The M-1855 was officially adopted in 1855 by the US Ordnance Department, but production did not get under way at the Springfield Armory until 1857, and at Harper’s Ferry until 1858
The adoption of the Model 1855 was significant for a number of reasons;
It was the first reduced caliber infantry long arm to be adopted for universal issue, being only .58 caliber, while all previous issue muskets were .69 caliber.
It was also the first rifled arm intended for widespread issue to all arms of the military. Prior to the M-1855, smooth bore muskets were the standard infantry arm, and rifled arms were reserved for specialty troops and were not issued in significant numbers.
It was also the first US military arm specifically designed for use with the Burton Ball (the American modified version of the expanding base French Minié ball).
Finally, the M-1855 incorporated the automatic tape priming mechanism of Dr. Edward Maynard. This mechanical priming system used a varnished paper roll of priming pellets, much like a modern roll of caps used in a child’s cap gun. The system advanced the roll every time the hammer was cocked, placing a fresh primer pellet over the cone (nipple). A sharp cutting edge on the bottom face of the hammer cut off the spent piece of priming tape when the hammer fell.
The Springfield Armory produced a total of 47,115 M-1855 rifle muskets from 1857 to 1861 and Harper’s Ferry Armory produced another 23,139 between 1858 and 1861.
Although most collectors do not know this, the US Ordnance Department did let some contracts for the production of the M-1855 rifle muskets. These contracts went to A.M. Burt, J.D. Mowry, J.F. Hodge, J. Mulholland and A. Jenks & Son. However, the complicated tape priming mechanism slowed tooling and pre-production work, and none of these contractors ever delivered a single M-1855 rifle musket.
They did, however, deliver the simplified M-1861 rifle musket, which eliminated the tape primer system after the Civil War broke out in 1861. The only contractor known to have completed any M-1855 rifle muskets with a functional Maynard tape primer was Eli Whitney Jr., but these were never part of any official Ordnance Department contract and it is believed the 350 arms of this pattern that he built were all sold to the state of Connecticut.
When the Confederates captured the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1861 they moved all of the guns, parts, and tools to Richmond and then used the same to produce the Richmond and Fayetteville rifles. Consequently Harpers Ferry M-1855s can safely be considered secondary Confederate weapons as a large number of completed rifles were captured at the armory.
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