By Robert P. Broadwater
The Model 1817 is normally referred to as the “Common Rifle” by both collectors and historians. It derived its name due to that it was being manufactured simultaneously with the Hall’s Rifle and the 1817 was the more common of the two (the Hall being a breechloading weapon), but there was definitely nothing common about this unique offering to U.S. martial weapons.
The first thing that makes the M1817 different is the fact that it is the only primary issue weapon in U.S. military history to be entirely produced by way of contracts with none of the rifles being made at a National Armory. Though the design was created at the Harper’s Ferry Armory, the entire production of 38,200 were made by five outside contractors: H. Deringer, R. Johnson, Simeon North, N. Starr, and R. & J.D. Johnson. Deringer produced the highest number, with some 13,000 rifles completed, while R. & J.D. Johnson manufactured the least, with a total of 3,000.
The first two features that meet the eye when looking at a M1817 is the attractive oval patchbox in the stock and the configuration of the stock itself. When one looks at the M1817, they are in some ways reminded of a Kentucky Long Rifle. The popularity and reputation of the Kentucky and Pennsylvania Long Rifle was evidenced in the design of the M1817 stock which was crafted to reflect the appearance of those weapons with its gracefully sloping butt stock.
The mere fact that it was a rifle made it uncommon in 1817, when it first went into production. In an era of smooth bore production, the seven groove rifling in the barrel of the M1817 was indeed an oddity. Up to this time, rifles were designated to be carried only by specific units of “Riflemen.” The smooth bore, fired at close order from solid lines of men, standing shoulder to shoulder, was still the favored weapon with the commanding officers of the world’s armies.
The government was issuing a rifled weapon on a large scale for the first time in military history. Given the small size of the standing American army during this period, it can be safely stated that a higher percentage of American soldiers had access to the improved rifled muskets than soldiers in any other army in the world.
The specifications for the rifle were a 54 caliber and a 36" barrel attached to the stock by means of three barrel bands. In its original flintlock configuration, it has a brass flashpan, with no fence, attached to a case-hardened lockplate. Mountings were of iron with all metal parts being finished brown. Locks were marked by the individual markers, but there were US markings present on the weapons as well—a “US/P/” at the breech of the barrel, and a “US” on the tang of the butt plate. The stocks were made of walnut, and the ramrods were of the trumpet type, with brass heads. There was no provision made for a bayonet, as the rifle was not intended to be used with one.
The duration of manufacture lasted from 1817 until 1840, (with the greatest production taking place in the 1820s) making it also one of the most tenured longarms in American military history. Toward the end of the production run, the new percussion system was beginning to be adopted by many nations as their standard infantry weapons. The U.S. Model 1842, while still a smooth bore, was the first American military percussion musket to be adopted for service. It was the M1842 that was the standard American musket during the Mexican-American War, but a large number of M1817s also made the trip south of the border. The advent of the percussion era relegated all flintlocks obsolete, and the M1817 was no exception. When the ordnance department began the process of converting many of their old flintlocks to percussion in the 1840s and 1850s, the Model 1817 was a prime candidate. Because it was a rifled piece, the “Common Rifle” was a natural choice for the conversions that were taking place both at the national armories as well as through government contract. Many examples of percussion M1817s exist today with both the French and Belgian type of conversions.
By the time of the U.S. Civil War, most of the M1817s were stored in various state arsenals with a large number of these being in the South. The rarest and most soughtafter version of the M1817 was a result of this southern connection. M.A. Baker, gunsmith in Fayetteville, N.C., received a Confederate contract to convert a number of M1816 and M1817 muskets that were still in the original flintlock. It is not known how many total rifles Baker converted, but the number was definitely under 1,000 for both models combined. Lockplates are marked “M.A. Baker/ Fayetteville, N.C.” and many will also have “N. Carolina” stamped on to the barrel. Production began in 1862 and was completed in 1863.
Confederates were not the only ones to use the M1817 when the Civil War broke out. Many Union troops also carried them into battle, from all accounts, they were well received by the troops, and were far preferable to a Model 1816 or even a Model 1842, by reason of their rifling. Their major drawback in the field was the fact that they were 54 caliber, necessitating ordinance officers to stock yet another bullet to go along with the more common .58 and .69 calibers. When the M1817 Rifles were eventually pulled out of service in favor of the Model 1861, it was as much to solve the problem of ammunition supply and uniformity as anything.
They remain one of the more graceful in appearance and better-made of all of the U.S. military longarms to be produced, from the time of their introduction through the Civil War.
A note to the buyer: Beware of flintlock re-conversions. As with any flintlock, nefarious examples have been seen in the market. Regrettably, the much higher value of the flintlock rifles has prompted some unscrupulous individuals to alter percussion converted pieces. As most of the M1817s were made into percussion pieces in the 1840s and 1850s, the buyer should show necessary caution when considering any flintlock example. Get it checked out by an expert before making that purchase.
Production By Contractor
H. Deringer of Philadelphia — 13,000
Nathan Starr & Co. of Middleton, Conn. — 10,200
Simeon North of Middleton, Conn. — 7,200
R. Johnson of Middleton, Conn. — 5,000
R. & J. D. Johnson of Middleton, Conn. — 3,000
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