Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 1186: Morse Breech Loading Cartridge U.S. Harpers Ferry 1841 Rifle

Auction Date: September 11, 2021

Incredibly Rare Documented Morse Experimental Breech Loading Center-Fire Alteration of a U.S. Harpers Ferry Model 1841 "Mississippi" Rifle

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $20,000 - $35,000

Incredibly Rare Documented Morse Experimental Breech Loading Center-Fire Alteration of a U.S. Harpers Ferry Model 1841 "Mississippi" Rifle

Manufacturer: Harpers Ferry Armory Muskets And Carbines
Model: 1841-Rifle
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 54
Barrel: 29 1/2 inch round
Finish: brown/casehardened
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 970
Item Interest: Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 142
Class: Antique

The Morse breech loading cartridge alteration U.S. Harpers Ferry Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifle is described on pages 175-177 of George D. Moller's book "American Military Shoulder Arms Volume III", with this exact rifle photographed on pages 176 and 177, in which it states, "Four Model 1841 rifles were altered at Harpers Ferry Armory in 1859 to the Morse breech loading system..." and states each of the three known surviving examples has features differing from the next; one of which is in Springfield Armory museum collection, item SPAR 949. The book states, "By the mid-1850s, the U.S. Congress recognized the shortcomings inherent in the hundred of thousands of percussion-altered flintlock smooth-bored muskets, Model 1842 smooth-bored muskets, and obsolete rifles possessed by the Army... It was hoped that a breechloading alteration could be applied to the old .69 caliber muskets and .54 caliber rifles that would somehow modernize the large numbers of these obsolete arms to serviceability... In response to this perceived need for breechloading arms, on June 12, 1858, the U.S. Congress approved the Army Appropriation Act for the following year. This act included an appropriation 'for the alteration of old arms so as to make them Breechloading arms upon a model to be selected and approved by a Board of Ordnance Officers.' Pursuant to this act, Ordnance Board officers were appointed by the secretary of war on July 8. Chief of Ordnance Colonel Craig wrote to several makers of breechloading arms, such as George W. Morse, James H. Merrill, Thomas Poultney, and Dr. Edwin Maynard, inviting them to present models for the alteration of arms to breechloading. These trials were to be of breechloading rifles and muskets, not carbines. The Ordnance Board met on July 22, 1858, at West Point. Only three breechloading systems were submitted and tested in these trials. The trials report recommended procurement of a limited quantity of arms based on the breechloading system of George Morse for field trials... On September 9, 1858, Morse granted the government the right to alter 2,500 arms to his breechloading system, for which he was paid $10,000.00... In July 1860, the Ordnance Department ordered Harpers Ferry Armory to alter Model 1841 rifles to the Morse breechloading system... The Model 1841 [and Model 1816] rifles undergoing alteration to the Morse breechloading system were among the arms destroyed in the April 18, 1861, fire at the Harpers Ferry Armory... The annual 'Report of the Principal Operations at the Springfield Armory, for the year ended June 30, 1859' states, '4 Harpers Ferry Rifles [were] altered to Morse' Breech Loader.' A single rifle appears to have been altered in June, perhaps to serve as a prototype for the three additional model rifles that were completed in September. Apparently, these rifles were transferred to Washington Arsenal." This rifle likely predates the subsequent Harpers Ferry Armory alterations performed c. 1860-61, of which Flayderman's Guide only references Morse alterations performed on Model 1816 muskets with no mention of M1841 rifles, but does state boldly, "The Morse is of great importance in firearms evolution, as the first U.S. breech-loading [center-fire metallic] cartridge longarm." This is also the first center-fire metallic cartridge U.S. longarm! The lock is dated 1852. The distinctive external "hammer" is used as a lever to manually cock the internal firing pin and unlock the breech lever. The top of the barrel of this example is "JGB" (James G. Benton) inspector marked forward of breech mechanism on top of barrel with an "I" marked after. "JLR" (John L. Reseler) inspector initials are marked on the left stock flat. "GDM" (George D. Moller) collection initials marked at the toe of the stock. Includes leather sling and wood tampion. Provenance: The George Moller Collection

Rating Definition:

Fine, retaining 50% thinning original brown finish on the barrel with the lock and hammer turned to a gray patina. The brass fittings retain an attractive bright color. Stock is also fine with some scattered scratches and dents, a crack ahead of the lock, and a mild scratch above the patch box. Mechanically fine. As one of only four known early experimental Morse center-fire alterations of a Model 1841 Mississippi rifle, this is as rare as it gets, and the only one ever offered for sale by Rock Island Auction!

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