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NEEDHAM CONVERSION MUSKETS
Secondary U.S. Martial Arms
By Ed Hull
The maker of the unique Needham Patent American breech loading musket conversions has long been a mystery. They are well known for their use by the Irish-American Fenian Brotherhood in their aborted invasion of Canada in 1871, but who made them had remained unknown. Now, a newly discovered example finally identifies the maker, and a connection with a famous firearms inventor. Also, a connection to use by U.S. militia has now been discovered.
The Needham design for a side-gate breech loading firearm dates to 1865, when Englishmen Joseph and George Henry Needham received a British patent (number 2709) on October 20. An early, undated example of this design is shown in Figure 1. This carbine, with an 18-1/2 inch barrel chambered for the caliber .58 Snider cartridge, is unmarked except for “J.N.2” inside the lock plate and on the bottom of the receiver (perhaps meaning Joseph Needham number 2).
FIGURE 1. This early British carbine is marked only “J.N.2,” probably referring to Joseph Needham example number 2. (Courtesy Pat Donnelly website)
Even before he received his British patent, Needham submitted a sample of his design, a conversion of an Enfield rifle, to the British Ordnance Select Committee in September, 1864. This long running committee was chartered to select a breech loading arm for the British army. The committee reported, “The mechanism of this arm, though strong and simple, is insecure.” Again in October, 1865, Needham submitted an example of his design to the committee, but it still found no favor. In November, 1865, the committee invited him to submit a sample arm that more closely conformed to the overall design stipulated in the trials announcement, but there is no evidence that Needham did so. The letter of invitation was posted to Needham at “26, Piccadilly,” London, the same address as marked on two rifles shown here.
The use of a long lever on the breechblock had soon proved inconvenient, requiring too much space to open, and the lever was replaced by a vertical knob as shown in Figures 2, 3 and 4.
FIGURE 2. This Enfield-style Pattern 1856 rifle has a barrel/breech assembly 33-1/8 inches long. The blued .577 caliber barrel, which has Birmingham proof marks, is 30 inches long. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 3. The breechblock of this British-made example is engraved in three lines, “NEEDHAM’S PATENT/LONDON/1866.” The lock plate is identically marked, but in slightly smaller letters. (Author’s collection and photograph)
The Needhams also obtained a U.S. patent, number 64,999, on May 21, 1867. Figure 5 shows one of the two drawings from this patent, which drawing reproduces the design with the long breech lever that is shown in the British patent. The important design features described in the patent were: 1) locking the breech
FIGURE 4. The top of the breech frame is engraved “J. & G.H. NEEDHAM.26.PICCADILLY LONDON.” The breech frame is 4-1/8 inches long and is stamped with a single Birmingham proof house mark on the left side. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 5. Drawing from the U.S. issued Needham patent of May 21, 1867. (U.S. Patent Office)
closed with the projecting nose of the hammer, and 2) the sideward swinging action of the breechblock. The patent application was submitted from London, and the U.S. rights were assigned to James Graham Grey of the same place. The rifle which was submitted as the patent model now resides in the Smithsonian Institution (see Figures 6, 7 and 8).
FIGURE 6. This rifle is the original U.S. patent model for Joseph and George H. Needham’s breech design. It is made from a Pattern 1856 British rifle. It is 48 inches long overall, with a blued barrel 30 inches long that is marked with Birmingham proofs. (Patent Office Collection, Smithsonian Institution, photo by Jaclyn Nash)
FIGURE 7. The patent model’s breech block is engraved in three lines “NEEDHAM’S PATENT/LONDON/No.7.” The lock plate is marked only “1866.” (Patent Office Collection, Smithsonian Institution, photo by Jaclyn Nash)
FIGURE 8. The blued breech frame of the patent model is marked the same as the rifle in Figure 4, “J. & G.H. NEEDHAM.26. PICCADILLY LONDON.” Likewise, the breech frame is 4-1/8 inches long and it has a Birmingham proof mark on the left side. (Patent Office Collection, Smithsonian Institution, photo by Jaclyn Nash)
Later in 1867, Grey — now listing his address as New York City — submitted a sample of a musket converted to the Needham system, in .58 centerfire, to the second session of the New York State breech loading arms trials of 1867 (held July to December). It did not fare well. When tested with defective cartridges, with the rims weakened so as to fail upon firing, the breechblock was blown open at each firing. The ordnance board rejected the design, reporting in the end, “The locking device is defective….”
Grey also submitted a .50 caliber sample rifle to the U.S. Navy’s ordnance board that met in 1869. The Navy officers declined to even test fire the rifle.
There is no evidence that this design found favor in sporting or commercial arms either. However, somehow the Fenian Brotherhood in the U.S. obtained the rights to manufacture muskets using the design.
