It proved itself during the Mexican War and on the frontier.
It was one of the most popular military and civilian rifles of its day, won glory in two major wars and saw service along the Western frontier from the Rio Grande to Puget Sound. An official U.S. government martial arm, it was treated as a bastard stepchild for years after its presumed official adoption, and saw its earliest use in the hands of emigrants and frontiersmen well before it was first issued to a bluecoat. Designated the U.S. Model 1841 by ordnance mavens, it was better known as the “Mississippi Rifle,” and in its first military conflict was formally paired with the newly perfected Colt revolver in the hands of an elite unit led by a former Texas Ranger of national repute. Few 19thcentury American firearms compiled a more storied record in so brief a time.
The early 1840s were a time of cautious innovation for the U.S. Army’s ordnance establishment. The temperamental Hall was the only percussion rifle available to the troops in 1841. The Army sought to return to a rifle of the conventional single-shot, muzzle-loading design coupled with the simpler and more reliable percussion ignition system. Thus even as a new smoothbore musket design was approved for general issue, the service sought a new rifled arm for issue to special regular units and the civilian militias. The new design was of .54 caliber with fixed rear sights and seven-groove rifling, utilizing a patched round ball, the traditional projectile for rifled arms at that time. Its glossy oil-finished walnut stock was trimmed with elegant brass barrel bands, trigger guard and patchbox.
By October 1842, the government had issued production contracts for the U.S. Model 1841 rifle to private arms contractors. Then, just as the contractors were geared up to meet the government’s production needs, Colonel George Talcott, the U.S. Army’s corrupt chief of Ordnance, cancelled all of the civilian contracts. The contractors responded to the looming financial disaster by putting the government-pattern rifles into production anyway and then selling them on the general civilian market. Thus the elegant new Model 1841s burned powder first in the hands of hunters and frontiersmen. Tryon of Philadelphia was turning out the pieces for commercial sale as early as 1844. Examples of its arms marked with that year on their lockplates and bearing the legend “REPUBLIC OF TEXAS” testify to the firm’s marketing efforts far afield from Pennsylvania. Tryon and the other private arms companies eventually saw their contracts restored with the eruption of the Mexican War in the spring of 1846, but by then the intended military rifles were available to any buyer.
The arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., also began producing the Model 1841. It was early issued to the 1st Mississippi Volunteers as they embarked for service in Mexico under the command of Colonel Jefferson Davis. At the Battle of Buena Vista, the regiment shattered a massed charge by Mexican lancers, and after emptying their rifles surged forward to attack the startled horsemen with bowie knives. The unit emerged covered in glory, and forever after the Model 1841 was known as the “Mississippi Rifle.”
In 1846 the Army had organized a new unit, the U.S. Regiment of Mounted Riflemen. Intended originally to police the Oregon Trail, the unit was diverted to Mexico, where it won the sobriquet of “Brave Rifles” from General Winfield Scott. The regiment’s original issue arm along with sabers, special broad-bladed knives and single-shot percussion pistols was the Model 1841 rifle. The captain of one of its companies was a Texas Ranger, Samuel Walker, who had helped Samuel Colt design the five-shot revolver known as the Walker Colt.
By the war’s end in 1848, the Mississippi Rifle had a sterling reputation for accuracy and reliability that assured its popularity in peacetime. Army Lieutenant George D. Brewerton publicly extolled the arm’s virtues in a testimonial published after he accompanied the legendary scout Kit Carson on a trek from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. “I cannot too strongly recommend [it] for every description of frontier service,” he declared. Other Mississippi Rifles entered emigrant hands practically gratis, after Congress passed legislation on March 2, 1849, that authorized the Army and state arsenals to sell weapons to westbound settlers at cost, with a $50,000 appropriation defraying the expense of the weapons involved. New Orleans journalist turned gold-seeker James E. Durivage departed for California that year and wrote a friend from a border village on the Rio Grande, asking, “Were you aware that the company was furnished with brand-new Mississippi Rifles and percussion-locked holster pistols from the United States arsenal at Baton Rouge, in order to arm the escort?”
In the summer of 1853, Apaches struck a wagon train in the Guadalupe Mountains 100 miles northeast of El Paso and stole most of the livestock. Thirteen men rode in pursuit of the thieves but were ambushed by 150 Mescalero Apaches. Ten men died on the spot and another lived only long enough to be carried into El Paso. The deaths were tragic enough, but, as one El Pasoan lamented, “by this the Indians have gained thirteen fine horses, eighteen six-shooters and thirteen Mississippi rifles.”
Mississippi Rifles were also used in fighting on the Pacific Coast. On March 26, 1856, for example, 300 hostile Yakima, Klickitat and Cascade Indians attacked a small Columbia River settlement in Oregon. The residents retreated to a store, where they uncrated a supply of “nine United States rifles with cartridge boxes and ammunition.” With those arms they held off the Indians until a steamboat brought troops upriver to the rescue. By then the weapons had also acquired the common nickname of “yagers,” or “yaugers,” after the German name for a hunting rifle.
By the early 1850s such new weapons as the Sharps breechloader were available in the West, but the service rifles remained popular among plainsmen of all stripes. In 1854 mail express man James M. Hunter and his Texas friends used yagers and Sharps to repulse attacks on mail coaches by Mescaleros. Many Mormons came to favor these rifles and brought them to the sect’s new settlements in Utah. As late as 1866, one Mormon militia company of 67 men listed a dozen Model 1841s among its ordnance.
The Mississippi Rifle armed thousands of troops on both sides as the Civil War erupted in 1861, and was a special favorite among Southerners. On the Texas frontier, Texans continued to use yagers in the fight against hostile Indians during the war and afterward. In 1867 Alsatian emigrant Henry Wanz was helping neighboring ranchers Joseph and Charles Vance check their herds near the settlement of New Fountain, west of San Antonio. Charles Vance carried a Spencer carbine while the others relied on their veteran yagers. Attacked by Comanches, they punished the raiders in a running fight, killing several. Wanz dropped a luckless brave with his rifle and took his scalp. Between 1858 and 1876, a Uvalde County settler stood off at least nine Indian attacks using both a Model 1841 and a breechloading metallic-cartridge Ballard rifle.
Apaches, Sioux, Cheyennes and other Plains Indians sometimes acquired the yagers by barter or capture along the emigrant trails. Inventories of Indian arms surrendered to the Army at the close of the final campaigns against them in the late 1870s often listed yagers among the weapons. One such weapon was residing in a government museum collection in 1960 when a worker assigned to clean it found a full load of powder behind a patched ball still resting in its breech. The weapon’s handsome brass trim and its handy length for use on horseback appealed to many a tribesman.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.