Scarce Jenks-Merrrill Navy Carbine - Less Than 300 Produced!
- Product Code: FLA-TB624-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
During the mid to late 1800s, the US Navy utilized a series of unique and innovative small arms in an attempt to find the most effective design for a rifle or carbine for service aboard ship. Among one of the more interesting and unconventional of those weapons was the Jenks Navy Carbine, often referred to by collectors as the Mule Ear carbine, and produced by the N.P. Ames company of Springfield, MA, and later by the Remington Arms Company of Herkimer, NY. Only 4,250 of these interesting breech loading percussion carbines were produced by Ames between the years of 1843-1846, with an additional 1,000 manufactured by Remington during 1847-1848. The Remington-made guns incorporated the Maynard Patent automatic tape priming system. The guns featured the Jenks patent breech loading system, a Mule Ear, side-hammer percussion lock system, and a .54 caliber, 24 ¼” round barrel that was initially smoothbore. Not long after the initial carbines were delivered, a rifled bore with six narrow grooves was adopted. As originally designed, the carbines had a round loading aperture through which loose powder was loaded from a powder flask, followed by a round ball. The Navy soon adopted self-contained paper cartridges with the powder and ball contained in a combustible paper wrapping. As a result, the Navy modified most of the loading apertures from round to oval, to accept the new cartridges. Very few Jenks carbines escaped this modification, making the original “round hole” carbines extremely rare today. During the decade leading up to the American Civil War, the Jenks naval carbines saw significant service on sea going US Naval vessels. They were a standard part of the small arms compliment of the US Navy screw frigates that were outfitted and sent to see between 1856 and 1858, including the USS Wabash, Colorado, Niagara, Minnesota, and the ill-fated Merrimack, which would later be captured and become the Confederate iron-class CSS Virginia. Jenks carbines would also be part of the small arms stores of the US Navy vessels San Jacinto, Levant, Water Witch, Jamestown, and John Adams.
After more than a decade in service, and the fact that repeated firing often caused the breech mechanism to foul, the US Navy had started to actively search for a replacement for the Jenks carbine during the late 1850s. They had already tested breechloading arms from makers like Sharps and Perry, adopting some of their guns in limited quantities. The Navy would also contract for small numbers of breechloaders from Burnside and Joslyn on September 9, 1859, as well as for some revolving longarms from Colt. As part of this on-going program to modernize their small arms inventory, and possibly with an eye towards keeping the upgrades as cost effective as possible, the Navy had started to experiment with another modification to the Jenks carbine.
During 1858 James H. Merrill had approached the Navy offering to modify existing Jenks carbines to his newly patented breechloading mechanism. Merrill had also made the same offer to the US Army, and during 1861-1862 would alter about 100 each of the US Model 1842 musket, Model 1841 Rifle and Model 1847 carbine to his breechloading system.
In many ways the Merrill system was similar to the Jenks with a long, top mounted breech lever that was pulled back to reveal the loading aperture and that incorporated a plunger that seated the cartridge in the chamber when the lever was loaded. Like the original Jenks design, the Merrill system relied upon the conventional percussion cap for ignition. The primary improvements in the Merrill system were that the breech lever locked more securely, the brass plunger provided improved obturation (gas sealing) and the conventional side mounted hammer was much easier to manipulate than the Jenks “mule ear” design. During the alteration process, Merrill plugged the original Jenks loading hole, machined a new breech opening, removed the Jenks breech lever and installed the new Merrill lever. Because the other loading aperture had to be plugged, the alteration was only preformed on un-altered Jenks carbines with round, rather than oval holes. This is yet another reason why the round hole Jenks carbines are so rare today. Merrill also installed a new rear sight that was similar to the US M1858 rear sight, but which incorporated an extended base with a raised catch at the rear to engage the spring latch in the top of the breech lever. A conventional percussion hammer was also added, along with the trademark oblong Merrill percussion bolster with a clean out screw.
