Colt Russian Contract Rifled Musket - Extremely Rare
- Product Code: FLA-2989-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
When the Crimean War began in October of 1853, it drew most of the preeminent military powers of Europe, other than Prussia, into a major war. The British, French and Ottoman Turks became embroiled in a conflict with Russia that would result in more than 750,000 total deaths. During the 2 years, 5 months the war lasted, Allied casualties (dead & wounded) would be estimated at 350,000-375,000 and Russian casualties (dead & wounded) approached 500,000. The sudden need to arm a massive invasion force lead the British to seek additional weapons beyond their own production capacity from Li’ge, Belgium, as well as from the gunmaking centers of Solingen and Suhl in Prussia, as well as from the French. The British even contracted with the American firm of Robbins & Lawrence in Windsor, Vermont to produce P-1853 Type II Enfield rifle muskets for the war. The Russians were no more prepared for a conflict on this scale than the British, and they too looked to outside sources for arms. The Russians had already been using the gunmaking center in Li’ge to produce their version of the British Brunswick Rifle, known as the L’ttich carbine, but with the advent of the war, they also turned to America to help procure arms. The Russians sent Captain Otto Lilienfeld to America at the start of the war to seek sources for arms, and Lilienfeld sought out the most famous American arms maker of the time, Samuel Colt. What Colt proposed to provide (and Lilienfeld agreed to purchase on behalf of the Russian government) were percussion altered, rifled & sighted US M-1816/22 .69 caliber muskets that Colt purchased on the surplus arms market. While some references imply that the arms were “condemned”, there is no indication that the guns were anything other than surplus flintlock muskets in store at various arsenals. Colt’s alteration to percussion was relatively simple, and involved removing the external flintlock battery, plugging the associated screw holes and installing a patented drum bolster in the original flintlock touchhole, along with the addition of a percussion hammer. The bolster was supported by the remnants of the original brass flash pan, and had a clean out screw in it as well. The bolster was patented by Colt in 1854 and was so marked on its outer rim, around the clean out screw. The muskets were further improved by rifling them with 4 relatively shallow grooves, about .25” wide, and about half the width of the lands. The bore was rifled with a very fast rate of twist, suggesting the muskets were intended for use with round ball, instead of elongated ammunition. A long-range rear sight, graduated to a very optimistic 1,200 yards, was added about 4” forward of the breech tang. The sight had a large base, a long rotating leaf for elevation adjustment, and was of the pattern used on the Belgian made Russian L’ttich carbines. Colt subsequently patented the sight in England in 1856. To accompany the adjustable rear sight, Colt added a large iron blade sight to the front strap of the upper barrel band. Colt also modified the ramrods by cutting off the original button head, threading the front portion of the rod, and adding a removable brass rammer head that was just over 1 ““ long. The newly threaded rod was probably capable for accepting the cleaning implements used with the Russian M-1828, M-1828/44 and M-1845 muskets then in service, which were also .69 caliber. During the alteration process the muskets were apparently completely disassembled and reassembly numbers were marked on practically every metal component, including the barrel band retaining springs. This suggests that guns were taken completely apart for refurbishment as part of the alteration process, or that the guns were completely taken to pieces and were reassembled randomly, with the non-interchangeable parts fit to the guns as they were reassembled, and then marked with assembly mating numbers. During the alterations, the musket locks were polished, and the original markings to the rear of the hammer were mostly obliterated. A new date was stamped in this location by Colt, typically 1854. A matching date was added to the breech tang. The original barrel proof marks were retained, as was the spread-winged American Eagle on the forward portion of the lock. The guns were serial numbered in the wood, behind the hammer. Lilienfeld officially contracted for a total of 50,000 of these Colt altered muskets on July 12, 1855, with delivery to be completed by April 28, 1856. It is not clear how many of the altered muskets were completed by Colt, but it is generally believed that none were actually delivered to the Russian government prior to the end of the war on March 30, 1856. With the end of the war, the Russian’s no longer needed the guns, and as Colt had not delivered the arms in a timely manner, the contract was officially cancelled by the Russians, who claimed that Colt had breeched the contract by failing to deliver the guns on time. Colt was then left with the completed, altered muskets, no payment from the Russians, and a peaceful world where these obsolete, converted arms were of little use and found little market. Correspondence in July of 1859, between Colt and his sales agent in Europe, Baron Frederick Von Oppen, indicate that Colt was trying to find a buyer for 25,000 rifled muskets. These were no doubt the guns from the Russian contract. Von Oppen was surely motivated to try to find a buyer, as in addition to running the European Colt Agency, he was also the head of Colt’s London Agency and was Colt’s brother-in-law. As such, any financial misfortunes the company suffered would certainly have affected him directly. Initially Colt and Von Oppen tried to sell the muskets to the Ottoman government, but the sultan of Turkey