For much of America's early past, the federal Army relied on two arsenals of note - the Springfield Armory (est. 1778) of Massachusetts and Harper's/Harpers Ferry (est. 1802) of Virginia. From these two locations emerged a slew of long guns to help stock the national inventory of the United States land forces and reduce foreign reliance on European sources. When these locations became fully established, they embarked on production of flintlock smoothbore firearms in some number until the middle of the 19th Century brought about changes to land warfare - giving rise to breech-loading rifled guns.
The Harper's Ferry Model 1841 ("Mississippi Rifle") rifle-musket was a hybrid design of sorts, incorporated the percussion cap / percussion lock system of operation that replaced the flintlock while retaining the muzzle-loaded quality of many 18th Century/ early-19th Century guns. Design work began in 1840 and the result was a hefty-yet-manageable 9 lb offering of 48.5-inch overall length completed with a 33-inch long barrel. It was chambered for the .54 ball, held a muzzle velocity of up to 1,200 feet per second, and could reach an effective range out to 1,100 yards. A trainer shooter could fire up to three rounds-per-minute with variable accuracy dependent upon many factors. Sighting was through a V-notch sight at rear and a blade front.
Its appearance was consistent with the long guns of the period - a long-running wooden stock with brass furniture, barrel banding, and the required metalworks. The action was set to the right side of the weapon with the trigger slung under the gun in the usual way, the stock also forming the grip handle and forend. As a muzzle-loader, the Model 1841 carried with it a ramrod in a channel under the barrel, its purpose being ramming the shot contents down the barrel to rest near the action. A patchbox was contained under a hinged door in the stock's right-hand facing. Interestingly, the early-form Model 1841s lacked bayonet mountings - a bayonet being a common fixture of service rifles well into World War 1 (1914-1918).
The Harper's Ferry facility had completed production of the Hall breech-loading rifle when it then took on manufacture of the new Model 1841. The machine shops were wholly retooled just for the effort and production stemmed from 1841 until 1861 with over 25,000 produced by 1855 alone. When adopted by U.S. Army forces, it became their first standard percussion-based rifle and an immediate improvement over the temperamental flintlock long guns used previously. The success of the percussion system was such that it forced arsenals around the world to convert many types of existing flintlock muskets to the new standard during the century.
Originally chambered for the .54 ball, the rifle underwent a modification in 1855 to accept the .58 Minie ball, a French development which had proven successful in Europe's Crimean War (1853-1856). The .58 Minie a standard upon its introduction for the American Army and the existing stock of Model 1841s were reworked to support it. At about this time, the rifle was also given bayonet mountings to complete its appearance and compete with established European standards. Other changes eventually included a leaf sighting device for the rear replacing the V-notch. Some later guns went further and added a ladder sight.
First use of the Model 1841 was during the Seminole Wars (1816-1858) between the United States Army and the Seminole native American Indian tribes of the Pensacola, Florida region. The rifle-musket then earned its popular name of "Mississippi Rifle" during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) under the banner of the Mississippi volunteer regiment headed by Jefferson Davis. Davis fought to get the relatively untested rifle-muskets into the hands of his men and the weapon proved beneficial in actions of the Battle of Buena Vista (1847) against Santa Anna's forces. The battle became a decisive victory by the 4,594 Americans over the much larger Mexican Army of 15,142 strong and the overall campaign was an American success which primarily forced the Mexican recognition of Texas.
Like other mid-century guns, the Model 1841 remained in circulation - and in useable numbers - by the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865) as Southern states clashed with their Northern brethren. Jefferson Davis went on to become the President of the newly-founded Confederate government and carried with him battlefield experience as leader. As the South lacked the production facilities of the North, any and all viable weaponry was attained including the rather outdated Model 1841 - its rifled design still an upgrade to the available, yet less accurate, smoothbore long guns. Like the South, Federal forces also carried the Harper's Ferry Model 1841 into combat as shortages were apparent on both sides when the fighting began. However, Northern use of the gun seems to have ended during 1863 while Confederate forces carried the rifle-musket into the last days of the fighting in 1865. Even at this point, the weapon was still called mainly by its well-earned nickname of Mississippi Rifle.