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Harpers Ferry US Model 1855 Rifle Musket Dated 1859

Harpers Ferry US Model 1855 Rifle Musket Dated 1859

  • Product Code: FLA-3657
  • Availability: In Stock
  • $3,595.00

This is a GOOD+ condition example of the US Model 1855 Rifle Musket, as produced at the famous US arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The adoption of the Model 1855 by the US Ordnance Department was significant for a number of reasons. It was the first reduced caliber infantry long arm to be adopted for universal issue by the US military, being only .58 caliber, while all previous issue muskets had been .69 caliber. It was also the first rifled arm intended for widespread issue to all arms of the military. Prior to the M1855, smoothbore muskets were the standard infantry arm, and rifled arms were reserved for specialty troops and were not issued in significant numbers. It was also the first US military arm specifically designed for use with the Burton Ball; the American modified version of the expanding base French Minié ball. Finally, the M1855 incorporated the automatic tape priming mechanism of Dr. Edward Maynard. This mechanical priming system used a varnished paper roll of priming pellets, much like a modern roll of caps used in a child’s cap gun. The system advanced the roll every time the hammer was cocked, placing a fresh primer pellet over the cone (nipple). A sharp cutting edge on the bottom face of the hammer cut off the spent piece of priming tape when the hammer fell. The M1855 was officially adopted in 1855, but production did not get under way at the Springfield Armory until 1857, and at Harper’s Ferry until 1858. A grand total of 70,254 of the guns were produced between the two arsenals, with Springfield producing 47,115 Model 1855 Rifle Muskets from 1857 to 1861 and Harper’s Ferry producing another 23,139 between 1858 and 1861. Due to the lower production output at Harper’s Ferry, those guns are much rarer today than those produced at Springfield, and they demand proportionally higher prices. 


Although most collectors do not know this, the US Ordnance Department did let some contracts for the production of the M1855 Rifle Muskets. These contracts went to A.M. Burt, J.D. Mowry, J.F. Hodge, J. Mulholland and A. Jenks & Son. However, the complicated tape priming mechanism slowed tooling and pre-production work, and none of these contractors ever delivered a single US Model 1855 Rifle Musket. However, all of them did deliver the simplified US Model 1861 rifle musket, which eliminated the tape primer system, after the Civil War broke out in 1861. The only contractor known to have completed any M1855 Rifle Muskets with a functional Maynard tape primer was Eli Whitney Jr., but these were never part of any official US Ordnance Department contract. Whitney’s guns utilized condemned US arsenal produced Maynard priming locks, and it is believed the 350 arms of this pattern that he built all sold to the state of Connecticut. 


The Model 1855 Rifle Musket went through a couple cosmetic and functional changes during its production run at the National Armories. Initially it was produced with the US M1855 long base, long-leaf adjustable rear sight, similar to the ones found on rifled and sighted US Model 1842 muskets. It was also originally produced with a brass forend cap. In 1858, the new M1858 pattern rear sight was adopted. This sight featured a short base with an L-shaped leaf for 100 and 300 yard shooting and a longer 500-yard leaf. While Springfield started installing the new pattern of 1858 back sights in that year, Harpers Ferry did not start the installation of the new sight until 1859. In 1859, the nose cap was changed from brass to malleable iron and an iron patch box was authorized for installation in the obverse of the buttstock. As with any change in specifications for assembly line produced items, the changes went into effect as stores of older parts were used up. This results in a variety of rear sight and stock forend combinations, as well as a number of older stocks being used on 1859 dated specimens that do not have the patch box cut out. The US M1855 Rifle Musket was produced with a 40” round barrel that rifled with three broad grooves. The front sight also served as a mounting stud for an angular socket bayonet. The stock was of walnut, and the overall length of the musket was 56”, and it weighed in at 9 pounds, 3 ounces without the bayonet. 


The US M1855 Rifle Musket saw significant use during the American Civil War, as it was the most advanced US made rifle musket in production when the hostilities broke out. The M1855 initially saw service with most of the US Regular Infantry regiments, but eventually saw issue alongside US M1861 rifle muskets to a large number of regular and volunteer infantry regiments. Although the gun incorporated the Maynard priming system, the majority of Civil War issued M1855s were fired with traditional percussion caps. This was due to issues with the fragility and reliability of the tape primers in the field and when exposed to inclement weather.


