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Home > Gallery - Previously Sold Custom-Built Firearms > Confderate-Altered M1803 Harper's Ferry Rifle

Confderate-Altered M1803 Harper's Ferry Rifle

Here's a great example of an early war Confederate musket. The M1803 rifle was built by the Harper's Ferry Armory and has the distinction of being the first rifle produced by an American armory. The rifle was initially suggested by Secretary of War Henry Dearbon, who believed a short-barreled rifle would make it easier to charge enemy positions and be "less likely to fowl by firing." The task of designing the new rifle was given to Harper's Ferry Superintendent Joseph Perkin. Perkin developed the new rifle and submitted the new pattern to the War Department in November of 1803. The new pattern was approved that same year and an order for 2,000 was placed. Production was slowed from several difficulties encountered at Harper's Ferry including two devastating outbreaks of Malaria in 1805 and 1806. Despite the complications, the War Department ordered an additional 2,000 rifles in late 1806. The order was completed in 1807 with the Armory's delivery of 4,000 rifles. Another order was placed in 1814 and production of the M1803 continued until 1819 with a total of 15,703 rifles completed during this time. 

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the M1803 had long been considered obsolete and thus there were a number of them sitting in storage, along with countless other obsolete weapons, at Harper's Ferry when it was captured by Confederate forces in 1861.  Suffering from severe arms shortages, the Confederacy had no choice but to call upon these obsolete flintlocks for issuance among it's troops. Some, including several M1803s were sent to small state-owned arsenals to be converted to percussion an adapted to suit the "modern" needs of the Confederate Army. These alterations varied depending on the firms that did them, but often included adapting the muzzle to accept a bayonet and re-boring the barrel to accept a standard .58 caliber minie ball. These altered weapons were issued to both state troops and the regular army and were used by many units until the war's end in 1865.

This particular M1803 is an excellent reproduction of a Confederate-altered flintlock rifle. This rifle was originally built by Navy Arms and featured a un-reliable flintlock, a lacqured stock and a poorly browned barrel. We gave the rifle to Steve Krolick to work his "magic" on it. Steve started by converting the lock from flint to percussion. This was accomplished by removing the pan, frizzen, and frizzen spring, and filling their holes with filler screws that were filed flush with the lock plate. The hammer was then converted to percussion using methods that were very common among Confederate-altered guns. First, the top jaw was removed from the cock and the flint post was ground off. Then, a new percussion striker was made to attach to the cock. The original top jaw screw was then used to join the two pieces so that they could be permanently brazed together. The resulting hammer is a perfect copy of many of the Confederate-altered flintlocks seen in Howard Madeaus and John Murphy's book, Confederate Rifle and Muskets.  To our knowledge, this is the first time that this type of alteration has been offered on a reproduction gun; meaning it's bound to turn some heads! Not only does the hammer look good, but it's also extremely strong; gaining extra stability from the top jaw screw that holds the two pieces firmly in place. The conversion work was completed with the installation of a custom-made drum in the barrel.

The alteration work continued with the addition of a brazed bayonet lug to the muzzle of the barrel. Steve then fitted a saber bayonet to the barrel to give this weapon a very menacing look. Both the bayonet lug and the bayonet are numbered; another feature that can be found on original Confederate-altered guns. Original records indicate that altered weapons were also polished bright during their overhauls, as the Confederacy's need for guns didn't allow for the time needed to re-brown barrels. Steve replicated this feature by polishing all the steel parts to "armory bright" after defarbing both the lock plate and the barrel by removing the incorrect Italian markings and stamping the correct markings in their place. 

Steve then added swivels to the rifle; securely anchoring the front swivel in the rib of the barrel and using a Richmond carbine-style stud to secure the rear swivel in the stock. Finally, Steve finished the work by re-shaping the stock to its correct dimensions before staining it and applying several coats of hand-rubbed oil finish. 

 While researching this project, we had the opportunity to examine two original M1803's in private collections that had been altered in this way and we designed the features of this rifle using the originals as a reference. This allows us to offer a rifle that is both 100% historically accurate and simply awesome to behold.. One look at its converted lock and bayonet mounted barrel invokes images of hard-faced Confederate soldiers defending their homes with any improvised weapon they could get their hands on. This is the perfect rifle for any Confederate reenactor or living historian as it's appropriate for both early war and late war impressions. 

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