US Contract Rifles

There are many misconceptions about these rifles, at this time, we decided to research the truths about them. After spending time with other historians and collectors to locate an example, we realized along with others that there are no known surviving examples that can be positively identified as a 1792 Contract Rifle. Realizing this problem, we went back to the original contracts to identify this weapon and realized that there are two distinct types of the early contract rifles, the 1792 and the 1807. We are listing them both to clarify their distinctions. We found the dates and speed of manufacture very interesting.

1792 US Contract Rifle

At the end of 1791, the United States was very worried about the indians on the frontier. With General St. Claire and the American Army so soundly defeated and almost annihilated by the Indians in November 1791. The Government decided to raise a standing army, but needed muskets and rifles desperately. In haste they let contracts to individuals, to make these arms as fast as possible to arm this new army. On January 4, 1792, the Secretary of War, Henry Knox wrote a letter to General Hand in Lancaster, Pennsylvania authorizing him to get with the area gunmakers and contract with them to make 500 to 1000 rifles as quickly as possible. On January 13, 1792, General Hand wrote back and said “he received his letter of the 4th and he had already started the gunsmiths to work preparing the barrels, locks, and mountings and should have some rifles ready in another week and was preparing a standard rifle to work from. After examining a number of guns from different gunshops he settled on a 44 1/2 inches barrel in 47 caliber.” He sent Henry Knox a standard rifle about which Henry Knox then wrote back to General Hand on February 4th, 1792 and told General Hand “he wanted the barrel shortened to 42 inches, the caliber changed to .49, and said the standard rifle was not very well stocked, that the lock needed a fly and that well seasoned maple wood must be used.” Between April 1792 and December 1792, 1,476 rifles were delivered by 11 different gunsmiths (that is 15 guns per month per maker). George Moller shows records in his book that these were issued out as fast as they were finished. The Government still needing more rifles, contracted for more of the same rifle in February 1794. By November 1794 they had 2,000 more finished by 17 gunsmiths in 9 months (that is 14 guns per month per maker). Some of these were rejected and sent back to the gunsmiths to rebuild. Most all the 1792 contract rifles were shipped to Schuykill Arsenal at Philadelphia and issued out from there. The 1792 Contract Rifle was just a plain Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle with a 42” Full octagon barrel in .49 caliber with a patchbox. It would have no military styling at all. None of these rifles were ordered with sling swivels. Many of these were also sent to the Indian Trade Department for gifts to the Indians. All 1792 US Contract rifles were manufactured with full octagon barrels.

1807 US Contract Rifle

Because of the high possibility of war with England, the Government put out contracts for rifles, pistols and swords in 1807. The only specifications for the rifles were 38” one third octagon two thirds round barrel in approximately .53 caliber. Once again none of these rifles were ordered with sling swivels. Most of these guns had Germanic locks or forged American locks, but there are examples with Ketland marked locks that could be purchased from the Government. The barrels should be marked US with full length maple stocks. They had simple brass patchboxes, some similar to the 1803 Harpers Ferry, some with different finale’s. From the beginning, there was very poor quality control as to the caliber and workmanship. Many barrels burst when proofing. It was so bad with these rifles that they still had not been issued out by 1810 when they were reinspected and 1,778 of the 1,779 were condemed as unfit for service. The inspector told them “it would have been better to throw the money down the river than to buy these arms.” The rifles were reinspected in 1811 by a new inspector, who upon proofing 16 guns, had 8 burst. He stated “the barrels varied from 8lbs 2oz to 4lbs 3oz in weight. The locks were so bad it was not worth the time even to repair them. The mountings were all different. He suggested they should dispose of them.” Because of the war most were issued out anyway. You will find some of these surviving 1807’s around with 1812 Harpers Ferry locks in them, so it is possible that the government took some of the better ones and fitted new locks to them. I have seen many people building this type of rifle calling them a model 1792, but as you can see by the government specifications they are two totally different rifles. All 1807 US Contract rifles were manufactured with half octagon, half round barrels.