. Slightly over 4,000 Model 1803 Rifles were manufactured during their five years of production at the national armory at Harpers Ferry. The Model 1803 was a half-stock weapon with the ramrod exposed along the bottom of the barrel.

Effective use of Rifles during the War of 1812 solidified its battlefield reputation amongst soldiers and officers alike and that brought about a plan to create three new regiments comprising Riflemen. In 1813, four pattern rifles were designed, all of which were nearly identical copies of the earlier US Model 1803 Rifle. This led to Harpers Ferry producing the Model 1814 Rifle, which was essentially a very slightly modified US Model 1803 Rifle. The Model 1814 was also produced under contract beginning in 1814 by Henry Deringer and Robert Johnson. While there was considerable variation in the final production rifles, most had barrels from 32" to 36" in length and the barrels were octagonal in shape.

This led to the US Rifle, Model of 1817, also known as the Common Rifle. While the origin of the name "Common Rifle" is somewhat murky, it is generally believed that the name is derived from the fact that the Model 1817 Rifle, which was being produced at the same time as the Hall's Patent Breech Loading Rifle, was the more "common" muzzle loading type of rifle then being manufactured (the Hall Breech Loading Rifle was undeniably "uncommon" for that early period). While Model 1817 is now the generally accepted designation for this rifle, it has been referred to by several different names over the years, including simply "Rifle," under Ordnance Department contracts up until 1840, "Common Rifles," from 1840 until 1845, "Common Rifle, Full-stocked; 1819," in the 1841 Ordnance Manual, and the "1819 Rifle."

The first official reference to the Model 1817 Rifle is from a letter from the Chief of Ordnance, Colonel Decius Wadsworth to Harpers Ferry Armory Superintendent James Stubblefield on January 16, 1817, when Colonel Wadsworth wrote, "I hope you are going on with the Model of the Rifle, & hope to see it before the Rising of Congress." It is unclear when the Harpers Ferry design was approved by the Secretary of War, but records indicate that five pattern rifles were manufactured at Harpers Ferry in 1818 and two additional rifles were manufactured at Harpers Ferry in 1819, all of which were to be the "pattern" of the rifle used by contractors when manufacturing the rifles under contract with the Ordnance Department.

The Model 1817 Rifle is significant in that it was the first US Model firearm manufactured exclusively by contractors and not by one of the national armories. Although the design, and pattern models, came from Harpers Ferry Arsenal, all rifles were manufactured by one of five contractors: Henry Deringer, Robert Johnson, Robert & J.D. Johnson, Simeon North and Nathan Starr & Son. All of these contractors were located in Middletown, Connecticut, except for Deringer, whose factory was located in Philadelphia. The Model 1817 Flintlock Common Rifle was manufactured from 1819 until 1846 with only 39,067 produced.

US Ordnance Department contracts for Model 1817 Rifles can generally be broken down into two periods. The first is the period from adoption of the design in 1819 until the late 1820s. The second period is the early to mid-1840s. This particular Model 1817 Flintlock Common Rifle is one from Robert Johnson’s March 9, 1819 contract for 5,000 rifles.

The first two contracts awarded for the manufacture of Model 1817 Rifles went to Henry Deringer and Robert Johnson. Deringer’s initial contract was awarded on July 23, 1819 and was for the manufacture of 1,800 rifles. The other contract issued, which was actually the first Model 1817 contract let, was on March 9, 1819 to Robert Johnson, for 5,000 rifles. Johnson manufactured 5,002 rifles and these were delivered from 1819 through 1823. In 1821, when this particular rifle was manufactured, Johnson only delivered 1,340 rifles.

After these initial two contracts for 1817 Rifle production, the Ordnance Department issued contracts for more 1817 Rifles from Deringer and Johnson (now R. & J.D. Johnson), Simeon North (for 6,000 rifles from 1824 to 1827), and Nathan Starr (for 4,000 rifles from 1824 to 1827). The popularity of the design on the frontier with both militia and regular army troops led the Ordnance Department to contract for 12,000 additional Model 1817 Rifles in 1840, the later second period. These two later contracts went to Henry Deringer on March 3, 1840 for 6,000 rifles (delivered from 1841 through 1846) and to Nathan Starr & Son on March 17, 1840 for 6,000 rifles (delivered from 1840 through 1845).

The original 36" barrel is present and is in original condition. The original touchhole is present and has not been enlarged or otherwise modified. The Barrel exhibits a dark plum patina throughout on the exposed portion with old pinprick pitting on the upper, rear portion. The bottom, protected portion of the barrel still retains the majority of its original bright finish. The top, rear portion of the Barrel has numerous stampings including a serif “JN” assembly stamp, a serif “P” proof stamp, and the serif "U.S." stamp. The bottom of the barrel has an assembly “VII” stamp. The bayonet lug is brazed to the top of the barrel approximately 1 ½” to the rear of the muzzle.

The original Breech Plug is present and the tang is present and is still secured to the rear of the barrel. The right side of the breech plug has the matching “VII” assembly stamp. The tang is secured into the stock with its original slotted screw. The original v-notch Rear Sight is brazed to the top of the barrel approximately 2 1/2" to the rear of the Lower Band. The muzzle retains its original flat crown and the bore exhibits considerable original rifling with normal pitting in evidence and the bore is clear to the touchhole.