The initial testing of the Merrill alterations went well enough that the Navy decided on September 20, 1859, eleven days after placing their orders with Burnside, Joslyn, and Colt, to move forward with the program of alteration. The price for Merrill to modify the guns was $10 each, about half of what a patent breechloading carbine was selling for immediately prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. It seems clear that some level of parsimoniousness was motivating the Navy’s high command. The initial delivery of 294 Merrill altered Jenks carbines was made in September of 1860, and the inspection of the arms did not go well. It was found that the Merrill cartridge did not combust reliably and even worse, when the carbines were struck on the butt, for example, when the guns were brought to “Order, Arms”, the breech levers would pop open! As a result, the guns were rejected and returned to Merrill for the necessary repairs and modifications to address their shortcomings. Merrill completed the work in January of 1861, and on 19th, US Navy Lieutenant Wainwright traveled to Baltimore to inspect the guns. The inspection went well, with the primary issue of the breech lever catch having been resolved. Wainwright passed 240 carbines and accepted them for service. It is unclear what happened to the other 54 guns from the original 1860 delivery. They may not have been completed at the time of Wainwrights visit, or possibly they did not pass his second inspection. In either case, only 240 of the Jenks-Merrill carbines were officially accepted for service, and the project was subsequently cancelled with no other orders being placed.
At about this time the Navy had already decided to remove Jenks carbines from service, as newer, better designs were becoming available. However, the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861 and the outbreak of the American Civil War found the Navy under prepared, under supplied and under armed for the conflict. The lack of available small arms caused the Navy to reverse their decision and maintain the various Jenks carbines in inventory for issue when other breechloading carbines were not available. Jenks-Merrill Carbines were issued as part of the small arms inventory of the sloop USS Richmond, which received 20 of the guns, and the gunboat Michigan, which received 25. The guns were also shown in the inventory of the New York Navy Yard in April of 1861. Testing by the officers of the Richmond found that the original problems that had plagued the Jenks-Merrill carbines had not been sufficiently corrected. Cartridge ignition was still problematic, although the officers attributed it to weak mainsprings that were “not sufficiently strong to explode a percussion cap by the first blow of the hammer.” The problem with the breeches opening when the butt was struck had not been resolved either. A new issue was also discovered. The half-cock notch was not sufficiently high to allow capping the carbine, which meant the gun had to be primed at full-cock, and the hammer then lowered to the half-cock notch. This was a tricky enough procedure on dry land and could often result in an unintentional discharge. At sea, such a delicate procedure was almost impossible to perform safely. Despite the shortcomings of the Jenks-Merrill Carbines, at least some were still in service as late as March of 1864, when the small arms inventory of the Michigan listed the original 25 carbines that had been issued to the gunboat in early 1861. This is somewhat interesting, as by the middle or end of 1862 most of the Jenks carbines in naval service replaced by more modern breechloading carbines like the Sharps, Sharps & Hankins, and Spencers, or more conventional muzzleloading arms like the Whitney Navy Rifle (aka “Plymouth”) or even imported Enfield rifles and muskets. I found John D. McAulay’s Civil War Small Arms of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps invaluable in preparation of the history of this piece, as very little information is available about the Jenks-Merrill alterations, particularly their issue and use after the handful of carbines was finally accepted.
