feature By: William P. Mapoles (Photos by John Harriman) | November, 20
In this article, I am going to explode some myths about Hall rifles and carbines, which were in service in this country from 1818 to 1865. I have often wondered how a design in use by the military for 47 years could get such a bad reputation, so I bought one and shot it several hundred times to find out. Right here in the first paragraph, I am going to bust the first and biggest myth of all, and the one that eventually brought about the demise of Captain John Hall’s guns. It concerns the so-called “excessive” gas leakage between the breechblock and the barrel. Complaints about gas leakage were virtually nonexistent when the guns were new and tight, but as time went on and thousands of shots were fired through some of them, the gap between the breechblock and the barrel grew wider, and the amount of gas leakage grew. Then, the complaints grew. Now here is the shocker for you. The breechblock can be adjusted to reduce the gap and bring it back into specification and the breechblock can easily move forward. This was as designed by Hall and described in his user’s pamphlet published in 1816. It seems that the critics and most of the senior Army officers were never aware of this, probably because they never read the instruction manual.
The breechblock tips up for loading and it has an internal chamber for the powder and the unpatched .525-inch roundball. There are two lugs on the front of the breechblock, one on either side, kind of like the lugs on the bolt of a Mauser rifle. When the Hall breechblock is loaded and pushed down into firing position, the breechblock lugs are held forward by two “chocks” inletted into the receiver on either side. The word “chock” was used by Hall in the same sense as “chocking” a wheel to keep it from moving on a slope; and like a wheel chock, his were also movable. Each chock was held in place by an adjustable screw, and could be removed and replaced with a larger/wider chock should the gas leakage become excessive from erosion and wear. An expeditious way to fix the problem was simply to remove each chock and peen it slightly with a hammer to widen it, as was done in one of the Army tests after the rifle in question had been fired several thousand times. Or, one could also shim each chock to reduce the “headspace” by cutting out a very small rectangle from a tin can and placing it in the recess behind the chock. Every soldier could do this right in the field with nothing but a screwdriver and a pocketknife, providing they were instructed on how to do it. Most unit armorers certainly knew these tricks, but to be fair to the critics, these instructions were omitted from the next user’s manual published in 1825. I got the impression that the Ordnance Department really didn’t want soldiers tinkering with their guns for fear of damage – like the Army today.
The gaps on mint Hall guns from the Winchester Collection run from .002-006 inch. One hears of checking for the proper gap with a piece of writing paper that is about .004-inch thick, and my test rifle measures .005 inch. You may wonder why even this much gap is necessary, but in the process of firing, you get black powder fouling buildup on the face of the breechblock and the rear of the barrel, which can eventually jam the action. Many “slant-breech” percussion Sharps rifles are in this breech-gap range, and they can also jam from excessive fouling. As we know, the Sharps Company struggled with this same problem of gas leakage for years until the New Model 1859 came out, and Colt’s revolving rifle was probably the worst of all. In one of my previous tests for Black Powder Cartridge News, I measured the gaps of eight original percussion revolvers from this era, and the average was .011 inch. I have fired some of these percussion revolvers with the government-issued shoulder stocks and you definitely don’t want to put your hand ahead of the cylinder-to-barrel gap. In addition, you need to wear a face shield while using such a shoulder stock, because gas also spews out of the nipple, around the sides of the hammer, and right back into your eyes and face. This is not a big problem with the Hall, because the breech gap is well forward away from your face and covered by the receiver on three sides. I put the Hall in the same category with the “slant-breech” Sharps models with respect to the amount of gas leakage, which I don’t consider excessive, providing the gun is within specifications. However, always have a competent black powder gunsmith check your rifle out for safety, and always wear shooting glasses.
