Sunday, January 1, 2017

Butterfield Breech Loading Musket Conversion

In 1840 the U.S. Ordnance Office made the decision to go to a percussion system of ignition for U.S. muskets and in 1842 the Springfield Armory began production of the first U.S. musket with a percussion lock.
Sometime around 1848, with the threat of war looming, the Federal Government took inventory of the Federal armories and found it had 180,000 first class (serviceable) flintlock muskets.
On hand in private armories of contractors was another 120,000 first class flintlocks. It therefore became obvious that the Government was confronted with having approximately 300,000 serviceable flintlock muskets. (the actual numbers were about twice that for guns that didn’t fall into the first class category)

Large numbers of class one and class two arms were converted to percussion arms during the 1850's and the hostilities of the 1860's. There were many contractors for these conversions. It appears that a lot of this work was done in National Armories both at Harper's Ferry and Springfield, probably with Springfield leading in the volume produced. The exact figures of the numbers of muskets converted by the contractors or either the National Armories are unknown.

In 1859 Jesse Butterfield, of Philadelphia, received a government contract to convert 5000 muskets to percussion. These were to use Butterfield’s patented priming system. Collectors feel that Butterfield did not fulfill his contract and of those he did convert only a few hundred had his priming system. It is possible that Butterfield's mechanical priming system proved unserviceable for Infantry use and some of the latter portion of his contract was filled out by simply installing a new breech and a standard percussion cap cone.

The pictured musket started life as an 1795/1808 contract flintlock musket manufactured by Frederick Goetz and Charles Westphall of Philadelphia. It was then converted by Jesse Butterfield using his disk/pellet priming percussion system as indicated by the distinctive Butterfield device on the lock and the patent marking on the front of the lock.
What is most unusual about this example is that is has also been converted into a break action breech loader.

A "trial Butterfield 1859 U.S. musket conversion" of a similar design is pictured on the bottom left of page 20 of the included copy of "Guns" from December 1965.

The article also mentions the experimental breech loading design. At first glance the musket appears to be standard Butterfield conversion. However, a small "trigger" ahead of the trigger guard allows the barrel to pivot upwards like a modern break action. The barrel is fitted to a hinge a the rear barrel band. The breech of the barrel has a brass plug with a conical design. This plug can be slid backwards out of the barrel and pivoted upwards so that it can be loaded. Upon closing the action the insert is pressed against the breech ideally preventing gas from escaping. The weapon could be primed either using the Butterfield disk primer or a standard percussion cap. While the system is fairly simply and ingenious, the hinge design is inherently weak. This critical flaw is likely what prevented a larger production run.

The following three pictures are of another one of these unique Muskets.


Butterfield’s priming system had a small cardboard tube which contained a stack of small paper discs. Each disc had a fulminate pellet in its centre, the tube was introduced from beneath in a cavity located ahead of the trigger guard. On the removable lid of the cavity was a small spring that pushed the discs upwards.

The conversion without the breech loading feature.
When the hammer is cocked, a small bar pushes a disc forward under the hammer head above the nipple. The system allowed for about 30 rounds without re-priming. In the event priming discs would not be available, the weapon can also be primed with percussion caps.


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