The Special Model Rifle-Musket
by Tony Beck
My last two Present Arms installments covered Enfields, so this time a close relative of the Enfield will Present Arms, the U.S. Special Model Rifle-Musket. This is a peculiar weapon, part US M-1861 Springfield and part English P-53 Enfield. It came into being through a series of events beginning several years before the outbreak of the War for Southern Independence.
In the mid 1850s, the English ordnance establishment became very interested in building Enfield P-53 Rifle-Muskets on the "American plan" of interchangeable parts. On touring several arms making establishments, they were so impressed that an order was placed with Robbins & Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont. This was a well established company, then building Mississippi rifles, Sharps carbines and rifles, and other arms. Their customers included the U.S. government, various militia units and such operations as the "Kansas Immigrant Aid Society". The English contract was for Enfield Type II P-53 Rifle-Muskets, to be machine made and fully parts interchangeable. When the Crimean War broke out, Robbins & Lawrence bet that a very large order would be forthcoming from the British. They bought machinery and other equipment planning to produce a lot of P-53s.
At the same time, Sam Colt was actively courting the English government for a really big order. He testified before Parliament in 1854 that he could produce machine made, parts interchangeable P-53 Rifle-Muskets for $7.50 each, less than half of what the Crown was paying for non-interchangeable hand made guns. The catch was that they would have to give him an order for 1,000,000 muskets! In spite of its amazing scale, this was no idle boast. Colt had costed out the P-53 to within a few tenths of a cent.
A quick end to the Crimean War made such vast arms purchases unnecessary. Colt had not started tooling up, so he only lost the investment in producing his bids. Robbins & Lawrence were in a much worse position. They were actually producing guns, and had just bought the machinery to make a lot more. Not only was the English order not forthcoming, the current order was reduced to those already delivered in England. This left the company with 12,000 undelivered muskets and no prospect for further orders. Soon, Robbins & Lawrence was bankrupt and all their new Enfield production machinery was being auctioned off. Sam Colt, ever hopeful of a really big Enfield order, may have bought up some of the Robbins & Lawrence equipment. A very big purchaser was Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, a long time Colt associate in Windsor Vermont.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Colt proposed to the War Department that he place his Hartford operation at government disposal. Uncle Sam asked the Colonel if his works would be able to make Springfield muskets in addition to his revolving pistols and rifles. Without even examining one, Colt reported in early June of '61 that he could make as many as 500,000 a year! The Robbins & Lawrence machinery at LG & Y was quickly surveyed. It became apparent that major modifications would be needed to make the Model 1861. In order to make maximum use of that tooling, as well as Colt's detailed Enfield knowledge and costing, Sam had a new musket made up, similar in appearance to the '61. On June 29th, Colt sent the "improved" prototype weapon to Washington for examination. This arm was "Springfield pattern, with as few of the simplest changes I can think to make". Ever the huckster, Colt's "minor improvements" amounted to a whole new design. Although the gun bore a striking resemblance to the Springfield, it was entirely different in detail. The changes were claimed to eliminate supposed problems with the Springfield M-1861 Rifle Musket. In fact, those differences allowed Colt, and his associate LG & Y, to use their Enfield expertise and much of the Enfield machinery. In addition, they could order parts through Colt's English operation with very little change from the P-53 pattern.
Based on the sample, A contract was awarded for "twenty-five thousand (25,000) muskets of the exact pattern of the muskets now being made at the United States armory at Springfield...". Colt took the order, conveniently ignoring the 'exactly like a Springfield' clause. Even with the Enfield machinery ready to go, the optimistic delivery schedule the government specified could not possibly be met. So, an additional $48,186.49 was spent on more machinery to build the new Special Model Muskets. Much of this equipment came from England.
When Washington realized that Colt's musket was in fact not parts interchangeable with a Springfield, they tried to have production switched over to the standard model. Colt countered with several points, some valid, one a bit questionable. First, he pointed out that this change would produce a considerable delay in deliveries, which were behind already. Second, costs, and thus prices to the government, would increase. Finally he claimed that the Special Model was so superior to the standard Springfield that the US Armory would do well to switch over and build his model muskets. Springfield actually considered this, briefly. But the US armory probably had more invested in M-1855/61 machinery than Colt had in his whole musket operation. In addition, the government was not anxious to disrupt production with a model change while there was a desperate shortage of muskets. So this was, at best, a very remote possibility.
Even though the first deliveries came in almost a year late, in September of 1862, Colt and LG & Y were among the earliest contractors to provide muskets to the US war effort. Even though LG & Y had been diverted by a 60 day delay in receiving their pattern arm, and by providing machinery, particularly stock making machinery, to many other contractors in 1861 and '62, they beat Colt's first delivery by two days.
Amoskeg came later to the Special Model business. Not a firearms concern, they specialized in fire fighting equipment. Their horse drawn, steam powered water pumpers were well known in fire departments throughout the country. They allied themselves with Colt and LG & Y to provide arms for the crisis. Their deliveries began nine months after Colt and LG & Y, in June of 1863.
When the Government finally stopped buying Special Model muskets on December 28, 1864, Colt had delivered 96,500 of them to Uncle Sam, 2,500 Second class arms to Schuyler, Hartley and Graham, which wound up in the Connecticut State Armory, an unknown number to other State units directly, and had 12,500 on hand, 12,100 of which eventually found their way to Egypt in 1866. LG & Y supplied 50,000 Special Models, and an additional unknown number to various state and militia units. Amoskeg eventually provided 27,001 to the Union war effort.