HISTORY OF THE HALL DESIGN
Before we explore the additional myths, let’s review some history for those not familiar with the guns. Hall patented the design in 1811, and the Army received the first 100 rifles in 1818. These were the very first U.S. military breechloaders; large orders then started in 1819, which resulted in these rifles, like the test rifle, being designated the Model 1819. Starting in the 1830s, several carbine models were produced for the two Dragoons regiments, and these were the very first percussion guns generally issued by any country in the world. Interestingly, the carbines were produced as smoothbores, with the idea of using buckshot or buck-and-ball. The history of the Dragoons was written with these carbines while escorting wagon trains, keeping the peace with the Indians, fighting the Mexican War, and establishing forts all over the frontier. Here is a quote from Captain Bradford of the 2nd Dragoons who was fighting the Seminole Indians in Florida in 1841: “I have just returned from a scout up the St. Johns River, with a party of Dragoons armed with Hall’s carbine, and although during ten days exposure – every day – to very heavy rains, and the splashing of water over the vessel incident to the use of paddles in propelling the canoes, these arms became thoroughly oxidized, more especially about the chamber and lock, yet they never failed, never got out of firing order, and were as serviceable in their rusty state at our return, as they were in their better condition when…we set out on the expedition. The Officers and men all use them and prefer them to any other arm.”
In total, there were over 56,000 Hall firearms purchased by the government; this was huge considering the small size of our army during this era (only 8,573 in 1841). Next came the War with Mexico and Westward Expansion with the carbines being manufactured until 1853, the year that marked the end of all production of the Hall. There were many thousands of Hall rifles used, by both sides, during the Civil War.
John Hall was a revolutionary genius, and he patented many different machines to mechanize the production, resulting in the first mass-produced firearms with truly interchangeable parts. Here are the major benefits of the John Hall design in the words of Hall himself: “The patent rifles may be loaded and fired with good aim, more than twice as quick as muskets can be fired with [paper] cartridges. In addition to this, they may be loaded with great ease in almost every situation, either lying down, sitting on the ground, on horse-back, or even running…When the barrel is quite foul, even should it have been fired fifty times without once cleaning, the ball may still be put into its place upon the powder with perfect ease [and no ramrod is needed]. The ball will never get stuck in the barrel, which frequently occurs [with muzzleloaders] and renders them useless…The diameter of the bore is less than the diameter of the ball…and is thus given the most favorable motion and force. Patches [on the ball] are unnecessary, because the ball gets compressed into the [grooves]. The guns cannot be overcharged by accident as [with muzzleloaders], therefore, are not so apt to get burst. [The chamber] will not admit of two or more cartridges at once [as will muzzleloaders].”
As an aside, here is something really interesting that I found in Hall’s writings, and I don’t recall ever seeing this before. It is a way to use your ramrod (or cleaning rod) for support when shooting standing offhand. “The men will place the butt end of the rod against the hip . . . which, as the rod passes through the hand that steadies the fore part of the rifle, enables the soldier, by grasping both at once, to level his rifle with great steadiness.” In other words, the ramrod pushes into your hip and partially supports the weight of the rifle while being held by your hand on the fore stock. This technique must have been well-known by our forefathers, but it somehow got lost over time. Try it!
DESCRIPTION OF THE TEST RIFLE
The rifle is a Model 1819, but actually made in 1831 at Harpers Ferry as a flintlock, with the assembly number of 44. The block, receiver, barrel and bore are in as-new condition. However, the stock looks like it took a rough ride in the back of a wagon in a pile of other Halls, perhaps heading to Bannerman’s Island. The finish is a lacquered browning with casehardening of the key parts. The caliber (.525 inch) was selected so as to use the same size ball as the muzzleloading rifles and pistols already in the Army inventory. At some point, just prior to the Civil War, this particular rifle was converted to percussion, as were many thousands of these guns by the North and South. The barrel is about 32.6 inches long with 16 lands and grooves. The land-to-land diameter is .516 inch toward the front of the barrel, and about .522 inch at the rear, because the bore is a true taper. Groove depth is about .006 inch throughout. It has a 1.5-inch long counterbore at the muzzle, where the rifling is reamed out smooth, and the muzzle measures .548 inch as a result. The chamber mouth in the breechblock measures .539 inch. The sights are a dovetailed “V” notch rear, and a very crude barleycorn front, which also serves as the bayonet lug. Both sights are offset to the left so one could sight around the flintlock pan. Interestingly, these rifles have an internal screw for adjusting the trigger pull – a very nice touch and likely another first for U.S. Armory-made rifles.
