On 10 January 1817 the US Ordnance Department took a radical and unprecedented decision by agreeing to purchase one hundred Hall’s Patent Breechloading rifles from their designer, John H. Hall. Hall had received his patent for a breechloading flintlock rifle on 21 May 1811 and had been producing small numbers of rifles in the Portland (District of Maine), MA area. The “District of Maine” was a territory considered part of the state of Massachusetts and would not become its own state until 1820. Hall also produced a small number of pistols based upon his patent as well as a handful of muskets, primarily for submission as samples to the US Military. The design concept was actually quite simple. The rifle used a tilting breech block that contained the center mounted flintlock battery and the chamber, which was loaded with a powder charge and ball. By pressing a lever under the rifle, the front of the block could be tilted upward allowing powder and ball to be loaded, and then pressed down again, aligning the chamber with the barrel. The pan was then primed, and the rifle was fired in the usual manner. Although Hall’s early production arms were certainly “civilian” and not produced specifically for military use or under a military contract, it appears that he had always intended to obtain a military contract for his design and worked tirelessly in an attempt to secure such a contract. By 1814, at the height of the War of 1812, Hall had succeeded in receiving an inquiry from the Ordnance Department regarding his design, but at the time Hall demurred, stating that the inability to keep a regular workforce at that time, no doubt due to the exigencies of war, prevented him from entering into such a production arrangement.
By 1816, following the end of the war, Hall’s situation had changed, and again he pursued the acquisition of a military contract. His persistency and tenacity paid off, and as a result an initial order for one hundred of his breechloading flintlock rifles was received. The guns were to be delivered complete with bayonet and appendages (tools and bullet mold) for a total price of $25.00 each. Hall must have had a number of parts available on hand, possibly even a number of completed rifles, as he contacted the Ordnance Department in August to announce that the guns were ready and to inquire as to where they should be delivered. From early correspondence with Hall, it seems that while the ever-cautious Ordnance Department was intrigued with the breech loading design, they were hesitant to adopt it without thorough testing. They also seemed to develop early concerns about the potential cost issues of adopting a rifle for widespread issue that utilized a patent held by a private citizen. Some documents suggest that prior to the initial contract, there were already discussions within the Ordnance Department about somehow producing the rifle at a government facility, rather than a private one, with some type of flat or reduced payment to Hall to secure the rights to use his patent.
In order to obtain real world feedback regarding their use, the first one hundred rifles were ordered to be delivered to Boston initially, from which they were eventually shipped to Baltimore, then Pittsburgh and finally to St. Louis. From St. Louis, ninety-eight of the Hall’s Patent Rifles were issued to a regiment of riflemen stationed Bellefontaine, about 25 miles away, with two of the rifles being held by the Ordnance Department as samples. These first production rifles had 34” octagonal barrels, turned round at the muzzle to accept a socket bayonet and were .52 caliber or “32 bore”, firing 32 round balls to the pound of lead. The barrels were pinned to the stock, which was mounted with brass furniture, including a four-piece patchbox and three ramrod (really wiping rod) pipes. In a report from Colonel Talbot Chambers of the riflemen, dated March 22, 1819, it was reported that the rifles tended to foul making loading difficult and that they often “hang fired”. The Colonel dismissed the rifles as essentially worthless and did not recommend their use or general acceptance. His report, however, was somewhat late as John Hall had already moved his operation to the National Armory at Harpers Ferry and was in the process of establishing the famous rifle works at that location.
During the majority of 1818, John Hall worked at Harpers Ferry producing several sample breechloading rifles and muskets for testing. By the end of the year, it was determined that his system was certainly superior to the current issue muzzleloading arms in terms of ease and speed of loading and was at least equal to the standard issue arms in terms of accuracy and durability. As a result of these tests, it was determined that the rifle of Hall’s design should be put into production at Harpers Ferry, but that for the time being the traditional muzzleloading musket would remain the standard issue infantry weapon. By the beginning of 1819, Hall was supervising the construction and acquisition of machinery to produce his patent rifle at the new Rifle Works at Harpers Ferry. The most revolutionary component of the new facility was that the rifles were to be manufactured on the principle of interchangeable parts. This would be somewhat more difficult than either Hall or the others at Harpers Ferry had initially envisioned and it would be five years from the time that construction began until the first 1,000 US Model 1819 Hall Rifles would be completed in 1824.
