The first rifle designed exclusively for the US Army was made at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, site of the infamous John Brown raid.
Subject to a great deal of folklore, the Harpers Ferry Model 1803 rifle is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful guns ever produced. With its dark walnut stock, sleek curves and brass furniture, the Model 1803 stands out as a particularly elegant example of early 19th Century gunsmithing.
The Model 1803 was a flintlock, and fired a .54 Caliber round out of a 33 inch barrel, which was far shorter than the Model 1795 musket (which was in turn based off Frances Charleville musket) that was already in production at Harpers Ferry. However, unlike a musket, which contains a smoothbore barrel, a rifle contains grooves inside the barrel that causes the bullet to spin through the air, making for a higher velocity gun with longer range and increased accuracy.
The Model 1803 was considered accurate up to 150 yards, but a well-trained marksman could expect to hit a target at 200 yards. Conversely, the Charleville musket was accurate up to 100 yards. As a result, riflemen armed with the Model 1803 could have a significant advantage against an enemy armed with muskets. The downside of the Model 1803 is that it only fired 1-2 shots per minute, while the Charleville could fire 2-3 shots per minute.
On May 25, 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn issued a directive to Harpers Ferry Armory superintendent Joseph Perkin to design a new rifle, with specific instructions to make the new gun shorter in length than the average rifle and of a higher caliber. “I have such convincing proof of the advantage the short rifle has over the long ones in actual service as to leave no doubt in my mind of preferring the short rifle, with larger calibers than the long ones usually have,” explained Dearborn.
Upon submitting a design to Washington, DC, the armory received orders in November 1803 to produce 2,000 rifles, and upon initiation of production received additional orders to produce 4,000 units total. Although the order was to be entirely filled by December 1805, technical difficulties and malaria outbreaks prevented production from being completed until February 1807.
With the outbreak of the War of 1812, the rifle again went into production. Several minor changes were made, with the lengthening of the barrel to 36 inches being the most significant. By 1820, about 15,000 rifles were made during this second production run.
Lewis and Clark Myth
It is commonly reported that the Harpers Ferry Model 1803 was the weapon used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While it is true that Meriwether Lewis acquired weapons at Harpers Ferry in the summer of 1803, the first Model 1803 rifle wasnt produced until October of that year. It is possible (but improbable) that the Corps of Discovery carried prototypes of the Model 1803, but most evidence suggests that they carried US Model 1792-1794 Contract Rifles.
In 1819, the Harpers Ferry Armory was starting to turn its attention away from handcrafted weaponry and was starting to utilize machinery that produced interchangeable gun parts. Consequently, weapons such as Halls rifle gave way to the previously produced Model 1795s and Model 1803s. Nonetheless, the Harpers Ferry Model 1803 will live on for quite some time in gun folklore.