was apparently not interested. Colt apparently tried to use Schuyler, Hartley & Graham of New York to try to sell the guns as well, but to no avail. In January of 1860 Colt sent some samples of the muskets to Giuseppe Albinola, an exiled Italian businessman in New York who was also working as an agent for Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. It is not clear if this contact was made through Schuyler, Hartley & Graham or through Von Oppen, but at least one resource claims that Colt managed to sell 23,500 of the Russian contract muskets to Garibaldi. Other sources suggest that it is not clear what happened to the guns, but that some may have been sold to various militia companies in America, and George Moller notes in American Military Shoulder Arms Volume III that “there is some evidence that some may have been purchased by the state of Rhode Island”, however, the evidence is not mentioned specifically, nor is the source cited. It seems quite unlikely that the guns were sold in the United States in any quantity, as today they are probably one of the scarcest of all Colt associated firearms, and are harder to find than the coveted Colt Patterson and Colt Walker handguns. In fact Howard Madaus, the late author, arms historian and former curator of the Cody Firearms Museum noted in his book The Warner’s Guide to American Longarms that the Colt Russian contract alteration muskets are “exceedingly rare”, and he defines that to mean “fewer than 10 are known to survive”. The absolute rarity of these muskets on today’s collectors market suggests that the majority were sold to Garibaldi and his revolutionaries and were subsequently destroyed during the scrap drives of the First and Second World Wars, as were most obsolete and “useless’ firearms. It is probable that at least a few were sold to US state militia organizations, possibly in Rhode Island, as these would account for the handful of extant examples known today. Two are noted in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society (probably acquired form Colt during the period), and a few exist in private collections. Over the last decade, I have seen two of these guns on the market, one a few years ago and the one described below that I am offering for sale here. The scarcity of these guns is underscored by the fact that the musket offered here is the same one pictured on page 102 of American Military Shoulder Arms Volume III by George Moller. The lightly oxidized staining and discoloration on the lock plate is identical to that on this musket, and this random pattern confirms as clearly as a fingerprint that they are the same gun. It is worth noting that it is quite possible that Colt never even completed the 25,000 guns that he was offering for sale in late 1859 and early 1860, and may in fact have used that figure as it represented the total number of muskets that he could assemble from parts on hand. This would make the failure to deliver the Russian contract more understandable, as if he had 50% of the guns ready to go, he surely would have tried to deliver them. More likely he was way behind in the alteration process with only a few thousand (at most) completed. It is likely that if he did deliver 23,500 guns to Garibaldi that they represent almost all of the arms altered, and it is likely that some were neither rifled or sighted, making them cheaper for Colt to deliver and harder for the collector to identify 150 years later. One way or the other, for the collector of Colt firearms or Russian military firearms, these Colt altered Russian contract muskets are literally a “holy grail” long arm that are nearly impossible to obtain.
This Colt Russian Contract Musket is in NEAR EXCELLENT condition and is a truly outstanding example of what is probably the scarcest of Colt long arms, if not all Colt arms period. The Colt percussion drum bolster is crisply marked around its outer edge: COLT’s / PATENT. The original clean out screw remains in the bolster and retains about 30% of its original Colt fire blued finish, which has dulled and faded to a pale, smoky blue-gray. The musket is clearly marked on the lock plate, behind the hammer, with the date of the Colt alteration, 1854, which is stamped vertically. The original US M-1816/22 markings were almost entirely removed by Colt during the alteration process, but just enough remain to suggest that the lock may have originally come from a Harpers Ferry M-1816/22 musket with a 1820s era date. The crisply stamped Eagle on the lock plate is of the Harpers Ferry style circa 1822-1830. The breech plug tang has been neatly stamped by Colt with the matching alteration date, 1854, and the original arsenal V / P / (Eagle Head) proof marks remain on the left breech of the barrel in very fine condition. The musket is assembly numbered 6 throughout on nearly every metal part, down to the barrel band retaining springs. The musket is serial numbered 1540 in the wood behind the hammer, and I would assume if Colt had completed the contract with Russia that these numbers would have gone up to 50,000 on the last musket. This relatively low number (versus 50,000) is another hint that Colt probably never completed anywhere near 25,000, let along 50,000. The tang of the buttplate is stamped with the rack or issue number J G 2, while it might appear to be “62” In the photo, the “6” is actually the mating number “6” found on the other musket parts and is not part of the rack number. The significance of “JG” is unknown, and many refer to a US state militia unit, something like the "Jefferson Guards". The stock flat, opposite the stock is crisply cartouched with a script JCB within an oval. This is the mark of armory sub-inspector Joseph C. Bragg. Above Bragg’s cartouche to the right is a larger oval ink cartouche from the period when flintlock muskets were inspected and classified for alteration to