On 2 January 1855 Jesse Butterfield received his first US Patent (#12,124) for “…a new and useful Improvement in Locks for Guns and other Fire-Arms,” with an “additional improvements” modification, #129, issued on 11 December of that same year. This patent was the one that first introduced Butterfield’s concept of automated priming of percussion locks utilizing what he refers to as a “wafer-primers”, a small disc of fulminate of mercury which was essentially the contents of a percussion cap without the cap itself around the priming compound. In association with Simeon Marshall, he received his second US Patent for firearms designs (#14,850) on 13 May 1856. This item was intended for military use and was a rather unique addition to muzzleloading muskets and rifles that was called a “Cartridge Opener” by the patentees and was described in the patent application as a “…new and improved mode of opening a gun-cartridge by means of a spring-toothed jaw or cut-off, actin in connection with the gun-barrel…” For all practical purposes the idea attached a folding serrated blade to the muzzle area of the gun to cut open the paper cartridge. While it appears to have been an interesting idea, it seems to have been more likely to cut open a soldier’s finger or hand in the heat of battle, rather than the cartridge. Butterfield continued to tinker with firearms ideas and received his next US Patent (#24,372) on 14 June 1859. This was again received in conjunction with Simeon Marshall and was titled “Improvement in Self-Priming Gun-Locks.” This is the patent for which Butterfield is best remembered by firearms aficionados today. The patent drawings show a percussion sporting arms lock with the Butterfield tubular feeding priming system and the actuating arm that fed the priming pellets out onto the percussion cone, as the hammer was falling. The patent specifically references Butterfield’s earlier 1855 patent and claims numerous improvements over the original concept. According to Frank Sellers’ American Gunsmiths, Butterfield received an additional patent for a breechloading cannon on 30 April 1861, but no patent number is provided.
Jesse Butterfield was the son of Philadelphia gunmaker Benjamin Butterfield and probably learned that trade under his father’s tutelage. As can be seen by the sequence of events above, by the middle of the 1850s Jesse was working on firearms improvements, a potentially lucrative field if an inventor patented a design that became popular and widely accepted. His first patent may well have been the inspiration for R.S. Lawrence’s lock and pellet primer system which was incorporated into Sharps firearms with the Model 1859. Lawrence’s patent (#23,590) was issued on 12 April 1859, only a few weeks before Butterfield received his improvement patent for the same idea.
As Butterfield certainly understood that few contracts were as potentially lucrative as one with the US Ordnance Department, he had arranged to demonstrate his self-priming lock system adapted to a US musket to the Ordnance Department in early 1858. The report from this test characterized the trial as an “utter failure”. The failure was primarily attributed to the priming mechanism not being well secured to the musket lock. This shortcoming was immediately corrected by Butterfield. The next test went substantially better for Butterfield, and a report dated 181 March 1858 indicated that the concept was worthy of “further and more extended trial…” This was done, and the Butterfield altered musket was directly compared with a Frankford Arsenal Remington-Maynard altered musket. Several hundred rounds were fired during the course of the testing and the conclusions in the 1 April 1858 report noted that the “…superiority of Butterfield’s apparatus over the Maynard primer…appears from the above experience to be clearly established.” As a result, on 21 January 1859 the Ordnance Department purchased the rights from Butterfield to apply his patented priming system to 2,000 guns but did not contract with Butterfield to do the work. It is worth noting that sources vary on how many guns they purchased the right to alter, as even George Moller in US Military Shoulder Arms Volume III gives three different numbers regarding this contract, which include 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 guns. With the payment of only $3,000 to Butterfield, it is unclear if they may have expected Butterfield to provide the mechanisms, which the Ordnance Department would then install, much like they had acquired the Maynard locks from Remington and the alteration work was then done at the Frankford Arsenal, or if it was only for the rights to use the system as it was with purchase of the rights to Dr. Maynard’s system.
It is quite possible that the glowing report and subsequent purchase of the rights to use the Butterfield system might have motivated R.S. Lawrence to pursue his self-priming concept as the Ordnance Department was clearly open to the idea. It is worth noting that despite the acquisition of the rights to use the system, the US Ordnance Department never exercised it nor did they alter any guns to Butterfield’s system. The muskets that were altered to Butterfield’s automatic priming system were done for the state of Pennsylvania by Butterfield in 1861. By that time, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, Butterfield had partnered with William B. Mann to establish the Keystone Rifle & Revolver Works to manufacture arms, as well as alter existing arms using his designs. This endeavor was not particularly successful. Although Butterfield received a contract to alter 1,000 of Pennsylvania’s flintlock muskets to his automatic priming system at the rate of $4.00 each, he would only manage to deliver 200. He then re-negotiated the contract to alter the guns to chambered breech percussion guns, without the priming system, for $3.12 each. Again, the goal was to alter 1,000 guns but Butterfield only managed to deliver 500. Butterfield’s failures to complete the musket contracts were likely because he was more focused on trying to produce a revolver of his own design for a contract that he thought he had but actually did not, which was the result of a series of miscommunications.
