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Confederate Wilson's Patent Rifle - Exceptionally Rare

Confederate Wilson's Patent Rifle - Exceptionally Rare

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The Wilson Patent Breech Loading Rifle is one of the rarest and most sophisticated of small arms to be imported by the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Thomas Wilson was an English engineer and inventor and held no less than 25 British firearms patents, which he registered between 1855 and 1868. However, Wilson only briefly appears in English directories as a “Gunmaker”, during the years 1861-1862. While pursuing that trade he was located at 45 Church Street in Birmingham. As a result, it is believed that most of the rifles manufactured using his panted designs were produced by other Birmingham gunmakers under licesnse from Wilson. A similar system was used to allow other makers to produce Adams patent revolvers and Webley patent “wedge frame” revolvers during same period. However, Wilson’s limited time as a manufacturer of firearms belies his significant influence on firearms design and development. His patented designs were utilized by many English gunmakers, and while firearms of his own actual manufacture are extremely scarce, the use of many of his designs was common during the mid-19th century. British patent number 1318 of 1859 covered Wilson’s Breech Loading Rifle. The patent described a percussion ignition, breech-loading rifle that was ingeniously simple and extremely sturdy. A simple “bolt” was located at the breech end of the barrel, which was secured by a transverse wedge, similar to an extremely oversized Colt pistol wedge. To load the gun, the wedge was drawn outward, away from the lock plate. When pulled out sufficiently, the wedge freed the simple bolt to be drawn backwards and exposed the chamber for loading. The bolt had a pivoting, fishtail shaped, checkered piece at its rear that gave the operator a firm grasping area for opening the bolt and a large target to slam the bolt closed with, when using the palm of his hand. A combustible cartridge was inserted in the chamber and the bolt slammed home to seat the cartridge. A greased felt wad in the bottom of the cartridge insured the chamber sealed completely and did not leak gas when the cartridge was fired. The locking wedge was then pushed back into the bolt, securing it and locking the action tightly. At this point the hammer could be placed on half cock, and a percussion cap placed upon the cone (nipple). The rifle was then fired like any traditional percussion ignition rifle. The placement and design of the wedge insured safety, as the hammer had to be in the fired position for the wedge to be moved. When the wedge was withdrawn (or not completely seated into the bolt), the hammer could not be moved at all and was blocked into the fired position. This eliminated the potential for an accidental discharge while loading the rifle, or the firing of the gun without having the bolt completely in battery. Wilson produced the arms in two calibers, 28 Bore (.551) and 56 Bore (.451), and in three patterns: rifle musket (39” barrel), rifle (33” barrel) and carbine (21” barrel). All variants were rifled with 5-grooves, which made one complete turn in the length of the barrel of the .551 caliber arms (regardless of the actual barrel length) or 1 turn in 21” for the .451 caliber guns. The guns were offered in either iron or brass mountings, and the guns averaged between “8 and “10 each, depending on mountings and barrel lengths. Brass mounted guns were less expensive than iron mounted ones. As with any major firearms innovation of the era, the goal of Wilson’s invention was to obtain military contracts that could be very profitable. In fact, initial press regarding his breechloading rifle suggested that his design was superior to both the Westley Richards and Terry’s patent breechloaders, and that the simplicity of the mechanism might enable the British Ordnance Department to easily convert their existing stores of P-1853 muzzleloading rifle muskets into breechloaders. In an attempt to secure potentially lucrative British Ordnance Department contracts, Wilson submitted one of his percussion breech loading rifles to the Ordnance Select Committee for testing. As noted in their August 1, 1860 report, they found the mechanism ingenious and reported upon it positively, but found the accuracy of the arms left much to be desired. The problem was the ammunition. As the beech was sealed with a greased felt wad in the bottom of each cartridge, the wad remained in the bore after the cartridge was fired. This meant that the next cartridge fired left the bore with the former cartridge’s wad stuck to the nose of the bullet. This resulted in erratic accuracy, as the wad often interfered with bullet as it left he muzzle, causing it to heel and yaw and having a detrimental effect upon the aerodynamic design of the projectile. However, the Ordnance Committee was so impressed with the mechanical part of the design that they requested that Wilson alter two P-1853 Enfield rifle muskets and one Whitworth rifle to his system for further trials. The