Army Rifles of 1800

by Michael Carrick

Three flintlock rifles

In a letter dated March 14, 1803, Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War, instructed the superintendent of the Harpers Ferry Armory, Joseph Perkins, to "make such arms & Iron work, as requested by Captain Meriwether Lewis."

Lewis ordered fifteen rifles to be made, and on July 8 he wrote to President Jefferson, "Yesterday I shot my guns and examined the several articles which had been manufactured for me at this place; they appear to be well executed." In addition to the rifles, he ordered fifteen slings and replacement parts.

Firearm historians are not in agreement over exactly which model Captain Lewis picked up at Harpers Ferry. The candidates are 1) U.S. Model 1803 rifle;1 2) 1792-94 contract rifles; or 3) modified 1792-94 contract rifles. All three are shown here, and we will discuss them in turn.


1. Harpers Ferry Model 1803 Rifle

a lead ball and tool similar to pliers

This is the rifle that is illustrated in most books about the expedition. Up until the late 1990s there was little disagreement that a prototype or precursor to the standard Model 1803 military rifle was Lewis's gun, and that it would have looked just like the production-run rifles. The first issue of this rifle had a 33-inch barrel, seven grooves, and one turn in 48 inches. It was nominally a .54 caliber bore shooting a round ball of .525 inch.2

Careful inspection of archival records shows, however, that the Model 1803 rifle was still in the development stage after Lewis had picked up his fifteen rifles and was on his way to Pittsburgh to pick up the keelboat. The first of the Model 1803 rifles was finished in October of 1803, and by that time, Lewis was meeting up with Clark at the Falls of the Ohio River.

2. U.S. Model 1792-94 Contract Rifle

Barrel Plug

Every man had to have a barrel stopper, called a tompion, to keep out rain, snow, mud and dirt.3 Also obligatory was a "cow's knee," a rawhide cover—actually cut from a cow's knee—to keep the lock, frizzen, and pan dry.

As a result of the disastrous defeat of General Arthur St. Claire in November 1791 by Indians in Ohio, the Army decided to raise three additional regiments.

These regiments would include companies of riflemen, and Lewis and Clark would get their first military experience in those rifle companies. In order to arm the rifle companies, the government contracted with several gunmakers in the vicinity of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to produce serviceable rifles. In all, over 3,000 rifles were ordered on the 1792 and 1794 contracts.

Archival records show that over 300 of these rifles were at the Harpers Ferry Armory at the time Meriwether Lewis was ordering his supplies. Some historians argue that Lewis would have picked out fifteen of the best examples of these rifles—why fabricate something new when there were over 300 rifles to choose from? Both he and Clark would have been familiar with these rifles from their service on the frontier under General Anthony Wayne.

The 1792-94 contract rifles were full-stocked rifles with a 42" octagon barrel of .49 caliber. They had brass furniture and a brass patchbox. Lewis had swivels installed and ordered fifteen slings.

3. Short U.S. Model 1792-94 Contract Rifle

Other historians agree that Lewis would have taken fifteen of the contract rifles but believe that Lewis ordered modifications. Lewis knew that much time was going to be spent in canoes, and that the hunters would be shooting buffalo, elk, bears and other large game.

So, for the convenience of handling the rifles in close quarters, he would have had the 42" barrels shortened by six or eight inches and had the bore enlarged from .49 caliber to .54 caliber. Lewis does mention "short" rifles several places in the Journals.

If Lewis had ordered the full stocks to be cut back to half stocks, the forward portion of the barrel turned round to reduce weight, and a metal rib installed under the barrel to protect the ramrod, the result would have been a prototype of the U.S. Model 1803 rifle which appeared soon after Lewis left the Armory.

No one knows for certain if Lewis 1) designed a rifle to be newly constructed in the form which later became the U.S. Model 1803 rifle; 2) took 15 standard 1792–1794 contract rifles; or 3) selected 15 contract rifles and had them shortened and modified to suit his needs for the expedition.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program.

  • 1. A detailed discussion of the flintlock rifle Lewis might have ordered, with videotaped demonstrations, plus animations by Bob Gilman, will be found in Model 1803 Flintlock Rifle.
  • 2. See Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms, 8th ed. (Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2001).
  • 3. Baron Von Steuben, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1794), 151. The several occasions when hunters' guns burst at the muzzle possibly were the consequences of dirt or ice in the barrel, or else failure to remove the tompion before firing.