1861 Dated US M-1855 Rifle - Fine & Scarce
- Product Code: FLA-3010-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
The US M-1855 Rifle is one of the scarcer primary issue US military long arms that was produced during the last few years leading up the outbreak of the American Civil War. During its limited production from 1857 until early 1861 it was produced in two primary variations (Type I and Type II), with only 7,317 of the rifles being produced at the rifle works at Harpers Ferry. The gun came quite close to not being manufactured at all, as it was generally considered that since all troops were to be armed with the new US M-1855 Rifle Musket, there was no need for an additional “rifle” model. Prior to the adoption of the M-1855 series of arms, the standard US infantry long arm had been the .69 caliber smoothbore musket, Model of 1842. Rifles were produced and issued to specialty troops, and to the various states under the Militia Act of 1808, but the typical infantryman carried a smoothbore musket. With the adoption of the .58 caliber M-1855 pattern Rifle Musket, all troops would in fact be carrying a “rifle” and the issue of an additional “rifle” model seemed superfluous to the Ordnance Department. However, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis felt that a shorter, “rifle length” arm was desirable to have in production and justified it by ordering that the M-1855 Rifle was to be issued to the Sappers & Miners (Engineers) in place of the old, smoothbore M-1847 Sappers & Miners carbine that was in current use. Davis no doubt felt that the shorter rifle with its accompanying saber bayonet would be popular with state troops as well. Davis was, after all, responsible for the moniker “Mississippi Rifle”, which was popularized by the use of the M-1841 rifle by the 1st Mississippi Volunteers under his command during the Mexican American War. The M-1855 rifles and rifle muskets included a number of new features for US military long arms. In addition to being the first rifled arms to see general issue, they were the first .58 caliber arms adopted by the US military. The guns also included the English features of a stirrup attached to the tumbler and progressive depth rifling; both introduced to the British military with the P-1853 Enfield. In fact, at least one period order discussed using “Enfield style” rifling. The incorporation of a stirrup (called a “swivel” in period Ordnance Documents) made the lock operate more smoothly, as the mainspring was no longer bearing directly on the tumbler. The most innovative, and instantly recognizable feature of the M-1855 family arms (with the exception of the M-1855 carbine) was the incorporation of the Maynard Patent automatic priming lock. This lock used a roll of varnished paper with fulminate of mercury priming compound sandwiched between the layers, and resembled the modern roll of caps used in a child’s cap gun. The lock had a recess where the roll was installed, and a mechanical system of hands and pawls advanced the primer tape every time the hammer was cocked, placing a fresh primer on the cone (nipple). A cutting edge was machined into the front bottom edge of the hammer face to cut the tape when the hammer fell, discarding the spent primer. The initial production of US M-1855 Rifles was considered a modification and improvement to the current M-1841 “Mississippi” rifles then in production. In fact, the order from the office of the Secretary of War to produce the M-1855 rifles read in part: “The present rifle modified by the adoption of the new caliber and primer lock will be continued, and issued to the sapper instead of the musketoon, the manufacture of which will be discontinued.”. Clearly, in the eyes of the War Department, the M-1855 was really an M-1841 in .58 caliber with a Maynard priming lock. The very first US M-1855 rifles were in fact very similar to their predecessors, the M-1841. The M-1855 guns were brass mounted as the M-1841 had been, with brass patchbox, barrel bands, buttplate, triggerguard and forend cap. Both models had color case hardened locks and used 33” round barrels that were browned. The M-1855 rifle was equipped with a saber bayonet stud and had the M-1855 long-range rear sight. In many ways the M-1855 were very similar to the “Type III” alteration M-1841 Mississippi rifles that were modified at Harpers Ferry during the years 1856-1859, although some of these guns apparently remained in .54 caliber, while others were reamed and rifled to .58 caliber. Other than the tape priming mechanism, the most notable visual differences between the M-1841 and the new M-1855 were that the patchbox was much smaller, the upper band was a single strap instead of a double strapped nose cap, and the buttplate was concave like that of a rifle musket (the M-1841 butt had been flat like the muskets of the period). A new, tulip head, swelled shank rammer was used with the M-1855, while the M-1841 used a brass tipped trumpet head rod, or a newly modified all iron trumpet head rod with a cupped head. One of the new features concealed in the M-1855 was that the patch box covered a figure-8 shaped recess that held a fine cross hair front sight that could be placed over the barrel of the rifle to provide a more substantial front sighting system. The M-1855 rifle did not go into production until 