P-1853s were fired for accuracy at 300, 500 and 800 yards prior to the alteration, so their accuracy after the alteration could be compared to that of their original muzzle-loading configuration. Again, the same problem reared its ugly head, and the March 26, 1861 report from the committee noted that, “the wild and capricious shooting of the converted Enfield is mainly owing to the action of this wad on the apex of the bullet, immediately on the latter leaving the barrel.” The committee further noted that the accuracy of the Whitworth was less impaired, and they attributed this fact to the smaller caliber, faster rate of twist of the rifling and the longer bearing length of the bullet. These results may be why Wilson only offered his arms in calibers smaller than the typical British 25 Bore (.577) of the period. Wilson never did completely give up on obtaining British Ordnance contracts, as he submitted 6 altered P-1853 Enfields for the Ordnance Board’s breech loading rifle trials in 1864. Although his design again received high scores, the lack of accuracy due to the ammunition design resulted in the Snider system being adopted for the alteration of British military arms from muzzleloading to breechloading. Interestingly, Wilson held patents that in his words “anticipated” the Snider system, and he sued the War Office for “5,000, but agreed to a settlement payment of only “500, which suggests that the War Office certainly felt that his claim had at least some merit. With the rejection of his design by the Ordnance Select Committee in early 1861, Wilson proceeded to pursue sales with the newly formed Confederate States of America. It is not clear exactly how many Wilson breechloading rifles were obtained by the Confederacy, but to date only seven Wilson “short rifles’ are known to exist. Three are iron mounted, 56 Bore (.451) rifles, and have an “A” prefix before their serial numbers. The serial numbers include A12 (Springfield Armory Collection), A29 (ex-George Wray Collection, now at the Atlanta History Center) and the highest known serial number being A84 (private collection). These three surviving examples suggest that this series of rifles may have only been 100 units. These guns are dated 1860, and have been arbitrarily termed “early” Wilson rifles. A single, 1861 dated 28 Bore (.551) caliber rifle is known. It is a brass mounted rifle and has the serial number 221, without a prefix. It has been arbitrarily termed a “transitional” Wilson, although it is likely a concurrent production rifle with other .451 caliber rifles, simply in a different caliber. This rifle appears to have been produced by Wilson himself, and bears a (CROWN) / TW on the breech, signifying Thomas Wilson. The final three rifles known are also brass mounted, and are dated 1863 on their locks. They have been arbitrarily designated “late” rifles. Two of these guns are 56 Bore (.451) and one is 28 Bore (.551). These “late” rifles have serial numbers that begin with “2A”, suggesting another production series from the original “A” series, and have serial numbers in the 50XX range. These numbers far exceed the total output of Wilson breech loading rifles (both by himself and other makers), which is believed to be a few hundred at most, including a small order of carbines for Tasmania, placed in 1864. The serial numbering system may have been allocated in blocks, much like Adams revolvers, with certain makers receiving certain blocks of numbers to work within. This made the tracking of patent royalties easier. As Wilson himself only produced a very limited number of guns over an approximate time frame of two years, this would easily explain the odd 5,0XX serial numbers. The prefix system may refer to the type of arm, with “A” series guns being iron mounted, and “2A” guns being brass mounted, although this does not account for the “no prefix” example made by Wilson. Of the extant examples, the dates on all of the 1860 rifles are stamped on the lock, as are the 1863 dated guns while the single .551 rifle dated 1861 has an engraved lock plate date. All of the arms follow the basic design of the British Pattern 1856 & Pattern 1858 rifles, with the exception of the breechloading mechanism. The rifles have 33” barrels with rear sights graduated to 1,100 yards. Sling swivels are located on the upper barrel band and either on the rear of the triggerguard tang or in the toe of the stock line of the first two patterns of rifles and on the front of the triggerguard of the late pattern. The rifles have lugs on the right side of the barrel to accept a saber bayonet. While some authors have claimed that the rifle took a P-1859 Cutlass bayonet, this bayonet, with the muzzle ring sized to fit the P-1858 Naval Rifle, is too big for the muzzle of the Wilson rifles. Personal experimentation with several known examples of Wilson rifles confirms that these arms accepted the standard P-1856 saber bayonet. The early and late pattern arms have lugs without a lead, while the “transitional” rifle has a keyed lug, designed to accept a P-1856 Type I saber bayonet. All of the rifles are marked T WILSON’s / PATENT on the top of the bolt and have standard Birmingham commercial proofs.