Butterfield’s revolver design was a five-shot, single action, .41 caliber handgun that used his patented priming system. The primer magazine screwed into the bottom of the frame, behind the cylinder and a fed primer wafers into a feed hand that placed them over the percussion cone as the hammer fell. The frame of the revolver was made of bronze. The 7” octagonal barrel and round cylinder with the percussion cones mounted 90-degrees from the chambers were blued and the hammer and loading lever were color casehardened. While most sources, like Flayderman’s, note the frame was finished “bright” (polished without any applied finish), I have handled enough Butterfield revolvers that show signs of their frames having been silver plated that I am sure most of the guns, at least the earliest ones, were finished in this fashion.
The miscommunication regarding the contract for Butterfield’s revolvers that never existed began with the authorization by the Ordnance Department for the newly forming Ira Harris Guards to acquire their own arms and equipment under the direction of their colonel. The Ira Harris Guards was a new volunteer regiment of New York cavalry under the command of Colonel Othniel DeForrest. Eventually enough men mustered into the Ira Harris Guards to create two regiments. These were initially called the 1st and 2nd Ira Harris Guards, but when officially taken into Federal service became the 5th and 6th New York Volunteer Cavalry. Due to the shortage of cavalry equipment and arms at the time of the unit’s formation in the fall of 1861, the Ordnance Department’s General James W. Ripley authorized DeForrest to arrange the acquisition of the necessary horse equipment and some small arms, which the Ordnance Department would then pay for. This authorization included the purchase of 2,280 saddles and sets of tack, as well as the same number of revolvers and sabers. One of the regimental organizers, a Dr. Charles Rowand, took this to mean that he was authorized to contract for small arms on behalf of the regiment, although he was not authorized to do so without DeForrest’s direct approval. Unfortunately, Rowand had entered an agreement with Butterfield for the gunmaker to deliver 2,280 of the self-priming revolvers for the use of the regiments. Butterfield was in no position to manufacture and deliver this many revolvers in a timely fashion and based upon a letter sent to General Ripley by Butterfield on 10 June 1862, he claimed that more than $10,000 had been expended to alter and acquire machinery for the production of the guns. Although none of the guns had yet to be delivered, the majority of the parts were completed and ready to be assembled. He claimed that he would be able to start delivering completed revolvers the following week and asked where he could deliver them for inspection. Interestingly his letter references having to scale up the machinery, not scale it down, suggesting he was trying repurpose the machines he had used to make the small number of Butterfield primed derringer pistols that his company had produced. As Ripley knew nothing about this “contract” he enquired about it with DeForrest and found the Colonel knew nothing about it either. During an investigation that summer by the Commission on Ordnance and Ordnance Stores, better known as the Holt-Owens Commission, it was determined that since there was no official contract with Butterfield and that Rowand had no right to act as an agent to arrange such a contract, there was no obligation on the Ordnance Department to accept delivery of the Butterfield revolvers. Further, if the guns were to be acquired at all, it was to be “…after proper trial and in open market, at such price, compared with the present prices of revolvers, as may be fair and just.” This decision essentially brought the production of Butterfield Revolvers to an end. Even though Butterfield suggested in his letter that he had essentially made all the parts need to assemble the 2,280 guns, only between 600 and 700 were assembled, with most sources placing production at 640 guns. While none of the Butterfield Revolvers were ever acquired by the Ira Harris Guards as part of an official government procurement, at least a few were purchased privately by the troopers and officers. According to author and researcher John D. McAulay, at least two identified Butterfield Revolvers exist that were carried by Captain Charles J. Farley and Major Charles C. Knight. Although some authors have suggested that some of the guns were sold in 1861 in the Carolinas, suggesting possible Confederate use, the timeline makes this impossible, as no deliveries were made prior to the late summer of 1862.
Offered here is a FINE condition example of one those scarce Butterfield Army Revolvers. The revolvers utilized Butterfield’s patented priming pellets which were inserted into a spring-loaded feeding tube that was screwed into the bottom of the frame of the revolver, just in front of the trigger guard. The tube would push a primer up against a feeder bar that would push a primer out onto the percussion cone each time the hammer was released by the trigger. This kept the primers safely inside the frame of the pistol until the trigger was pulled. The mechanism was quite similar to the sliding primer bar system that feeds primers into a progressive reloading press today. The gun has minimal markings, simply the Butterfield information on the top strap and serial numbers on most component parts. This is typical of the standard production revolvers, which are estimated to have been about 600. The last few revolvers, estimated at about 50, were unmarked on the topstrap and also featured round cylinder stop slots, rather than the standard tear-drop shaped ones.
