Benjamin Mills was born on February 8, 1810 in Palmyra, New York. He would go on to become one of the most celebrated gunsmiths in the state of Kentucky, be the Master Armorer at Harpers Ferry, be present for the John Brown Raid on Harpers Ferry, and would die struggling with debt, his name almost to become a mere footnote in firearms history; surrounded by myths and confusion. Some of the confusion lays in the fact that more than one Kentucky based gunsmith with the surname Mills worked during the 19th century. Additional confusion comes from the fact that one of Mills’ more interesting accomplishments, working at the Confederacy’s Fayetteville Arsenal, is apparently unsubstantiated and comes primarily from the work of William Albaugh. In an attempt to make a discussion of Mills’ life and career as correct as possible, I have relied heavily upon the research and paper presented by Dr. Glenn Marsh of the American Society of Arms Collectors, which was published in the ASAC Bulletin #68 on pages 56-69.
Benjamin Mills appears to have learned his trade from his father, F.M. Mills who had been born in New York, but is listed as a Charlottesville, NC gunmaker according to Sellers. Interestingly both Sellers and Whisker, et. al. list a Benjamin Mills working in Charlottesville, NC circa 1784-1790 and later working in Harrodsburg, KY circa 1790-1814. They imply that this is the father of our Benjamin Mills and that our Mr. Mills is Benjamin Mills Jr. However, no indication has ever been found that the mid-19th century Harrodsburg, KY gunmaker Benjamin Mills ever used the suffix “junior”, so the link is tenuous. Dr. Marsh’s research suggests that Benjamin Mills may have adopted Kentucky as the state where he would live most of his life because of another potential relative, who appears in numerous documents variously as Alexander Mills, A.H. Mills and Hamilton Mills, with his true identity almost certainly being Alexander Hamilton Mills. This Mills was a rather wealthy gunsmith working in Mason and Lincoln counties during the 1820s and 1830s. Our Benjamin Mills had lived in Canada for some time prior to moving to Kentucky, and it was there that he had married his Irish immigrant wife Jane O’Connor in Toronto. He apparently worked as a gunsmith in Canada and at least one extant example of a Canadian-made Mills full-stock rifle is supposed to be known. Sometime circa 1839-40 Mills moved the family to May's Lick, in Mason County Kentucky and shortly thereafter relocated to Harrodsburg in Mercer County Kentucky, about twenty miles away. This is where he would spend most of his working life. Apparently Mills had already established quite a reputation for himself, at least within the firearms community, as in February of 1842 none other than Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson, along with two traveling companions, came to Harrodsburg specifically to visit with Mills. According to the period accounts the trio was there for a couple of days and Carson fired a number of guns that Mills had produced. Eventually all three purchased rifles and Carson subsequently carried his on while acting as the guide for John C. Fremont’s expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Considering that Carson could certainly have obtained a rifle from any maker who struck his fancy, including the famous Hawken brothers of St. Louis, the fact that he specifically chose a Mills rifle above all others was certainly a ringing endorsement for the rifle’s maker. With this kind of notoriety within the upper ranks of the sporting fraternity, Mills saw his business grow and become quite successful. By the early 1850s he had acquired land in the Harrodsburg community to establish his home and workshop and was gaining more notoriety as the supplier of the rifle to local man, Dr. Graham who claimed to be finest off-hand shot in the country. In fact, a local shooting team was established by Dr. Graham, known as the Boone Club of Kentucky, that offered a $10,000 prize to the team that could beat them in a target match. No team ever took up the challenge, indicating that the shooters were either as good as they claimed, or that no one with access to those kinds of funds was willing to risk them in case the team was as good as they claimed. Dr. Graham boasted about the Mills rifle that he used and noted they were best made and accurate rifles in there were. In fact, Dr. Graham specifically compared Mills’ guns to the other great rifle makers of the period, including Joseph Manton of London, Morgan James of New York and Frank Wesson of Massachusetts, claiming that the Mills product was better than all