Frank Wesson Rifle
Service Long Gun / Cavalry Carbine
The Frank Wesson line of rifles and carbines found their way into the fighting of the American Civil War and remained popular thereafter.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
By the time of the American Civil War (1961-1865), firearms were advancing to a stage where they would better reflect contemporary service rifles. Breech-loading was becoming more commonplace as was barrel rifling. Also seeing its own evolution was the self-contained metallic cartridge which helped firearms to do away with the established percussion system of operation. This, in turn, helped to reduce loading/reloading times considerably.
Frank Wesson (1828-1899) - brother to Daniel Wesson of Smith & Wesson fame - ran his own small arms workshop out of Worchester, Massachusetts and mainly contributed civilian market models prior to the war. In 1859, he, along with N.S. Harrington, secured a patent for an improved breech-loading firearm. Soon after, the Frank Wesson Rifle was born.
This weapon was in .22, .32. 38 and .44. They were notable guns in that they became some of the first rifles to use only metallic rimfire cartridges. The breech action was of a "tip up" design which quickly gave access to the chamber for reloading. This resulted in a shooter that could fire off nearly ten rounds per minute. Since the metallic cartridge was self-contained, not extra powder charge, ball bullet or percussion caps needed to be carried. Additionally the self-contained cartridge better protected the contents of the cartridge from environmental factors that plagued earlier flintlock and ball-and-powder guns.
The Frank Wesson Rifle and carbine form were both used in the fighting of the Civil War. They were more readily available to the North who also held the capacity to manufacture the needed rimfire ammunition but were known to have been smuggled to the South by various means. Some 44,000 Frank Wesson guns were manufactured well into the mid-1870s. Another patent, this one from 1862, was granted to Wesson and this detailed an improvement to the breech-loading system.
The standard Frank Wesson long gun weighed 8.5lb while the shortened carbine model had a 6lb overall weight. Overall length measured 43 inches and the long gun version had a barrel (hexagonal) of 34 inch length and the carbine followed with a 24 inch long barrel. The gun fired a single round through a two-trigger arrangement - the fore trigger managing the break-action and the aft trigger used for actually firing the gun. The frame appeared in both brass and iron finishes during its production run.
Iron sights provided the shooter with some ranged accuracy and it is known that military versions were sighted to 100, 250 and 500 yards. Effective range was out to 200 yards while the listed maximum range was 500 yards (though with reduced accuracy and penetration value). The bullet's muzzle velocity was 1,000 feet-per-second.
As many as 4,000 Frank Wesson guns are believed to have seen action in the bloody American conflict as government arsenals, state militias and even private buyers committed to the type. The guns saw action in the famous Battle of Gettysburg of July 1863 and proved popular throughout their turn in the war. The carbine model was particularly popular with cavalry men who could relatively easily wield them from horseback and load/reload them at speed. The gun retained its lethality when the rider dismounted and could further be used as an effective club in close-ranged fighting.
One of the noted drawbacks of early Frank Wesson rifles and carbines was the propensity for the hot spent cartridge to expand in the breech beyond what was necessary - leading to tough extractions that required either fingers or a ramrod. Beyond that, the guns were well-liked and proven accurate through some rather high-profile displays.
The Frank Wesson line continued in manufacture even after the close of the war in 1865. Beyond normal post-war production, the civilian market was the beneficial recipient of war surplus during the post-war military drawdown. The line was used at the military level, and marketed to civilians, into the 1880s.