While no official Confederate order for Wilson rifles has yet been discovered, correspondence and other period documents indicate that at least a few of the rifles were purchased and delivered to the Confederacy. According a sworn statement, made by Archibald McLaurin, agent for the firm of J. Scholefield, Sons & Goodman in New Orleans, on July 10, 1862, the blockade runner Bamberg was carrying a sample Wilson’s breechloading rifle, destined for that firm’s showroom. McLaurin specifically refers to the gun as a “pattern rifle”, and noted that at the time of his interrogation by General Benjamin Butler, the rifle was still in Havana and had not (to his knowledge) reached the Confederacy. The Federal Blockading Squadron may well have captured the rifle after it finally left Havana. It is my belief that the rifle referred to by Mr. McLaurin is #221, the 1861 dated, brass mounted rifle made by Wilson. Additional documentation comes from an April 23, 1863 letter from CSN Commander James North to G.B. Tennent of Courtney, Tennent & Company of Charleston. In the letter, North complains about the tight fit of the bayonet on a sample Wilson rifle that he had examined. North goes on to say “If I have not ordered 200 rounds of ball cartridges to each rifle, you will please do so for me. Get me the form for making them, also the receipt for lubricating the wads.” This suggests that at least some Wilson rifles were in use by the Confederate Navy (or had been ordered by them) as they not only needed ammunition for the rifles, but also the forms for making the cartridges in the south, and the formula (recipe) for the wad lubricant. It would not make sense for the Confederate Ordnance Department to go to the trouble of obtaining the material to produce patent cartridges that could only be used in Wilson rifles, if there were not a number of the guns in service. A catalog from the February 11, 1880 New York US Ordnance Department sale held in New York lists “1 Enfield, altered Wilson’s, caliber .577, unserviceable, broken.” It is not clear if this listing was indeed a.577 Enfield altered by Wilson (possibly submitted when the US was trying out breech loading designs), or if the caliber was given incorrectly, and this was really a captured southern purchased Wilson rifle. We will probably never know, but I may be able to shed some light upon this later on in this description. In their seminal work Firearms of the Confederacy, Claude Fuller & Richard Steuart note that some Wilson rifles saw service in the defenses of Charleston. This seems possible, as Courtney & Tennent of Charleston appear to have accepted delivery of at least some of the rifles.

