Brass Framed Beauties
By Joel R. Kolander
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about firearms that utilize so-called “brass” in their construction. First and foremost is that very few of them involve actual brass at all. Most use an alloy known as gunmetal – a strong type of bronze made with copper, tin, zinc, and sometimes a small amount of lead. Also known as “red brass,” the U.S. Ordnance department at one point made it with a combination of copper (88%), tin (8%), and zinc (4%). This can make things rather confusing since bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and brass is comprised of copper and zinc. There are also more than 500 different combinations of bronze so most modern museums have begun using the simpler term “copper alloy.” Combine all that with the golden color, instead of the more traditional copper-like hues of bronze, and it’s no wonder that people referred to these guns “brass.”
That in mind we’re going to take a look at some of the firearms in our June 21-24 Regional Firearms Auction that utilized gunmetal in their creation. Some of them you’ll know, and others you may be meeting for the fist time, but they all share that distinct golden sheen collectors love.
1. New Haven Arms Volcanic Pistol
A classic well-known to most collectors is the Volcanic lever action pistol. Its design came from the first, defunct iteration of Smith & Wesson which utilized a primed version of Walter Hunt’s “Rocket Ball,” as well as an iron frame. However, when Smith & Wesson had to take on investors, the company was renamed the “Volcanic Repeating Arms Company” in 1855. Daniel B. Wesson left the newly reorganized company within 8 months and Horace Smith even sooner. The newly formed company was quickly forced into insolvency by one of its new investors, Oliver Winchester, who promptly took ownership and moved the whole operation to New Haven, Connecticut, where it was re-christened the New Haven Arms Company.
Winchester quickly began making changes, notably using bronze receivers. A puzzling change given that bronze was weaker and more expensive than iron. Then again, with the low energy of the Volcanic rounds, receiver strength was likely not a primary concern. Bronze wears more quickly than iron, but is lighter, more flexible, does not rust, and is easier to manufacture than iron courtesy of a lower temperature required to cast the metal. This ease of manufacture is today’s prevailing wisdom as to Winchester’s choice of material.
Whatever the reasons for the conversion, the result was a pistol that was durable enough to handle the frontier life and the light Volcanic rounds, and did so with an extremely distinct finish.
2. New Haven Arms Henry Rifle
Ah, the venerable Henry rifle. New Haven Arms combined the mechanisms and patents of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company along with the metallic cartridge that Benjamin Tyler Henry had developed around 1858. It was an improved and more powerful version of Smith & Wesson’s .22 caliber rimfire round – a .44 caliber rimfire round that bested the smaller round’s 500 fps velocity with a relatively speedy 1,200 fps. But Henry’s fame comes not from his developing a cartridge, but rather in developing a firearm that could utilize it. To do so, the receiver needed to be larger to handle the more powerful cartridge, an extraction/ejection system was required, and the new rimfire rounds also necessitated the addition of firing pins independent from the bolt face. Henry accomplished all this in under a year and introduced a new American firearms legend. The Henry rifle was wildly popular and could have experienced greater success had the New Haven manufacturing capabilities been better suited to meeting the large demand.
3. Warner Patent Carbine
New Haven Arms was far from the only manufacturer trying to make a buck by selling arms during the Civil War. James Warner is one such entrepreneur who added to the tidal wave of breech loading carbines created for the Union during that period. His production was done in two large batches, the first of which was an order of 1,501 produced in 1864 on contract by the Massachusetts Arms Co in Springfield. Initially chambered in his own proprietary .50 Warner rimfire cartridge, subsequent carbines were chambered in .56-50 Spencer rimfire (some sources say .56-56 Spencer), and many were later converted. The second contract of 2,500 was delivered to the government in February and March of 1865, with several design changes to accompany the caliber change such as a switch of a sling ring bar for the eye bolt saddle ring, a sturdier extractor, and a change to the breech locking mechanism that was easier to use.
Manufactured too late to have much impact in the Civil War, around 2,500 were sold as surplus to Schuyler, Hartley & Graham, who in turn sold them to France in 1870, then in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War. Some sources cite this 2,500 number being shipped and infer that no second contract Warners saw use in combat during the Civil War. However, that would be a mistake as known examples were issued to the 3rd Massachusetts and 1st Wisconsin Cavalry Regiments. With that evidence in mind, most second contract models may have been sold as surplus to France, or perhaps those sold were a mixture of first and second contract models.
4. Winchester Model 1866
It’s the “Yellow Boy” that started it all for Winchester. It requires little introduction, but for those curious about the drama behind the transition from New Haven Arms to Winchester and the near coup from Benjamin Tyler Henry, you may want to read our previous article on the subject. Most notable changes from the Henry rifle? The addition of the King’s patent loading gate in the receiver removed the necessity for the external magazine follower, thus allowing the magazine tube to be sealed and the addition of a forend stock. King also simplified Henry’s action and improved several internal components. For this Winchester made him the highest paid man in the company, second only to himself.
5. Plant Manufacturing Co. Revolver & Lucius Pond Belt Revolver
The Plant’s Mfg. revolver is the top shown revolver, and the bolt-action looking ejection rod on the the frame certainly draws its share of attention. Plant made about 7,300 of these six-shooters designed to circumvent Rollin White’s patent on the bored through cylinder. To do this, the guns were loaded from the front and utilized cupfire ammunition, and could also be equipped with a standard percussion cylinder.
The bottom revolver is a Lucious Pond Belt revolver, which had much less success avoiding Mr. White’s patent suits. He began producing the small revolvers in 1861, but the very next year was challenged by White. The court ruled against Pond, but language in the ruling allowed completion of revolvers then being assembled. Those included, the total production numbered at 4,486 Belt revolvers, but those completed after the court ruling had to bear the marking “Manuf’d for Smith & Wesson, Pat’d April 5, 1855” and Smith & Wesson was paid a royalty as well.
6. Ketland & Co. Pistols
As seen here, bronze has been used for centuries in weapons manufacture. These pistols from W. Ketland & Co. utilized it to fashion the butt cap, trigger guard, ramrod loops, reinforcing plates, and even the barrel. Indeed the only non-bronze metal on the pistol appears to be the lock, hammer, and screws. Between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, rugged pistols such as these were imported and used abundantly on the frontier. These particular examples were converted from their original flintlock configuration into a percussion system to extend their service life.
Whether you call it bronze, gunmetal, or brass, there is no mistaking the distinct weapons that utilize this ancient metal alloy. It’s qualities of corrosion resistance, strength, flexibility, and ease of manufacture made it a choice of numerous firearms manufacturers. Today, while copper alloys are not used outside of replica firearms, the gold-colored receivers remain today as a reminder of a brief era in American firearms design when many things that today we consider near dogma had yet to be cemented in place – even the very material guns were made of.
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