An Introduction to American Muskets and Rifles (Musket 101)

The backbone of both reenacting and skirmishing is the Musket, which in one form or another provided the firepower of the American Infantry for more than 100 years (1776 - 1898). As an introduction to the musket, I would like to briefly review the various models of muskets and rifle-muskets produced by the American government in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

"Musket" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language as, "a smoothbore shoulder gun used from the late 16th through the 18th centuries." The same source informs us that the word "musket" is derived from the French "mousquet", which in term derived from the Italian "moschetto." While the beginning date is accurate, American Military scholars know that the musket lived and served on until the end of the Nineteenth Century.

The Infantry weapons used in the War of Northern Aggression were improvements of the "moschetto" and "mousquet" that even the Three Musketeers would hardly recognize. Shortly after the foundation of our nation, the government realized that in order to arm an adequate military force, the design and initial manufacturing of military long arms would have to be supervised and financed by federal sources. Political pressures of the day resulted in two such armories -- one in Springfield, Massachusetts (John Adams) and another in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (Thomas Jefferson).

Instability and unrest in Europe in 1812 lead to a great requirement for Infantry arms in America, and the Musket of that day was the Model 1812 Flintlock Musket, produced by the Springfield Armory in a quantity approaching 30,000 during the 1814-1816 time period. The M1812 was a .69 smoothbore, with a barrel 41 inches in length. The M1812 replaced the M1795 which had previously been produced at Springfield from 1795-1814. At Harper's Ferry, the Model 1803 Flintlock Rifle was the long arm being manufactured, first from 1803-1807, then from 1814-1820, with a total of about 20,000 of the .54 caliber, half-stock rifles being produced.

Two armories making two different arms for one Army was not seen as a desirable effort with the end of the War of 1812, and both Springfield and Harpers Ferry began to produce the Model 1816 Flintlock Musket in 1816. More than 325,000 were produced by the Springfield Armory from 1816-1844, while the Harper's Ferry Armory produced more than 350,000 during the same time period. This total production, when combined with 146,000 more produced by contractors, makes the Model 1816 the most prolifically produced Musket in American history (For more on the M1816, see the September 1998 issue of Civil War News).

The American Army lead all miliary powers in developing and using "rifles" in the early 19th Century. Prevailing military thought required massed troops, shoulder to shoulder, throwing as much lead at the enemy as possible, which meant big bores. When smoothbores defeated smoothbores at Waterloo or Moscow, no thought was given by European strategists to the possibility of using rifles in the infantry ranks. However, the Model 1803 Flintlock Rifle had been a serviceable arm in the American Army, and it's successor, the Model 1814 Flintlock Rifle, was produced in limited quantity by contractor Henry Deringer of Philadelphia. While the two Armories produced smoothbore muskets in great quantity, a few contractors produced almost 40,000 Model 1817 Flintlock Rifles, today referred to as the "1817 Common Rifle." The Common Rifle was a .54 caliber, 36 inch barreled fullstock arm produced entirely by contractors from 1817 until the early 1840's.

The Model 1816 Musket occupied the largest percentage of Armory production from 1816 until the early 1840's, however, some Model 1839 Musketoons were produced at Springfield from 1839-1843 and Harper's Ferry was involved in the production of the Hall Breechloading Rifle from about 1817 until 1840.

The Model 1840 Flintlock Musket was produced at Springfield Armory. The .69 caliber Musket also had a 42 inch barrel, and more than 30,000 were produced by Springfield Armory and two contractors between 1840 and 1846.

The Model 1841 Percussion Rifle was produced by the Harpers Ferry Armory from 1846 until 1855; a total of 25,296 were produced. Contractors produced 45,500 more, for a total production of 70,796 of the .54 caliber weapons. This arm is also known as the "Mississippi Rifle," for during the Mexican War this arm saw admirable service in the hands of the Mississippi Regiment commanded by Colonel Jefferson Davis, and helped to solidify the prominence of rifled arms over smoothbore arms in the minds of American strategists.

The Model 1842 Percussion Musket was produced in both Armories from 1844 until 1855, and was a .69 caliber smoothbore with a 42 inch barrel. Springfield produced 172,000, and Harper's Ferry manufactured 103,000. This weapon was the first Armory produced Musket with completely interchangeable parts, and was the last smoothbore arm made in .69 caliber. About 14,000 of these muskets were rifled by the armories between 1856 and 1859.

The shape of an American Musket was fairly standard from 1816 until 1842, having a full walnut stock, a long barrel of 42 inches, and three barrel bands. The rifles were generally shorter and of smaller caliber. The adoption of an American Rifle-Musket was a compromise in caliber, with the large, "three-band" design persisting in the Model 1855 Percussion Rifle-Musket.

The M1855 Rifle-Musket was the ultimate muzzleloading musket. Although diminished by the inclusion of the finicky Maynard Tape Priming device, there were almost 60,000 produced at Springfield and Harper's Ferry from 1857 to 1861. The .58 caliber and 40 inch barrel set the standard for future Rifle-Muskets.

The Model 1855 Percussion Rifle was a shorter version of the Rifle- Musket. The caliber was also .58, but the barrel was shortened to 33 inches and was secured to the stock by two barrel bands. With only 7,000 produced, the Rifle-Musket production outpaced the Rifle production by about 10 to 1.

Two more American Muskets played a key role in the Civil War, the Model 1861 and 1963 Percussion Rifle-Muskets. Both were produced only at Springfield Armory and by contractors, for Harper's Ferry was destroyed early in the conflict and the machinery salvaged and relocated to Richmond. The Model 1861 Rifle-Musket, with a 40 inch .58 caliber barrel, was manufactured in 1861 and 1862. Contractors produced at least 402,909 M1861 Muskets, and when combined with the 265,129 produced at Springfield, the total production of the Model 1861 Rifle-Musket was 668,038.

There was also a Special Model of 1861 Contract Rifle-Musket which was not produced at Springfield, but rather completely by contractors in total quantity of 152,000. The parts on the .58 caliber, 40 inch barrel Special Model are not interchangeable with the M1861, and this model is sometimes referred to as a "Colt" Musket because that firm produced thousands and the name was prominately displayed on the lock plate.

The last muzzleloading Musket designed and produced by American military authorities was the Model 1863 Rifle-Musket. More than 500,000 of these arms were produced by the Springfield Armory in 1864 and 1865, and no known contracts exist for these arms, although several contractors modified later deliveries on 1861 Muskets to conform to the new M1863 design.

The Musket was, by far, the predominant design for military longarms in the early to middle Nineteenth Century. Musket-length production far outnumbered Rifle-length production in both the Flintlock and Percussion Models until after the Civil War. Smoothbore Muskets dominated the early armaments of the Civil War soldier because they were in such copious supply -- Model 1816's and 1842's were serving in the field as late as early 1864 in the Western Theater. No other military weapon is more culturally welded to the Civil War than the Musket, be it in smoothbore or rifled form. Many of today's reenacting units specify a Musket as the only allowable arm, a decision based on cold, hard facts. Indeed, some events will not allow some rifle versions to be carried because of the great improbability that they were not carried in the field at the original battle.

Well, I got long winded and didn't get to include Enfields, so I'll try and cover the Model 1853 and 1858 Enfield in an upcoming column. Until then, promote responsible gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

1999 by Tom Kelley

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