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Harpers Ferry US Model 1855 Iron Mounted Rifle

Harpers Ferry US Model 1855 Iron Mounted Rifle

  • Product Code: FLA-3655
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $3,995.00

The US Model 1855 Rifle is one of the scarcer primary issue US military long arms that was produced during the last few years leading up the outbreak of the American Civil War. During its limited production from 1857 until early 1861 it was produced in two primary variations, Type I and Type II, with only a total of 7,317 of the rifles being produced at the rifle works at Harpers Ferry. While recent scholarship has created a much larger number of  “types” based upon variations in features, the reality is that “brass mounted” or “iron mounted” basically covers the two standard type with some transitional guns with mixed features in between, mostly produced during late 1858 and 1859. 


The M1855 Rifle came quite close to not being manufactured at all, as it was generally considered that since all troops were to be armed with the new US M1855 Rifle Musket, there was no need for an additional “rifle” model. Prior to the adoption of the M1855 series of arms, the standard US infantry long arm had been the .69 caliber smoothbore musket, Model of 1842. Rifles were produced and issued to specialty troops, and to the various states under the Militia Act of 1808, but the typical infantryman carried a smoothbore musket. With the adoption of the .58 caliber M1855 pattern Rifle Musket, all troops would in fact be carrying a “rifle” and the manufacture and issue of an additional “rifle” model seemed superfluous to the Ordnance Department. However, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis felt that a shorter, “rifle length” arm was desirable to have in production and justified it by ordering that the M1855 Rifle was to be issued to the Sappers & Miners (Engineers) in place of the old, smoothbore M1847 Sappers & Miners carbine that was in current use and universally despised by the troops. Davis no doubt felt that the shorter rifle with its accompanying saber bayonet would be popular with state troops as well. Davis was, after all, responsible for the moniker “Mississippi Rifle”, which was popularized by the use of the M1841 rifle by the 1st Mississippi Volunteers under his command during the Mexican American War. 


The M1855 rifles and rifle muskets included a number of new features for US military long arms. In addition to being the first rifled arms to see general issue, they were the first .58 caliber arms adopted by the US military. The guns also included the English features of a stirrup attached to the tumbler and progressive depth rifling; both introduced to the British military with the Pattern 1853 “Enfield” Rifle Musket. In fact, at least one period order discussed using “Enfield style” rifling. The incorporation of a stirrup (called a “swivel” in period Ordnance department documents) made the lock operate more smoothly, as the mainspring was no longer bearing directly on the tumbler. The most innovative, and instantly recognizable feature of the M1855 family arms (with the exception of the M1855 rifled carbine) was the incorporation of the Maynard Patent automatic priming lock. This lock used a roll of varnished paper with fulminate of mercury priming compound sandwiched between the layers that resembled a modern roll of caps used in a child’s cap gun. The lock had a recess where the roll was installed, and a mechanical system of hands and pawls advanced the primer tape every time the hammer was cocked, placing a fresh primer on the cone (nipple). A cutting edge was machined into the front bottom edge of the hammer face to cut the tape when the hammer fell, discarding the spent primer. The initial production of US M1855 Rifles was considered a modification and improvement to the current M1841 “Mississippi” rifles then in production. In fact, the order from the office of the Secretary of War to produce the M1855 rifles read in part: 


“The present rifle modified by the adoption of the new caliber and primer lock will be continued, and issued to the sapper instead of the musketoon, the manufacture of which will be discontinued.”


Clearly, in the eyes of the War Department, the M1855 was really an M1841 in .58 caliber with a Maynard priming lock. The very first US M1855 rifles were in fact very similar to their predecessors, the M1841. The M1855 guns were brass mounted as the M1841 had been, with a brass patchbox, barrel bands, buttplate, triggerguard and forend cap. Both models had color case hardened locks and used 33” round barrels that were browned. The M1855 rifle was equipped with a saber bayonet stud and had the M1855 long-range rear sight. In many ways the M1855 were very similar to the “Type III” alteration M1841 Mississippi rifles that were modified at Harpers Ferry during the years 1856-1859, although some of these guns apparently remained in .54 caliber, while others were reamed and re-rifled to .58 caliber. Other than the tape priming mechanism, the most notable visual differences between the M1841 and the new M1855 were that the patchbox was much smaller, the upper band was a single strap instead of a double strapped nose cap, and the buttplate was concave like that of a rifle musket; the M1841 butt had been flat like the muskets of the period. A new, tulip head, swelled shank rammer was used with the M1855, while the M1841 used a brass tipped trumpet head rod, or a newly modified all iron trumpet head rod with a cupped head. One of the new features concealed in the Type I M1855 was that the patch box covered a figure-8 shaped recess that held a fine cross hair front sight that could be placed over the barrel of the rifle to provide a more substantial front sighting system; turning the gun into a “long range rifle,” a term used occasionally during the period to describe the M1855 rifle. 


