2nd Model Smith-Jennings Rifle - Very Scarce
- Product Code: FLA-3407-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
“To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, Walter Hunt of the city, county and State of New York, have invented a new and useful Improvement in the Construction of a Metallic Cartridge, made entire with the ball, for fire-arms, which I term a “rocket ball;” and I do hereby declare that the following is a true and faithful description of the same.”This statement opens Water Hunt’s August 10, 1848 US Patent application, and Hunt was subsequently granted US Patent #5701 for his “Rocket Ball” ammunition. With this patent, the evolution of the Winchester rifle started, and a technological race towards a successful repeating firearm design began.
From the development of the earliest firearms, there was always pressure to speed the way in which they were loaded and fired. While multiple barrels and eventually revolving cylinders offered faster follow up shots, it was actually ammunition design that was the biggest impediment to the development of a practical repeating firearm, particularly a repeating rifle. Loose powder and ball, or soft cartridges made of paper or skin were simply not structurally capable of being part of a mechanical repeating firearms system that would contain the ammunition in any form of magazine. A self-contained cartridge was essential, preferably one that included the primer, powder and ball all in one container. French gunmaker Jean Samuel Pauly had been experimenting with self-contained cartridges since the first decade of the 19th century, and by the mid-1830s, Pauly’s protégé Casimir Lefaucheux was on the way to developing his pinfire cartridge system, which was refined within a decade, becoming one of the first truly successful metallic cartridge systems. However, the pinfire design, with its primer wire protruding at a 90-degree angle from its base, was not readily adaptable to a repeating firearm other than a revolver. A cartridge that ignited from the rear of its base was the only practical solution.
Hunt’s .54 caliber Rocket Ball design simply mated the bullet and powder, by placing the propellant in the base cavity of the elongated lead ball. But his design still required an external ignition system. On the same day that he patented the Rocket Ball he also received US Patent #5699 for another cartridge, this one combined the bullet and powder in a wooden casing, but this design came to nothing. The following year, on August 21, 1849 US Patent #6663 was issued for Hunt’s design for a repeating rifle that he called “The Volition Repeater”. With this gun, it can be said that the prototype of the Winchester rifle was invented.
Hunt’s “Volition Repeater” was a lever action rifle with a tubular magazine under the barrel. In fact, the rifle included two “levers”. One operated the cartridge lifter, moving a cartridge from the magazine below the barrel to the same level as the chamber. Operating a ring trigger moved the bolt that inserted the round in the chamber, and squeezing the ring fired the rifle. While delicate and somewhat cumbersome, the design would become the basis for all future lever action rifles. Hunt accurately noted that his design covered the invention of a “hollow sliding or piston breech-pin, which is operated by a lever in loading and securing the charge in the breech of the gun, which breech-pin, in addition to the above characteristic, contains or had attached to it the mainspring, firing cock or punch…”. It is clear from his description that he had invented the basic bolt design for all future lever action firearms. The weakness in the design was that Hunt used his Rocket Ball ammunition that still required an external primer. To date, only one example of the Hunt Repeating Rifle is known, and it is unlikely that more than a handful were ever produced. The potential, however, was clear to a handful of visionaries. One was George Arrowsmith of New York, to whom Hunt assigned his patent for the Volition Rifle. Arrowsmith was a machinist and model maker and had likely been the person who produced the patent model of the Hunt rifle, as well as the single known remaining example. One of Arrowsmith’s employees was Lewis Jennings, who was intrigued by Hunt’s design and worked to improve upon it. On December 25, 1849 Jennings received US Patent #6,973 for a repeating rifle was a substantially improved version of the Hunt Volition Repeater. The most obvious improvement was the elimination of the secondary loading lever, with a single ring trigger lever that operated the entire mechanism from loading the chamber to firing the rifle. While Hunt’s patent application had only claimed two specific improvements to firearms, Jennings claimed eight. Despite the improved design neither Jennings nor Arrowsmith (who held the Hunt patent the Jennings had improved upon) had the capital to manufacture and market the design. The pair turned to New York financier Coutlandt Palmer (he sounds like a soap opera character, doesn’t he?), who purchased the patents for $10,000 and then contracted with the firm of Robbins & Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont to manufacture the Jennings Rifle. Although Palmer contracted for 5,000 rifles to be produced, it is believed that less than 1,000 were manufactured, (c1849-1851) in at least four variations, including both repeating and single-shot muzzleloading and breechloading versions. The guns still used the Hunt Rocket Ball ammunition, and relied upon a “pellet primer” for ignition. It was fortuitous that Palmer chose Robbins & Lawrence to manufacture the rifles, because three of the most talented gunmakers of the era were employed there at that time. The first was B. Tyler Henry, who would become immortal in 1860 with the rifle that bears his last name. The other two were Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, who would go on to form one of the most iconic firearms companies in the world, Smith & Wesson.
The three men were all involved with the production and eventual improvements to the Jennings, Rifle, but it was Horace Smith who contributed the most to the redesign, receiving US Patent #8317 on August 26, 1851 for his improvements. Primary among the new design features was a rotating pellet primer magazine on the top of the rifle frame that fed primers down into the firing chamber where the long hammer nose would ignite them to fire the Rocket Ball cartridge. Between 1851 and 1852, about 1,100 Smith-Jennings Rifles were produced in three model variations. The guns were not particularly successful from a commercial standpoint, with the ammunition design and its relatively low power being major contributing factors. However, the new mechanism was significant improvement upon the earlier Hunt and Jennings designs. At this point another step had been made towards the evolution of Winchester.