Myth Number 2: “Hall rifles are dangerous to shoot because they can blow wood out of the action.” There are indeed a few old photos of Hall’s guns with wood blown out from around the action, and this was even reported in one of the troop trials back in the 1830s. Gun writers have hypothesized that powder must leak out of the chamber from around the unpatched roundball and fall into the action, whereupon it is ignited when fired. I never really bought into this theory, because: 1): the powder would have to be very fine (FFFFg or smaller); 2): it would probably not be a full charge; 3): the powder would be loose/not confined; and 4): there are four vents in the action for the pressure to escape. After putting several hundred rounds through a Hall, I can now explain with confidence the most likely scenario, and I have never seen this in print. Here it is; the gun will fire when the breechblock is not fully depressed and locked in place. If the block is slightly raised, even a fraction of an inch, it will shoot, with the ball bashing into the side of the barrel opening, breaking apart, and drastically raising the pressure. You can imagine the results to the surrounding wood. This could happen in the heat of battle, or when the breechblock release on the bottom of the receiver is inadvertently bumped and raised slightly. Teaching point: Make sure the breechblock is fully closed before you pull the trigger!
Here is another way it can happen that I have never seen in print. The bore of a Hall rifle is tapered from back to front, and there is a short forcing cone in the rear of the barrel, just like in a revolver barrel. Simply put, if the ball is slightly undersized, it can roll forward from the chamber into the barrel. Then, if the gap is excessive, the full powder charge could indeed fall into the action and ignite when fired. On the other hand, if the gap is tight, virtually no powder will fall into the action, because the granule size of the powder is larger than the gap. In my rifle, a slightly undersized .520-inch ball will roll forward about four inches into the barrel before it stops. The military specification for the roundball was .525 inch, and that size will keep the ball in the chamber if the forcing cone/throat is within specification. However, museum specimen balls dug up in a pre-Civil War Dragoon fort vary in size from about .520 to .534 inch, with the average being .530 inch. For this reason, I selected a .530-inch ball for my accuracy test. With a clean, oiled gun, I recommend putting the cartridge paper on top of the ball for the first couple of shots to keep the bullet from moving at all, but after that, fouling in the chamber mouth makes the bullet a snug push-fit onto the powder with the thumb. No paper is necessary after that unless the rifle is going to be bounced around on horseback.
In the 1830s troop trial mentioned above (that got a lot of very negative press coverage) there were wood splinters flying everywhere the first time some brand-new carbines were fired. It was then discovered that the gaps were way too big, and all guns had measured gaps at least 1/16 inch, with some measuring over 1/10 inch. In addition, the wood was green. The guns were sent back to the factory (Simeon North) where the problem was corrected, and quality control was subsequently improved dramatically. This oversight apparently never happened again, but it was a long-lasting stain on the gun’s reputation. So, I guess this myth is only partially busted, because you could indeed blow one up if not properly trained by your drill sergeant.
Myth Number 3: “Hall rifles are not accurate.” False. Back in the day, the Hall rifles were tested extensively, because they were so new and so different from anything else even seen before. Hall spent many years perfecting his design along with the pros at Harpers Ferry Armory. In sum, in all of the official military trials, the Hall rifles outperformed the existing U.S. military muzzleloading rifles, to include the Model 1803 Harpers Ferry Rifle and the Model 1817 Common Rifle, both in .54 caliber. Plus, it was faster to load and shoot than anything, including the standard .69 caliber smoothbore musket. The twist in the bore of the Hall is one turn in 108 inches, which is very slow, even for a roundball gun. Nevertheless, it works well with the very unusual tapered polygroove bore. For comparison, the twist in a M1841 “Mississippi” muzzleloading rifle, is one turn in 72 inches.