1857, and during that fiscal year only 10 were delivered into inventory. The following fiscal year, in 1858, an additional 1,719 were delivered, but only 374 had rear sights, so the remaining 1,345 went into inventory without rear sights. The issues regarding the rear sight were two fold; a lack of the M-1855 pattern long-range rear sights, and the fact that a new rear sight (which would be officially labeled the M-1858 rear sight) was under development. The problem continued into 1859, with a total of 1,816 M-1855 rifles being delivered, but only 316 of which had rear sights. During 1859 the specifications for the M-1855 rifle changed, and a new version (known at Type II M-1855s by collectors) was authorized. The new variant was iron mounted, and incorporated the short base M-1858 rear sight. Additionally, the fine cross hair sight was eliminated and the patch box recess was ordered to be routed out as large as possible, and not in a figure-8 pattern. These changes occurred slowly over the course of the year, as supplies of older parts were used up, new iron fittings were produced, and new sights were machined. The end result is that an additional 650 M-1855 rifles were delivered in 1859, but these iron mounted rifles were also without rear sights. It is also believed that between 100 and 190 of these early iron mounted guns were produced without patchboxes and at least some still used left over brass nose caps, even though the rest of the furniture was of iron. The year 1860 finally saw stabilization in the production of the M-1855, as 2,702 of the rifles were delivered in their “Type II”, iron mounted configuration with the correct M-1858 rear sights. It is also believed that in 1860 the iron mounted rifles from 1859 had the correct sights installed and at least some of the earlier “Type I” brass mounted rifles without sights received the new M-1858 rear sight. In 1861 an additional 420 Type II iron rifles were delivered prior to the state of Virginia taking over the armory in mid-April of 1861. In an attempt to keep arms from falling into the hand of the Virginia rebels, the armory was set on fire on the evening of April 18, 1861 by the superintendent and his staff, prior to their retreat to Maryland. However, the citizens of Harpers Ferry extinguished the fires to keep them from spreading to the town, and prevented the destruction of many of the completed arms in the armory, as well as much of the machinery, that was subsequently sent to Richmond and Fayetteville to establish arms manufacturing facilities in those locations. It has long been believed that most of the of the unsighted Type I, brass mounted M-1855 rifles in storage at Harpers Ferry (possibly as many as 2,800 of the 3,545 produced) were destroyed in that fire. This is why the brass-mounted rifles are so scarce today. According to an inventory of arms at Harpers Ferry from November 11, 1859, there were some 3,570 “New model rifles, cal. 58” on hand, most of which would have been Type I brass rifles with no rear sights, but it was noted that 483 of the “new rifles’ were on hand at the St. Louis arsenal, these would have been complete Type I rifles. An additional 100 rifles had been issued to the Engineers in 1858 to replace their musketoons, and these would have also been Type I rifles. While the arsenal superintendent noted that he had not issued any of the M-1855 rifles to the states as of February of 1859, due to a lack of sufficient arms to do so, there is a record of 133 rifles being issued to the State of Minnesota around October of 1858. All of these issued guns would have been Type I, brass mounted rifles, and total 716, only a few more than the total of 700 Type I rifles delivered complete with rear sights between 1857 and 1859. This suggests that at least 16 of the unsighted guns did in fact receive their rear sights (although it is not clear of which pattern) sometime in 1859, allowing them to be issued. This leaves a maximum of 2,829 Type I rifles that could have been in the armory when it burned. It appears that many of the Type II, iron mounted guns were issued prior to the burning of the arsenal. The bulk of these guns went to the Columbian Arsenal in Washington, D.C. in early 1861, with the arsenal showing 2,285 in inventory at the outbreak of the war. That only leaves 1,487 of the total of 3,772 Type II iron rifles to have been issued to states or left at the arsenal when it fell. The rifles at the Columbian Arsenal were initially issued to District of Columbia militia units, but all were returned by July of 1861, when the units were disbanded. At this point, a number of the rifles were issued to the states, including Ohio, New Jersey and New York. Since Ohio and New Jersey were both very strict about marking state ownership upon any of the guns delivered to them, it is somewhat likely that an unmarked Type II rifle was issued to one of the New York regiments that received these arms. These regiments included the 7th, 8th, 11th and 12th New York State Militia regiments. The 11th was much better known as Ellsworth’s Zouaves. Of course some of the M-1855 rifles of both patterns were captured by the Confederacy and subsequently issued when the arsenal fell, and it is believed that a least a few were assembled from parts on hand either at Harpers Ferry or later at Richmond or Fayetteville.
