Jennings Muzzleloader Conversion: The Perils of Early Adoption

Early adoption of new technology is a sword which cuts both ways – you might be getting the first of a fantastic new system, or you might be paying for a flop – and in order to get the benefit of the first possibility you must take the risk of the second. Someone buying a Luger in 1900 was making a great choice…but someone buying a Jennings repeating rifle in the early 1850s was in for disappointment.

The Jennings was one of the stepping stones to the truly successful lever action repeating rifle, but it wasn’t quite there itself. It used a type of rocket ball ammunition with the propellent loaded inside the hollow base of the bullet, thus requiring no cartridge case. It did this in conjunction with a pellet priming system, which made the Jennings a rather complicated rifle as well as being underpowered and expensive.

Even before the first full run of a thousand guns was completed, it became clear that the rifle was not going to be a commercial success. Its ammunition was rather quickly discontinued for lack of substantial sales, and this left Jennings owners (and the factory itself) in the unenviable position of having guns they could not acquire specialized ammunition for. What to do? Well, the most common solution was to convert the guns into muzzleloaders. The pellet priming system was converted to use standard percussion caps, the breech was plugged, the tube magazine under the barrel was converted to hold a ramrod, and the action parts in the receiver were removed or disabled. This may have defeated the whole point of a repeating rifle, but at least the guns could be fired this way.

The factory production even resorted to this type of conversion in order to use the stocks of parts they had manufactured when hopes were high for the system.