All three original Barrel Bands are present. The Upper Band exhibits a largely plum patina with old corrosion marks and is the standard two-ring type with rectangular open space in between and is 1 11/16" long at the top and 2 9/16" long at the bottom. The front sight is a brass blade brazed to the top of the front band. The original Upper Band Spring with integrated post is present on the stock and it secures the band properly.

The Middle Band exhibits a plum patina with its original upper sling swivel riveted in place that rotates freely. The Middle Band Spring is present and properly secures the middle band.

The original Lower Band also exhibits a plum patina with evidence of old corrosion and measures 9/16" long at the top and 1" at the bottom. On the inside edge is the matching “VII” assembly stamp. Its original Band Spring is present and also retains considerable original brown finish. All three Barrel Bands secure tightly to the stock and barrel when assembled.

The Upper Band secures the original Trumpet Head Brass Ramrod that is threaded at the end for ball and wiper. The brass portion shows an attractive dark mustard patina. The balance of the Ramrod exhibits an dark plum finish along its entire length. The Ramrod secures tightly into the stock. The original Trigger Guard furniture is present and it exhibits a mixed plum and pewter patina with evidence of old corrosion present. This Trigger Guard has the skeleton pistol grip, which are rather unique to most of the Model 1817 Common Rifles. The Lower Sling Swivel is present and is correctly riveted to the skeleton pistol grip itself and rotates freely. The Original Trigger Bow measures 1" across at the widest point and retains the same finish as the Guard. Both Trigger Guard Screws are the slotted type and both slots exhibit slight marring with the side of the rearmost screw broken off. The original Trigger, which is suspended from the lateral pin in the stock, exhibits a plum patina and it moves freely. The nose of the guard bends down slightly away from the stock.

The Lockplate exhibits a plum patina with minor pinprick pitting on the surface. The Lockplate measures 5 7/16" by 1 3/16" and has a flat surface with beveled edges forward of the cock and has a convex surface to the rear of the cock. The rear of the cock is correctly marked with the vertically stamped date “1821.” Forward of the Cock is the arched “R. JOHNSON” over a federal eagle stamp over an upward arched “MIDD’N CONN.” With the “U” and “S” on either side of the eagle.

Both original Lockplate Screws are present and both have “17” assembly stamps on the face. The original modified “L” Side Plate exhibits a generally smooth plum and pewter patina.

The original Cock, or Hammer, is 2 15/16" tall and has a convex surfaced body with heart-shaped hole in the throat. The Cock exhibits generally a plum patina with areas of pinprick pitting throughout from firing. The Upper Jaw retains the same finish and the cock itself and the adjustment Screw, with slotted head and hole still turns and adjusts the Upper Jaw smoothly. The top of the Upper Jaw has a serif “M” inspection stamp as does the barrel of the Adjustment Screw. The inward facing sides of the cock and upper jaw are both stippled to hold the flint.

The original round-bottomed Flash Pan is inclined upwards (to the rear, to direct the flash away from the firer) without a fence and is made of brass and exhibits a beautiful burnt mustard patina. The Frizzen measures 1 3/4" by 7/8" with the top portion inclined towards the front of the rifle. The front face is convex and the tail is straight. The front, convex portion of the Frizzen and the rear, flat striking surface both retain a very pleasing plum patina. The Frizzen Spring remains very strong. The Frizzen closes securely over the Pan and it opens crisply and stays secured when in the forward position. Both the Frizzen and Frizzen Spring Screws are single slotted and both have only slight marring to the slots.

The interior surface of the lock generally exhibits its original bright finish areas of old staining. The inside surface of the plate has the serif “PB” lock assembler’s stamp. The back of the brass pan has a matching serif “G” assembly stamp as does the rear lock screw boss. The original Tumbler has the matching “G” assembly stamp. The original Sear has a matching serif “G” assembly stamp. The Sear Spring is weak and does not fully engage the sear, which causes the hammer to lock to the rear. The horseshoe-shaped bridle has a matching serif “G” assembly stamp. The Tumbler, Bridle and Sear all still retain considerable original bright blue tempered finish.

The original black walnut stock is in very good condition. The original steel oval Patch Box Lid on the right side of the stock measures 4 3/16" by 1 11/16" and exhibits a mixed pewter and plum patina on the exterior surface. The interior of the lid has the matching “VII” assembly stamp. The Hinge is the correct and original 1 13/16" piano-style hinge at the bottom and is secured by its original single slot screws. The Hinge is very secure and there is no play in it open or closed. The 3/8" wide catch at the top is secured by a single, slotted screw in unmarred condition. On the left stock flat is the original oval inspection cartouche but the script letters are faint. Over the cartouche is a period carved “HA.”

The original Butt Plate measures 4 1/16" by 1 7/8" with straight side profile and convex surface and the 2" Tang has a rounded end. The Butt Plate Screws are both single slotted and both are unmarred. The Butt Plate exhibits a plum patina with old corrosion.

This is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful U.S. martial arms ever manufactured and is the quintessential American firearm, based on the western style rifles of the period. This particular rifle remains in its original flint in every respect and is a fine example of these rare and important early 19th Century military flintlock rifles.

This rifle 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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