The “production version” of the rifle had a 32 5/8” round barrel that was secured by three barrel bands that were secured by band springs. The furniture was of iron, rather than brass, and the iron parts were lacquer browned, while the breechblock and hammer were casehardened. The rifle remained .52 caliber, with a .535” chamber in the breechblock and had narrow, 16-groove rifling. The first 1 ½” of the barrel were left smooth (and about .54 caliber) to protect the rifling. While it has been suggested for years that this area of smoothbore at the muzzle was similar to the false muzzle used on a muzzle loading target rifle to help protect the rifling from damage during loading. Peter Schmidt, author of Hall’s Patent Breechloaders, suggests this theory makes no sense. As the bore diameter of the rifle was smaller than the chamber, it would be almost impossible to load a .535” round ball through a .52” bore without a hammer, a strong rod, and without severe deformation of the ball. More realistically, it appears this area was intended to help protect the rifling from damage inherent from regular mounting and dismounting of a bayonet, and potential damage during bayonet drill. The initial reception of the Hall Rifle was positive enough that a second order for 1,000 was rifles was placed by the Ordnance Department. These rifles showed some very minor changes to the cock and pan fence over the first 1,000 but were otherwise the same as the first 1,000 and were delivered between 1825 and 1827. In March of 1827 a new order for 3,000 rifles was placed with Hall at the Rifle Works, and the following year another 6,000 rifles were ordered. These “2ndProduction” Rifles from what Schmidt refers to as the “2nd and 3rd contracts”, were delivered between 1832 and 1834. The largest change (or improvement) found in these guns over their predecessors is the change from the use of band springs to secure to the barrel bands to the use of longitudinal pins to secure the bands. The only other change was an attempt to further standardize the screws used in the production of the guns, and while the size of the screw and the number of threads was already standardized, it appears that the pitch of the threads was not, and this meant that sometimes the screws would not interchange as they should. The 2nd Production rifles featured fully interchangeable screws, as well as all other parts.
During the time that the first 11,000 rifles were produced the “Rifle Works” had operated in a sort of strange limbo of being a public-private partnership. It was not really an official part of the Harpers Ferry Armory and had actually been excluded from drawing supplies and stores from the main arsenal. Hall was a civilian employee with an annual salary and was paid an additional $1 royalty for each rifle produced. The rifles were contracted and paid for by the government, but Hall had to operate the facility out of the income from the sale of the rifles to the government and cover all expenses, including payroll from these payments. Hall consistently ran over budget at the facility and was often hard pressed to pay his employees. In the fall of 1834, the status of the Rifle Works was officially changed, and it was made part of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal system, with Hall re-designated as the Master Armorer of the Rifle Works. At this time, an 1834 dated order for 4,000 Hall Rifles (aka “3rd Production Rifles”) was increased to 5,000. These rifles would be delivered between 1837 and 1838. The final batch of Hall flintlock rifles was produced and delivered between 1840 and 1841. The primary difference between the 2nd and 3rd production rifles were the inclusion of “protectors” in the 3rd production rifles. These were metal blocks added to the breechblock supporters that helped to absorb and distribute recoil. The other minor change was an increase in the size of the gas port slits in the frame of the rifle, extending them from 4” to 4.45” in length and widening them from .1” to .175” in width. John Hall would remain at the Rifle Works nearly to the end of production of the US Model 1819 Rifle but was forced to request a medical leave in January of 1840 due to his failing health. Hall never returned to Harpers Ferry and died in February of 1841. The production of the Hall flintlock rifle ended at about the same time as Hall’s death, and no flintlock rifles were delivered from Harpers Ferry after 1841, although some 4,200 percussion Hall Rifles were made up during 1841 and 1842.
Initially, the Hall Rifle was intended only for issue to specialty troops, as the standard US military long arm for the infantry was the smoothbore musket and rifles were not regularly issued. It was subsequently decided that the rifles could be issued to the “Light Companies” of infantry regiments, those who were often called upon for skirmish duty and were usually the flank companies in a line of battle. By April of 1832 it was decided to arm the majority of the 6th US Infantry with Hall Rifles, and they used them quite effectively during the Black Hawk War that year. The Hall Rifle was particularly popular with southern state militias, and nearly 2,500 were issued to the various states under the Militia Act of 1808 during 1836 alone. During the Seminole Wars the rifles proved to be extremely popular with state troops fighting in the Florida swamps, and some of the rifles even saw service during the Mexican American War with Tennessee volunteer troops, the Rochester Union Grays of New York (as part of the 10th US Infantry) and the Missouri Mounted Volunteers in Santa Fe. Even though the Hall was issued in some quantity and was popular with state troops, it did have its detractors and some design issues. Many soldiers found the fact that gas often leaked from the seam between the breechblock and barrel to be somewhat troublesome. This had to be both distracting and potentially hazardous. As the rifle saw more and more use, the face of the breechblock and breech would experience some erosion for the hot gas, which only increased the gap and allowed more leakage. The gas leakage was a well-known design issue, and it was for that reason that gas escape ports were originally incorporated into the frame of the rifle, to help reduce stock erosion. These ports were even enlarged during the last major production run of the rifles, to allow more gas to escape from the sides, rather than burning the interior of the stock.
