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College Hill Arsenal :: Firearms :: Long Arms :: Confederate Made "Mississippi" Rifle - Attributed to Overton

Confederate Made "Mississippi" Rifle - Attributed to Overton
Confederate Made "Mississippi" Rifle - Attributed to Overton 

On June 8, 1861 the state of Tennessee voted 105,000 to 47,000 to secede from the Union, and subsequently became the last state to officially join the Southern Confederacy. Almost immediately, the gears were set in motion that would make Tennessee a vital part of the Confederate war effort, even though much of the state would return to Union control only eight months later, in February of 1862. Tennessee contained two of the largest cities in the Confederacy. According to the 1860 Census, Memphis with a population of 22,673, was the fifth largest Confederate city, and had been the thirty-fifth largest in the United States prior to secession. Nashville, the state capital, had a population of 16,988 according the census of the prior year and was the eighth largest city in the new Confederacy. It had been the fifty-fourth largest city in the United States. While small when compared to the southern metropolis of New Orleans (over 168,000 people) and the next two largest Confederate cities, Charleston, SC and Richmond, VA (with populations of 40,522 and 37,910 respectively), Tennessee brought much to the Confederacy. The state was blessed with massive amounts of natural resources (particularly those needed to produce gunpowder), had some basic manufacturing capability in Memphis and Nashville (certainly more than most southern cities) and was a transportation hub with major rivers like the Mississippi and the Cumberland allowing the easy movement of men, arms and material. The state also had well over a thousand miles of railway lines, including the Memphis & Ohio Railroad, and the Louisville & Nashville – the famous “L&N”. What Tennessee was woefully deficient in were small arms for the newly formed Provisional Army of Tennessee, which would soon become part of the Confederate Army. A January 4, 1861 inventory of the state arsenal in Nashville included the following arms:

4,152 Flintlock Muskets (good repair)
2,100 Flintlock Muskets (partially damaged)
2,228 Flintlock Muskets (severely damaged)
185 Percussion Muskets


Additionally, some 230 M-1858 Rifled Cadet Muskets (M-1858) and 664 Percussion Muskets (primarily US M-1816 conversion muskets) had been distributed for use by Tennessee militia companies over the past few months. Between the beginning of January 1st and February 4th of 1861, the state also managed to acquire an additional 732 US M-1855 Rifle Muskets under the Militia Act of 1808, as well as the necessary parts and machinery to alter some 3,000 flintlock muskets to percussion. Some 1,300 US M-1841 “Mississippi” Rifles had additionally been received from the US government under the Militia Act of 1808 over the past few years, but most of these appear to have been issued to various state militia companies well before secession occurred. To that end, the Military & Financial Board of Tennessee was established to oversee the procurement and disposition arms and material for the newly formed Tennessee regiments. Pursuant to that cause, on June 29, 1861 a telegram was sent to Captain J.J. Williams read in part:

“You are authorized to have made for the state of Tennessee as many rifles as can be furnished us in the next three months….For which we are willing to pay $18 each on delivery.”

The telegram is signed “For the board” by J.E. Bailey, on behalf of the Military & Financial Board. This is the first document that I have found that specifically requests contacting for and building new military long arms for the state of Tennessee. The pattern of gun most desired by the Military & Financial Board was the “Harper’s Ferry” pattern, also referred to as the “Mississippi” Rifle. A number of contractors would answer the state’s call to produce small arms, all meeting with varied levels of success, but none capable of producing more than a few hundred. In addition to private contractors, state arsenals were established in Memphis, Nashville, Columbia and Pulaski, but only the Pulaski facility would produce more than a handful of arms. A private armory was established in Murfreesboro under the direction of William Ledbetter, and it would produce some 300-500 rifles of the “Harper’s Ferry” or “Mississippi” pattern, but mostly after it was transferred to Confederate Government control in September of 1861. In middle Tennessee, the primary private contractors other than Ledbetter’s armory in Murfreesboro were H.W. Sweeny, E.R. Waddy, M. Cody & Son, John Overton, Nix & Harlen and Cauthorn & Company. These last two companies operated under several names with “Harlen” spelled both with an “e” and an “a” in period documents, and the firm of Harlan & Mason appearing to be the predecessor to Nix & Harlen (Harlan). During the early months of the war, it appears that the Harlan & Mason company was also referred to in various documents and correspondence by its location in Lebanon, TN. The firm of Cauthorn & Company operated initially as Cauthorn & Collins, Wood & Cauthorn and Wood, Cauthorn & Company before finally dropping Wood from the name. These two companies made some early deliveries of rifles under the Military & Financial Board’s open contract for rifles. Most of the other makers would not start making deliveries until sometime in November or December of 1861.