percussion. These ink cartouches are rarely visible on muskets today, and this one is light, but appears to be a script PH / 2, representing either Peter Hanger or Phillip Hoffman, both of which were involved in the classification of flintlock muskets. The musket is in extremely crisp condition and all markings remain sharp and legible with fine edges on all of the wood and metal. The barrel had a medium pewter gray patina with evenly distributed light age discoloration along its entire length. The barrel retains its arsenal bright polish under the barrel bands, where the barrel had been protected from the air. The barrel might be returned to its original arsenal bright condition with some very careful cleaning, but that would be up to the new owner. The metal is smooth throughout with only some very tiny scattered areas of very light pinpricking present. The bore of the musket is in NEAR EXCELLENT condition. It is mirror bright with extremely crisp rifling along its entire length. There is no appreciable pitting noted in the bore from my inspection, although there may be some pinpricking scattered along the grooves. The lock has the same pewter gray patina, with some patches of slightly brownish surface age discoloration due to oxidation. The lock is smooth as well and is free of any pitting. The lock functions crisply and correctly on all positions and remains mechanically excellent. The furniture has the same pewter patina as the balance of the musket, and again shows scattered age discoloration and toning, but is free of any pitting, with only some very lightly scattered areas of minor pinpricking present. The original Colt’s Patent L’ttich carbine style rear sight is in place on the barrel, about 4” from the breech tang. The sight is clearly graduated on the left side from 200 to 1200 yards, with the odd yardages marked from 300 to 1,100 yards with single digits from 3-9 and with 11 for 11,000. The sight leaf retains about 85%+ of its original bright Colt fire blued finish, with some freckled oxidation present on the surface and showing some light finish loss due to handling, age and fading. The elevating leaf moves smoothly and functions correctly. The sight leaf was designed to be held in place by the tension from its mounting screw, but the screw cannot be tightened enough to keep the leaf in any position for any significant length of time. The original Colt alteration iron front sight blade is in place on the upper barrel band as well. The musket retains both original sling swivels, as well as its bayonet stud on top of the barrel, near the muzzle. The stud is somewhat taller and blockier than the usual US M-1816/22 stud and was probably another of the alterations performed by Colt. As no reference to bayonets is made in any documents relating to these muskets, I can only assume that Russian bayonets were to be used with the guns. The original full-length ramrod is in the channel under the barrel and retains the original Colt altered brass ramming jag head. The brass tip has a thick uncleaned patina and deep bronze color, and can easily be unscrewed from the rammer. Both ends of the ramrod retain fine, crisp threads. The stock of the musket is in VERY FINE+ to NEAR EXCELLENT condition as well. The stock is full length and free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. All of the edges are very sharp and crisp with fine lines and very nice wood to metal fit. The stock still has some raised “feathery” grain and has never been sanded, or cleaned to any degree. The stock shows only a handful of small surface bumps and dings from handling, use and storage. The only stock issue worth noting is a chip of wood missing from the left side of the breech plug tang, about 1 ““ long by 3/16” wide at its widest point. This appears to be the result of the barrel being improperly removed from the stock at one point in time. This is the only real stock issue worth noting, and thankfully it does not materially affect the display of this wonderful Colt Russian contract musket.
Overall this is simply an outstanding example of an extremely rare Colt firearm, the Russian Contract Musket. Even though the guns were not delivered in time, there must not have been any bad blood between Colt and the Russians, as after the Civil War the Russian’s purchased several thousand Colt Berdan Rifles. This fantastic musket would be a centerpiece in any display, whether it centered on percussion conversion muskets, Russian infantry arms or Colt firearms. It is rare to find an American firearm that is so scarce and so difficult to value that it is no listed in Flayderman’s Guide Antique American Firearms & Their Values, but this gun is not found within that reference. According to the Standard Catalog of Colt Firearms and the 2012 Edition of the Standard Catalog of Firearms, these very rare muskets are valued at $10,000 in Very Good condition and $15,000 in Excellent condition. As I have only seen one other example for sale in the last decade, I’m not sure I know how they managed to value the guns, other than on their rarity. This is a near excellent condition example and it is priced at less than half of the “excellent” condition price. This is a very scarce gun, with less than 10 thought to still exist, and a very important gun for a collector of Colt arms, Russian arms or Crimean War arms (not to mention a treat for a Garibaldi collector”). It is not clear when another example will appear on the market, and it would be hard to find one this nice if one did show up for sale. Additionally, this gun is the example published in Volume III of Moller, so it is a well-documented historic arm. This is one of those great once in a lifetime guns that you will probably kick yourself for not buying. I’ve wanted to own one for over 20 years, now I have, and now it is your turn to add a real centerpiece to your advanced arms collection.SOLD