When the US officially adopted the percussion ignition system with the Model 1841 Rifle and Model 1842 Musket, the Ordnance Department started to think about how best to alter the 700,000 flintlock muskets in stores around the country to percussion, and also how to transform the existing stockpiles of flintlock rifles and pistols. As the infantry and the huge numbers of muskets were considered a priority, those were the guns that were put through a rigorous inspection and classification program to decide which ones should be altered as soon as possible (1st Class), which ones could wait and be altered later (2nd & 3rd Class) and which ones should be disposed of, whether due to age, condition or damage. The majority of the muskets were altered via the “Belgian” or “cone in barrel” method, although some special automated priming and patent breech alterations were performed as well. After many of the muskets had been altered, rifles and pistols started to undergo the same process, although there was no department-wide inspection and classification program for those arms. While several thousand US Model 1817 “Common Rifles” were altered to percussion by the Ordnance Department in the decade leading up to the American Civil War, only a single Hall Rifle was so altered. This was done experimentally at the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama in 1856. Even though arsenal produced percussion Hall Rifles (Model 1841) were produced at Harpers Ferry in 1841 and 1842 before the Rifle Works converted to the production of US Model 1841 “Mississippi” Rifles, there was apparently no urgent need to alter the existing stocks of flintlock Halls to percussion. In fact, the October 1860 inventory report for Harpers Ferry indicated there were still over 12,500 flintlock Hall Rifles in storage there that had never even been issued.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, not only were there the large numbers of Hall Rifles in storage at Harpers Ferry, there over 10,000 in storage in Federal Arsenals in southern states that had seceded. It was apparently at this time that both Federal and Confederate ordnance officers started to look seriously at the alteration of these breechloading flintlock rifles to percussion. The process itself was quite simple, as a minimal amount of work had to be done. The front portion of the flintlock battery that carried the frizzen had to be machined away, in some cases the recess in the block that the toe of the frizzen was filled, the top of the block was sometimes reshaped the fence at the rear of the pan was either reshaped and left essentially intact as on many “northern” alterations or in some cases machined completely away, as on many “southern” alterations. A new flash channel was drilled and then tapped to receive a percussion cone (nipple) and a new percussion hammer was installed to replace the original flintlock hammer. In the case of most northern alterations this was a newly made percussion hammer and in the case of many southern alterations, only the top or jaw portion of the hammer was changed or modified, leaving the lower part of the neck and base of the original flintlock hammer intact. Due to these alterations to percussion, some Hall rifles ended up having a service life of nearly four decades, as some of the guns originally produced during the 1820s saw service again in percussion form during the 1860s.