THE FENIAN CONNECTION
The Fenian Brotherhood was established in 1858 as an American offshoot of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Initially it was a small organization, but after the American Civil War its ranks swelled with the addition of thousands of veteran soldiers with martial experience in the Federal Army. With the increased military fervor of these veterans, the Fenians armed themselves for military action against Canada in the hopes of forcing the British government to meet the demands of the IRA in their homeland. In April, 1866, the Brotherhood purchased 4,220 U.S. Springfield Model 1861 and Model 1863 rifled muskets from the Jenks armory at Bridesburg, PA. By the end of May, Fenian records show that a total of 5,040 muskets had been distributed to the various places at the Canadian border for a planned invasion of Canada.
At the end of May, 1866, a Fenian army of at least 800 men invaded Ft. Erie, Canada from Buffalo, NY, and initially had success in fending off the opposing Canadian forces. However, the U.S. government reacted swiftly to this illegal attack from U.S. territory and prevented additional soldiers and supplies from crossing the Niagara River. Without this support, the Fenians withdrew from Canada back across the river. This failure did not end the Fenian passion to invade Canada.
In preparation for another raid, the Brotherhood now wanted breech loading muskets with which to oppose the better armed British Imperial forces and Canadian militia. Somehow the leadership of the Brotherhood obtained the rights to the Needham design for converting muskets. In May, 1867, the leadership tried to obtain help from the Colt company for making musket conversions on the Needham system, but the quoted price of $7.00 each was apparently considered too high. So, the Brotherhood set up their own gunmaking firm.
A recently discovered example of the Needham conversion musket (Figures 10, 11 & 12) provides the link to identifying the name of the factory: the Pioneer Breech Loading Arms Co. in Trenton, NJ. More on this company later. This nearly new condition example was a presentation piece and is fully nickel plated. Otherwise, it is of the standard configuration, with a 40 inch long barrel/breech assembly.
FIGURE 9. Article descriptive of “The Needham Breech-Loader” from the front page of the Army & Navy Journal issue of September 14, 1867. The two column article is replicated here as one column for convenience of reading. (From the internet)
FIGURE 10. An original presentation piece, the metal parts of this Needham musket are completely nickel plated. It is made from a new contractor-made Springfield Model 1863 rifle musket. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 11. The breech block of this presentation piece is engraved, “Pioneer Breech-Loading/ Arms Works/Trenton, N.J.” in three lines. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 12. The lock plate of the presentation musket retains its original “BRIDESBURG'' marking, from the Jenks Armory, with “1862” date. The hammer is of the earliest type with the wedge held in place by two large pins. It is unnumbered. (Author’s collection and photograph)
With an armory established, the Fenians recalled all of the muskets that were dispersed in hiding. By 1870, a reported 5,020 rifle muskets had been converted; 1,450 of these were once again distributed to hiding points at the Canadian border. However, this logistics effort was managed by the Fenian Brotherhood’s adjutant-general, Henry LeCaron, who was also a spy for the Canadian Government. LeCaron shipped paper cartridges for use in these metallic cartridge conversions, and apparently had the firing pins removed (as is often seen today). He also had the breechblocks from their cannon removed and hidden. His role was never discovered by the Fenians.
Then on May 25, 1870, an “army” of 200 troops armed with these converted muskets invaded Canada from near Franklin, VT. This “army” was readily repulsed by the well informed and prepared British troops and Canadian militia. The U.S. Army showed up again and arrested some invaders; they confiscated all the arms, sequestering them at Watervliet Arsenal, Troy, NY. With this second inglorious failure, the fire went out of the Fenian Brotherhood’s engine.
THE FENIAN FACTORY
The Pioneer Breech Loading Arms Co. was established in Trenton, NJ, in mid 1867. The founder of the business was Patrick J. Meehan, a passionate Fenian activist who was an assistant treasurer of the organization as well as the editor of their newspaper, The Irish American. This factory was fully operating by mid 1868; 2,000 breechloaders were reported as completed by October.
The Fenian leadership later cast doubt on Meehan’s business acumen. Gen. John O’Neill, Fenian president, made a report in 1870 that said:
“It was then a generally well known fact that, since…November, 1868, the greater portion of the funds of the Organization had passed through the hands of Mr. Meehan, as he had entire control of the factory and of the payments made for the alterations of arms. The amount of money so expended was a cause of great dissatisfaction in the Organization, as it reached a sum nearly double that [estimated] by Mr. Meehan, as necessary at the Philadelphia Congress….”