of the others! This reputation within the firearms community landed Mills a rather special opportunity. On November 1, 1858 Mills became the Master Armorer at the National Armory at Harpers Ferry, replacing the recently dismissed Samuel Byington. While the circumstances regarding the appointment are unclear, Mills does not appear to have advocated for the position and appears to have been chosen by the government or the Ordnance Department, based upon his reputation. Mills held that position for exactly a year, resigning in a letter to Secretary of War John B. Floyd dated October 8, 1859 to take effect on November 1, 1859. The reasons for Mills’ resignation are multifaceted and appear to stem primarily from his perception that he had been insulted by not being appointed as the temporary superintendent of the armory while Superintendent Alfred Barbour was on a leave of absence in the fall of 1859. While the slight may have been very real in Mills’ eyes, there were probably multiple issues at work here. First, Mills was an outsider brought into a government job from the outside, based apparently upon his reputation as a gunmaker. This likely caused some discontent among those who had worked at the armory long term and who no doubt assumed they might have an opportunity to be promoted to the vacant master armorer’s position. Additionally, as noted in correspondence between Barbour and the War Department, Barbour felt that Mills was out of his depth as master armorer. In fact, Barbour noted in his letter to Secretary of War Floyd:
“He may be a good mechanic in his way…the duty of the Master Armorer is not to make guns, but to command, and direct others. Mr. Mills has in my judgement very poor executive or administrative faculties, and so far from being an aid in the management of the Operatives, is an absolute encumbrance.”
This perception of his inability to manage people or the attendant paperwork of a manager is probably an accurate appraisal of capabilities in that department. Barbour further noted later in the letter that: “He does not pretend (I believe) to know anything about the books and papers in his office.”. Interestingly, on October 17, 1859 just nine days after he wrote his resignation letter, and less than two weeks before it would become effective, John Brown launched his infamous raid on Harpers Ferry. Among the hostages taken and held in the engine house were Master Armorer Benjamin Mills, who would later be rescued by then Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee at the head of a detachment of US Marines. Very soon thereafter, Mills returned to Harrodsburg to continue doing what he loved to do, build quality rifles. It has long been noted by author William Albaugh that Mills subsequently worked at the Fayetteville Arsenal after the Confederacy captured Harpers Ferry and removed the rifle making machinery to that location. This seems to be the result of the logical assumption that as many of the Harpers Ferry workers were loyal southern Virginians, they often went on to work either at Richmond or Fayetteville. When combined with the misidentification of the North Carolina based Benjamin Mills from the previous century, who later relocated to Kentucky, it is easy to see how this error could me made during an era where there was no internet and browsing period documents meant traveling to the National Archives! No matter the reasoning, better researchers than I have determined that there is no primary source evidence that our Benjamin Mills ever worked at Fayetteville. In fact, the only indication that Mills ever did any Civil War related arms work is an invoice for repairing arms for the 19th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry in February of 1862. The invoice, in the amount of $151.70 was for two days of work, with a total of eight workmen, inspecting the regiment’s arms and aligning barrels and sights. Interestingly, the only “military” type gunsmithing that can be attributed to Mills is his year working for the US government at Harpers Ferry and the repair of arms for the 19th Kentucky US Volunteers, nothing related to the Confederacy. However, his son Charles would fight for the Confederacy, enlisting in John Hunt Morgan’s Cavalry, serving in Company G of the 2nd Kentucky (Basil Duke’s); Captain McFarland’s command. Charles would be captured in Harrodsburg, KY during Morgan’s Raid on July 14, 1863 and sent to Camp Douglas, IL. He would later be transferred to Point Lookout, MD in February of 1865 for exchange, after taking the Oath of Allegiance. Upon returning from the war, Charles would go to work for his father in Harrodsburg.