This Wilson’s Patent Breech Loading Rifle is one of the rarest of the Confederate associated import rifle known. It is a “late” Wilson rifle, is brass mounted, dated 1863 and has the serial number 2A 5025 on the top of the breech. The other two examples of late Wilson rifles are 2A 5048 and 2A 5059. Both of these guns now reside in museum collections, with 2A 5048 having been part of the C.A. Huey collection, which is now at the South Carolina Relic Room & Military Museum in Columbia, SC, and 2A 5059 having been part of the Richard D. Steuart collection and is now part of the Virginia Historical Society collection in Richmond. The lock of the gun is crisply stamped with the date 1863 forward of the hammer, and bears no other markings. The top of the bolt is clearly engraved T. WILSON’s / PATENT. The breech is marked with the serial number 2A 5025. This same serial number appears on all of the upper and lower components of the bolt as well. The fishtail operating lever at the rear of the bolt is missing and has been replaced with a perfectly made copy of the lever that is on rifle 2A 5059 from the Steuart Collection at the Virginia Historical Society. Unfortunately, the lever on the Steuart rifle was incorrect! When this rifle, #2A5025 was discovered in 2003 the gun was damaged, with the bolt being frozen in the breech some wood around the breechblock and lock damaged and the fishtail lever missing. At the time, the only other known brass mounted Wilson Rifle was #2A5059 at the Virginia Historical Society. As that gun is only 34 numbers away from this one, the owner assumed the configurations were identical and had the bolt handle of the Steuart gun copied exactly, with the restoration performed by renowned historical arms restoration gunsmith Louis Parker. At the time, it was assumed that this type of simplified breech lever was typical of the “late” Wilson Rifles, and that the checkered fishtail lever of the 1860 dated iron mounted rifles and the transitional 1861 dated rifle had been abandoned in favor of this new, simpler lever. About a decade later rifle #2A5048 was discovered and it had the same checkered fishtail lever as the earlier guns, disproving the theory about the simplified bolt lever. As such, both the Steuart gun and this one have an incorrect bolt handle. Why the handle on the Steuart gun was replaced is unknown, but the part is somewhat fragile and may well have been prone to breakage in use. The replaced lever may be an example of some Confederate arsenal engineering to keep the gun in service. In the case of this rifle, I believe that this may well have been the gun described in the February 1880 New York Ordnance Department sale. Since that gun was described as “1 Enfield, altered Wilson’s, caliber .577, unserviceable, broken.” and this gun was missing the fishtail, had a seized bolt and had some wood damage around the breech, it seems quite likely that this may be the same gun. This rifle is one of the .551 rifles (28 bore) and actually gauges about .565” at the muzzle due to wear. It would have been very easy for the Ordnance Department cataloger to glance at this gun and assume it was .577 caliber. The left breech of the rifle is marked crispy with the Birmingham provisional proof, definitive proof and definitive view marks, along with a pair of gauge marks; 30 closest to the breech and 28 closer to the muzzle. The first mark was made when the barrel was gauged after “rough finishing” and at the time it was about .537” caliber. After final finishing, the rifle had been opened up to the correct caliber of 28 bore or .551”. Occasionally mismatched gauge marks will be found on P-1853 Enfields as well, but normally they will read 25 then 24, indicating that the gun was .577” at rough finishing but had opened up to .58” after final finishing.

The rifle is in about VERY GOOD overall condition, and other than the replaced bolt handle, some wood repair around the lock and breech and some moderate pitting at the breech is really much closer to fine condition. The barrel retains about 30%+ original rust bluing, which has thinned, faded and worn from age and use. The bluing has mixed with a mostly plum brown patina that shows oxidized freckling and some brown discoloration flecked throughout the thinning blue. There are some scattered patches of minor surface oxidation and some flecks of minor surface roughness scattered along the barrel as well, along with some pinpricking and minor areas of light pitting. Only the breech shows any significant pitting, suggesting that the rifle was fired a lot during its service life. The top of the breech and the bolster area show significant erosion due to the percussion cap flash, and the top of the breech bolt shows some moderate pitting as well, although it is more widely scattered and not as pervasive as on the top of the breech. The bore of the 33” long barrel retains strong rifling along its entire length, with the last 2”-3” nearest the muzzle being somewhat weaker. The five groove bore is in about GOOD+ to NEAR VERY GOOD condition, but is dark and dirty with light to moderate pitting scattered along its length, with the last few inches showing the most pitting and wear. A good scrubbing would probably improve the bore significantly. The lock of the rifle has as mottled gray brown patina with no case coloring present, but remains mostly smooth with only a few minor flecks of light surface oxidation present. The lock functions crisply and correctly on all positions and is mechanically EXCELLENT. The Wilson’s