Needham Musket Conversion

by Roger L. Papke, Handfuls of History

At the end of the American Civil War, the Union had well over a million surplus muzzle-loading rifle-muskets, all of which were obsolete since it was clear that in the future all military rifles would be breech-loaders and most likely use metal cartridges. The U.S. was not alone in this predicament; most European nations were in the same boat. Prior to the end of the American Civil war, only Prussia had standardized on breech-loading bolt-action rifles, albeit with paper cartridges and needle-fire ignition. France was committed to an arms race with Prussia, and having seen Prussia overcome Austria in the Austro-Prussian War, France also introduced their own bolt-action needle-fire Chassepot rifles in 1866.

The U.S., England, and Austria found an economically effective solution out of their firearm crisis. They adopted methods to convert muzzle-loaders to breech-loaders, allowing the reuse of existing stocks of muskets and associated spare or surplus parts. The English used the Snider conversion system on their pattern 1853 Enfields, and the Austrians produced Wanzl conversions for their Lorenz rifles. However, both the Snider and Wanzls were stop-gap solutions, soon to be replaced by new models, Martini-Henrys in Great Britain and Werndls in Austria. Only in the U.S. did the conversion models lead to the long-term production of similar new rifles.

Enfield muzzleloader
Muzzle-loading rifle-muskets like this Pattern 1853 Enfield were the donors for hundreds of thousands of cartridge conversions in the late 1860s.
Snider conversion open
The loading gate on a Snider conversion opened to the side.
Snider conversion
Snider conversion installed in the breech of a Pattern 1853 Enfield.
Trapdoor Springfield open
The “trapdoor” on the 1866 Springfield opened forward for loading.
Trapdoor Springfield
Conversion system designed by Springfield Master Armorer Erskin S. Allin installed in a Model 1861 Springfield rifle musket donor. This is a Model 1866 “Trapdoor”, which used the original barrel from the donor musket but was sleeved down to .50 caliber with renewed rifling.

Reportedly, several conversion systems were considered by the U.S. Army, including Rolling Block and Peabody mechanisms. However, I suspect that the “trapdoor” system designed by Springfield Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin always had the inside track on the U.S. trials. One alternative conversion system, which apparently was given only passing consideration, was designed by two brothers, Joseph and George Henry Needham of London, England. The rifle shown is a Needham converted rifle.

Needham with breech open
With the hammer back the gate could be swung open. You can see that the striker was pinned to the original hammer.
Needham with breech open
The loading gate of a Needham conversion was locked in the closed position by the hammer.
This early Needham conversion was installed in a rifle-musket originally made in 1863 in Norwich Connecticut.
This early Needham conversion was installed in a rifle-musket originally made in 1863 in Norwich Connecticut.

The Needham conversions were probably pretty cost effective, but the early models in particular had problems which I discovered after I obtained this example. As with any conversion the first step would have been to cut into the original sealed chamber, opening up a breech. A new chamber would have to be milled into the end of the barrel to accept a metal cartridge of the type pictured. Then a hinged breech block would be installed with a firing pin and transfer bar that could be hit with the hammer which had been modified to reach into a recess in the block. A spring was installed to pull back the pin before and after the moment when the transfer bar extension of the firing pin was struck by the hammer. On the early models, the firing pin transfer bar casting was liable to break, as occurred with this rifle. Loosening a set screw allowed the remnant of firing pin to be removed, revealing that it had broken at the point where the transfer bar once connected.

I was delighted (and frankly amazed), to discover that The Rifle Shoppe in Jones Oklahoma had listed in their catalog both “old style” and “new style” firing pins for Needham conversions! However these were not items that they had on the shelf but rather an ability to cast upon order. The waiting list was considerable, but after about 10 months I received the two casting shown in the picture with the broken original. I ordered both because at that time I did know not which was the right part for my gun. I had been in touch with Jim Burgess who had co-authored a report on Needham conversions with Marc Gorelick which was presented to the Virginia Gun Collectors Association and available on-line*. Jim had sent me a sketch of the firing pin from his gun, and it was clearly unlike mine, so I knew different versions existed.

The remnants of the original firing pin above two replacements obtained from the Rifle Shop.  The original is a better match to the “old style” pin.
The remnants of the original firing pin above two replacements obtained from the Rifle Shop. The original is a better match to the “old style” pin.
The original pin and the replacement after machining required to make it fit and function.
The original pin and the replacement after machining required to make it fit and function.

As can be seen in the picture, when I compared the broken pin to the two castings, it was apparent which was a match for mine; however, it was also apparent that the new piece was a rough casting with much more metal than would ever fit in the housing on my rifle. My blacksmith friend Steve Bloom (Iron Flower Forge) did the hand fitting to produce the finished replacement shown. There are several differences between the two styles of firing pins, and clearly they were never intended to be interchangeable. The most important difference is the new style pin is reinforced at the stop where my pin broke. The old style pin is one factor that suggests that this rifle is a very early sample of a Needham conversion, perhaps an example that led to its failure in U.S. government tests. The other factor is that the conversion was built into a rifle made by the Norwich Arms Co., one of the smaller contractors to the Union during the Civil War. The large majority of Needham conversions were built into rifles made by the Alfred Jenks & Sons firm in Bridesburg, Pennsylvania, and so are marked “Bridesburg” on the lock plate.

Needham cartridges
Needham conversions, like the very first generation 1865 Springfield conversions, used the original barrels which were bored for .58 caliber. They were chambered for the short large diameter cartridges shown. The upper cartridge in the photo is a .45-70 government cartridge used on the later Model 1873 Springfield, which were not “conversions” but new-made rifles in the pattern of the older conversions.

Bridesburg Needham conversions and the Fenian invasions of Canada

The Fenians were an Irish-American group who wanted to put pressure on Great Britain to free Ireland. They conspired to mount an invasion of Canada and occupy some territory in order to force concessions. The Fenians purchased surplus Bridesburg rifle-muskets and sent 600 armed men across the Canadian border from New York in June 1866. The small force briefly captured Fort Erie, but was readily overcome, and the men were sent back to the U.S.. Surprisingly, the Fenians were sufficiently well connected politically that they were able to recover their guns along with their freedom to try again.

However, by the time the Fenians were considering a second foray across the border in 1867, the British troops in Canada were equipped with Snider conversions of the P1853 Enfield rifle, and the Fenians knew they would be seriously outmatched with their original muzzle-loading Bridesburg muskets. Reportedly, supporters of the Fenians rented space in a Trenton, New Jersey shop, where hired English gunsmiths performed the Needham conversions on about 5,000 rifle-muskets. The Fenians launched a second invasion in May of 1870 across the Vermont border. The Canadians were forewarned and the Fenians soundly defeated. This time, the guns used in the attack were confiscated by the U.S. Army, along with additional guns that had been stored in Trenton. The army subsequently auctioned off the guns, a large number of which were purchased by the surplus dealer Schuyler, Hartley & Graham. These guns account for the majority of the Needham convertion rifles which occasionally show up for sale.