Rock Island Auction Company

Lot 233: Cased William Craig Pittsburgh Percussion Target Rifle & Scope

Auction Date: September 10, 2021

Historic Documented Civil War Union Sharpshooter's Cased William Craig, Pittsburgh Percussion Target Rifle with Morgan James Scope, False Muzzle, Accessories, Powder Horn and Diaries of R.J. May of Company D of the 2nd Bucktail Regiment and the Sharpshooter Battalion

Price Realized:
Estimated Price: $35,000 - $55,000

Historic Documented Civil War Union Sharpshooter's Cased William Craig, Pittsburgh Percussion Target Rifle with Morgan James Scope, False Muzzle, Accessories, Powder Horn and Diaries of R.J. May of Company D of the 2nd Bucktail Regiment and the Sharpshooter Battalion

Manufacturer: William Craig
Model: Percussion
Type: Rifle
Gauge: 50
Barrel: 30 1/4 inch octagon
Finish: brown/casehardened
Stock: walnut
Item Views: 1712
Item Interest: Very Active
Serial Number:
Catalog Page: 178
Class: Antique

Many mid-19th century percussion target rifles are often believed to have been used by sharpshooters during the American Civil War, but relatively few have been identified as actually purchased and used by a genuine member of a sharpshooter unit during the war. This rifle has just that, and it has far more than an attribution: the actual diaries of the sharpshooter that owned and used this rifle during the Civil War are included, and these diaries include direct references to the purchase and use of his "Telescope rifle." Both the original historic three volumes and the modern transcription "The Civil War Diaries of a Union Soldier: Private Robert John May, Pittsburgh, Pa." accompany this historic rifle. The transcription includes the likeness of the rifle and the powder horn on the main title page and on the title page for each diary volume. Also included is an envelope of letters from and to May during the war discussing events (mainly letters written by him to his brother), a handwritten roster for Company D, and express receipts. Writing on January 3, 1863, he notes he had given Lincoln's "paw a wag" while stationed in D.C. and felt sorry for the president. One of the letters from the end of the war discusses the rumor of Jefferson Davis wearing petticoats. The rifle's case is also marked "R.J. MAY." on the lid, and the powder horn is inscribed "R.J. May" on the base plug and is also discussed in the diaries. Together, this creates an incredible documented set that would be a historically significant addition to any institutional or private collection of Civil War arms. Union sharpshooter Private Robert John May (1830-1896) served in Company D of the famous 149th Pennsylvania, the 2nd Bucktail Regiment. The unit's service is covered in detail in "General History of Company D, 149th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Personal Sketches of the Members" compiled by John W. Nesbit (copy included) which includes an entry for May stating he "enlisted August 22nd, 1862, and served with the company until the Sharpshooter's Battalion was organized, when he was transferred to that service and served there until the close of the war. Private May was an excellent soldier, intelligent and conscientious. He served the entire term without wounds or sickness, taking part in every battle, skirmish or march in which the Regiment was engaged. He was born December 25th, 1830, in Allegheny City, Pa." It notes he worked in the foundry and machine business with his brother and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as the superintendent of the Kingsland & Ferguson Foundry and Machine Co. and also worked at the government arsenal there until April of 1861 when he moved to Pittsburgh where he operated a foundry and machine business at Elizabeth and later Keesport. He remained in that line of business until his death on April 10, 1896. He mustered out at Elmira, New York, in June 1865 as discussed in one of the included letters. Page 49 of the book discussed May's move to the Corps Sharpshooter Battalion and states: "The sharpshooters were known throughout the Corps for their daring and effective work." The men of the Bucktails wore bucktails on their hats as symbols of their superior marksmanship and were talented skirmishers and sharpshooters. They fought in the 1st Army Corps in 1863 to spring of 1864 and then the 5th Army Corps until the end of the war and saw action Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Globe Tavern, Hatcher's Run, and Five Forks. They lost 4 officers and 160 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and an additional 172 enlisted men from disease. Three monuments to the 149th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment are on the hollowed grounds of the Gettysburg battlefield, including a monument to Company D southwest of Gettysburg at the north end of West Confederate Avenue at Middle Street that was erected in 1886. In the included diaries, May wrote about his experiences, including at Gettysburg. July 2, 1863: "It is likely the fight today will be a decisive one...there has been a terrific cannonading today...Our corps was held in reserve until near dark when the enemy became more furious in our front and on the left when we were thrown to the second line from the front. -We drove the Rebs beautifully - our Brigade were sent out (what was left of it) on Picket and remained - our Div. was cut to pieces yesterday - I might say the corps -Our Brigade wont' make a Reg't - our Reg't went in with about 400 & have a little over 100 - It is said today witnessed the hardest fighting of the war." July 3, 1863: "Remained all last night on picket - had no sleep - a most disagreeable duty we lay on the Battlefield with dead and dying on all sides- the suffering of the wounded was terrible... This morning the enemy opened on our lines with their [artillery] - very soon they got their answer and more - the nearest Reb Battery