Myth Number 4: The counterbore in the muzzle of the M1819 rifle barrel has spawned several myths for over 100 years. Some modern writers say it was to protect the muzzle from being damaged by the bayonet. It has also been written that the counterbore was not meant to aid with muzzle loading, because you would need a mallet to drive a ball down from the muzzle, since the bullet is larger than the bore diameter. Both of these ideas are incorrect. To clarify for those who might not have seen this kind of barrel before, there is no rifling in the muzzle of the barrel for 1.5 inches, and it is bored out smooth, a bit larger than the groove diameter. So, looking down the muzzle, it looks like a .54 caliber smoothbore, but upon closer examination, you see the 16 grooves down below the counterbore.
As to the bayonet theory, you could damage the muzzle easier with a counterbore than without. The counterbore makes the metal thinner at the muzzle and easier to bend when torque is applied, as in rough bayonet drills. Also, thinner metal would be easier to ding on the very end. Therefore, this theory seems extremely unlikely, as a regular muzzle would be thicker, stronger, and more ding-resistant.
It is indeed possible to freeze-up the breechblock, or to break the latch, effectively turning the gun into a muzzleloader. Forget patching the ball because a soldier wouldn’t have had the appropriate patches on his person. Instead, think of pushing a naked bullet down the bore, after you have first cleaned the bore with the ramrod and worm, like you are periodically supposed to do anyway. Each rifle came with a rod and worm, and the soldiers were supposed to carry a tin with wet, coarse patches for cleaning. So, I tried it this way and had no problem pushing down a naked bullet by hand. The myth comes from those who never tried it. However, I don’t think I could have done it without the counterbore. It gives you just enough length to start the bullet into the thin polygroove lands. After that, the tapered bore makes it easy to push the ball down the rest of the way. Yes, the accuracy would have suffered after the ball fell into the chamber, and you would have to clean after each shot, but at least you could still function in combat. Remember, Hall was trying to sell his new invention to people who grew up with muzzleloaders, and they wanted to be sure they could keep on shooting if this newfangled breechloader ever seized up. Once people got familiar with the design, the counterbore was discontinued for subsequent models.
Finally, “coning” of the muzzle was well-known by all muzzleloading gunsmiths back then as a way to start a patched ball more easily into the muzzle, without the need for a short starter. The muzzle was opened up into the shape of a cone for about an inch or more, and I believe that this is exactly what Hall was thinking, with a counterbore being faster and easier to machine than a time-consuming, hand-reamed cone. By the way, neither a counterbore nor a cone seemed to affect accuracy very much.
Myth Number 5: “The breechblock could be carried fully loaded as a pistol.” This is partially true, but certainly not with a full load as that would severely damage your hand, because there are many very sharp edges on the rear of the block. Plus, a ball being almost even with the mouth of the chamber would have very little force when fired. I’m sure it only took one time with a heavy load for the soldiers to learn this painful lesson. However, with about 20 grains of powder and a patched ball pushed down into the chamber as far as it would go, maybe they could have pulled it off without too many stitches. (Don’t try this at home!) In the fantastic historic accounts of their off duty use in cantinas, no doubt in conjunction with large amounts of alcohol, the breechblocks were typically pulled out of the pocket and not fired, being used only to intimidate the bad guys in order to gain time to beat a hasty retreat.
Myth Number 6: Many of the Halls have a circular crack at the top of the wrist, right behind the receiver. It has been said that this is from incorrect disassembly, but in my opinion that is not very likely. Now that I have actually shot one, I know that all of the recoil and vibration from firing goes backwards into the last of three horizontal screws in the receiver, and that particular screw goes right through the thin area of wood that tends to crack. That one screw and little section of wood take a lot of shock. Hall was aware of this problem and designed a fix called “protectors” to better distribute the recoil into the wood, which was later incorporated into the M1836 carbines.
