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Rifles of the Expedition

At Harpers Ferry, Captain Meriwether Lewis obtained 15 rifles built under contract for the United States Army in 1792 and 1794. Gunsmiths from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, produced these rifles. According to the records in Lancaster, these were .49 caliber weapons, with a 42-inch barrel that featured a patch-box with a push-button release. Over 300 of these rifles were stored at the Harpers Ferry arsenal when Lewis arrived in April 1803.

From the 18 May 1803 requisition receipt Lewis received from the arsenal, the 25 May 1803 letter from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn to the Superintendent of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal Joseph Perkin, and the 8 July 1803 letter from Lewis to Jefferson, it appears that Lewis had the arsenal shorten the barrels of 15 of the 1792 / 1794 rifles to between 33 and 36 inches and re-bored. He also had the gunsmiths add swivels to these weapons, and fit them with new locks. Additionally, Lewis purchased replacement locks and spare lock parts for each rifle.

Significantly, the requisition paperwork from Harpers Ferry does not mention the specific type of weapon Lewis obtained. This is certainly not consistent with Army regulations, unless the arsenal had only one type of weapon in stock, in which case it was not necessary to specify the type procured. This leads to the conclusion that the arsenal had only one rifle in stock the 1792 / 1794 model. Moreover, Dearborn's letter to Perkin supports this, especially when Dearborn states that he prefers the short rifle Lewis had shown him "over the long ones (commonly used) in actual service". From reading Dearborn's letter, it becomes clear that the Secretary of War was convinced that the Army needed rifles like the one Lewis had procured for the expedition, and Dearborn orders Perkin to begin manufacturing "a suitable number."

From the available evidence, it seems that Dearborn was so impressed with the short rifles Lewis had the armory make for the expedition that he ordered Perkin to produce similar ones for the entire Army. In fact, Dearborn's letter specifies in great detail the type of rifle the armory is to manufacture. But it wasn't until October 1803 that the first of these 1803 rifles was finished. By that time, Lewis and Clark were leaving the Falls of the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky.

Some believe that the contract rifles Lewis had modified for the expedition were the prototype for the M1803 rifle. While this may be true, the available evidence demonstrates that the expedition members carried modified 1792 / 1794 rifles, not the M1803 ones.


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