This fine firearm, designed by Samuel Colt and produced by The Colt Patent Firearms Company is one of the more interesting stories in Civil War firearms manufacturing. With a huge and sudden demand for the newly adopted Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle in the 1850s, the British looked to makers outside of England to produce additional guns that they needed. One of the companies they turned to was Robbins & Lawrence, a firm that had been mass producing firearms on the principle of interchangeable parts for some time. At the same time, Samuel Colt was in the process of setting up his gun making facility in London and approached the British government with an offer to produce fully-interchangeable Enfield rifle muskets at a mere $7.50 each. That was less than half of what the Board of Ordnance was currently paying for contractor-produced muskets that were not made with interchangeable parts. The caveat to Colt’s offer was that the contract had to be for one million guns. The British Board of Ordnance rejected the offer, and it was a good thing for Colt. The war in the Crimea ended much sooner than expected and the British cancelled all of their outstanding orders for Enfields that had been placed with non-English contractors. This resulted in Robbins & Lawrence, who had spent a significant amount of money on machinery and tooling to produce Enfields (and who had only delivered about half of the initial order of 25,000), filing for bankruptcy and having their assets sold at auction. Gun manufacturers like Lamson, Goodnow & Yale (LG&Y), Colt and Whitney descended on the auction and bought machinery, tooling and already fabricated gun parts for pennies on the dollar.
When the war commenced, Colt immediately approached the US War Department with an offer to manufacture as many 500,000 rifle muskets per year. While Colt’s production estimates were certainly optimistic, his company was known for quality and mass production. Colt secured an initial contract for “25,000 muskets of the exact pattern now being made at the United States armory at Springfield” but Colt actually had no intention of producing exact replicas of the US M1861 “Springfield”. He began to manufacture a more simplified design of his own that outwardly resembled the M1861, but inwardly was much more akin to the Enfield and could use many of the parts, machinery and tooling which had been acquired by the various makers at the Robbins & Lawrence auction. In June of 1861, Colt’s chief designer approached Erskine S Allin, the Master Armorer at the Springfield Arsenal with his design for what would be eventually be known as the US M1861 “Special Model” Rifle Musket.
Between the two of them, the first sample musket was produced and forwarded to Colt to use as a pattern gun. The gun incorporated screw fastened clamping barrel bands (like the Enfield) instead of solid bands that were retained by springs. There were mechanical changes in the lock to make it more “Enfield-like” internally, and the more direct breech vent eliminated the need for a clean out screw as was necessary for the 90-degree turn found in the bolster of the Springfield design. The one improvement of Root’s that most impressed Allin were modifications to the M1858 pattern rear sight that was due to be used on the M1861 muskets. Allin was sufficiently impressed with these improvements that the Root designed M1861 rear sight was adopted in July of 1861 and replaced the M1858 rear sight on the M1861 Rifle Muskets produced at Springfield. The new pattern sight was also specified for subsequent contractor produced guns and the Special Model 1861 Rifle Musket was born.
Over the next three years, Colt, LG&Y and Amoskeag would produce more than 185,000 of these guns for US government as well as several state contracts. 177,026 of these guns were delivered to the US Ordnance Department with Colt delivering 100,005 between 1862 and 1864. Many of the design changes and manufacturing improvements included in the “Special Model” would become standard features on the US M1863 Springfield Rifle Musket when the M1861 was redesigned at the arsenal in that year.
The Colt Special Model 1861 offered here is in FINE condition overall. The lock is clearly marked in three horizontal lines forward of the lock: U.S. / COLT’S PT F. A. MFG Co / HARTFORD, CT and is dated 1862 behind the hammer. The upper left barrel flat is crisply and deeply marked with the usual US V / P / Eagle Head proof marks, and the date 1863 is stamped on the top of the breech. The left side barrel flat is crisply marked with the inspector initials E.F. The majority of Colt produced barrels are marked STEEL on the flat near the breech, but not all of them. The bolster is marked with a US “Spread Winged Eagle”, which remains crisp and clear. In typical Colt fashion, the metal parts are marked with several small sub- inspectors marks. All of the barrel bands bear the usual U mark (for “up”) on the obverse and are sub-inspected as well. The upper barrel band is marked with a T, with the middle and lower band marked with an M. The stock retains a light US Government inspector cartouche mark. The weapon is mechanically strong throughout and very well marked, with all marks remaining clear and sharp. The gun is 100% complete, correct and original in every way. There is some minor scuffing around the muzzle where a bayonet has been on and off the gun over the years and the barrel shows some scattered areas of minor discoloration due to old oil accumulation. The steel barrel is smooth and is free of serious pitting and the bore is in near excellent condition. The original, full-length, straight-shank, tulip head rammer is present as well and retains the original threads on the end. The oiled walnut stock is full-length, solid and free of any cracks or repairs other than one small and very old minor fill near the toe of the buttstock. As would be typical for any Colt firearm, the stock and furniture displays and retains excellent wood to metal fit throughout.
Overall, this is an exceptionally attractive example of one of the most desirable contract guns used by the US military during the American Civil War. Every collection of Civil War long arms needs to have a “Special Model 1861” rifle musket in it and this is one is very attractive, 100% original and complete.