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From Musket to Rifle

by Tom Carrier (12/11/08).

Recycling doesn’t just happen with paper or plastic, and it isn’t just a modern concern. In the 19th century, the U.S. government had to find a way to convert a large inventory of early smooth-bore muskets for the use of a more “modern” fighting force.

“In the late 1840s, the government was stuck with hundreds of thousands nearly new flintlock muskets (and) decided to convert using the Belgium system to the new percussion system,” says Cliff Sophia, of CS Arms in Upperville, Va., and a WorthPoint Worthologist for military arms and collectibles.

The flintlock system required a piece of flint to strike gunpowder in a small pan of priming powder which created a spark that then fired the gun’s main powder charge. In use from the early 17th century, the flintlock system was decidedly unstable in wet weather and required many steps before firing.

Using the Belgian system, these muskets were converted from flintlock to a percussion cap system.

A percussion cap is a small, hollow cylinder of brass or copper with a closed end. Inside the closed end is an explosive that included fulminate of mercury. The cap was then placed on a protruding hollow pin at the end of a flintlock gun barrel, called the nipple. When the hammer strikes the cap, the resulting explosion ignites the primer. Introduced about 1830, the percussion cap was a mainstay until it was replaced by breech loading cartridges in the 1860s.

“The 1816 flintlock conversion rifle used a .69 caliber smooth bore and was used throughout the Civil War by both sides,” says Sophia. “The standard load for these smooth bores was called ‘buck and ball.’ Buck and ball was one large .69 caliber ball and up to 12 buckshot. At 50 yards, they were extremely effective and they served throughout the Civil War.” A .69 caliber ball is 0.69 of an inch in diameter.

Another distinctive feature of the 1816 musket was that it was a smooth bore, meaning the inside of the barrel was completely smooth. When firing a smooth bore, the bullet would bounce around the inside of the barrel and exit unpredictably. Aiming it precisely wasn’t possible. Rifling, which has etched concentric grooves in the barrel, uses centrifugal force to make the bullet to spin as it traveled through the barrel, thereby maintaining a precise direction. This rifling, while introduced in the 15th century, did not become standard until the 19th century.

“The common misconception is that the soldiers of the Civil War were all armed with rifled arms. That’s not true. The smooth bore served throughout the War and 60 percent of the ammunition fired at the Battle of Gettysburg, which is the middle of the Civil War, was fired out of smooth bore arms,” says Sophia. “Both sides had hundreds of thousands of these obsolete arms in their arsenals at the beginning of the Civil War, and both sides went off to war with conversion muskets.”

It would not be long after the Civil War when the flintlock conversion musket would be replaced by a breech loading rifle, where a round, containing a bullet and the powder held inside of a brass shell, would be loaded in the rear of the barrel—the breech— instead of through the muzzle.

A video showing Cliff Sophia talking about a U.S. Arsenal conversion of an 1816 flintlock musket to a percussion arm can be viewed here .
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