Harlan & Mason’s first deliveries were on October 1, 1861 when they delivered 81 Tennessee Rifles at $16 each. Based upon the price which was lower than the contract offering of $18 each, these were likely militarized civilian sporting rifles that had been regulated in caliber to either .44 or .54 and were modified to accept a bayonet, either socket or saber. Their next delivery was on October 8, when the delivered another 46 Tennessee Rifles. Wood & Cauthorn made their first delivery four days later, on October 5, 1861, when they were paid for “18 guns” at $18 each. The price suggests that these may have been the first of the “Mississippi” pattern rifles to be delivered. On October 18th, the firm delivered 16 Miss Rifles, again at $18 each. On December 9, 1861 Wood, Cauthorn & Company delivered 22 more Tennessee Rifles but were again paid the higher price of $18, suggesting that they may have been “Mississippi” rifles and the term used to describe the guns was more patriotic fervor, implying “Tennessee made” rather than “Tennessee pattern”. This is supported by another receipt that bills for “Tennessee Rifles” but notes in the payment section “Mississippi Rifles”. Cauthorn & Collins also made deliveries in October, with 22 Tennessee Rifles being sold to the state at $18 each on October 19. Even though these companies had managed to make deliveries rather quickly, the quality and consistency of their arms left much to be desired. Not long after secession, George W. Morse, father of the Morse breechloading system, the Morse inside lock, and eventually the Confederate Morse breech loading carbine took the position of superintendent of the Tennessee State Arsenal in Nashville. It is generally believed that he hoped to use the facility as a place to put his equipment (which had been captured at Harper’s Ferry) to make Morse breechloading conversions. While waiting for the equipment to arrive and get set up, he proceeded to superintend the repair of existing stocks of arms, the altering of arms from flint to percussion and the militarizing of civilian arms. One of the jobs the arsenal was charged with was to repair and upgrade civilian arms provided by the arriving Tennessee volunteer regiments, and this was a source of constant irritation for Morse and the Ordnance Officer’s in Nashville. Often the guns provided were of such poor quality or in such poor condition that they were not worth repairing and the time and raw materials would be better spent on making new arms. However, the spread out system of small makers was not working well either, and Morse wanted to consolidate operations in Nashville, with all materials and workers assembling arms in one place. In a letter to General Leonidas Polk, Morse complained that:

“Some few rifle barrels are being made at Lebanon, Murfreesboro, in Canon Co(unty) & Pulaski, but I understand that guns are made from them in those places. I find nothing reliable for any considerable quality, and expect to be the first to turn them out…..The difficulty about making guns all about the country is that they are too badly made. Capt. Wright tested five yesterday, which were thus made and I think that all failed in some one particular, although none were entirely spoiled by the trial. I believe that we had better press all our energies upon this one establishment for the manufacture of small arms.”

The single biggest problem appears to have been acquiring quality locks. This was the hardest part of the rifle to make and required the most skill. The second primary complaint was irregular calibers in the bore. As one telegram from J.E. Bailey to a maker in Goodlettsville opined:

“You are making guns of unequal caliber. Balls which can be used in some of your guns will not go into others….Let us call you also to inspection of the locks…which cannot be fired as the lock is out of order.” And to Wood & Cauthorn Bailey telegrammed “We send you a gauge for your guns.”, and implied that they out to actually use it to insure consistent bore diameters. To Harlan & Mason, Bailey telegrammed: “Your contract in regard to the Mississippi rifle, we wish to change by having only five rifles or three would be preferred – the grooves very shallow, not near so deep as in the pattern. We suppose you will not object to this change. Write & let us know if you object to the change. It will add nothing to cost.” From this it is obvious that the companies were copying the deep, seven groove rifling of the original M-1841 rifle, which was intended to accept a patched round ball, not a Minié type projectile. Mr. Bailey was hoping to have the rifling of the arms modified to work with expanding base ammunition and that meant shallow grooves, preferably three or five. We have evidence that the “sample” guns were simply some of the US M-1841 Rifles that had been obtained by Tennessee under the Militia Act of 1808, as a telegram from F.G. Roche (secretary of the Military & Financial Board) was sent to William Ledbetter in Murfreesboro on June 18 (only a few days after the secession vote) that read: “You will sign the enclosed Recpt for 1 Miss. Rifle & return the same by next mail.”

