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History: Weapons that Won the West – The Harper’s Ferry Arsenal

Reprinted from the June 1951
 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

The Harper’s Ferry Arsenal


By D. R. King, High River, Alta.

The day Robert Harper stood on the banks at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and picked out the site of his homestead marked the beginning of a long chapter of history for America. The year was about 1747 when Harper built his tiny cabin. In the same year he also constructed and set into operation a ferry across the Potomac River. In 1804 the Federal Government built an arsenal close by the ferry, known long after its namesake had passed into obscurity, as the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal. Harper’s Ferry has become through the years, almost synonymous with armaments.

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The first arm to be turned out in any number by the new plant was the flintlock rifle calibre .53 having a 33 inch barrel with seven grooves. The smoothbore made at the same time had a longer barrel. It became known as the Model of 1814 and until the adoption of the later model, it was the official United States military rifle. Neither this rifle or its immediate successor was fitted with bayonets. A later model, the Model 1841, a new cap and ball rifled weapon was turned out at Harper’s Ferry and also by the Springfield Armories. This model was known as the Yager or Mississippi Rifle and was of a calibre .54. It also had no bayonet until 1855 when a self-attaching sabre was provided for the arm.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the U.S. Government contracted for nine hundred thousand of these 1855 models, but in 1862 only a fraction, some twenty-one thousand, were delivered to the Government. The next year a total of two hundred and forty-nine thousand were completed. All were called the model of 1855, except three types. The reason for this is that the locks of these three were not interchangeable with those of other contractors. The first men to be armed with the new rifle were the Mississippi troops, hence the name the “Mississippi Rifle.” Later in the Civil War, this model was converted to breech loading. A rival firm, Remington also produced a muzzle loading rifle which was practically identical to the 1855 Harper’s Ferry.

In 1859 John Brown, America’s first active abolitionist, staged his historic assault on the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal. With a force of only eighteen men he successfully attacked the Arsenal and took sixty prisoners. He was later beaten in battle by the Confederate, Robert E. Lee, and ultimately hanged.

On April 17, 1861, when Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Governor Letcher seized the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal, and the federal garrison, finding themselves surrounded by “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces, abandoned the plant in haste leaving raging fires. The Confederate troops extinguished the fires but were too late to save sixteen thousand finished rifles and muskets. Machinery was packed up and moved to Richmond, where the plate dies were altered to the Confederate stamp. Lock plates were then contracted for in England and Germany. The estimated cost of each rifle or musket made by Harper’s Ferry for the Government was from eighteen to twenty dollars.

In the accompanying photograph No. 30 is the 1822 model of the Harper’s Ferry rifle. This weapon originally belonged to the grandfather of Mr. Hugh Bower of Red Deer. The old gentleman passed away in 1885 and the rifle came into the hands of Bower’s father who came West in 1900 with a whole batch of boys. “This was our only gun,” says Bower. “Except father’s Snider, but we boys never got to use that much.” The rifle has been in nearly constant use up until a few years ago. One accident marred the life of the weapon. While it was standing in the corner of a shop, a cow got into the shop, and in turning around, crushed the rifle into the corner, bending the barrel and smashing the fore stock. In the words of Mr. Bower, “I straightened out the barrel and did further shooting with it.”

In time the nipple wore out and Mr. Bower undertook to fashion a replacement. He had the new one completed, but when he drilled out the old nipple to thread it with the new one, the drill was a shade too large. In an attempt to overcome this affair, Bower started to swedge the new nipple in, but had not quite completed the job when he had to abandon the job temporarily. In the interim his brother took a mind to go shooting ducks. Upon firing, the rifle shot both ways at once. The nipple soared out of sight and was never seen again. The lad got three ducks. The nipple has never been replaced.

No. 30A is a Harper’s Ferry owned by George Lewis of High River. Another 1822 model, it has a lock plate made in Middleton Armories by N. Starr, dated 1821. While nosing through a deserted cabin one day, George and his brother discovered this old rifle, which they immediately recognized as belonging to the former inhabitant. The brother loaded it up and they took it out to try it. George was willing to try but his brother would not let him, neither would he himself. Forthwith they tied it to the bannister of a bridge and pulled the trigger with a string. The gun must have been packed full of powder, for when it fired, the recoil smashed the railing to kindling wood.

No. 30B is the 1851 Harper’s Ferry rifle, owned by Mr. R. Scott of Bergen, Alta. It is basically the same rifle, having the standard model 1822 barrel, stock and fittings, but the lock plate is much smaller, more compact, and the lock itself is better designed and manufactured.

Probably no other arm bears the same name and basic parts in such quantity as the Harper’s Ferry rifle, for every year of operation saw a new or different weapon turned out. Consequently there is a vast number of these rifles, possibly partially made at Harper’s Ferry which bear lock plates manufactured in other parts of the U.S. England or Germany.

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