February 10, 2022
By Kurt Allemeier
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Gunsmiths of the 19th century struggled as businessmen as they tried to contrive the next advance in weapon technology.
Samuel Colt suffered financial difficulty early on in his career before receiving the order for 1,000 Colt Walker pistols by the U.S. Army for use in the Mexican-American War.
Henry Deringer had no patent protection for his pocket pistols and fought infringements by duplicators most of his career.
Walter Hunt had trouble finding a market for his early repeating rifle. He sold to Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. They still didn’t find broad success and sold to investor Oliver Winchester in 1855.
Butterfield’s revolver had a patented priming system that fed priming discs from a spring-loaded tube. Chambered in .41 caliber with a seven-inch barrel, the number of guns made has been reported as either 590 or 640. The one up for auction is serial number 539.
The gun has a rounded frame with an aged patina. The blued barrel and cylinder shows the wear of the last 160 years. Just in front of the trigger is the spring-loaded channel to the magazine where the priming discs for the patented self-priming were loaded.
The self-priming system worked with the action of the hammer working as the carrier to deposit a wafer-like detonating disc precisely and cleanly over the nipple. The primer discs fed from an adhesive column rather than loading them loosely and individually for a more precise feed.
Let’s learn about Jesse Butterfield before we learn about his disastrous business deal.
Philadelphia gunmaker Jesse Butterfield is quite the dandy, photographed in a top hat holding his Army Model percussion revolver.
Butterfield was born into a Philadelphia family of gunsmiths but was also listed in city directories as a painter, blacksmith, tinsmith, and engineer. His father, Benjamin Butterfield, made the Sharps Model 1849 and Model 1850 sporting rifles at the A.S. Nippes Company of Philadelphia.
Christian Sharps also had trouble finding financing early in his career (it’s a theme!), but more than 80,000 carbines and 10,000 rifles bearing his name were bought by the Union during the Civil War.
The younger Butterfield earned a patent in 1855 for the gun lock with the self-feeding priming device as well as two other patents related to refining the self-feeding primer. The system was similar to Sharps’ principle. Self-primers were popular between 1845 and 1865 for providing more rapid firing, being waterproof and having surer ignition.
The automatic priming device located directly in front of trigger worked like this, according to magazine writer James E. Serven in the December 1965 issue of “Guns:”
“When the single-action hammer was drawn back, a flat tongue-like carrier, with a hole near its forward end to receive the detonating disc, picked up the disc from the spring-activated magazine tube and moved it forward to its correct position, over the cone,” Serven wrote.
"Guns" December 1965 issue features a cover story about the Civil War Era Butterfield Army Model percussion revolver.
In 1858, Butterfield urged the U.S. Army to look at his device’s use on a musket, and his firm, J.B. Butterfield and Company, earned a $3,000 government contract the following year for applying the primer system to 5,000 muskets. It is believed that Butterfield didn’t deliver on the conversion of all the muskets.
Butterfield also made derringer pistols with the self-priming system that have realized five-figure prices on at least three occasions at Rock Island Auction Company. The only difference between Butterfield’s single-shot pistol and Henry Deringer’s is that Butterfield used his proprietary self-priming magazine.
The Philadelphian was commissioned to make a five-shot revolver for the “Ira Harris Guards” of the 5th New York Cavalry that was mobilizing for the Civil War in 1861. The unit was authorized to purchase 2,280 “revolver pistols” along with swords and horse equipment. A member of the unit, without authorization, contacted J.B. Butterfield and Company about supplying the pistols.
In June 1862, Butterfield wrote to the Chief of the Army’s Ordnance Bureau that his company had spent more than $10,000 to alter tools, new machinery, and materials but that nearly all the gun’s parts were made and production is ready to begin.
“Will you oblige us by stating, by return mail, where we shall present them for inspection, whether at our factory or at the arsenal?” he wrote.
As the Civil War opened, Jesse Butterfield thought he had a buyer for his percussion revolver, but he was soon proven mistaken.
The Ordnance Bureau, in correspondence with the “Ira Harris Guards,” noted that no contract with an agreed-upon price was signed nor approved. Also, a request to Butterfield to inspect the letter between his company and New York cavalry unit went unanswered.
The Ordnance Bureau directed that no guns under the unauthorized agreement be received and that the revolvers could be purchased privately at market rate.
The revolvers attracted few buyers on the open market despite the need for guns during the Civil War. W. Stokes Kirk Sr., who published a Philadelphia catalog of weapons, army and navy clothing, and accessories was highly critical of the gun.
“Jesse Butterfield patented his revolver and it was an utter failure. He tried to sell his stock on hand at the close of the Civil War at $1 each and had a hard time to find a customer,” Kirk wrote. “The frame was so close to the cylinder that after the ball was entered, it could not be brought under the rammer until it had been forced into the cylinder by hand."
A larger version of Butterfield’s five-shot revolver existed at one time, but Serven wrote that only one was publicized. It was described as dragoon-sized and weighing over five pounds. Its mechanical function and design matched that of the standard-sized pistol.
There was plenty of innovation in gun making during the 19th century and Jesse Butterfield held three patents to show that he had the right stuff. The problem was he was so bereft of business acumen that he couldn’t sell a gun during the American Civil War. Despite Butterfield’s failings, Serven noted that the .41 caliber percussion revolver was prized by collectors – an appreciation one century too late.
The Butterfield Guns, by James E. Serven, Guns, December 1965
Sharps Model 1853 Single Shot Breechloading Percussion Carbine, NRAMuseum.org
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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