The M1855 rifle did not go into production until 1857, and during that fiscal year only ten were delivered into inventory. The following fiscal year, in 1858, an additional 1,719 were delivered, but only 374 had rear sights, so the remaining 1,345 went into inventory without rear sights. The issues regarding the rear sight were two fold; a lack of the M1855 pattern long-range rear sights, and the fact that a new rear sight (which would be officially labeled the M1858 rear sight) was under development. The problem continued into 1859, with a total of 1,816 M1855 rifles being delivered, but only 316 of which had rear sights. During 1859 the specifications for the M1855 rifle changed, and a new version, known as the Type II M1855 by collectors, was authorized. The new variant was iron mounted and incorporated the short base M1858 rear sight. Additionally, the fine cross hair sight was eliminated, and the patch box recess was ordered to be routed out as large as possible, and not in a figure-8 pattern. These changes occurred slowly over the course of the year, as supplies of older parts were used up, new iron fittings were produced, and new sights were machined. The end result is that an additional 650 M1855 rifles were delivered in 1859, but these iron mounted rifles were also without rear sights. It is also believed that between 100 and 190 of these early iron mounted guns were produced without patchboxes and at least some still used left over brass nose caps, even though the rest of the furniture was of iron. The year 1860 finally saw stabilization in the production of the M1855, as 2,702 of the rifles were delivered in their “Type II”, iron mounted configuration with the correct M1858 rear sights. It is also believed that in 1860 the iron mounted rifles from 1859 had the correct sights installed and at least some of the earlier “Type I” brass mounted rifles without sights received the new M1858 rear sight. In 1861, an additional 420 Type II iron rifles were delivered prior to the state of Virginia taking over the armory in mid-April of 1861. 


In an attempt to keep arms from falling into the hand of the Virginia rebels, the armory was set on fire on the evening of April 18, 1861 by the superintendent and his staff, prior to their retreat to Maryland. However, the citizens of Harpers Ferry extinguished the fires to keep them from spreading to the town  and prevented the destruction of many of the completed arms in the armory, as well as much of the machinery, that was subsequently sent to Richmond and Fayetteville to establish arms manufacturing facilities in those locations. 


It has long been believed that most of the of the unsighted Type I, brass mounted M1855 rifles in storage at Harpers Ferry (possibly as many as 2,800 of the 3,545 produced) were destroyed in that fire. This is why the brass-mounted rifles are so scarce today. According to an inventory of arms at Harpers Ferry from November 11, 1859, there were some 3,570 “New model rifles, cal. 58” on hand, most of which would have been Type I brass rifles with no rear sights, but it was noted that 483 of the “new rifles” were on hand at the St. Louis arsenal. These would have been complete Type I rifles. An additional 100 rifles had been issued to the Engineers in 1858 to replace their musketoons, and these would have also been Type I rifles. While the arsenal superintendent noted that he had not issued any of the M1855 rifles to the states as of February of 1859, due to a lack of sufficient arms to do so, there is a record of 133 rifles being issued to the State of Minnesota around October of 1858. All of these issued guns would have been Type I, brass mounted rifles, and total 716, only a few more than the total of 700 Type I rifles delivered complete with rear sights between 1857 and 1859. This suggests that at least 16 of the unsighted guns did in fact receive their rear sights (although it is not clear of which pattern) sometime in 1859, allowing them to be issued. This leaves a maximum of 2,829 Type I rifles that could have been in the armory when it burned. It appears that many of the Type II, iron mounted guns were issued prior to the burning of the arsenal. The bulk of these guns went to the Columbian Arsenal in Washington, D.C. in early 1861, with the arsenal showing 2,285 in inventory at the outbreak of the war. That only leaves 1,487 of the total of 3,772 Type II iron rifles to have been issued to states or left at the arsenal when it fell. The rifles at the Columbian Arsenal were initially issued to District of Columbia militia units, but all were returned by July of 1861, when the units were disbanded. At this point, a number of the rifles were issued to the states, including Ohio, New Jersey and New York. Since Ohio and New Jersey were both very strict about marking state ownership upon any of the guns delivered to them, it is somewhat likely that an unmarked Type II rifle was issued to one of the New York regiments that received these arms. These regiments included the 7th, 8th, 11th and 12th New York State Militia regiments. The 11th was much better known as Ellsworth’s Zouaves. Of course, some of the M1855 rifles of both patterns were captured by the Confederacy and subsequently issued when the arsenal fell, and it is believed that a least a few were assembled from parts on hand either at Harpers Ferry or later at Richmond or Fayetteville.