The US M-1855 Type II Iron Mounted Rifle offered here is one of the very desirable late production guns with a lock that is crisply and clearly marked: U.S. / HARPER’s FERRY in two horizontal lines forward of the hammer, and with the date 1861 horizontally behind the hammer. The top of the breech marked with the same date, 1861, and the left barrel flat is crisply marked with the typical V / P / Eagle Head inspection marks. The 1861 dates on both the barrel and lock mean that this was either one of the 420 rifles assembled and received in 1861, or it could be a gun that was assembled by the Confederacy from parts on hand when the arsenal was captured. The stock flat shows no indication of having been cartouched, and this suggests Virginia or Confederate assembly. Additionally, the M-1855 rifle buttplate tang is typically unmarked, with only the rifle muskets bearing the mark US. This tang is “US’ marked suggesting it was a rifle musket buttplate used to assemble this rifle. These small hints taken together suggest that there is the strong possibility that this rifle was assembled from parts on hand at the arsenal by Virginia (or the Confederacy) after the fall of Harpers Ferry. The overall condition of the rifle is about FINE+. The gun has a very crisp pewter gray patina with some light surface scale and darkly oxidized surface roughness scattered along the sides of the barrel where the stock edges meet the metal. The metal of the barrel is almost entirely smooth with the exception of the line where the barrel and stock meet, and a patch of pinpricking and salt & pepper oxidation forward of the upper barrel band, near the muzzle. The breech and bolster area show some light pitting from the flash of the mercuric primer pellets in the Maynard tape as well. The metal of the gum was probably lightly cleaned at some point, and the center of the eagle on the tape primer door is a little weak as a result, as is the lower portion of the 1861 date on the breech. The bore of the rifle is in about FINE+ condition. It remains quite bright and retains strong 3-groove rifling and shows only some very light pitting scattered along its length, with some old accumulated dirt and dust. The Maynard patent lock functions perfectly and all of the original Maynard tape primer parts are present and fully functional. The hammer responds correctly to both half cock and full cock, and the action remains tight and crisp. The hammer is clearly sub-inspector marked on the revere with a R. The lock has a medium pewter patina also, matching the rifle’s barrel and iron furniture well. The original rear sight is present forward of the breech, with the correct original M-1858 pattern sight base and 100, 300 and 500 yard leaves with the correct “R” for rifle marking. Both original barrel bands are present, with the same general patina as the barrel and other furniture and are correctly marked U on the leading edge of their right side. Both original sling swivels are present as well. The triggerguard has the same matching patina as the balance of the gun, while the buttplate is more of a mottled dark and light gray. The tang of the buttplate is marked US, which is unusual (as discussed above) and suggests Confederate assembly. The original saber bayonet lug is present 3 ““ from the muzzle of the rifle, and the original iron front sight is in place on top of the barrel, near the muzzle. The original, swelled shank tulip head ramrod is present in the ramrod channel. It is full-length and retains good threads on the end. The stock is in about FINE condition overall. The stock shows the expected scattered bumps, dings and nicks from handling and use, but no abuse. The stock is full length, solid and without any breaks or repairs noted. The stock still retains strong edges and lines, with no indication of having been sanded. As noted previously, there is no indication that the stock flat was ever cartouched at Harpers Ferry.
Overall this is an extremely nice example of the very latest production Harper’s Ferry M-1855 Iron Mounted Rifle. The 1861 dated examples are the scarcest and the most desirable from a Civil War perspective, as these are even more rare than the brass mounted rifles. The gun has very nice, clear markings, strong mechanics and a wonderful bore. Whether this was one of the last guns assembled at Harpers Ferry or a Virginia assembled example is probably a question that can never be clearly answered. What is clear is that the rifle saw real world combat use, but whether in the hands of a Yankee or Rebel we will never know. The M-1855 rifle is scarce in any condition, and this is a really wonderful example without spending over 5 figures for a truly mint specimen.
A matching US M-1855 saber bayonet that fits this rifle perfectly, complete with scabbard is also available (Inventory # EWB-2013) and will be posted on the site shortly (if it is not already listed). A $100 discount to the price of the bayonet will be applied if it is purchased with the rifle that it fits.