was only about 500 yds. in front of us where we lat at the picket line....we lay under the fire of both lines of artillery for nearly two hours - our own guns came very near ruining us several times - dropping shells within a few feet of us..." Sharpshooters during the war are known to have brought their own privately owned target rifles rather than use issued rifles. In many instances, they were already very experienced using their custom built target rifles which were more accurate than a standard rifle-musket or most of the other arms the men would have been issued by the government, but in some instances, they also purchased new rifles for use in the war. Excepts from May's diaries are included and indicate he was selected for sharpshooter duty and ordered and received a "Telescope rifle" while stationed at Petersburg. In an entry on July 19, 1864, "In front of Peter'g, Va." he said, "Wrote to Will concerning those Telescopic rifles. . ." (his brother William May), and the following day wrote, "This morning more names were taken for the sharp-shooting Battalion. Wrote to Will this evening ordering two 'Target rifles' -one for Ustick Rothrock." Rothrock was a comrade from Company D who served with May and the sharpshooters. A letter from May to his brother in August of 1864 notes that "U.R." liked his gun, and another to May from Rothrock in November 1865 is included discussing their friendship. Further entries from Petersburg in August include: August 7: "I last night rec'd a letter from Will containing express rec'pt for two gun..."August 12: "I am getting impatient for my Telescope." August 15: "...four of us went to our captn of Sharpshooters to report to duty..." August 17: "I rec'd my Telescope Rifle yesterday evening & so did some others - I am well pleased with my gun." On September 1 at "P & W. R.R. Va." he wrote, "eight of us - with our Telescopes, went nearly a mile [and a quarter] toward Petersburg along the R.R. and took position. The Johns honored me with a few shots while I was crossing the road [wagon] pretty soon we opened on them at about 700 yards - in about an hour two rebs came out signifying a desire for a talk, one of our pickets met them. It was agreed there would be no firing, except an advance should be attempted by either party..." One the 10th, he noted having an accidental discharged that damaged his wiping rod and required him to pull a ball. On the 17th at "The Yellow House, Va." he "was busy making a Powder horn" and on the 20th he notes "I worked at a horn Powder-flask during spare time." On the 5th of October, he shipped the case home from City Point. Other entries note the success in the sharpshooters such as a report on October 9, 1864 at "Pegram place" of a Confederate deserter telling them they had killed 7 gunners and 6 horses of the Confederate battery. On November 24, 1864, May "cleaned up my Telescope and made a new wiping-stick", He notes of practicing in January 1865. The gunmaker, William Craig (c. 1820-1877), is listed as born in England and as working as a gunmaker in Pittsburgh, P.A. c. 1844-1847 before moving to California from 1857 to c. 1860. He returned to Pennsylvania during the Civil War. This rifle gunsmith in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1844-1847. He moved to California in 1857 and is still in the 1860 Census in Sonora. Shortly after 1860, he returned to Pennsylvania. The barrel is signed "Wm CRAIG/PITTSBURGH." on top ahead of the breech and has a turned down muzzle with a textured band and post holes for the included false muzzle as well as small holes in the breech section for use with a rest and a thin dovetail near the muzzle for the front scope mount. The rear scope mount fits into the upper tang. The scope is 35 1/2 inches long and is marked "M JAMES/UTICA" for well-known early scope and rifle maker Morgan James of Utica, New York. The ramrod ferrules are mounted to the underside of the barrel using dovetails. The massive breech plug has a cleanout screw and is marked "Wm CRAIG" on the upper left. The back action lock has a scene of a dog chasing a pheasant and scroll and border engraving. The rifle has double set triggers, and the trigger guard is spurred. The half-stock has coarse diamond checkering and a crescent iron buttplate and toe plate. The case contains a wide variety of shooting and maintenance accouterments. The powder flask is missing the top which is notable since the powder horn made by May has an "AM. FLASK & CAP CO." top fitted to the mouth with an adjustable spout. The horn is an interesting design between a normal rounded horn and a flat horn. It is flattened at the base and has a base plug shaped almost like the sole of a boot with a staple surrounded by crosshatching on the "heel" and "R.J. May" inscribed in the "toe" section.

Rating Definition:

Fine with 50% of the original plum brown finish remaining on the barrel blended with smooth brown patina. The breech plug has light original case colors, and the balance has a silver-gray to pewter-gray patina and mild overall wear. The lock engraving and markings remain crisp. The hammer is a repaired period replacement. The stock has a clean repair above the hammer and is otherwise also very good with crisp checkering, minor scratches and dings, and smooth finish. Mechanically fine. The scope has fairly clear optics, a slightly deformed crosshair, and most of the period reapplied finish. The case is very good and has mild age and storage wear. The powder horn is very good and has minor age and storage related wear, aged patina on the spout, and a crisp "R.J. May" inscription on the base. The other accessories range from very good to fair. This is a very rare and desirable Civil War sharpshooter rifle owned by a marksman who kept detailed records of his service, including the purchase and use of his "telescope rifle."

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