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Antebellum Shenandoah Valley Rifle by J H Wells

Antebellum Shenandoah Valley Rifle by J H Wells

  • Product Code: FLA-2171-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

This is one of the more interesting and historical rifles that I have ever had the chance to offer. The rifle is an antebellum era long rifle from the Shenandoah Valley, which is very interesting and collectible in and of itself. However the truly wonderful history resides with the man who made it. The barrel of the rifle is clearly stamped: J.H. WELLS, and somewhat less clearly marked: STAUNTON, VA. According to Frank Sellers American Gunsmiths John H Wells worked in Staunton, VA (in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley) during the 1840s and then worked in Charlottesville, VA later in his career. More in depth research in the US Census Records, US and Confederate Military Records and the National Archives Confederate Citizen Files record group has allowed me to flesh out the story of John H Wells life, and it is a fairly interesting one, including military service in two wars.

John H Wells was born April 10, 1824 in Dinwiddie County, VA, just south of Petersburg, VA. Sometime around 1840 young John was apparently apprenticed to a gunsmith in the Staunton, VA area (possibly John Sheets or John Clemmer), where he learned the trade and eventually established himself as a gunmaker. John must have been rather talented, as he was apparently making guns under his name by about 1845, and possibly earlier. Sometime between December of 1846 and early February of 1847, John volunteered for service in D Company (Robinson’s), 1st Virginia Volunteers for service in the Mexican War. The 1st Virginia. The regiment was organized, equipped and trained in Richmond and was then sent to Fortress Monroe, from whence it traveled by ship to Mexico. Although the regiment did not arrive in time to take part in General Zachary Taylor’s campaign against Monterrey, they were initially stationed there on occupation duty. The twelve companies of the 1st Virginia were subsequently broken into two 6-company battalions and served on occupation duty in Monterrey (1st Battalion) and in Saltillo (2nd Battalion), with individual companies defending lines of communication and supply from Mexican guerillas and banditos. While no members of the 1st VA were killed in combat in Mexico, several were wounded during skirmishes with Mexican irregulars and 84 died from disease. The regiment was returned to Virginia and released from service in a piecemeal fashion between the spring and summer of 1848. Upon his return from service in Mexico, John H Wells settled in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, VA. He established himself there as a gunsmith, and on February 28, 1855 he married Ann E. Summerson of Albemarle County. By the 1860 Census John was noted has having real estate with a value of $1,800.00 and a personal estate valued at $4,000.00. The other members of 35-year old John’s household included his 27 year old wife Ann, 19 year old Henry Cease, 16 year old Alonzo Wheat and Theodrich Smith (also 16), all three of whom are listed as “gunsmith’s apprentice”. The household also lists William C Webb (23), Thomas Houchens (18) and Willard Powell (18), all of whom are listed as “harness maker”. Clearly, Wells had quite business going in gun and blacksmithing, as well as the making of horse equipage. On May 25, 1861, John H. Wells again enlisted for military service. This time he enlisted in Company F (The Montgomery Guards) of the 19th Virginia Infantry, CSA. His enlistment papers noted that he was 37 years old and was employed as a gunsmith. He was elected 3rd Lieutenant of that company, and would serve the Confederacy for 12 months. The 19th VA was formed in time to see service at 1st Manassas (July 21, 1861) and then proceeded to fight with the Army of Northern Virginia in nearly every major battle of the eastern theater, including the Antietam Campaign, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Sailor’s Creek, just to name a few. The regiment surrendered at Appomattox Court House with the remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the battle of Manassas, Wells was detailed as an officer with the brigade baggage guard, and was detached from his regiment. While the regiment was in winter quarters, Wells apparently took the opportunity make a little money on the side as a blacksmith. On November 8, 1861 Wells submitted an invoice to the Confederacy for “Forty (40) Pounds hose shoe nails @ 40” per pound”, totaling $16.00. On November 21, 1861 he submitted another invoice for “8 “ lbs of horseshoe nails @ 50” and “3 Curry Combs - 25”, totaling to $5.00. On December 25, 1861 he submitted a third invoice for a total of $5.20. The invoice noted that it was for “Thirteen (13) days work in Blacksmith shop at Meadow Bluff. Extra Duty @ 40 cents per day.” No other blacksmithing invoices are known during the time of Wells service with the 19th Virginia. Wells only remained with the regiment through the end of April 1862, when his enlistment expired and he resigned from the service. During the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia in April of 1862 the soldiers were allowed to hold new elections for company grade officers, and Wells was not re-elected to his post as 3rd Lt. of Company D. Nearly 20 pages of documents related to Wells Confederate service located in the National Archives, and copies of these documents accompany the gun. After his military service, Wells returned to Charlottesville, VA and earned a living doing conventional blacksmithing, as he had done while in winter camp. Over the next four years, Wells would make and repair thousands of items for the Confederate government. Nearly 50 pages of receipts and documents related to Wells’ work as a blacksmith for the Confederacy are in the National Archives “Confederate Citizen Files’ record group, and copies of these documents accompany this gun. These include a March 1863 dated proposal to manufacture 10,000 horseshoes for the Confederacy at the rate of 55” per shoe, with the shoes “to weigh not less than ninety (90) pounds to the hundred”. The same proposal also offers to furnish 3,000 pounds of horseshoe nails at $1.50 per pound (3 times the price of November 1861). One particularly long and detailed receipt runs to four pages and totals $795.50. The 1864-dated receipt details the making and “putting on” hundreds of horseshoes, repairing multiple chains and bridle bits, as well as repairing litters, wagons and ambulances. After the war, Wells remained in Charlottesville working as a blacksmith and farmer through sometime in the 1880s. Sometime between the 1870 and 1880 Census, Wells relocated to Union (Jackson County) Arkansas, and married Mary H. Robinson from Big Bottom, AR. It is not clear if Ann died or if they divorced, but the 1880 and subsequent Census records show the children of John & Ann were living with their father. In Arkansas Wells worked as a farmer, and was a member of the General V.Y. Cook Camp of United Confederate Veterans. Wells died on August 29, 1904 at the age of 80. He is buried in Macedonia Cemetery in Newark (Independence County), AR. Notes from his U.C.V. camp noted his service not only in the 19th VA during the Civil War, but in the 1st VA during the Mexican War.