To help resolve the lock problem, locks were ordered from contractors like John McEuen (McEwen in some spellings) and commercial sporting locks were acquired from whatever available sources there were, in addition to stripping them from old or damaged arms. It is for this reason that many of the Middle Tennessee produced contract “Mississippi Rifles”, like those attributed to M. Cody & Son, and Ledbetter’s Murfreesboro Armory have sporting style, rather than military locks. In fact, Cody was billed $46.25 for gun locks, to offset the price of $15 per dozen that was being paid to contractors like McEuen. A thorough examination of surviving records makes it clear that the contract arms produced in Middle Tennessee from the summer of 1861 through the fall of Nashville in February of 1862 were nothing if not inconsistent, of variable quality, and rarely the work of any one maker, and appear to be more closely akin to the cottage industry gun makers of Birmingham (England), where parts from various makers were combined to make a final product.

After years of study of the handful of extant examples, rarely more than a handful from any one “maker”, the research team of John Murphy M.D. and Howard Michael Madaus published their seminal book on the long arms produced in the south during the Civil War; Confederate Rifles & Muskets. In Chapter XLII, they address the arms produced on contract for the state of Tennessee (and later the Confederacy) from Tennessee makers. They admit in the very beginning that their “identifications” of these arms in terms of makers is based almost entirely upon supposition. The examination of the few extant arms of the appropriate pattern, when combined with the fragmentary records provided by period documents allowed them to make some logical assumptions about which maker produced which variant of rifle. This can be somewhat dangerous, as when arms are handmade in limited quantities with parts from various sources, it is somewhat difficult to make definitive statements. This is even more problematic when the surviving examples do not amount to a statistical sample from which to draw conclusions. In at least one case (Ledbetter’s Murfreesboro Armory) their attributions are based upon a single known example. What can be said of the arms produced in Middle Tennessee during this period is that they do have some common characteristics. All are handmade, hand assembled “copies” of the US M-1841 “Mississippi” Rifle. Their dimension are nominally the same as a Mississippi rifle with barrels approximately 33” in length and with an overall length of about 49”. The guns are brass mounted with barrel bands, buttplate and triggerguard all of brass, and with a large brass patchbox cover inlet into the obverse buttstock. This last feature is a salient point as nearly all other “Confederate” made copies of the Mississippi rifle omit this feature for expediency in production, and likely as method of saving both cost and raw materials. Interestingly, the method of securing the two barrel bands varies, with some guns having the US style band springs inlet into the stock and others having simple transverse pins securing the bands. Although most surviving examples are smoothbore now, it is generally believed (and certainly supported by the above telegram) that most of the deliveries were made with the rifles in .54 caliber with seven-groove rifling, likely deep and fast, optimized for patched round balls, like the sample rifles provided. The largest surviving group of rifles with numerous similar features have been attributed to John Overton. Overton, according to research of Murphy & Madaus had been employed as an armorer at Harper’s Ferry according to the 1860 Census. These is no information about how, why or when he relocated to Middle Tennessee, but I can find no records of any John Overton in the 1860 Census who lived in Tennessee who would have been a working adult in 1861 and who had any connection with gunmaking, gunsmithing or even as a mechanic. Thus, I will have to assert that their identification of Overton seems reasonable. Overton managed to deliver some 81 “Mississippi” rifles between January 20, 1862 and February 13, 1862. Due to this reasonably high number when compared to some of the other makers (Waddy appears to have delivered no more than 30 and Sweeny only delivered 4), they have attributed the handful of surviving “Unmarked Mississippi” rifles with similar features to Overton. While on the surface this seems like a stretch, I feel that the most important evidence that they were correct is not mentioned in their book. Overton appears to be the only contractor with any experience at producing military pattern arms, and all others were at best local gunsmiths and gunmakers, some like Ledbetter (who was a banker), were not even that. The single greatest problem for the Tennessee contractors was producing or acquiring gun locks, and in the end, most ended up using civilian pattern locks. The guns attributed to Overton all have reasonably well made military pattern locks based upon the M-1841 rifle. He was the only maker who had a reasonable chance of producing these locks and as such I feel the attribution by Murphy & Madaus is likely correct. The “Overton” lock is easily identifiable by the fact that it is unmarked, is a somewhat crude copy of a US M-1841 Mississippi Rifle lock and has a screw that protrudes through its center, forward of the hammer. This screw secures the top of the mainspring. The locks were numbered on their interior the middle of the plate, and known examples mentioned in Murphy & Madaus include #00, #17, #24 and #26. Interestingly and again not really touched on in the book, these numbers appear to be manufacturing numbers to keep up with the making and inventory of locks and are not gun serial numbers or assembly numbers. Based upon the examination of the handful of extant examples, the lock numbers do not generally have a relationship to the number found under Overton made barrels. Thus, in the known examples lock #26 is in a gun with barrel #50, lock #00 is mated with barrel #65, lock #17 is with barrel #71 and lock #24 is with barrel #34. However, all the guns do exhibit the typical system of assembly mating marks used throughout much of Europe and the south during this period. This leads me to believe that Overton’s ability to make military pattern locks probably made him more important than any other of the Tennessee “Mississippi” rifle makers, and it seems more than reasonable that his locks were utilized by other makers in the area if they could be obtained. As the supply of major parts to make complete rifles seems to be erratic at best, it would be reasonable that if a maker had not barrels or stocks, but had some locks that they might swap components with other contractors in order to allow both to produce completed products. Thus, Overton may well have exchanged some locks with Cauthorn in exchange for stocks or Harlen in exchange for some “Lebanon” barrels. As such, it is unlikely that few “pure” examples from a single maker really exist, and it is likely that we will never definitively know which of the many small Tennessee makers produced a specific “Unmarked Confederate Mississippi Rifle’

