The U.S. Contract Rifle of, 1792 - 1794
A presidential decree in 1792 created a battalion of riflemen, and the
government place orders for arms with established Pennsylvania
gunsmiths. Tench Coxe, Purveyor of Public Supplies, discription of
the rifles "...they are to be common, plain rifles substantially made."
Secretary of War, Henry Knox contacted Brigadier General Edward
Hand of Lancaster, Pennsylvania to procure rifles for the army.
Knox wrote on Jan 4, 1792 to Hand,
" As you are experienced in this business, I shall take the liberty of
relying solely on your inspection and judgement of them..."
A prototype was made up for Knox's approval and in a letter dated
Feb 4, 1792 to Hand, the go ahead was given for a rifle with a 42"
barrel bored 40 balls to the pound, a fly in the tumbler of the Lock,
the trigger, side and breech pins to be hardened, the stock to be
seasoned maple, and the catch spring release to be high so as to be
more accessible to the thumb.
1,476 rifles were purchased by the government in 1792. Just under
3,500 were procured for the government during the period of 1792 to
Arming the Corps of Discovery
Frank Tait in his article, The U.S. Contract Rifle - Pattern of 1792 -
for the June 1999 edition of Man at Arms magazine writes,
"Much of the history of these rifles has been well reported
elsewhere. Our inquiry need concern itself only with a specific
shipment, the story of which has only recently been pieced together.
It begins with the events that took place in 1794 in what is now
known as the "Whiskey Rebellion."
The federal excise tax placed on spirits created civil unrest which
lead to armed conflict in western Pennsylvania. 15,000 federal
troops were called upon to support civil authority. Hamilton wrote
to Governor Henry Lee of Virginia concerning the decision taken
the day before to increase the call for his states militia.
" It is his ( Washington's ) wish that as many of these as possible be
drawn from places near the scene of the action and may be
riflemen... General Morgan whom it is understood to be your
intention to employ can it is believed to be very useful in carrying
this particular object into effect. Colonel Carrington is requested to
undertake the arrangement for all supplies in the Quarter Master
and Commissary lines... I have sent him an order upon Mr. Holt
Keeper of the Magazines at New London... I understand there are
now at New London fifteen hundred stands of arms ready for service
and that 1000 more per week can be got ready there."
New London, Virginia, on the upper James River, was the site of a
federal magazine and storehouse.
The insurection was already collapsing by the time troops were
ready to march. Washington turned over command of the army to
Governor Lee of Virginia. Hamilton looking ahead to disbanding the
force as early as possible wrote to Governor Lee on Oct. 20 1794,
"On return of the army, you will adopt some convenient and certain
arrangement for restoring to the public magazines the arms,
accoutrements, military stores, tents & other articles of camp
equippage, and entrenching tools which have been furnished & shall
not have been consumed or lost."
The New London magazine would have taken charge of 400 rifles
promised to Virginia for her troops along with arms issued from
New London itself. There, they would have been cleaned,
refurbished and properly stored.
The rifles remained there until 1801 when the New London
magazine was made redundant with the completion of the storehouse
at the then new Harpers Ferry Armory. Samuel Hodgdon sent an
order to "Public Storekeeper" Thomas Holt on Feb. 6, 1801 to ship
all arms and stores from New London to Harpers Ferry.
An inventory taken on April 6, 1801 at Harpers Ferry Armory listed
382 rifles in stores. So there would have been plenty of 1792
Contract rifles on hand at Harpers Ferry when Lewis arrived on
The above just touches on the whole story of how 1792 rifles ended
up at Harpers Ferry Armory. For more and the arguement for them
being the rifles Lewis procured by Lewis, Man at Arms still has
back issues of their June 1999 magazine that features the Frank Tait
article on the 1792 Contract rifle, its a good read.
The Standard issue arm of our new nation at the time was a
smoothbore Musket. Only a small percentage were armed with a
rifle. An interesting fact here, although having nothing to do with
1792 Contract rifle, but in 1795 Springfield Armory started
producing our Nations first U.S. arm, the 1795 Springfield musket.
Which was almost a copy of the French 1766 musket. Harpers Ferry
Armory would start producing the 1795 Springfield sometime in