The US M1855 Rifle Musket offered here is about a GOOD+ condition example that was produced at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. During 1859, the Springfield Armory produced a total of 11,600 M1855 Rifle Muskets, but Harper’s Ferry only produced 6,489. The gun is clearly and crisply locked on the lock: U.S. / HARPER,S FERRY in two horizontal lines forward of the hammer and 1859 in a horizontal line to the rear of the hammer. The matching date 1859 is stamped clearly and crisply on the breech of the barrel. The tape primer door is clearly stamped with the correct, Harper’s Ferry pattern spread winged eagle, with five arrows and three olive branches in its talons, a slightly more curved neck than the Springfield eagle and a double boarder line on the top of the shield. The typical V P {EAGLE HEAD} proof and inspection marks are present on the angled left breech flat. The butt plate tang is stamped with the typical US mark. The left stock flat, opposite the lock, is stamped with a pair of clear script cartouches. The forward cartouche, under the rear lock bolt is the SB of Harpers Ferry’s Master Armorer Samuel Byington, while the three letter JAS at the rear of the counterpane is the mark of Harpers Ferry’s stocking department foreman, John A. Schaeffer. 


The gun is well used, shows moderate to heavy wear and also shows the results of some poor storage practices over the years. Thankfully, the complicated and delicate Maynard automated priming lock system remains complete, mechanically excellent and still works crisply and correctly as it should. The lock is moderately oxidized with a mottled brownish-gray color and some evenly distributed pinpricking and light pitting on the metal. The markings on the lock remain quite clear and legible, despite the oxidation. The gun retains a period rear sight that cosmetically appears to be a M1858 sight, but upon removal was found to be an early M1861 rear sight. The base of the M1858 rear sight had a “steady pin” in the base that engaged a small mortised slot forward of the rear sight dovetail. This pin kept the sight base from moving from side to side in the dovetail. While the barrel shows the correct steady pin notch, the rear sight base does not have a steady pin, indicating it is from a pre-July 1861 US M1861 Rifle Musket. Externally, there is no way to know it is not a correct M1858 sight, but only when the sight is removed can this be determined. The original sling swivels are in place on the triggerguard bow and the middle barrel band, and the original combination front musket sight bayonet lug is in place at the end of the barrel. The swelled-shank, tulip head ramrod in the ramrod channel is a correct period rod that is full-length and retains functional threads on the end. The metal of the gun is somewhat rough, with scattered oxidation, pinpricking and light pitting on the rear part of the barrel and more moderate and much deeper pitting on the last few inches of the barrel nearest the muzzle. The barrel appears to have been cleaned at some point, leaving a dull gun metal appearance on some areas, along with patches of darker age discoloration and mottled oxidation here and there. The barrel bands have a darker, uncleaned brown patina and it is regrettable that this patina was not left on the metal of the barrel, as the cleaning makes some of the pitting on the reverse of the barrel near the muzzle more obvious, detracting somewhat from the overall appearance. Despite the pitting and wear, the markings on the barrel remain clear and sharp. The bore of the rifle rates about GOOD and is mottled dark and bright with visible rifling. The bore shows moderate pitting along its entire length, with some areas of deeper pitting here and there and a small pitted ring near the muzzle. The iron buttplate shows the same brown patina as the balance of the musket, having been cleaned and now starting to tone down with a lightly oxidized patina and a weak US mark. The forend cap has a darker, uncleaned brown patina. The stock rates about GOOD condition overall. It is full length with no breaks, cracks or repairs present. The stock has been sanded, with the edges rounded substantially. Thankfully the counterpane was not sanded, leaving the cartouches mostly intact and very legible. The stock does show scattered bumps, dings, and surface mars from carry, service and use. 


The rifle muskets includes an original Civil War era US musket sling that measures 42”. It includes a standing loop and a sliding loop and a flat brass adjustment hook that is secured with a pair of small brass pins and a folded and sewn end. The end of the sling is squared, rather than tapered, and is typical of the Pattern 1839 slings used on the M1842 muskets. Most of the post-1859 pattern musket slings had a tapered end where the hook was to make it easier to pass through the leather keeper loops. I believe the correct terminology for this sling is the Pattern of 1857. The sling is dry, but the leather remains sufficiently pliable to be useable. The stitching is mostly in place and tight. The standing loop is secure, but the sliding loop is broken at its seam. Overall the sling rates about GOOD+ to VERY GOOD.


Overall this is good representative example of one of the most attractive and innovative patterns of US rifle muskets ever produced. The lines and visual appeal of the Model 1855 have always been very attractive to me, and the unique tape priming mechanism gives these guns much more character than the cookie-cutter, workman-like appearance of the later M1861 rifle muskets. The gun is essentially complete and is one of much scarcer Harper’s Ferry produced examples. The M1855 was the standard issue rifle musket for the US infantry at the beginning of the American Civil War and the majority of the guns saw hard service during the war, especially with the pre-war regular army regiments. As Harper’s Ferry produced only about a third of the M1855 rifle muskets, these guns are much harder to find than those made a Springfield. All of those factors, along with their relatively limited production numbers of all 1855s, make a Harper’s Ferry M1855 difficult to find for sale in any condition. Every Civil War long arm collection needs at least one M1855 rifle musket in it and this is a reasonably priced example of a well-worn but authentic Harpers Ferry M1855 Rifle Musket.

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Tags: Harpers, Ferry, US, Model, 1855, Rifle, Musket, Dated, 1859