By 1854, Horace Smith & Daniel Wesson had established the first company to bear their name. They manufactured iron framed repeating lever action pistols that were based upon the earlier Hunt, Jennings and Smith-Jennings designs, with improvements of their own. In 1855 the firm was reorganized as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, which continued to manufacture lever action pistols, this time with brass frames, and continued under that name until 1857. In 1857 Oliver Winchester, who had been a primary investor in 1855, reorganized the company as the New Haven Arms Company, and Smith & Wesson left the firm. The new company also added lever action carbines to the product line, which were the direct predecessors to the Henry Rifle. Winchester subsequently hired B. Tyler Henry who improved the carbine design, resulting in the M1860 Henry Rifle. In 1866, the New Haven Arms Company was again reorganized, this time as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and with the of the Model 1866, an improvement on the Henry Rifle, Winchester’s legacy was launched. In slightly less than a twenty-year period, the Hunt Rocket Ball cartridge and subsequent rifle design had evolved into the famous Winchester 1866 “Yellow Bow” lever action rifle, and in just a few more years would evolve into the Winchester 1873; the “gun that won the west”.
Offered here is a very rare and historically important 2nd Model Smith-Jennings Repeating Rifle. The changes that occurred between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd model Smith-Jennings rifles are fairly minor, with only changes in the frame profile being obvious at first glance. Like most arms of the period, what we refer to as different “models” really reflect mechanical and manufacturing improvements that occurred over time as the gun was produced, as weakness were located and corrected, and as better systems of production were put into place. It is generally believed that less than four hundred of the 2nd Model Smith-Jennings Rifles were produced, between 1851 and 1852. The guns, like their predecessors, were designed to fire the Hunt Rocket Ball ammunition. The rifles were .54 caliber with round barrels and tubular magazines. Construction was of iron, and if a couple of existing, high condition examples are good indicators, the guns were finished either in brown or blue. Frames were often lightly engraved. Like the earlier guns it was based upon, and the later Henry Rifle, there was no forend. The butt was of walnut, with medium height comb, no cheek rest, a sporting rifle profile and had a crescent shaped iron buttplate. An oval German silver plate was often attached to the obverse butt on 2nd and 3rd model rifles. A rotating pellet primer magazine was located on the top of the frame, and the ring lever actuated the motion of this system, bringing a fresh primer pellet into position at the same time a cartridge was loaded into the chamber. The hammer was then manually cocked to fire the rifle by fully depressing the ring lever-trigger combination. A pivoting sideplate allowed access to the rifle’s bolt, and since the Rocket Ball held the powder in the bullet’s base, there was no casing that had to be ejected. Sights were a simple notched rear and blade front. The magazine was loaded from the front, by removing a small cap with a knob, and withdrawing the magazine spring. The 2nd model rifles are easily identifiable by the rather obvious “bulge” in the lower portion of the frame, forward of the ring lever. This bulge has caused some collectors to refer to this model as the “Pregnant Jennings”.
2nd Model Smith-Jennings Repeating Rifle offered here is in about VERY GOOD+ condition. The only markings on the gun are a three-line marketing legend stamped on the left side of the receiver that reads:
The patent date refers to Hunt’s original repeating rifle patent. Dixon was the retailing and marketing agent for the Jennings Rifles, handling sales and distribution during 1852 and 1853. The rifle appears to have been one of the browned guns, and appears to retain traces of original brown in some protected areas on the frame, with the balance of the rifle having a mostly smooth, oxidized brown patina. There are some areas of light pinpricking scattered around the gun, with some small places of more moderate pinpricking at the frame to barrel junction, at the muzzle and on the frame around the ignition hole and access plate. There are also a couple of minor dings in both the barrel’s exterior and the magazine tube from handling and use over the years. The gun is lightly engraved on the frame with simple, loose foliate scrolls and sprays, and the hammer is engraved in the same style. The buttplate shows heavy surface oxidation and some scattered roughness, suggesting it may have been stored somewhere that allowed the buttplate to become damp long ago. The round barrel measures 25 9/16” to the frame junction, and 26” to the front of the access plate. The rifle’s bore remains in VERY GOOD+ condition with strong rifling along its entire length and light to moderate pitting along its entire length as well. The rifle remains mechanically functional and appears to correctly function in every way. The ring lever operates the lifter and bolt as it should, and also rotates the pellet primer magazine to drop a new primer onto the top of the bolt when the lever is operated. The primer mechanism appears to operate correctly and remain fully functional. Both the primer magazine and sideplate doors appear to be original and move smoothly when operated and lock into place securely, as they should. The hammer functions correctly and locks securely into the half cock and full cock notches, and responding to the trigger as it should. The original rear and front sights are in place, although the front sight blade is worn down quite a bit. The buttstock is in VERY GOOD condition as well. It retains none of its original varnish and shows some lightly added oil. The stock has an oval German silver plate applied to its obverse that measure roughly 2.75”x1.3”. The plate is lightly engraved with simple, open foliate scrolls. The plate is typical of the factory embellishments found on 2nd and 3rd model Smith-Jennings Rifles. The butt shows numerous minor bumps, dings and handling marks, but remains solid and complete and free of any breaks or repairs. There is a short grain crack, about 1” long, running from the end of the wrist into the lower portion of the comb. This is minor and appears to be tight and solid does not seem to be structural.
Overall this is a very nice, solid example of a very rare 2nd Model Smith-Jennings Repeating Rifle. With so few produced over about a one year period, these are difficult firearms to find for sale. For an advanced Winchester collector, this predecessor to the Henry is simply a “must have” firearm, and to anyone who collects the innovative firearms that changed history and the industry, this is a gun you must have in your collection.SOLD