This example of John H Wells gunsmithing is one of his early production rifles, produced while he was working in Staunton, VA, prior to his Mexican War service. The gun was likely manufactured between 1843 and 1846. It is a classic “Shenandoah School long rifle”, in the tradition of John Sheets of Staunton. It is a pure workingman’s gun with only minimal decoration and embellishment. The rifle is devoid of the classic Pennsylvania or Kentucky pattern patchbox, but has a lovely raised carved cheek rest on the reverse butt. While at first glance the rifle appears that it was originally manufactured as a flintlock, and was subsequently altered to percussion, I am not completely convinced. The rifle uses what appears to be a typical 19th century English trade lock, and the percussion drum bolster suggest an alteration. However, the rounded lock tail and single lock-retaining bolt are common features of later production percussion arms. The rifle was manufactured early in the percussion era, within 2-5 years of the US adopting the percussion cap for military arms. The lack of any filled holes from the external flintlock battery make me feel that this may have been a very early percussion rifle. The rifle is just shy of 59” in overall length with a 42 ““ octagon barrel and weighs in at just a couple of ounces short of 12 pounds. The heavy octagon barrel is 31/32” wide (.972”) with 13/32” (.40”) flats. The bore is about .44 caliber and is rifled with 7 deep grooves with a fast rate of twist for use with round ball. The gun is full stocked in what appears to be maple, with a lovely striped appearance to the grain. The stock has about a 3” drop along the comb and a 13 ““ length of pull. The barrel is secured to the stock with four flat iron keys (wedges) and single screw through the breech plug tang. The rifle is mounted with brass furniture, including a single brass side plate opposite the lock, a brass buttplate, toe plate, nose cap, triggerguard and three brass ramrod pipes. The sights consist of a simple semi-buckhorn rear and a Rocky Mountain German silver blade front. Both sights are dovetailed into the top flat of the rifle. There is a second rear sight dovetail notch, about 4” behind the current sight position, that has been filled in. The movement of the rear sight forward may have been the result of the owner’s eyes aging and requiring more distance to focus clearly on an object. The rifle is equipped with double set triggers to enhance accuracy.