ACCURACY TEST RESULTS
The shooting tests done by the U.S. Army in the early 1800s were not very precise, and they were typically done with average soldiers standing in formation, shooting at a target six feet high and the width of the number of soldiers in the firing party, which is why I wanted to do this accuracy test the modern way. I shot for record at 50 and 100 yards, from the bench, with front and rear bags. The groups were measured center-to-center of the two widest shots. Speer .530 caliber balls were used because they were the most consistent in diameter. I had the usual Arizona breeze during this test, which ran between 4-10 miles per hour. Roundballs are very susceptible to wind drift.
I quickly learned that fouling of the bore was a huge problem, with no patch on the ball to wipe the bore after each shot like a muzzleloader, and no grease on the ball to keep the fouling soft. After three to four shots, I got mysterious flyers. So, I went back to Hall’s user’s manual, and he reiterated the need for frequent cleaning of the bore – to wipe each shot when shooting “small quadrupeds” in the head, and after three shots when shooting “medium quadrupeds.” He went on to say that you can shoot 20, or even 50 shots without cleaning, but you should only expect to hit a target one-yard square at 100 yards.
I came up with an idea I had not seen before, drawing on my experience in shooting black powder revolvers. I tried wads under the bullets, and next I tried Crisco on top of the balls, just like with a percussion revolver. Both of these techniques not only eliminate chain-fires in revolvers, but they also clean/lubricate the bore, and that lubrication is exactly what I was after with the Hall. This worked splendidly and shrunk the group size by 50-75 percent. I’m sure this is not a new revelation, as some old hunter, a wise sergeant, or some smart armorer certainly figured this out 200 years ago. Like many old shooting tips, it was never written down because it was common knowledge.
I talked to Dean Thomas, an antique cartridge expert, about this and I learned that the Army stuck with no wad and no lube for the paper cartridges, probably because pinpoint accuracy wasn’t considered super important, given Napoleonic tactics. However, Hall rifles were also used for subsistence hunting and sharpshooting during the Mexican War, with kills recorded at 400 yards. Therefore, I shot separate groups for each of the three loading methods: unlubed, with wads, and with lube on top of the ball. With .54 caliber Wonder Wads, I had to reduce the powder charge, and it did not shoot quite as clean or accurate as with lube on top of the ball, so I discontinued my experimentation with wads. An added benefit to using lube over the ball was that it kept the face of the breechblock and the forcing cone in the barrel jam-free and greasy-clean. My chamber held a maximum of 75 grains of GOEX FFg, and a maximum of 78 grains with Swiss 1½ Fg, both by weight. The Swiss actually went a bit over the original military velocity of 1,490 feet per second (fps) and started to lead-up slightly, so I backed it down to 75 and got better accuracy. After I had established the proper charges with a scale, I began using a volumetric powder measure for the test. With a standard Army load of 75 grains of rifle powder and no lube, the extreme spread for 10 shots with the GOEX was 26 fps, and 34 fps for the Swiss. These numbers improved with wads and lube.
Some sources say the Hall rifle used 90- to 100-grains of powder, and this is obviously not true. Please don’t try to raise the velocity by using FFFg or a hot black powder substitute like 777, because the barrels are made of relatively thin iron, and not steel. Use only coarse black powder due to the width of the breech gap, and in order to keep the pressure and gas venting to a minimum.
Five, 3-shot groups were fired at 50 yards with no lube, and the average group size was 4 inches. The largest group was 5.5 inches and the smallest was 1.625 inches. The bore was cleaned with one wet and one dry patch after each group, per the user’s manual.
Five, 3-shot groups were then fired at 50 yards with a tallow/beeswax mixture on top of the bullet, and the average group size was 2.9 inches. The largest group was 3.875 inches and the smallest was 1.5 inches. I think the lube was a little too stiff. Again, the bore was wiped after each group.
Five, 5-shot groups were fired at 100 yards with no lube, and groups were running 10-14 inches due to fouling. Sometimes, after three to four shots, a mystery flyer would take off into outer space because I wasn’t wiping the bore every three shots as instructed by the user’s manual. I then tried 10 consecutive shots without wiping, and each shot would have hit an enemy soldier in the chest, but just barely.
