1803 Harpers Ferry Rifle

This is the first official United States Rifle adopted by this country and probably the most graceful and beautiful rifle ever produced by a government arsenal.

One thing I have learned while studying these rifles is they do not vary. There are in fact three different distinct design changes, with two minor changes in the first production run. For this reason I am classifying them in my catalog as follows.

Pre-1803 Lewis and Clark Rifle

The barrel length was 33 inches octagon to round with bottom side of the octagon section thinned and rounded. The octagon section from the breech to the wedding bands has a noticeable double taper, the round forward section of the barrel also is tapered and flared at the muzzle. The barrel is much lighter in the cross-section than the Type I 1803-06 Harpers Ferry Rifle. The lock plate is slightly thinner in height with the rear portion slanting more into the tail than the Type I. The butt plate has longer upper tang and a little less slant on the lower portion. The trigger guard is narrower on the front pad with a longer projection at the end. Front thimble is straight with a tiny flare at front.

Type I 1803-06

The first production run had a barrel length of 33", width approximately 10 3/4" octagon on rear top with the underside of the octagon portion rounded on 1803-1804 dates, sometime in 1805 the arsenal started leaving the bottom side of the barrels octagon, like the top side, this was less labor but added more weight. The front thimble on the 1803 dated gun is quite different from all other Harpers Ferry Rifles, it is almost straight and flares sharply out in the last .180" where as the upper thimbles on the 1804 and 1806 dated guns taper and then have a small funnel like flare that is almost .380" long. All 1803 to 1806 production barrels have three wedding ring bands (two small and one large) at the octagon to round intersection of the barrels. The stock on the 1803 to 1806 dated rifles have 2 1/4" of drop. The trigger guards on the 1803 to 1806 dated rifles are larger and have a distinctly different hand grip curve than 1814 to 1819 dated rifles. The triggers and rear thimbles also differ between these rifles. The lock plate and hammer shapes for the 1803 to 1806 are quite different from the 1814 to 1819 dated rifles. Finally only 1803 to 1806 dated rifles were serial numbered, while none of the 1814 to 1819 rifles have been found with a serial number to date. Harpers Ferry serial numbered all their muskets, rifles and pistols until 1812.

Type II 1814

The barrel remains the same at 33" but the octagon portion extends to approximately 11 1/4" from the breech and has only one small wedding ring band on the 1814 and later dated rifles. The triggers on these later guns have almost a full reinforcing web behind them, the trigger grip area has a distinct curve towards the stock in the center and then outwardly with a smaller bow area. The lock plate changed shapes and no longer had the teat like projection at the tail and the eagle stamp has “US” stamped inside of it instead of under it. The hammer spur also was straight, it no longer has the curl on the top as the 1803 to 1806 rifles. The rear thimble changed to only one wedding band on the front and one in the center. The brass tip on the ramrod was now standard. These stocks have a full 3" drop. All wood screws were machine made, instead of hand forged and filed, as in the 1803 to 1806 rifles.

Type III 1815-1819

The barrel was changed to 36" in June of 1815, the round portion of the barrels average about .030 to .045 larger in diameter. The patchboxes from about mid 1814 to 1819 are approximately 1" longer in the door length than earlier rifles. The front thimble on these rifles have almost a straight taper with one small wedding band.

Facts on the 1803-1819 Harpers Ferry Rifles

First production run totals from 1803 to 1806 consisted of 4015 guns. The Army only ordered 4000 so who were the other 15 guns for (Lewis and Clark).

Second production run from 1814 to 1819 consisted of 15,703 guns.

Most of the 1803 rifles that I have examined, in nice original condition show a brown varnish on the stocks instead of oil.

The rifling in all guns I have inspected (14 to date) which, I have found with original rifling, have the same shape of rifling. Average width .078 to .085 with .018 to .035 depth per side, with slightly oval or rounded bottom grooves and a twist of 1 turn in 49".

In my studies of the records left of Harpers Ferry, I have not found any mention of 1803 Harpers Ferry Rifles originally as a smooth bore. I have never seen an original gun that was in the original caliber that was a smooth bore. I have seen many rifles that were .573 caliber and larger, which is approximately what the bore would be after removal of all the rifling.

The idea of a brass tipped ramrod was not brought up until 1811 by Trench Coxe, the purveyor of public supplies. Quite a few early guns I have examined do not have brass tipped ramrods, and two guns (one being Serial #94) appear to have the cleaning worms forged on its lower end.

I have tried to give you a few basic differences in these rifles. The majority of these changes were made for production if you look at it from a manufacturing point of view. A few of these changes however were made to improve the handling of the rifle, such as the brass tipped ramrod, more drop in the stock and a larger front ramrod thimble.

It is true there are variations in this rifle, which I have shown you a few of them, but if you will study them a little, you will find they are consistent per production year and not because of the whim of the individual workman at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. In 1817-18 there were 3000 sets of parts made up at Springfield these were shipped to Harpers Ferry to be stocked. The locks on these were stamped with “J. Crosby” (An Inspector at Springfield) on the inside and the eagle on the plate has the wings dropped with a smaller US under it.

Descriptions of the 1803-1819 Harpers Ferry Rifles

content text goes hereButt Plate:

L&C : Pre-1803
2 piece less curve and hump on heel.

Type I: 1803-1806
4 1/4" x 1.60 wide almost parallel sides.

Type II: 1814-1819
4 1/4" x 1.75 wide bell shaped towards the bottom.

Ramrod Upper Thimbles:

L&C: Pre-1803
Straight with small lip.

Type l: 1803
Lightly tapered with a small lip.

Type II: 1804-1806
Tapered with a bell mouth.

Type III: 1814-1819
Larger mouth, straight tapered.

Middle Thimble:

Type I: 1803-1806
Center swelled with ridges.

Type II: 1814-1819
Center straight with ridges.

Entry Thimble:

L&C: Pre-1803
Much smaller rings front and rear.

Type I: 1803-1806
Two rings at front, three rings in the center.

Type II: 1814-1819
Single ring at front and center.

Lock Retaining Screws:

Type I: 1803-1806
Shallow oval head similar to the 1795 Springfield.

Type II: 1814-1819
Shouldered with oval head.


Type I: 1803-1806
33" Double tapered spring steel.

Type II: 1815-1819
36" Double tapered spring steel with a brass head.

Rear Sight:

L&C: Pre-1803
Taller semi-buckhorn with tiny notch.

Type I: 1803-1806
Rounded base with two decorative notches.

Type II: 1814-1819
Angled base.

L&C: Pre-1803
Tapered and flared octagon section with
tapered and flared round section.

Type I: 1803-1804
33" .54 Caliber, 7 grooves .025" deep
Tapered octagon portion with the
round underside. One large and two small rings
on wedding band.


Type II: 1805
Same as above except the underside is octagon like the top.

Type III: 1814
Same as 1805 except the octagon portion is 11 1/4" and only has a one ring wedding band.

Type IV: 1815-1819
36" Long .54 Caliber with 12 1/2" octagon portion and only has a one ring wedding band.

Barrel Rib:

L&C: Pre-1803
Hollow light weight.

Type I: 1803-1806
Tapered solid forged.

Type II: 1814
Straight forged.

Type III: 1815-1819
Straight forged.


L&C: Pre-1803
Slightly more tapered at rear section.

Type I: 1803-1806
Plate has a teat on the rear.

Type II: 1814-1819
Plate is without teat.


L&C: Pre-1803
No brass band.

Type I: 1803-1806

Type II: 1814

Type III: 1815-1819