The is clearly marked in three lines on the top strap:
PATENT Dec 11. 1855
The revolver is marked with the serial number 43 on all of the major and minor components. Externally the number is found on the bottom of the grip frame, on the bottoms of both grip panels, on the lower right angled flat of the barrel and on right side of the loading lever knuckle. The number is also found on the rear face of the cylinder, inside the bronze frame side plate and on the internal lock work components.
As noted, the overall condition of the revolver is about FINE. The barrel retains some strong traces of the original blued finish, probably around 10% or slightly more with the balance of the metal having a smooth brownish gray patina with some mottled areas of oxidized discoloration. The barrel retains sharp edges and shows some lightly scattered minor dings and small impact marks. The barrel is almost entirely smooth with some lightly scattered freckles of oxidized surface roughness and some tiny areas of minute pinpricking, which is primarily around the muzzle area.
The cylinder retains slightly more of the finish probably about 15%+ thinning blue and has a similarly oxidized brownish-gray patina on the exposed surfaces. The cylinder remains smooth as well, with only some freckled oxidized surface roughness and some pinpricking and peppering around the chamber mouths and percussion cone recesses. The original percussion cones are in place and remain in fairly crisp condition with some light impact wear and minor mushrooming. The hammer and loading lever both retain some nice traces of faded and mottled case coloring, with a mostly smoky gray patina and some traces of the original coloring. Although faded and dulled, the colors remain about 20%+ visible. The hammer shows a forging flaw that runs from the right side of the hammer neck into the hammer nose, but this appears to be only a surface flaw and non-structural. The visible flaw is not a repair. The bronze frame retains some strong traces of the original silver-plated finish, primarily in the protected areas. Again, like most of the gun, the frame shows about 10%-15% of the thinned original finish. The balance of the frame has an untouched, rich, dark butterscotch patina, which is simply gorgeous. The action of the revolver functions correctly, and the revolver still locks up and times correctly. This is rare for Butterfields, as their actions were not only fragile, but somewhat finicky and most found today have mechanical issues. This one operates correctly, although it does feel a little “gritty” when the hammer is cocked and the cylinder rotates, although this seems to be a feature of most of the Butterfields that I have handled. The original primer feeding magazine tube is present, and in wonderful condition. It retains the original coil spring, follower, and all internal parts. The tube would surely feed primers today, were they available. The primer feed bar that pushes the primer discs from the feed tube out onto the cones (nipples) is present and functions correctly. This thin piece of metal is often, missing, damaged or repaired and it is nice to find a Butterfield with this part in place and fully functional. The oddly shaped wood grips, with their uniquely flared bottoms are in VERY GOOD condition and retain about 40%+ of their original varnished finish. The grips on Butterfield revolvers are often damaged and broken due to two factors; the flared bottoms and the fact that they are attached to the side plates of the frame. The flared bottoms are easily chipped and damaged in normal handling. The fact that the bronze side plates are secured to the upper portion of the grips on their insides means that if the grip screw is removed and the grips are removed from the gun without taking the side plate off as well, the grips will usually crack or break at the frame joint. Unfortunately, both grips are cracked through in this location. This is the result of a careless owner trying to pry the grips off the frame without unhooking the side plates and removing them with the grips. The crack on the left side is tight and not a major detraction. It could certainly be made to look better with a carefully executed repair, but it is not horribly obvious. The crack on the right side is more obvious and visible but could easily be made less noticeable with a simple and carefully executed glue job. Other that these two detractions, the grips show the expected scattered minor bumps, dings and mars, and some minor shrinkage and warping along the lower edge of the frame. Despite the two cracks, the grips are still substantially better than most Butterfield grips encountered today.
Overall, this is a really attractive, complete, and correct example of a very scarce Civil War era percussion revolvers. These guns are rare enough that they are often missing from even rather advanced Civil War era handgun collections. With so few of these revolvers completed during the summer of 1862, it is not often that one of these revolvers is found for sale. When they are found for sale they often exhibit significant condition issues and are still nearly always priced in excess of $5,000 and often command 5-figure prices. This gun is in about FINE condition, with a complex and fragile action that still works correctly and is 100% complete and correct. The gun is substantially nicer than many of the surviving examples that do get offered for sale and is just dripping with eye appeal. This is a great opportunity to add a very rare American percussion revolver to your collection and for a very fair price. It is a gun that will display wonderfully and that you will not need to make any apologies for.