While there was no official Ordnance Department program to alter flintlock Hall Rifles to percussion that has been documented to date, extant examples suggest that a major effort was made in the north to alter many of the rifles. These guns were most likely altered by a contractor, or possibly series of contractors, and all have the same basic characteristics. The all have a re-machined and refinished breechblock with the flintlock battery removed, leaving only the reshaped pan fence as a flash deflector behind the newly installed percussion cone. The hammer is a newly made, color casehardened percussion hammer that is quite similar to the percussion hammer used on the 1841 Model Hall Rifles, although it is slightly thinner and does not have the “V”-shaped notch in the hammer nose to split the caps when fired. This feature makes it easier to remove the caps from the cone after firing. Author and researcher Peter Schmidt details four variants of these northern alteration in his book Hall’s Patent Breechloaders and it is worth noting that specifically does not refer to them as “arsenal” alterations but rather as “northern” ones, as there is no indication that the work was done at any Federal facility. The commonality of the hammers on all examples suggest that they were obtained from a single source. His categorization of the alterations is based solely on the type of reassembly markings found on the guns, as he has found four different patterns of markings that are primarily alphanumeric. None of these markings are external, so disassembly of the gun is necessary to locate them. It is interesting that whoever performed the alterations felt it was necessary to apply such marks to interchangeable parts guns. This is particularly intriguing as the percussion alteration could be affected by removing only the breechblock leaving the rest of the gun fully assembled. Mr. Schmidt further notes that at least the breech blocks were refinished as part of the process and that in some cases the guns were re-browned as well. To date it is not clear which contractors did the work as no records have been found. It is also not clear at what point the more than 12,500 Hall Rifles at Harpers Ferry were removed from the arsenal, but it was clearly before the arsenal was taken over by Virginia state troops in April of 1861. According to Schmidt’s best estimates about 5,000 Hall Rifles were altered to percussion in the north in this fashion, during 1861 and possibly early 1862. Nearly all extant examples are 1831 or 1832 dated. At some point, probably by the middle, of 1862 the project appears to have been abandoned, leaving the balance of the rifles in their original flintlock configuration and probably in storage until they were sold as surplus after the war.
Offered here is a FINE condition example of a 2nd production type US Model 1819 Hall Rifle Altered to Percussion. The gun is a typical example of a “northern” or “Federal” alteration. The breech block has been appropriately modified, polished and refinished, the new percussion hammer has been added the fence has been repurposed to serve as flash deflector. The breechblock is marked in four lines:
The markings are slightly weak due to the work done on the block during alteration, particularly the polishing prior to refinishing. This 1832 dated percussion altered Hall Rifle remains in very nice and very crisp overall condition. The gun has a tight and crisp action that works exactly as it should and still seems to have a very tight gas seal. The breechblock locks tightly and securely into positions and the hammer locks crisply into both the half cock and full cock positions. The breechblock has a lovely, mottled blue and gray appearance, retaining strong amounts of the reapplied case colors from the alteration process. The block is actually more colorful than the standard arsenal casehardened Hall breech block. The casehardened breeches of these rifles are not normally known for the vivid colors often found on other 19th century firearms and this is a particularly attractive breech block. Typically, Hall blocks have a muted dark gray coloration to them, even when retaining much of their original finish. The barrel of the rifle retains about 30%+ of the original period applied lacquer brown finish, with moderate amounts of thinning and wear, as well as some minor surface scrapes from handling, storage and use. The majority of the finish loss is scattered along the top of the barrel, and along the high edges and contact points. The exposed metal where the finish has been worn off has a medium steel gray patina. The barrel of the rifle is almost entirely smooth with some only light scattered pinpricking present and a few small areas of lightly oxidized surface roughness. The rifled bore is in VERY FINE condition with fine, sharp rifling present. The bore is extremely bright and shows some scattered minor oxidation here and there, some light frosting and some scattered old dirt and dust which will clean out. As is typical of all Hall rifles, the first 1 ½” of the bore is smooth, allowing bayonet use without the potential for damaging the rifling. The triggerguard, barrel bands, buttplate and other furniture all retain at least strong traces of their period lacquer browned finish, with the exposed metal having taken on a medium pewter gray patina. The original offset front sight and bayonet lug is in place at the end of the barrel and the matching offset rear sight is in place at the rear of the barrel as well. The original button head “ramrod” (cleaning rod) is in place in the channel under the barrel. It is full length and retains fine threads at the end. The stock is in VERY FINE condition as well and is really slightly nicer than the metal. The stock retains excellent, sharp edges, with crisp lines and flats. The best feature of the stock is the lack of the typical “Hall crack” at the top of the wrist, behind the breechblock. Even the finest Hall rifles are almost always found with this crack in the wrist from improper disassembly. The wood in this area is absolutely pristine. This stock of this rifle is full-length, solid and free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. As would be expected, the stock shows the usual scattered bumps, dings, bruises and mars from service, use and storage, but absolutely no abuse.
Overall, this is a really attractive and very crisp example of a US Percussion Altered Model 1819 Hall Rifle. The gun is 100% correct and original, retains a nice amount of its period brown finish and has a really crisp stock. This is a very nice example of one of the many 2nd class and marginally acceptable guns that were pressed into service at least briefly by the US Ordnance Department during the early months of the American Civil War. I know you will be very proud to add this one to your collection, as it is an extremely attractive gun that is complete and correct and which you will never have to make any excuses for.
Tags: Fine, Percussion, Altered, Hall, Rifle