The overall condition of the rifle is about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE. For an antebellum long-rifle the condition is really quite nice, especially since this was a real working gun and not a work of art. The barrel appears to retain traces of its original brown finish, mixed with a plum brown, lightly oxidized patina. The barrel is almost entirely smooth, but shows light pitting around the breech and bolster area, with the drum bolster itself showing more moderate pitting. There is also some light pitting around the muzzle of the rifle. The balance of the barrel shows only some lightly scattered pinpricking. The bore of the rifle is in about GOOD condition. It is very dark and dirty, but retains strong, deep rifling. The bore appears to show moderate to heavy pitting along its length, but this could be an illusion due to the years of accumulated filth in the bore. A good scrubbing might improve its condition considerably. The double set triggers are a little touchy as 160+ year-old set triggers are likely to be, but seem to function correctly most of the time. The mainspring is a period replacement, and a new locating pin hole was drilled in the lock plate when the spring was replaced, leaving the old, empty hole to the rear of the new one. The brass furniture has a medium mustard patina; indicative of an old cleaning that has dulled down with time. An old wooden ramrod is in place under the barrel. It may or may not be original to the rifle, and it could be a very old replacement. The patina and wear suggest it has been with the rifle a very long time. It is slightly less than 41” long, a good 2” short of being full length. The stock of the rifle rates about NEAR VERY GOOD, and is full-length and solid, being free of any breaks. The primary condition issue is some old cracking under the lock, forward of the triggerguard. This may be the result of the rifle being dropped long ago. The cracking is not horribly structural and appears solid and stable, due in part to an old glue repair inside the lock mortise. The cracking does not materially affect the display of the rifle and is well depicted in the photos below. As is so often the case with rifles that are assembled with wedges and pins, there are minor areas of wood loss and “devoting” in the wood around the pins and wedges, the result of them being driven in and out many times during the life of the rifle. The stock does show the usual minor bumps, dings and mars expected on a working rifle that was probably carried and used for several decades. The burn out and wood loss behind the bolster, between the hammer and lock attests to the thousands of times that this rifle was fired. There three tiny areas (about the size of a finishing nail head) immediately behind the barrel tang that appear to have some old wood filler in them. The reason for this is not known. They may be filling old holes that originally held a small wrist escutcheon. There is also some very minor chipping around the barrel tang. None of these issues is really worthy of comment (other than the repaired cracking), but it is all noted for descriptive accuracy. The rifle stock has a lovely old hand rubbed oil finish that brings out the striped grain of the stock. The stock remains crisp, with clean lines and the cheek rest retains strong edges. There is no indication that the stock has ever been sanded, although it may have been lightly cleaned long ago.

Overall this is a really wonderful and historic rifle from the antebellum Shenandoah Valley. The rifle is a wonderful example of the transition from the Golden Age of flintlock long rifles to the era of workman like percussion rifles. The rifle retains the lines, contours and grace of the early rifles, but dispenses with some of the ornamentation in favor of simplicity, practicality and reliability. John H Wells, who was a noted and documented Shenandoah Valley School rifle maker, made the rifle. He was likely an apprentice under the well-known Staunton, VA rifle maker John Sheets. Wells produced wonderful rifles, served his country in the Mexican War, fought for the south in the American Civil War. After his Confederate service he continued to serve the south with his skills as a blacksmith, by manufacturing and repairing many of the items that were essential to keep an army in the field. Wells lived an amazingly long life, especially for a man who fought in two major 19th century wars, living to the ripe old age of 80. He had two wives and multiple children, and moved west to Arkansas, where he died after the turn of the century. It would be difficult to imagine the changes that Wells saw during his life, staring out at an apprentice gunmaker producing flintlock rifles and dying some two years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Imagine the technology that emerged during Wells’ life, between the flintlock age and powered flight! Rarely does a rifle have the kind of history attached to it that this one does, and I am sure that the new owner will be extremely proud to display this historic piece of Wells’ craftsmanship. A wonderful binder with many pages of copied period documents related to his Confederate service both in the army and as a blacksmith accompany the rifle.

Please note that due to the excessive length and weight of the rifle that it can only be shipped via UPS or Fed Ex Ground service and extra shipping costs will be incurred due to size and weight.


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Tags: Antebellum, Shenandoah, Valley, Rifle, by, J, H, Wells