Offered here is a VERY FINE example of a Confederate made “Unmarked Mississippi Rifle” that for lack of a better designation has been attributed to John Overton. In my opinion, the rifle was probably produced by one of the other Middle Tennessee makers, utilizing an Overton lock. The gun is absolutely correct, original and period in all aspects and is certainly Confederate assembled. However, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to determine with certainty which contractor made the gun. The rifle contains a classic “Overton” lock, an unmarked Mississippi style lock that has a mainspring retaining screw through the middle of the plate, and a large inventory number 37 on the interior, matching the same type and style of number known on other examples attributed to Overton. The lock shows matching assembly marks on all the relevant screws, a pair of punch dots, which are not only found on the internal lock screws, but on the head of the hammer screw, on the two lock mounting screw necks and on the neck of the tang screw. The same assembly mark is also found on the obverse side of front barrel band. The barrel is not inventory numbered in the Overton fashion, but is assembly marked with the Roman numeral VIII. This same mark appears in the patchbox cut out and in the barrel channel of the stock. The barrel is also marked with an L and a 1 under the breech plug tang. Additionally, the barrels attributed to Overton do not have a “fence” (an upright projection) to the rear of the percussion bolster. This one does. Like most of the Middle Tennessee made guns, the barrel incorporates a dove tail cut for a saber bayonet lug on the obverse, forward of the nosecap, and like most examples there is no lug present. It is not clear if the lug on this example was broken off or dovetail was simply filled. The mortise cut is 3 ½” from the muzzle and is about .8” in length. The classic Overton rifle has a front sight mounted on the front strap of the upper band, rather than set into a small cut in the barrel, as with the US M-1841 Rifle. This example has a more traditional US pattern brass sight blade, about .3” in length, set into the barrel, about 15/16” from the muzzle; much closer to the muzzle than on a US made rifle. The typical notched rear sight is positioned about 3” from the breech plug tang. The bore of the rifle measures about .55” (remember the inconsistency mentioned by Bailey…) and is rifled with seven grooves. The triggerguard is not of the pattern attributed to Overton and may actually be a US 1841 triggerguard assembly. On the Overton rifles the guard bow is secured to the trigger plate via iron pins through the posts at the end of the brass bow. This guard is secured with the usual US style spanner nuts that thread onto the ends of the posts. The fit of the triggerguard and plate to the stock is perfect. As with all of the rifles attributed to the Middle Tennessee makers, the gun has the large Mississippi type patchbox cut out in the stock, covered by a brass patchbox lid. Like all known examples, the patchbox is crudely routed and shows scattered pilot holes from the drill. The interior of the patchbox is rudely finished by hand and is not cut for a spare cone (nipple), like all other examples.