O’Neill also reported, “The alteration of breechloaders alone cost, according to Mr. Meehan, over sixty thousand dollars.” Thus, for 5,020 muskets the investment equated to a price of about $12 each musket — and no evidence has been found that the factory produced any other arms afterward to spread the cost of machinery and tooling. The Brotherhood would have been better served by accepting the Colt factory’s offer of $7 each for conversions.
The original foreman of the Pioneer works was E. Alfred Cole. Cole hired Hugo Borchardt as an assistant — Borchardt’s first arms making job in America. Borchardt thus had a large part in the fabrication of the Needham musket conversions. He later stated in a letter of application for employment at the Sharps Rifle Co.:
“I took the superintendence of a shop in the worst condition in Trenton, designed the tools and finished the contract for 5,000 guns to the satisfaction of the Co. — Mr. Meehan, who was the treasurer of the Pioneer Breechloading Arms Co., hesitated at first in placing confidence in me, owing very likely to may age. I was 24 years old.”
Borchardt wasn’t actually promoted to superintendent of the Pioneer works until 1872. In
FIGURE 13. This is the original order (L) from SH&G to their warehouseman to ship Needham muskets to Atlanta, GA. The reverse (R) shows the warehouse’s notes of compliance, including a sketch of the intertwined-GV design of the cartridge box plates. (McCracken Library, Buffalo Bill Historical Center,Cody, WY)
1874 he moved on to the Singer Sewing Machine Co., then to Sharps in 1876. His career in arms design and manufacturing would continue into the next century.
While the U.S. Government confiscated some of the Needham conversions, it found only a small part. An 1872 Fenian report states that 2,560 muskets were still secreted along the Canadian border; certainly some of those issued to the Fenian “soldiers” remained in their hands long afterward. Those that the government confiscated had a second life.
In June, 1870, the Army had shipped 150 muskets to the Watervliet Arsenal, and in later weeks a total of 538 crates of Fenian stores were sent there. It appears that some arms were seized at the Pioneer factory as well, because subsequent sales included unassembled muskets and parts. The U.S. government had known of this factory’s existence as early as July, 1869. All these arms and parts were auctioned off at the arsenal on January 25, 1871. Many of these muskets were noted with forestocks cut under the middle barrel band; the Fenians had done this to make the muskets fit into shorter packing crates in order to hide the true nature of their shipments.
These muskets and parts were purchased by the New York City arms dealer Schuyler, Hartley & Graham (SH&G). Their records show the following stores were purchased from the arsenal that January:
132 muskets, breech loader Cal. .58
562 muskets, not assembled, altered to breechloader
On March 23, SH&G also brought an additional “118 Needham B L Rifles $4,” from a man named G.L. Bailey (who is not otherwise identified). These were received as barrels and stocks only, not completed arms.
Then, between March 14 and April 6, SH&G sent 802 Needham muskets needing assembly or refurbishing to their gunsmith, B.S. Moulton. Moulton returned 795 completed muskets, now listed as in “new” condition. A few muskets did not need work. In total SH&G acquired 812 complete Needham breech loading muskets. These were immediately offered for sale, with the first sale recorded on May 12, 1871. However, they did not prove a popular item; on January 1, 1874, inventory still listed 744 Needham muskets in storage. The last Needham muskets did not sell until 1883.
Noteworthy sales, as documented by SH&G’s warehouse sales and shipping records, were as follows:
- 50 “Needham rifles & bayonets” ordered on
October 9; delivered to Sparta, GA, on December
Addressed to “T.C. & De L. Turner, Sparta, Ga.”
but no further information has been found about
the buyers. These were delivered with a “Ga
plate, brass” accompanying 50 cartridge boxes,
FIGURE 14. Typical of production Needham conversion muskets, this example is in excellent condition, showing its original finish. The .58 caliber barrel and furniture are finished in the white. (Author’s collection and photograph)
indicating their intended use by Georgia militia.
- 85 “Needham Bright Flat Band” to Mahanoy
City, PA, in March, 1876.
Addressed to a Michael Landy. What
the organization needed so many is not recorded.
- 50 “Needham B L Rifles and Bayts [sic] Bright .58
CF Flat Bands” to New Orleans on September 14,
Addressed to John J. Murray, who was a member
of the Grand Army of the Republic.
- 16 “Needham Rifles & Bayts Bright Round Band”
with equipments to Atlanta, GA, on March 21,
1879. Accompanying cartridge boxes were to
have “monogram letters GV” intertwined (Figure
Addressed to Capt. R.M. Baker. In February he had been elected a captain commanding a “colored military company” in the Georgia Volunteers, according to The Atlanta Constitution. Oddly, this newspaper reported on April 3, that the company had received “twenty-six fine breach-loading [sic] rifles from New York…They could not wait for the slow process of being armed by the state….” and they had paid for their own guns. Perhaps Capt. Baker purchased ten rifles while visiting the store (the store kept quantities on hand) and SH&G then shipped the rest of his order from their warehouse.
