Unusual Percussion Altered Model 1817 Common Rifle
Offered here is a quite interesting percussion alteration of a Model 1817 Common Rifle. This rifle is a product of Robert Johnson's 1819 contract for 5,000 guns. These rifles were delivered from 1819 to 1823, with this example being one of 1,340 rifles delivered in 1821. Although 1817 Common Rifles are known to have been produced with browned finishes, based on the time frame of deliveries for this contract, and the fact that there are no recorded payments to Johnson for browning the rifles this first contract was delivered with a bright finish. Production of the Model 1817 Common Rifle would continue until 1846, at which point 38,267 had been delivered.
Given the long period of military usage these guns saw, they are generally fairly uncommon today, especially those rifles produced in the 1819 to 1823, which account for less than 19% of total deliveries. Model 1817 Common Rifles saw service in the hands of various State Militias in conflicts with Indians throughout the 1830s and in the Mexican-American War. During the late 1850s no less than 7,789 Common Rifles were percussioned by the Federal Government, and at the start of the Civil War thousands more would be percussion altered to arm the thousands of young men flocking to the colors
Most commonly percussion alterations encountered on Model 1817 Common Rifles are civilian, or possibly Confederate "drum" type alterations. Less frequently National Armory cone-in-barrel alterations are encountered, as well as Confederate brazed bolster alterations and chambered breech alterations known to have been done by a handful of Northern contractors and State Arsenals during the Civil War.
This rifle is quite an anomaly as though it has been percussion altered via the "chambered breech" method, it does not match any known Northern alteration. Known examples of chambered breech altered Model 1817 Common Rifles have been attributed to Henry Leman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the New Jersey State Arsenal at Trenton. Both of these alterations make use of substantial new-made military style hammers and bolsters with clean-out screws. The rifles retain their original sights and are not found to be modified to accept any type of bayonet.
This particular rifle makes use of a civilian style chambered breech with an abnormally long tang for a military rifle. The increased length of the tang required additional inletting to make it fit. The bolster is unfamiliar to me, and not listed in any major text dealing with percussion alterations, although there is a slight resemblance to the muskets altered by Jesse Butterfield of Philadelphia. The hammer is relatively thin and resembles several styles found of sporting rifles and shotguns.
However, the most interesting feature of this rifle is the modification to its front sight. As originally produced Common Rifles feature an iron front blade sight mounted on a rectangular stub about 1.25 inches behind the muzzle. This example has had the front sight filed down into a bayonet lug, and a new brass blade soldered to the forward strap of the upper barrel band. I have encountered this front sight/bayonet lug arrangement before on drum altered Common Rifles attributed to Southern workshops.
The rear sight of the rifle was removed and replaced with a wider based low profile block sight not dissimilar to those found on Model 1803 Rifles. The top surface of the rear barrel band has been filed down slightly to allow for a better sight picture.
At some point in time the rifle served as a "game-getter" and has had its bore reamed to a smooth nominally .60 caliber. The ramrod has been replaced with a wooden ramrod. Fortunately the ramrod was made thin enough that it did not require the ramrod channel to be enlarged to fit.
The forward sling swivel has broken off at the lug. The lock functions, but has a tendency to slip. The upper portion of the cone has also been broken off from usage. The remnant has a patina consistent with the rest of the gun, so obviously happened long ago.
Other than those a fore mentioned modifications the rifle retains its original military configuration. The metal components have a rich brown patina that is thin in a few areas, namely around the breech and the front of the lock. The wood is in good condition with no major cracks, breaks, or repairs. Normal handling marks are scattered and there is a grain crack running from the buttplate to the patch box. The edges of the lock mortise and stock flat have rounded with time, but do not appear to have been sanded.
Overall this is a good representative percussion altered Model 1817 Common Rifle with a really unusual and interesting percussion alteration. With the front sight modification taken into account I think that there is a very good probability that this rifle is of Southern origin. Although no chambered breech alterations are currently attributed to Southern arsenals it could be possible that this rifle represents the work of a former gunsmith that was familiar with building rifles with chambered breeches. Numerous Southern gunsmiths made use of separate breech pieces during the antebellum years, and careful study of their work may indicate a source for this alteration.
That said, without rock solid evidence I cannot claim Confederate usage and the price reflects that. Regardless of its origin, this is one very unique percussion alteration and would make a very nice addition to a display of early war guns.