As mentioned above, the rifle is in VERY FINE condition, particularly for a Confederate assembled and used rifle. The gun has a fairly even, thick brown patina over most of the iron surfaces of the barrel, and shows traces of period blue under the barrel, where it has been protected by the stock. The balance of the bottom of the barrel is a medium pewter-gray patina. The fact that the barrel shows blue underneath and not brown certainly indicates that it is not a barrel of US contract origin. As noted the bottom of the barrel is assembly marked to the stock with the Roman numeral VIII. The barrel shows scattered surface oxidation and pinpricking with some lightly scattered pitting on its surface, but is really in very crisp overall condition. The rifle has a bore that rates about GOOD to GOOD+. The bore is worn at the muzzle with the rifling becoming more pronounced further down its length towards the breech. The bore is dark and dirty with moderate pitting along its entire length. This is one of the very few extant examples of a Tennessee contract rifle that is not smooth bore. The lock is in about VERY GOOD+ condition and remains mechanically functional in all respects. The lock plate has a mottled brownish gray patina with scattered light pitting and surface oxidation. The interior of the lock speaks to its original quality and retains strong amounts of the original case hardened finish, some of which is quite vibrant. As noted the lock is inventory numbered 37 and has the mating assembly mark of two punch dots on the internal and external screws, as well as the lock plate’s bolster and they appear struck on the lock’s small internal parts as well, but not deeply as the bridle, sear and tumbler all appear to have been case hardened as well, making them difficult to mark. The hammer is not knurled and is typical of “Overton” attributed hammers. The rifle retains both the original front and rear sights and what appear to be both original iron sling swivels, the lower on the triggerguard bow and the upper on the upper barrel band. An original, period, brass-tipped, trumpet head ramrod is in the channel under the stock and is full length with threads at its end. As noted the saber bayonet lug is missing from the barrel, a common issue on southern made rifles. The brass furniture has a medium golden patina, and was probably cleaned long ago to make the rifle “pretty”. It is starting to tone down. The interior of the furniture, where it has contacted the stock, shows some green verdigris and good age. The brass casting of the bands, and the patchbox in particular, is a little cruder than what would be expected on a US made rifle. The stock is in about FINE condition as well. The stock is full-length and free of any breaks or repairs. It does show some minor damage and a couple of minor cracks, one under the upper barrel band at the end of the stock on the obverse and one running from the rear lock mounting screw to the barrel channel. An obvious impact mark and some minor surface cracks are also present behind the hammer forward of the wrist. It looks like this might be transportation damage from another rifle hammer hitting the stock while the gun was in a case with other rifles. There is also some minor chipping at the rear of the tang and some light burn out behind the bolster. All typical wear and tear from a veteran Civil War era combat rifle. The stock has no external markings only the mating marks found inside the barrel channel and patchbox. The patchbox is crudely cut out, and the barrel channel shows the tool marks of hand finishing as well. The lock mortise is quite crudely, but effectively cut on the interior. On the exterior, however, all the wood to metal fit is quite good and accomplished in a workmanlike fashion. The stock shows the usual array of scattered bumps, dings and mars from handling and use, but shows no signs of sanding or abuse. The stock appears to have an old, thin coat of varnish or shellac that has protected it from damage over the last 150 years.

Overall this is a really gorgeous, original, complete and correct example of an Unmarked Confederate Tennessee Made “Mississippi” Rifle that will be generally attributed to John Overton due to the lock, but could have easily been the work of any Middle Tennessee gun shop between the late summer of 1861 and February of 1862. The rifle has certainly been together since the period of use and has a wonderful matching patina throughout. While records are sketchy about these various Tennessee contractors, the reality is that even the best of them delivered only around 100-200 rifles, except for Murfreesboro, which may have made as many as 500. Based upon known examples the survival rate is very low and these rifles very rarely appear on the market. While these guns might not have the sex appeal of a gun that is marked “CS”, “Richmond” or “Fayetteville”, these guns are historically important because they were made for such a short period of time at the very beginning of the war, when Richmond and Fayetteville were still tooling up for production and other southern makers were just starting to vie for contracts or gather tools, materials and workmen. These guns represent the very birth of the gunmaking industry in the south and are important examples to be included in any advanced collection of Confederate made infantry arms.


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SKU FLA-3300
Quantity in stock 1 item(s) available
Weight 14.00 lbs
Price: $24750.00

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