Offered here an extremely rare Jenks-Merrill Navy Carbine, one of the 240 that were eventually accepted by the Navy in January of 1861, and which would see at least some limited service during the American Civil War. The very scarce gun is in about VERY GOOD overall condition. It retains some minute traces of its original lacquer brown finish on the barrel, which has faded and worn and has mixed with some oxidized freckling of the otherwise pewter gray metal. An old light coat of varnish or shellac has been added to the barrel as well, likely as a protectant. This has discolored to make the barrel appear to retain more finish than it really does. The overall general effect is a somewhat freckled gray and brown patina. It is generally believed that the Merrill modified Jenks carbines were at least partially refinished during the alteration process, as most surviving examples do not retain their lock markings, and the finish of the guns is usually somewhat non-standard, with the locks generally a dull blue gray rather than their original Jenks configuration color casehardened appearance. The barrel is mostly smooth, with only some very lightly scattered areas of pinpricking and minor pitting, most of which is around the breech area and near the muzzle. All of this appears to be from the original period of use. There are a few scattered minor dings on the barrel as well. The lock, Merrill percussion hammer and trigger all have a brownish-gray patina. The lock plate also shows some pinpricking and a small amount of light pitting. Unlike the typical Jenks-Merrill alteration, the original lock markings remain partially legible. The lock is marked in three lines:
With the letters towards the end of the words weaker than the letters as the beginning of the words. The breech lever retains some traces of its original finish, which has faded and dulled from use and wear and has a bluish-gray patina with some darker blue-black tones on its underside. The interior of the Merrill machined breech still retains some traces of case coloring. The breech markings remain fairly crisp and clear. The top of the breech is very well marked with a small WMJENKS vertically and USN / RC / P / 1845 in four horizontal lines below the Jenks mark. The shadow of the original round loading aperture is visible, which was plugged and refinished in the brown by Merrill during the alteration. The top of the Merrill breech lever is marked in two lines: J.H. MERRILL BATLO / PAT, JULY, 1858. The breech lever shows some evenly distributed light pitting on its surfaces. The action of the carbine works exactly as they should and remains fairly crisp. The breech opening and loading lever functions correctly, operating smoothly as well. It is clear that the spring catch that engages the rear of the Merrill sight base is not strong enough to keep the action closed reliably. The original Merrill alteration rear sight and base are in place on top of the carbine’s barrel, forward of the breech and lever. The sight remains complete and fully functional. The bore of the carbine is in about VERY GOOD condition. It is mostly dark and moderately oxidized with sharp rifling and shows light to moderate pitting along its length, along with some crusty residue. A good cleaning might improve the bore to some degree. The brass furniture is in lovely condition with an attractive, dull golden patina. The buttplate and barrel bands show a few old impact marks, from storage and use during the period of use. The original 1.5” sling ring is present on the trigger plate, just behind the trigger guard. The walnut stock is in about GOOD condition and is in somewhat more worn condition than the metal. The stock remains full-length and is solid, with some repairs in the wrist and lock area. The Merrill alteration process resulted in more wood being removed from the stock and left it quite weak in the wrist area. Thus, cracks and breaks in this region are quite common. Most Jenks-Merrill Carbines that survive to be in collections today shows these cracks and repairs and often replaced wood as well. This gun has a couple of 4”-5” cracks on the reverse wrist area, a crack that circles the wrist and repaired wood above the lock mortise back towards the wrist. Thankfully these have been repaired solidly, and it does not appear that any wood was replaced. There was some minor wood loss, which has resulted in some minor gapping around the lock itself. In addition to the repairs that are mentioned and are well illustrated in the photos of the gun, the wood shows scattered bumps, dings and marks from handling and use. As usual, no inspection cartouche is visible on the stock as the necessary modification to the stock to inlet the new Merrill system and the addition of the lock screw escutcheon usually necessitated a refinishing of the stock at the Merrill facility, leaving the stock “like new” when it left their factory, but without the original naval inspection marks.
Overall, this is a solid, complete, and correct (if well used) example of an extremely scarce US Navy carbine that is usually missing from even the most advanced navy collections. With only 240 delivered and an incredibly small survival rate, these guns simply do not appear on the market very often. If you are a carbine collector with an emphasis on the American Civil War period, this is an absolute “must have” item that you may not have another chance to procure for a very long time. If you collect US Naval small arms, this is one of those items that you desperately need in your collection, and which could well be a centerpiece of an advanced 19th century US Navy firearms display.