The US M1855 Type II Iron Mounted Rifle offered here is one of the very desirable and rarely encountered “transitional” 1859 production guns. The lock is crisply and clearly marked: U.S. / HARPER,S FERRY in two horizontal lines forward of the hammer, and with the date 1859 horizontally behind the hammer. The top of the breech marked with an illegible date, with only 18 legible and not the second set of numbers. This appears to be due to wear and flashing pitting at the breech as well as the metal having been cleaned. The left barrel flat is crisply marked with the typical V / P / {Eagle Head} inspection marks. The gun is one of those transitional brass to iron guns that uses the later pattern Type II stock with an oval patchbox hole and a short brass nose cap. The balance of the gun is pure “Type II” with the usual iron hardware and the M1858 pattern rear sight. The gun may well have been one of the “Type II” rifles that was delivered without a rear sight in 1859 and subsequently received one when production caught up with demand. The rifle has some interesting condition “features” that suggests it was in the arsenal in 1861 when Harper’s Ferry burned. Most notably the interior of the tape primer recess and the primer door show some light scaling, indicative of having been around high heat or a fire. Usually when this type of scaling is encountered on lock parts the stock shows some scorching as well. However, this stock has been sanded, so any such indicators in the wood have been removed.


The overall condition of the rifle is about GOOD+ and the gun shows moderate wear. The gun has a lightly cleaned mottled dark gray over pewter gray patina with evenly scattered oxidized surface discoloration and minor roughness along the length of the barrel. The metal of the barrel is fairly smooth scattered light to moderate pinpricking and salt & pepper oxidation over the iron surfaces. The breech and bolster area show mostly light pitting from the flash of the mercuric primer pellets in the Maynard tape, with some more moderate pitting present on the top of the breech. The metal of the lock was probably lightly cleaned at some point as well, and the center of the eagle on the tape primer door is a little weak as a result. The bore of the rifle is in about GOOD condition. It retains visible 3-groove rifling and shows moderate pitting along its length, with some old accumulated dirt and dust and some areas of more aggressive pitting. The lock is functional, but the Maynard patent feed mechanism is missing a couple of small parts from the tape magazine. The feed hand is in place and functions correctly, but the tension arm and tension spring are both missing. The hammer responds correctly to both half cock and full cock, and the action remains tight and crisp. The lock has a mottled medium pewter patina also, matching the rifle’s barrel and iron furniture well. The original rear sight is present forward of the breech, with the correct original M1858 pattern sight base and 100, 300 and 500 yard leaves that are correctly marked R for rifle, indicating this is a correct rifle sight and not a rifle musket sight. Both original barrel bands are present, with the same general patina as the barrel and other furniture and are correctly marked U on the leading edge of their right side. Both sling swivels are present as well. The triggerguard has the same matching patina as the balance of the gun, while the buttplate is more of a mottled dark and light gray. The original saber bayonet lug is present 3 ½” from the muzzle of the rifle, and the original iron front sight is in place on top of the barrel, near the muzzle. A reproduction swelled shank ramrod is in place in the ramrod channel under the stock. The stock is in about GOOD condition overall. As mentioned, the stock has been sanded. It also shows a repair the obverse wrist running from the right side of the breech and tang area back about 4 ½” from the breech and then running to the tail of the lock. This is well executed, and the repaired wood and crack are not readily obvious, with the repair well concealed. The stock also shows the usual assortment of expected bumps, dings, mars and nicks from handling and use. The stock is full length and remains solid with only the repair mentioned above noted. The edges have been rounded by sanding and no cartouches remain on the counterpane. The rifle includes a VERY GOOD condition US M1857 leather rifle sling that is period and remains serviceable.


Overall this is a solid entry level example of a transitional production Harper’s Ferry Model 1855 Iron Mounted Rifle. These rare guns usually command relatively strong prices, making them difficult for some collectors to afford. This is a nice looking, affordable example that will fill the Harpers Ferry M1855 Rifle hole in your collection and will do a good job of it, looking nice on your wall or in your gun rack.


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Tags: Harpers, Ferry, US, Model, 1855, Iron, Mounted, Rifle