- 200 “Needham rifles & Bayts Bright 58 CF New”
to the Dominican Republic on July 16, 1883.
Addressed merely to “U.H. San Domingo.” This may refer to Gen. Ulises Heureaux, the president of the Dominican Republic; “San Domingo” was one contemporary name of the country. Such a large quantity probably was intended for a military or police unit.
In addition to the foregoing sales, between September 15 and October 26, 1876, SH&G delivered a total of 72 Needham muskets to St. Louis dealer E.C. Meacham & Co.
In summary, the Needham conversion muskets have a colorful history in America. They were made in a factory established solely for their fabrication, under the supervision of famous firearms inventor Hugo Borchardt. A few were used in an abortive invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood in 1870. The two deliveries to Georgia, with a connection to military units, make the Needham conversion musket a secondary issue U.S. military arm; there is no known identifying marking for these few muskets. Note that a 1925 Bannerman catalog illustrates (p.101) the Needham musket (but misidentifies it as the similar Milbank side-gate alteration); the text refers to the Fenian connection and also says, “Used by militia regiments….” Bannerman often had access to such information given by those from whom he acquired the surplus arms.
Today, collectors will find that many Needham conversion muskets survive in their original configuration because they remained in the hands of the Fenian soldiers to whom they were issued.
The American Needham conversion muskets began life as either contractor-made Springfield Model 1861 or Model 1863 rifle muskets. They are 55-5/16 inches long, and have a barrel and receiver that is 40 inches long; the barrel only is 37 inches long. The barrel and furniture are finished in the white. (Figure 14)
Most have lock plates marked “BRIDESBURG'' because the majority were bought from the Jenks Armory near Philadelphia. Jenks made both Model 1861 and 1863 Springfield type rifle muskets during the Civil War. However, other lock plate markings, such as “NEW YORK'' and “NORWICH,” have been observed (Figure 15). The lock plates are re-contoured to fit the receiver and provide space for the side swinging breech block. Too few fine condition guns have been observed to identify the original finish of the lock plate, though the hammers appear to have retained case-hardened colors.
The hammers are universally Model 1863 type, even on Model 1861 muskets. The nose configuration varies. Early examples have either two pins (Figures 12 & 15) or one large pin, milled flush with the surface of the hammer, to retain the “wedge” in a slot in the nose of the hammer. Later, a small pin, with rounded ends protruding from the surface of the hammer, was used (Figure 16) and this is the type most commonly observed. The side of the “wedge” near the receiver is usually numbered with up to four digits in small numerals. This is a factory inventory number to track manufacture and was not intended as a serial number.
Very few Needham muskets have been observed having U.S. government inspectors’ cartouches on the left stock flat. This indicates that primarily newmade, not war surplus, rifle muskets were acquired by the Fenian Brotherhood. Most examples (including the presentation piece in Figure 9) have a large “IN” stamped on the left stock flat (see Figure 17). This is the factory inspector’s mark. Examples which lack the “IN” are those guns assembled or refurbished by B.S. Moulton for SH&G (Figure 16).
The breech system is basically a “trapdoor” action that is side-swinging (Figure 18). The receiver is 4-1/16 inches long (not including the tang), and was case hardened in color. The breechblock is arranged for a centerfire cartridge. The spring loaded firing pin acts as a breechblock retention bolt when the breach is closed and the hammer is cocked. The barrel is chambered for the .58 Berdan Musket cartridge. The machining of the parts of the breech system is top quality work, and the muskets were finely finished. But overall, the action was cumbersome to operate and the breechblock locking design was weak.
Today these Needham conversion muskets are readily available to collectors. Those refurbished by SH&G are added to those which disappeared into Fenian Brotherhood member’s closets, meaning that a significant number of the original 5,020 made likely survived.
FIGURE 15. The “NORWICH” contractor lock plate is dated 1863. This early manufacture example also has the hammer nose’s wedge held in place by two large pins. It is unnumbered. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 16. This example shows the more commonly seen hammer type, with one small pin to hold the nose wedge in place. This musket has a cartouche on the stock rather than the Fenian “IN” inspector’s mark, indicating that it was likely assembled by SH&G’s gunsmith from parts. (Courtesy Carol Watson’s Orange Coast Auction)
FIGURE 17. The “IN” inspector’s mark typical of Fenian assemble muskets is clearly shown here. (Author’s collection and photograph)
FIGURE 18. On the musket in Figure 14, the “NORWICH” contractor lock plate is dated 1863. This early manufacture example also has the hammer nose’s wedge held in place by two large pins. It is unnumbered. . (Author’s collection and photograph)