patent breech loading system locks tightly into place and the bolt moves smoothly when the wedge is withdrawn. The entire system works exactly as it should and certainly locks up well enough for use today, were you able to duplicate the special patent ammunition necessary to fire the rifle. The original saber bayonet lug is present near the muzzle of the rifle. It is a standard P-1856 “Type II” lug without the extended key found on the one “transitional” Wilson rifle known. The original 1,100-yard, Enfield pattern “short rifle” rear sight is present forward of the breech, near the rear barrel band. The sight is complete and fully functional. The original front sight is in place near the muzzle as well. Both of the original Palmer patent barrel bands are present, complete with their original screw protectors on the ends of the tension screws. Both original sling swivels are present as well, the upper swivel being mounted on the upper barrel band’s tension screw and the lower one mounted on the bow of the brass triggerguard. The original ramrod (actually the cleaning rod) is missing and has been replaced with an original, period Enfield short rifle 33” rod. This rod is full length and retains good threads on the end. This replacement could have occurred at any time during the rifle’s life, but it seems reasonable that if this is the rifle that was sold as “damaged” at the Ordnance Department auction, the original rod had probably been scavenged for use in another rifle by that time. The brass furniture has a deep, dark ocher patina with strong brown and greenish overtones and clearly has not been cleaned since the period of use. The buttplate, triggerguard and nosecap all have this deep “woodsy” untouched look. The stock of the rifle rates about NEAR VERY GOOD and retains much of its original finish. The stock is solid and full length, but does show some wood repair that was mentioned above. Then the rifle was discovered “damaged” with the bolt frozen, some of the wood around the breech cavity had splintered and broken away. This was expertly repaired by Louis Parker at the time he unfroze the bolt and manufactured the bolt lever. About 2”-3” of splintered wood was replaced and expertly blended on the left side of the breech and a portion of the wood between the breech and hammer and to the rear of the lock was replaced on the right side of the rifle as well. The replaced wood is slightly lighter than the original wood and is visible under good lighting and should be visible in the photos. In person, this repair is much less obvious and much of it is nearly invisible in normal lighting. There is also a tiny sliver of wood missing along the edge of the stock to barrel joint line on the obverse, forward of the rear barrel band. This is worn smooth and is almost certainly from the period of use. Otherwise, the stock does show a number of minor bumps, dings and handling marks from use and storage, but nothing significant or worth noting.

Overall this is simply a very nice example of what is likely the rarest of all the Confederate import rifles. The gun is very attractive and has a wonderful untouched look to it. Despite the wood repairs and the replaced fishtail, the gun really displays wonderfully and the photos really do not do it justice, as they magnify its few warts that are much less noticeable in person. I am firmly convinced that this is the exact rifle that was sold at auction by the Ordnance Department in February of 1880 as “damaged”, and it has now been restored to functional condition. Although the breech lever “fishtail” is incorrect, the fact that it is copied from the Steuart Collection gun (which is pictured on page 230 of Firearms of the Confederacy) suggests that the copy may be of a real Confederate replacement lever! Considering that only 7 Wilson Rifles of all patterns are currently known to exist and that 4 of those guns are in museum collections, there are only 3 possible examples currently known of these wonderfully rare Confederate associated import arms that are privately owned! In fact, this is the only “late” pattern, 1863 dated, brass mounted Wilson Rifle available in private hands, as the other two are in the collections of the Virginia Historical Society and the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum. Considering further that all three of these guns are within 34 numbers of each other, are all 1863 dated, all show significant wear from you and all were found in the United States, it convinces me that these brass mounted 1863 dated guns are likely the ones that were acquired by the Confederacy and may well have seen service both with the Confederate Navy and in the defenses of Charleston. I can guarantee that you will not find another such rifle for sale again any time soon, and based upon my knowledge of the couple of examples that have changed hands over the last decade, this is the only one that has been offered for sale for less than five figures. This is a truly iconic piece, which deserves a place in an elite collection of Confederate used long arms. You will not be disappointed that you took this opportunity to obtain such an incredibly rare, historically important Confederate import rifle. Based upon the very few surviving examples and the fact that most are in institutional collections, this may be the only chance you will have to acquire one of these exceptionally rare guns during your lifetime.

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Tags: Confederate, Wilsons, Patent, Rifle, Exceptionally, Rare