Virginia Carbines of Danville and Pittsylvania Court House

Part 1: Pittsylvania Rifles on Display in Springfield, MA

By Will Melton (see also Part 2).

Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts is a National Historic Site and the birthplace of the Springfield musket, the Springfield rifle, and the M-1 rifle of World War II. The armory's products played a major role in every military action from the Civil War to the Korean Conflict.

Today the armory is the home of Springfield Technical College. Driving through the large complex of nineteenth century buildings, it is easy to understand why the South was outfought on the homefront during the Civil War. Close your eyes for a moment, and you can imagine rows of men at lathes and other machinery turning out some 600 muskets per day to supply the almost endless stream of men drafted or recruited to the cause of union and emancipation. During the course of the Civil War, Springfield produced 797,000 first-class rifle muskets.

Located within the armory grounds is a weapons museum established in 1872. Scores of rifles stand on racks for display or in cases that trace the development of firearms and edged weapons. Many weapons on exhibit were made right in these buildings; others came from mill towns across New England and the mid-Atlantic states. There is an interesting collection of Confederate weapons on display that includes a number of carbines. Their shorter barrels were preferred by mounted troops who appreciated their light weight and ease of handling. The mobility of the carbine counted more than the longer range of the musket which was popular among foot soldiers.

The sheer volume of northern weapons manufactured at Springfield and other armories insured that Confederate weapons would be more rare in the post-war period. Many southern arms were destroyed as invading Union troops burned Confederate arsenals and supply depots. For these reasons, Confederate militaria purchased by collectors today often cost more dearly. Contributing to the fascination with Confederate products among gun collectors are the idiosyncrasies of design and manufacture of weapons produced in wartime society forced to modernize its industry. These touches of color and personality are often lacking in the mass-produced efficiency of many arms used by soldiers of the North.

During the war, Pittsylvania County, Virginia, was never invaded by Union troops. Its only city, Danville, was secure enough to serve as the last capital of the Confederacy after the evacuation of the government from Richmond in April 1865. Primarily farm country, both now and then, Pittsylvania lies on the North Carolina border in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Local historians have long known that rifles were manufactured in the region, but identifying the few remaining examples of Pittsylvania arms has been difficult. None of the Pittsylvania companies producing arms chose to indicate on the weapons either the name of the manufacturer or its location. Recent research has brought this history to light in a special exhibit in Springfield, “Arms of the Confederacy,” a part of which is the largest collection of weapons attributed to Pittsylvania that has been assembled since the surrender at Appomattox. Included are seven carbines and rifles produced by three artisans in Pittsylvania County.

Guns from two Danville workshops are on display. The factory of N.T. Read and John T. Watson produced a .54-caliber weapon, the Read and Walker percussion rifle (catalog #0965), that is in fact a renovated Hall breech loading rifle manufactured most likely at Harper's Ferry by the federal government and captured by Virginia troops. The Danville company simply converted the rifle into a muzzle loader. These weapons were first issued to Virginia state militia, a sure sign that they were of less advanced design. Probably these are the rifles referred to in Civil War Breech Loading Arms by John D. McAulay (Lincoln, RI., 1987): “…the Virginia Ordinance Department in 1862 altered and restocked about one thousand Hall Rifles which were called ‘Reed's Rifles;’ however they were found to be totally worthless arms.” Earlier, Read was superintendent of Keen, Walker and Company, a larger gun firm also located in Danville.

Two Keen, Walker and Co. carbines (catalog #6124 and #1484) are on exhibit in Springfield, modeled after weapons of northern design known as the “Maynard” or “Perry” carbines. These .52-caliber, brass-frame carbines are 40 inches overall, with a 21-1/2 inch barrel. It used a paper cartridge and has a brass breech with iron butt plate, sights and lever. The trigger guard lever is hinged to the frame at its front end and connected to the breech by a link. The gun was loaded by pulling down on the lever that pushed up the breech block for inserting the cartridge. Three contracts by Keen, Walker & Co. are known, totaling 282 weapons, 101 at $50 in May 1862, and two deliveries in September 1862 at $40 each, one for 100 rifles, the other for 81 rifles. The company imported carbine barrels used in the weapons from a factory in Jamestown, NC. One of the partners in the firm, James M. Walker, was major in Danville in 1865.

As one of the only manufacturing centers in Virginia that escaped the ravages of enemy armies, Danville's role in the production of weapons was surprisingly modest. Even so, the brass and bright metel carbine of Keen, Walker & Company, though limited in production, was a prized weapon and remains even more so today.


Notes


This webpage is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.