Category: rifles

Silver and brass mounted flintlock long rifle crafted by the Young Family of Tennessee, late 19th century.

from Morphy Auctions

Flintlock long rifle crafted by Adam Angstadt of Berks County, Pennsylvania, 18th century.

from Morphy Auctions

Stevens Pope Model 44 target rifle in .22 RF, United States, late 19th century.

from Morphy Auctions

Moravian flintlock rifle crafted by Andrea Albrecht of Christian Springs, Pennsylvania, circa 1760.

from Morphy Auctions

A Breechloading to Muzzleloading Conversion? — The Confederate Read & Watson rifle,

In a recent post I wrote about the Hall Rifle, the US Military’s first breechloading firearm.  You can view this post HERE. During my research I came across a very interesting variant of the Hall which was used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War. What makes it particularly unusual was that they were converted from breechloaders to muzzleloaders.  This begs the question, why did the Confederacy convert Hall rifles to muzzleloaders, an obvious step backwards in technology?

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The conversions were done by the company called Read & Watson located in Danville, Virginia, with around 900 Model 1833 Hall rifles (the percussion variant) being converted between 1861 and 1863.  The conversion was relatively simple, the entire breech mechanism was removed and replaced with an iron breech plug, with a central hammer and percussion nipple installed.  The breech was then surrounded by a brass receiver.

So why did the Confederacy make these conversions? While I can find no information to answer this question, I can make an educated guess, and I think it has to do with the economics of the South during the Civil War.  By the Civil War the Hall rifle had been out of production for almost two decades. It was a relatively rare and unusual rifle, thus sourcing spare parts was probably difficult. The mostly agricultural South lacked the industry, resources, and know how to manufacture replacement parts, which were relatively complex in nature, thus it would have been easier to simply convert them to muzzleloaders and put them to use rather than maintain them as is.  Of course, this is mere speculation on my part, but I’m confident I’m somewhere in the ball park.

While the Confederacy was trying to be economical, the cost of each conversion was $17.50 a pop, which was about the same price to manufacture a brand new Springfield Model 1861 musket. So obviously this was a big fail.  It’s unknown if any of these rifles were actually issued or saw combat. Most likely they would have been used as a reserve rifle for local militia or forces not expecting to see combat like guards or supply units.

The US Military’s first breechloading rifle —- The Hall M1819,

Invented in 1811 by John Hancock Hall, the Hall rifle was the first breechloading firearm to be adopted by the US Military and the first breechloading rifle to be adopted by any nations’ military in significant quantities.  A unique breechloading design, the Hall rifle featured a breech that pivoted upward, exposing the chamber for loading (see pic above).  

The user then loaded the chamber with powder and a bullet.  While self contained metallic cartridges had yet to be invented, the breechloading mechanism of the Hall rifle was still significantly faster and easier to load than contemporary muzzleloading firearms.  More importantly, since this was a breechloading firearm, it could use bullets that were the exact same caliber as the rifle itself (.525), thus increasing accuracy.  Before the invention of the minie ball, muzzleloading rifles had to be loaded with a bullet slightly under caliber to ease the process of craming a ball against the rifling of a barrel. Hence why armies at the time prefered smoothbore muskets over muzzleloading rifles.  The Hall rifle’s breechloading mechanism made rifle more practical for the battlefield.  The Hall rifle used a flintlock mechanism for ignition, with the pan, frizzen, and cock mounted on the top of the breech. Typically the Hall would have been loaded using paper cartridges.

The US Army adopted the Hall rifle in 1819.  In subsequent tests it was found that the Hall rifle, in the hands of skilled soldiers, could fire 8-9 rounds per minute.  In addition, the Hall rifle was 16% more accurate than smoothbore muskets at the time.  The biggest drawback of the Hall was that it’s breechloading mechanism allowed gasses to escape from the breech, decreasing muzzle velocity by 1/3rd compared to common muskets.

Production of the Hall rifle began in 1819 at Harper’s Ferry National Armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). In 1833 upgraded models entered production which featured a more reliable percussion action rather than flintlock.

 Between 1819 and 1846, 51,184 Hall rifles were produced, most at the Harper’s Ferry Armory.  The rifles were issued to rifle regiments and sharpshooters, as well as cavalry and dragoons since the breechloading system was easier to load from horseback.  The Hall rifle saw combat during the Mexican American War as well as limited use during the American Civil War.

While the Hall rifle was a great improvement over other firearms of the day, it was also costly and time consuming to manufacture.  As a result, the backbone of the US Army remained the Springfield Musket up to the end of the Civil War.

Winchester Model 1866 lever action rifle owned by Blackfoot Chief Curley Bear.

from Heritage Auctions

Factory engraved Winchester Model 1866 lever action rifle

from Rock Island Auctions

Wheel-lock carbine, Germany, late 17th century.

from Czerny’s International Auction House

Belgian pinfire revolving rifle, mid 19th century.

from Czerny’s International Auction House