Harpers Ferry Model 1803
Flintlock Muzzle-Loading Rifle
Harpers Ferry Model 1803 Rifle production reached nearly 20,000 units from 1803 to 1819.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
While the Harpers Ferry Model 1795 was America's first smoothbore musket to be produced in number through its national armories, the Harpers Ferry Model 1803 became the country's first standardized "rifle" design to achieve the same claim to fame. The Model 1803 was adopted by both the US Army and Marines who appreciated the type's accuracy at range after successful experiences with rifled long guns for decades prior. Compared to smoothbore muskets, the "rifling" used in the barrel of rifles imparted a rotation on the outgoing bullet, providing improved stability of the projectile at range and thusly affected accuracy considerably. Otherwise, the Model 1803 remained consistent with guns of the period featuring a long wooden body, flintlock action and muzzle-based loading. A piece of flint rock was used to ignite the powder charge (by generating sparks) while the weapon was loaded (by way of the powder and ball ammunition) through the muzzle end, the contents rammed home with the included ramrod. The ramrod was channeled into a housing running underneath the barrel when not in use. Reloading was laborious and thusly required lines of infantry to be used for full shock effect on the enemy - but such was the call of any army of the day.
The Harpers Ferry Model 1803 was also recognized (more formally) as the "U.S. Model 1803".
Outwardly, the Model 1803 was a typical long gun of the times, largely of wood with a metal lockplate along the right side of the body holding the primary metal components. The trigger was slung under the action in the usual way and included a brass trigger pull assembly and ring guard. The grip handle was integral to the design and contoured to become the shoulder stock. A patch box was embedded into the stock. Ahead of the action was the octagonal barrel inlaid to the woodwork. The caliber of the ball ammunition was .54 while the official cartridge was listed as .525. The barrel's length was 33 to 36 inches depending on production batch (there were two major runs). Thusly, overall length was either 49 inches or 52 inches depending on barrel fit. Interestingly, there was no standardized support for a bayonet as development focused more on providing a more compact, lighter weight long gun to growing groups of "riflemen" now set to replace the ages-old musketman in service.
Production of the Model 1803 spanned from 1803 into 1819 to which about 19,726 units were produced in all. The storied facility of Harpers Ferry Armory was born at the turn of the century, following America's first true armory - the Springfield Armory. Harpers Ferry engineers headed the design, development and production of the new rifle to which an initial order for 2,000 rifles quickly grew to 4,000 with the final "first batch" gun delivered in 1807 (4,023 units is officially stated). The Model 1803 was driven, in part, by Secretary of War Henry Dearborn who championed the use of shorter, rifled weapons in combat citing both a shorter length for compactness and rifling for both accuracy and reduction of barrel "fouling".
The Model 1803 became a well-received long gun and, in 1814, a second batch was ordered. At this time, it was seen fit to increase the length of the original barrels slightly from 33 inches to 36 inches to bring its full length up to 52 inches for additional accuracy. Other minor revisions were also introduced. In all, 15,703 new rifles were added to the national stocks which saw officially manufacture of the type end in 1819.
The Model 1803 saw combat service during the largely forgotten War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The war lasted from June of 1812 into February of 1815 with little territorial gain to either side. The weapon stood the test of time as it was featured once again in war, this time through the Mexican-American War from April 25th, 1846 to February 2nd, 1848 which helped to settle the territory of Texas. Stocks remained in play by the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865) when just about any firearm was placed into service due to shortages on both sides. With the two official production runs and an early pre-production assortment, there proved three distinct Model 1803 "types" in circulation. Sources are in disagreement as to whether they were actually featured in the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806).