Five, 5-shot groups were then fired at 100 yards with hard Crisco on top of the bullet, and the average group size was 5.2 inches. The largest group was 6 inches and the smallest was 4.375 inches. Not only was the gun cleaner and easier to wipe after each 5-shot group given softer fouling, but the groups were also very consistent. These were the tightest 100-yard groups fired with the Hall rifle, and groups of this size are very close to what I get with my .54 caliber Model 1841 “Mississippi” muzzleloading rifle using military loads.
I shot this entire test using the original military musket nipple that came with the gun, and musket nipples of this era have a very large orifice compared to modern nipples. Once in a while, I could feel a few cap sparks on my cheek, but that is not at all unusual with musket caps. In any case, it was not enough to be unpleasant. After the test, I ordered a modern nipple with the musket thread that takes smaller #11 caps. I felt nothing with the #11 caps, and I confirmed that what I was sometimes feeling on my cheek was indeed coming from the musket cap/nipple and not from the breech gap. Originally, the first percussion carbines were designed to use a smaller cap and nipple, but the Army changed it to the musket size in favor of standardization sometime after 1840.
As we have seen, the accuracy of the Hall was as good or better than the standard Army muzzleloading rifles. We have worked through the myths and shown that it was a fast-loading, effective and reliable arm. The military tests declared it to be the best small arm ever invented.
From the 1820s, through the end of the Civil War, Hall long arms would have been seen all over the frontier. The Hall carbine was supposed to be replaced by the M1847 Musketoon, which was an already obsolete, short .69 caliber smoothbore muzzleloader, and the Hall rifle was eventually replaced by the famous M1841 “Mississippi” .54 caliber muzzleloading rifle. Incredibly, the “Army Brass” actually went backwards and returned to muzzleloaders. However, Dragoon officers had the ability to pick from a variety of weapons to arm their troops, and it seems that most stuck with the Hall carbine until about 1859 to 1861, when their full issue of Sharps carbines finally trickled in. Unlike other regular army units and militia, the Dragoons were in actual combat just about all the time, and if the Hall was their weapon of choice, it speaks volumes about the design.
So, why did the Hall fall out of favor? People learned that breechloaders were not foolproof. If the Hall rifles and carbines were not maintained properly, especially the breech gap, you could develop serious problems. Likewise, soldiers who were not trained properly in their use could have real problems, especially young soldiers who knew nothing about firearms. There are subtleties with the Hall that you absolutely have to know, unlike with the much simpler .69 caliber smoothbore musket. Eventually, all of the myths discussed in this article generated enough bad press to stop the production, and the firearm simply went out of style. A few years later, the “slant-breech” Sharps models rose to the top.
Many Hall firearms were provided to state militia units and never used in battle, which means that there are many excellent examples available to collect and shoot. Once you closely examine one, you will appreciate this ingenious design, which was patented just 28 years after the Revolutionary War. Mechanized production and interchangeable parts finally caught on in this era of handmade guns, thanks to visionaries like Captain John Hall. This put the U.S. decades ahead of everyone else in the world. Finally, the guns are just plain fun to shoot, and I plan to use mine to take my annual “medium quadruped.” And trust me, you don’t have to be crazy to shoot a Hall rifle; just be sure to read this article and the instruction manual first! “Don’t just fondle them old guns – shoot ‘em!” S
1. Lieutenant-Colonel R.T. Huntington, “Hall’s Breechloaders,” George Shumway publisher, 1972. On page 350 is the first user’s pamphlet, “Remarks Upon the Patent Improved Rifles, Made by John H. Hall of Portland, Maine,” printed by F. Douglas, 1816. Huntington also wrote a great article for Guns Magazine in April 1961 that is available on the internet.
2. Peter A. Schmidt, “Hall’s Military Breechloaders,” Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 1996. This is the best book on Hall’s guns. Starting on page 211 are both user’s pamphlets, the second one entitled, “Directions for Using the Arms Known by the Name of Hall’s Rifle,” Harpers Ferry, VA, printed by J.S. Gallaher, 1825.