While the decade leading up to the American Civil War had been good for quality American arms makers, the war years and the those immediately after it were not. The 1860 Census listed five apprentices in Mills’ household, one each from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, two from England and one from Holland. During the war, a pattern of debtor behavior started to establish itself with Mills that would eventually be his downfall. As noted by the Superintendent at Harpers Ferry, Mills was unable to manage the bureaucracy of business, he was a great gunmaker but a poor record keeper, bill payer or manager. By mid-1863 he owed significant sums to gunmaker and parts supplier J.P. Moore of New York and was starting to become embroiled in lawsuits regarding bills that were past-due. With the end of the war, and huge number of surplus arms on the market, Mills found business even worse. Demand for muzzleloading arms was waning and it was cartridge breechloaders that were the future. In an attempt to find income in a world where his skills as a craftsman were not currently needed, Mills expanded to buy a part interest in a saw mill and also branched out into whiskey making. His unpaid bills were mounting, and more lawsuits were being brought or on the horizon. He owed money to his partner in the sawmill endeavor, and then the government placed a tax lien for $2,250 on his whiskey holdings for not paying his taxes. While in 1860 he had five apprentices in his household, a decade later the 1870 Census revealed he now had none. His debt crisis resulted in the appointment of a commissioner to oversee the debt, divest the Mills’ of their holdings and sell off anything and everything in an attempt to pay off his creditors. Somehow, after selling off all of his holdings, Mills and his wife managed to repurchase (on credit perhaps”) their home and workshop so they were not homeless and without any form of income. However, by 1873 it was clear there was no future in Harrodsburg for the family, so they relocated to Lexington. At this time, the company was known as B. Mills and Son, and now offered breechloading rifles and shotguns. A decade after relocating, the Mills’ again pulled up stakes. This time Benjamin mortgaged his tools and returned to Harrodsburg, while Charles moved to Louisville to start over. Charles experienced moderate success in the gun trade and was a partner in at least two firearms ventures. He was working on his own when he died of typhoid fever in 1895. His father Benjamin had died on August 6, 1888 of paralysis, possibly brought on by a stroke. He was 78 years old. His story is one of a talented craftsman who was capable of making the finest quality rifles and pistols, but who had no business ability. This meant that when times got tight, and he could not survive his own financial ineptitude by doing high volume business, things caught up with him and created a downward spiral which he could not escape from.
While the Mills name is found on a variety of arms, from simple percussion muzzleloaders to high quality pistols and target rifles to breechloading arms, it is the target rifles for which is universally praised and known for. The guns have a very distinctive style and are of the highest quality. Typically, the guns are heavy barreled half-stock rifles with a “saw handle” tang normally associated with New England “saw handle” target pistols. The shape of the tang area gives the guns an instantly recognizable silhouette. The guns usually incorporate a skeletonized steel pistol grip to the rear of the triggerguard and usually feature double-set triggers. A variety of sight combinations and false muzzles are noted as well. Stocks are often checkered, with separate forends that are attached in a variety of manners from wedges to screws. Some multi-barrel cased sets are known, as are high quality pistols of the same basic design. While some earlier guns are marked on the barrel as well as the lock, most of the Harrodsburg production guns are only marked with the Mills name and the location on lock, which is invariably of the back-action variety.
Offered here is a VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition example of a Benjamin Mills percussion target rifle, likely produced circa 1852-1862, at the height of Mills’ gunmaking career. The rifle has a 34” heavy octagonal barrel that is 1” wide across the flats and has a .40 caliber bore and is rifled with 6 lands and grooves of approximately the same width. The gun has a 1” long, removable false muzzle that is also rifled and that is equipped with a removable sight cover in a dovetail; to prevent shooting the rifle with the false muzzle in place. The rifle weighs in at rather hefty 15 pounds, not exactly a bench weight gun, but certainly heavier than one you would want to carry afield after game. The rifle follows the classic form of a Mills made gun of the period with the exaggerated saw-handle stock extension behind the breech, his usual skeletonized iron pistol-grip shaped triggerguard tang, back-action lock with bun-nut retained hammer and double set triggers and a two-piece stock, with the butt and forend separate pieces as found on most breech loaders of the era. The lock is clearly stamped in three lines:
The only other markings on the rifle are found on the barrel, which is simply stamped CAST STEELon the top flat. The rifle appears to have originally had a browned barrel, a blued or color casehardened receiver, likely a casehardened lock, and all steel mountings that appear to have been a combination of both finished metal and metal polished bright. The exterior metal retains no real finish to speak of, although some strong traces of lacquer brown are present under the barrel where the finish has been protected by the forend. Interestingly, the bottom of the barrel closest to the receiver has a deep blue-black color, as if the heat from firing the gun changed the brown to midnight blue color. The barrel has a gently oxidized mottled brown and gray patina with some surface oxidation, scattered pinpricking and some areas of light pitting; most notably around the breech area. The receiver retains traces of bluish finish, but it is not clear if this area was blued or case hardened. The balance of the receiver is mostly a smoky blue-gray patina with flecks of blued finish. The lock has as mostly smoky gray color to it, with clear markings. The hammer is engraved with simple foliate designs, and like most Mills rifles I have seen is retained by a bun nut with the hammer screw extending from the tumbler, rather than the tumbler being threaded to receive a male screw. The buttplate and triggerguard have an appealing plum brown patina, suggesting they were originally blued or possibly case hardened. The forend tip is polished steel. Two 1 9/16” long iron pipes secure the brass tipped wooden ramrod that has a 3 1/8” grooved brass jag head on the opposite end. The rod appears to be rosewood and appears to be original to the rifle. There is a small, old area of wood chipped from the rod at about the point where it enters the forend at the steel cap. The rifle is equipped with a fully adjustable, tang mounted, rear sight and dovetailed globe front sight consisting of a bead-on-post in a 1 ½” tube. The rear sight is mounted on a threaded post, with two different options available as to where to mount the sight; allowing for minor adjustment in eye relief. Elevation adjustment is achieved via the threaded post, while the removable slider that contains the peep aperture can be moved left or right in the dovetail of the eyepiece to affect windage adjustments. The eye piece retains some flecks of its original blued finish. The sights appear to be original to the rifle and were likely produced by Mills as they fit and function with the rifle perfectly but are not graduated as he would have had no real way to determine the graduations. Those would have to be done by the owner once he settled upon his loads at various distances. As noted, the lock has double set triggers, which appear to be fully adjustable. The lock functions perfectly, with the set trigger pull being quite light and crisp. The lock appears to have been made just for target shooting and has no provision for a half-cock position. The bore of the rifle is in fine condition and remains mostly bright. It retains crisp rifling and shows only some lightly scattered oxidation and pinpricking along its length. This gun would probably remain a very accurate target rifle today. The stock is in about FINE condition with the forend about VERY GOOD. The butt is made from a very attractive, highly figured piece of walnut with a lovely satin finish. The straight-gripped stock is delicately checkered at the wrist and the checkering remains very crisp with only light wear. The stock shows some scattered bumps, dings and handling marks, but still remains quite fine. The forend is simple and smooth, with a polished steel forend cap. The forend is secured by four small screws that pass through brass escutcheons and actually screw directly into the barrel. The heads of the four screws are filed to match the contour of the forend precisely. The forend shows some scattered bumps, dings and handling marks, and appears to have been lightly sanded as well. The only significant condition issue is what appears to be a small sliver missing from the top edge of the forend on the reverse, where it meets the barrel. This gives an illusion of poor fit, but simply must be a missing sliver. The balance of the rifle shows too much care to detail and assembly for this small area of apparent poor fit to have been allowed by Mills when he built the gun.
Overall this is really a lovely example of the mid-19th century American target rifle maker’s art in fully functional form. The rifle remains in solid and original condition with a fine bore and crisp lock. The rifle was produced by a famous and desirable Kentucky gunmaker, who made rifles for the likes of Kit Carson, and whose fame during the period earned him the job of Master Armorer at Harpers Ferry; if only for a year. During that year he inspected thousands of US M1855 Rifle Muskets, as well as M1855 Rifles, and was held as a hostage by John Brown. This is a rifle steeped in history, made by one of the more interesting gunmakers of the period, and for you Confederate sympathizers, Benjamin Mills’ son even rode with Morgan and spent about 18 months at Camp Douglas in Chicago as a result. Mills’ rifles are scarce and desirable, and do not appear on the market very often. This would be a wonderful addition to any collection, but in particular is a rifle that is probably worthy of shooting a least a few more targets during its lifetime, if only in honor of Benjamin Mills himself.