Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Conversion Musket

By the 1840s, the percussion cap musket was state of art.  State and federal  armories  had plenty of flintlock weapons, but precious few percussion muskets.   Rather than dispose of these weapons and incurring the expense of purchasing new percussion muskets,  state and federal governments both commissioned armories and contractors to alter flintlock muskets to the percussion ignition system.  Hence, the birth of the "conversion"  musket.  

Altering a flintlock musket to percussion occurred in two manners - the bolster conversion method and  the "Belgian" cone method.   Both processes required the flintlock pan and hammer to be removed.   The gunsmith removed the hammer by simpy removing the screw securing it to the lock.   Removing the pan required cutting it off of the lock.   The gunsmith performing a bolster method conversion would then drill a hole into the right side of the barrel, where the pan met the touchhole, and attach a hollow metal part into which a percussion nipple, or cone, would be screwed.  He would then attach a standard percussion hammer.  A Belgian cone conversion, aptly named for its use in Belgium, required drilling a hole on top of the barrel, offset to the right, and screwing a cone into it. In place of the pan, the gunsmith often inserted a brass plug.  The gunsmith then attached a hammer which serpentined to the left to accommodate the cone's placement on top of the barrel.   The quality of the conversion, both bolster and Belgian, depended upon the skill of the gunsmith.   Some conversions look as it the weapon has not been altered in any way.  Some look like they were performed by a high school shop class -- if such existed in 1840s and 1850s.  

Standard Flintlock Musket Lock

Bolster Conversion

Belgian Cone Conversion

Most conversions from flintlock to percussion were accomplished in the 1850s.  As a result, state and federal armories were stocked with antiquated smoothbore muskets, converted from flintlock to percussion, by the time hostilities between north and south commenced in April of 1861. 

The muskets depicted above are exemplary.  They are not and have never been in my collection.  In Part II of this post, I will discuss  a conversion musket that is in my collection.