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Harpers Ferry M-1841 Type III Alteration

Harpers Ferry M-1841 Type III Alteration

  • Product Code: FLA-3290-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

During the middle of the 1850s, the US Ordnance Department was in a state of flux, trying desperately to determine the best way to modernize the small arms used by the US Army. The adoption of the Pattern 1853 rifled musket by the British military had officially ended the era of the percussion smoothbore musket as the standard line infantry battle weapon. The P-1853 “Enfield” fired a sub-caliber, expanding base bullet developed by E.A. Pritchett, which was based upon the French Mini” projectile. The US Ordnance department followed suit by adopting an Americanized version of the Mini”, modified by Harpers Ferry Master Armorer James Burton. The next step was the development and adoption of the US Model 1855 family of small arms. The primary weapons of the family were the M-1855 Rifle Musket for issue to line (or “heavy”) infantry and the M-1855 Rifle, for issue to the “light” infantry and engineers. While Harpers Ferry tooled up to begin the production of both of these guns, and Springfield tooled up to make the rifle musket, the armory at Harpers Ferry set about modifying existing stores of M-1841 “Mississippi” rifles. It would be well into 1857 before any M-1855 rifles would come off the Harpers Ferry assembly lines, and in the interim, existing arms needed to be upgraded to the new standard. The goal of the alterations was not only to upgrade the arms, but also to experiment with different rear sight designs and graduations, as well as to experiment with methods of attaching saber bayonets to the rifles. At least four distinct patterns of altered Mississippi rifles were produced by Harpers Ferry between 1854 and 1860, with some of the variations having as many as three sub variants, based upon minor changes in the configuration of the rear sights. The four variants, as classified by arms historian George Moller are:

Type I: Benton Rear Sight, a folding, screw adjustable, long range sight.
Type II: Long Range Rear Sight, an adjustable long-range leaf sight, based upon the British P-1853 Enfield rear sight. This sight was soldered to the barrel like the Enfield rear sight was, and went through at least 3 variations in graduations and markings.
Type III: Long Range Rear Sight, essentially the same as the last variant of the Type II, the Type IIC, but secured by a spanner screw instead of solder, with the rear of sight located via a dovetail notch in the barrel. This method of attachment would remain standard through the Civil War era.
Type IV: M-1858 Rifle Leaf Sight, this is the classic L-shaped flip up leaf sight that was graduated to 100, 300 and 500 yards. Variants of this sight design were standard on later production M-1855 rifles and muskets, as well as early M-1861 rifle muskets. An improved variant of the final sight, modified by Elisha Root of the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, would become the Model 1861 sight in July of 1861.

While good records of the work done at Harpers Ferry exist, they can be difficult to decipher due to the confusion between fiscal years and calendar years. From 1844 until 1978, the Federal Government operated on a Fiscal Year that started on July 1 and ended on June 30 of the following year. As such, Fiscal Year 1855 began on July 1, 1854 and ended on June 30, 1855. This discrepancy can make it difficult to understand exactly when certain work was done, and when arms were manufactured or delivered. Thus, it is very important to note which calendar system is being used or referred to in the period documents. Two types of saber bayonet alterations were performed at Harpers Ferry, using different attachment systems. The first, was the “ring bayonet” system, referred to by collectors as the Snell alteration. It used a folding ring on the hilt of the bayonet and a muzzle ring with an integral locking mechanism. This alteration required a minimum of modification to the rifle, but required a complicated attachment system be incorporated into the bayonet itself. Only 1,628 rifles were altered to accept this style of saber bayonet attachment. The balance of the bayonet-altered guns were modified by adding a conventional saber bayonet lug to the right side of the barrel, near the muzzle. The early guns had a 1” “key” or “guide” forward of the lug itself, while later guns had no such extension to the lug. Some 10,286 saber bayonets were fabricated at Harpers Ferry between 1855 and 1857 for use on the M-1841 alterations. This number included those with a mortise to accept a lug with or without the guide bar, and no distinction is noted.

This particular Harpers Ferry altered M-1841 Mississippi Rifle has been classified as a Type III by arms researcher and author George Moller. According to his research, these some of these guns were altered during Fiscal Year 1856, while most of these alterations were performed during FY 1857, 1858 and 1859. In all, some 4,500 Harpers Ferry manufactured Model 1841 rifles were altered to Type III specifications during a roughly three-year period. The salient features of the Type III were the use of the Model 1855 long-range rear sight, that had been adopted in December of 1855. This long-base, ladder rear sight was the culmination of the experimentation with various sight bases, ladders, and graduations that had taken place over the past couple of years at Harpers Ferry. The sight was secured to the barrel with a spanner screw at the front and the rear of the base rested in a dovetailed notch in the barrel. This same pattern of rear sight would be used for the US M-1855 rifle and musket during the first half of their production, as well as for rifled and sighted upgrades to .69 muskets that were being modified at the various arsenals during the latter part of the 1850s. The Type III rear sight was the final improvement over the Type IIC sight. Like its predecessor, the sight was a tangent leaf pattern with a long base and sliding elevator. The sides of the sight were marked with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 for 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 yards respectively. The ladder was then graduated from 600 to 1000 yards, and was marked 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 on its face, with the “10” forward of the raised V-shaped notch. A traditional style saber bayonet lug was installed on the right side of the barrel, without the 1” guide extension. This pattern of lug would be the same used on the Model 1855 rifle and is referred to as the M-1855 lug. In order to accommodate the saber bayonet, the nose of the stock was shortened about ““ and the upper barrel band was replaced with a suitably shortened band of new manufacture. While most of the guns 4,500 guns altered to Type III specifications retained their original .54 bores, 1,865 were reamed up to .58, 803 in FY 1857 and 1,062 in FY 1859. The guns that were modified to .58 caliber were re-rifled with the same 3-groove, 1:72” progressive depth rifling found in the M-1855 series of arms. These .58 M-1841 rifles were now, for all practical purposes, as close in specifications to the newly adopted M-1855 rifles as was possible. The ramrods of all Type III modified rifles were replaced by all iron, swelled trumpet style ramrods, which had concave tips for use with conical ball ammunition. The newly adopted saber bayonet of M-1855 patter was supposed to be interchangeable, and the practice of applying an alpha-numeric mating number to the rifle and bayonet was dropped during the Type III period. In practice, the bayonets do not quite interchange as easily as the Ordnance Department had hoped. With the production of M-1855 rifles finally under way in 1857, the Ordnance Department decided to hold the new rifles for issue to regular troops and make the upgraded M-1841s available for issue to the states. The popularity of the improved M-1841 rifles was overwhelming with the various states, and the guns were requisitioned in great numbers under the Militia Act of 1808. In the months leading up to the outbreak of the American Civil War, requests for the upgraded rifles were being turned down, as none were available for issue. As such, it is reasonable to assume that practically every M-1841 rifle modified at Harpers Ferry had been issued prior to the Civil War, and as such, nearly every one of those guns saw service during that conflict, at least in the early stages of the war.

