This is a VERY FINE condition example of the US M1861 Naval Rifle as produced under contract by the famous Whitney Arms Company company. These rifles are often referred to as Plymouth Rifles due to the fact that the initial batch of arsenal produced test rifles, from which the contract pattern was derived, were tested on board the USS Plymouth from 1856-1858 under the direction of Captain (later Admiral) Dahlgren. The rifle is essentially a copy of the French M-1853 Carbine “ Tige and retinas many of the French design features, including a finger spur on the rear of the trigger guard plate, the French pattern adjustable rear sight and the heavy cupped ramrod necessary to exert enough force on a loaded projectile to suitably expand it upon the Tige. Unlike the French musket, which was 18mm (about .708 caliber), the US variant used the more typical US .69 caliber bore. While the US Army was headed towards a reduced bore .58 rifle and rifle musket in the late 1850s, Dahlgren felt it important to retain the large bore for the rifles used on board ships. When the pattern was officially adopted as the US M1861 Naval Rifle, Whitney was awarded a contract in July of 1861 to deliver 10,000 of the rifles at a price of $25 each, to include a brass handled saber bayonet. A sample “Plymouth Rifle” (one of the original test guns from the 1856-1858 trials) was forwarded to Whitney to use as a guide in production, and Springfield Armory supplied sample locks, butt plates and trigger guards to copy. Whitney obtained permission to use his contract pattern 1861 model rifle musket locks that he already had on hand to help complete the contract in a timely fashion. He apparently took other liberties during the production of the rifles, as minor variances in hardware and furniture are not uncommon. Ever the penny-pincher, Whitney tried to utilize any parts already on hand to reduce the actual cost incurred to produce the Naval rifles. Unfortunately, Whitney had issues with the initial deliveries of the guns. He had hoped to have the barrels produced by Remington, but that company was too busy with its own government contracts to provide the rifle barrels. Whitney’s initial delivery on the contract was to be 500 guns in early February of 1862, but due to problems obtaining barrels, his deliveries were delayed. The first 2,000 barrels that Whitney obtained from a contractor failed to pass the government proof testing, and Whitney was forced to produce the barrels in house, from cast steel. This caused a substantial delay. Whitney delivered the first five guns under the contract in October of 1862, and they were found to be nearly two pounds lighter than the sample “Plymouth Rifle” that had been provided to him to guide the manufacturing of the guns. This weight loss would make the recoil from the rifle rather objectionable, but the exigencies of the situation resulted in the arms being accepted at the lighter weight. The first substantial delivery, of 100 arms, was made in early February of 1863. Some of the first M1861 Naval Rifles to see service aboard ships were issued to the Nansemond, the William Bacon and the Eutaw, all of which served with the Atlantic Blockading Squadron during 1863. By the end of 1863, Whitney had managed to catch up on his contract, and had delivered 5,300 of the rifles to the Navy. An additional 4,695 rifles had been delivered to the Navy by the end of 1864.
When the initial five samples delivered in 1862 are included, this brings the total to 10,000 pieces. It has often been suggested that many of these rifles never saw service, however arms historian and author John D McAulay contradicts that claim. In fact, he notes in Civil War Small Arms of the US Navy & Marine Corps that nearly all of the rifles delivered by the summer of 1864 were issued to warships. In fact, in September of 1864, the Boston Naval yard was turning down requests for Plymouth Rifles, as there were none available in stores. In one case, the commander of the Ella, serving with the Potomac Flotilla, requested on June 22, 1864 that he be allowed to turn in his Spencer Rifles due to their poor performance and replace them with Plymouth Rifles! He notes in his request that due to accidental discharges with the Spencers, two men have been killed and two more wounded. He also notes that not having bayonets for the Spencer’s reduced their effectiveness against boarders “by half”. This is likely one of the very few instances where a commander requested a muzzle loading percussion arm to replace a breechloading metallic cartridge repeater!
The rifle is well marked throughout, with very crisp marks on the metal and a good, legible cartouche on the stock flat. The lock is marked with the early style large format (SPREAD WINGED EAGLE & FLAG) forward of the hammer, and further forward is marked WHITNEY-VILLE. The later production Whitney Naval Rifles were marked with a smaller eagle over the letters “US”. The date 1862 is stamped vertically behind the hammer. The locks of the rifles were originally color case hardened for strength, and then polished bright. The number 1514 is stamped on the tang of the barrel. This number served both as a serial number and as the mating number that matched the one found on the brass hilted Collins & Company saber bayonet, which had been hand fit to the gun. According to McAulay’s research, the rifles appear to have been delivered very close to numerical order, based upon the serial number, making this gun one of the guns delivered in early 1863. The barrel shows only a single W sub-inspection mark at the breech, the mark of civilian Naval arms inspector Frank C. Warner, who inspected Whitney’s contract Naval rifles. A block letter Warner inspection, consisting of the letters FW, is also present on the counterpane of the rifle. The top of the rifle’s breech is undated, again standard for the early deliveries. Later production Whitney Naval Rifles would show the standard US military proof marks of a VP / (EAGLEHEAD) on the left angled breech and dates on the top of the breech. A clear US is stamped on the tang of the iron butt plate as well.
Overall the rifle is in VERY FINE condition. It is 100% complete, correct and original with no replacement parts or repairs noted. It retains both of the original sling swivels, as well as the original heavy, cupped ramrod, which is full length and complete with threads. The French style 1000-yard, adjustable ladder rear sight is present and in excellent condition, and the original iron-blade front sight and the saber bayonet lug are all present as well. The metal is in very nice condition, retaining much of the original Armory Bright polished finish, which was probably lightly cleaned at some point in time and has dulled slightly with age. There are some scattered flecks of lightly oxidized age discoloration present along the barrel, as well as a few minor patches of pinpricking here and there. Most of the pinprick peppering is confined to the breech area, indicating that the gun was fired at least a few times, and the caustic fulminate of mercury percussion caps caused some very minor flash erosion. There is also some light pinpricking around the muzzle. The barrel flats remain sharp and crisp, as are all markings. The lock is well marked as well, and even the Whitney Eagle motif, which is almost often lightly stamped, is relatively crisp and clear. The lock functions very well on all positions and works perfectly. The .69 caliber bore is in VERY FINE condition as well and is quite bright and clean with extremely crisp three-groove rifling. Although the bore shows some lightly scattered pinpricking, it is so fine that I’m sure this is a rifle that would be a tack driver were someone to want to shoot it. The wood on the gun is in about FINE condition as well. The stock is solid, complete and full length and there no breaks, repairs or significant structural issues present. The stock has been cleaned at some point in time, with some old oil added, but does not appear to have been sanded. The stock still shows very crisp edges and sharp lines. The wood to metal fit is also very good throughout. The stock does show a number of scattered handling marks, bumps, dings and bruises from handling and use. There are some scattered minor chips and ding along the ramrod channel of the rifle, and a couple of minor chips around the lock mortise. The wear to the stock is consistent with that of a rifle that was issued and saw some service, along with storage both at sea and on land.
Overall this is a really very nice example of the Whitney M-1861 Naval rifle. The rifle is 100% complete and correct in all way, and simply has a very attractive look to it. With only 10,000 produced, it is a rifle that is often missing from even some advanced Civil War long arms collections. When these guns are found for sale they are often well used, as their life at sea, and storage in Naval facilities in close proximity to the salt air, certainly did not help to preserve these arms in high states of condition. This one is a really fine example that displays very well and will be a fine addition to any collection.SOLD