This Harpers Ferry Type III Altered Mississippi Rifle is in VERY GOOD condition. The gun appears to be 100% complete and correct in every way, and retains legible markings throughout. The rifle retains no original finish on the surface of the barrel, but traces of original brown are present underneath. The metal has a well-used, salt & pepper with oxidized brown over pewter patina. The gun was manufactured at Harpers Ferry and is clearly marked on the lock with a (Spread Winged Eagle) / US forward of the hammer and HARPERS / FERRY / 1852 to the rear of the hammer in three vertical lines. The barrel is marked with a small S on the right flat, forward of the bolster, indicating the barrel is made of steel, not iron. The barrel is marked with normal Harpers Ferry proof marks, including a WW / P and the typical V / P / (Eagle Head). The tang is dated 1852 as well, although only the “2” is completely legible due to wear. Mixed dates are sometimes encountered on the guns altered at Harpers Ferry, and matching dates are nice to find. As is typical of Harpers Ferry produced Mississippi Rifles, there is no US on the tang of the buttplate. The interior of the patch box shows the typical 3-router bit holes of Harpers Ferry manufacture, and is marked with the Harpers Ferry inspector initials J L R, upside down in the center cut out. The mark is clear and legible. The rear barrel band is marked with an interesting series of marks that include the initials HF followed by the number 70, over the number 53. The meaning of these markings is not clear. The comb of the stock is also marked with the rack or issue marking: F / 65, suggesting that this rifle was certainly issued and used prior to the Civil War. The lock of the rifle functions crisp and correctly on all position, and it remains mechanically excellent. The lock is a mottled plum-brown color, with some scattered small areas of darker freckled age discoloration. The barrel is primarily smooth, with a pewter gray base metal color, and evenly scattered darker age discoloration along its entire length. The breech and bolster area shows light pitting, which becomes scattered pinpricking forward of the rear sight, and returns to evenly distributed light pitting around the muzzle area of the barrel. The bore of the rifle rates about NEAR VERY GOOD. It is somewhat dark retains strong 3-groove rifling of the correct .58 caliber progressive depth pattern. There is evenly distributed light pitting present along the entire length of the bore. The brass furniture has a deep bronze patina that is attractive. The gun retains the original and correct pattern Type III long-range rear sight, which is functional. The rifle also retains its original and correct M-1855 saber bayonet lug and the original long-range alteration, M-1855 pattern iron front sight. The gun retains both original sling swivels as well. The correct ramrod, added during the alteration, is present in the ramrod channel. The rod is all iron and cupped for use with elongated ball ammunition. It is full length and retains good, usable threads at the end. The stock of the gun rates about VERY GOOD condition as well. The stock is solid and free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. The wood to metal fit is excellent. The gun does show the usual array of scattered bumps, dings and bruises from a long military life and years of service. The stock retains good lines and edges and shows no indications of having been sanded, although there is some softening of the edges around the stock flat, which appear to be from use. The interior of the patchbox shows the three usual and correct router guide holes, typical of Harpers Ferry produced Mississippi rifle stocks, and the Harpers Ferry JLR inspection mark. The JLR inspectors’ mark on the stock flat opposite the lock is no longer visible, due to service and wear.

Overall this is a very nice example of a relatively scarce Harpers Ferry altered M-1841 Mississippi Rifle. While the Type III was the alteration produced in the greatest numbers (4,500), only 1,865 were reamed up to .58 caliber. Thus, this remains a scarce sub-variant of that alteration. In the greater scheme of Civil War arms production, with literally millions of M-1861/63 rifle muskets being produced, a production run of 4,500 is miniscule. The rifle is a little salty and shows real world use and indication of significant firing during its service life. While hardly a “minty” example, the gun remains 100% complete and correct with a very attractive look and no missing parts. This would be a great addition to any collection of Civil War era arms, US percussion military rifles or a collection that focuses on the early period of the Civil War or the evolution of US military percussion muskets. I am quite certain you will be proud to add this rifle to your collection and will no doubt enjoy it for years to come.


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Tags: Harpers, Ferry, M, 1841, Type, III, Alteration