Fightin’ Irish

Fenian Radicals Used Springfield Conversions
In A Failed Attempt To Invade

By Holt Bodinson

Take a handful of radical Irish-Americans, add in 5,000 or so surplus Civil War muskets, spice it up with Joseph and George Needham’s patent for converting muzzleloading muskets into .58 caliber centerfires, and you end up with one of the most fascinating post-Civil War, firearm sagas ever told.

Meet the players:
“We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,
Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,
And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.”
—Fenian soldier’s song

The Fenian Brotherhood was a secret Irish-American society founded in 1858 by John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. It derived its name from the Celtic “Fianna,” a band of legendary Irish warriors. The sole purpose of the Fenians was to put an end to British rule in Ireland, thus restoring the Irish Republic. To accomplish said goal, they came up with what must be called a hare-brained scheme (possibly encouraged by a tad too much Irish whiskey) to mount an armed invasion of Canada, seizing Canada’s transportation network, and, then somehow, forcing Britain to end its rule of Ireland.

To finance their revolutionary army, the Fenians sold “Irish Republic” bonds to be redeemed once the Republic was restored. Reportedly, hundreds of thousands of Irish-Americans subscribed to the Fenian bond issue. With a flush treasury, the Fenians turned their attention to the logistical requirements of their planned invasion. They first needed arms and that’s where our second player comes in.

When we think of the Civil War’s .58-caliber Springfield-pattern musket, we often forget the 1861-pattern musket was produced by at least 23 private contractors in addition to the Springfield Armory. Interestingly, familiar names like Colt (75,000 muskets at $20 each) and Remington (40,000 at $17.40 each) were not the largest contractors. The most prolific producer was Alfred Jenks and Son, who delivered 98,000, pattern 1861-1864 muskets at $19.99 each.

Alfred Jenks and Son built their guns at their Bridesburg Machine Works in Bridesburg, Penn., as well as in their plant in Philadelphia. The Jenks’ production rate was 240 guns a day. The locks of their guns are distinctively marked in large letters either “BRIDESBURG” or “PHILADELPHIA.”

In the post-Civil War world, the country was awash in surplus arms at bargain-basement prices. Whether they bought the muskets directly from Jenks or through a dealer, the Fenian Brotherhood ended up with 5,000 or so BRIDESBURG and assorted muskets and thus armed, they invaded Canada in April 1866.

This Needham-converted musket may have invaded Canada first
as a muzzleloader and then later as a breechloader.

The nose of the original hammer was fitted with a “wedge formed key.”

The hammer nose descends into a slot in the breech block,
locking the breech and firing the cartridge.

The original musket sights were retained when the Needham conversion was done.

Blind Eye

On the US side there was little sympathy with Canada after the War of 1812 and Britain’s failure to support the Union during the Civil War so more than a few eyes were turned when the Fenians, with a total force of 700 to 1,500 men, launched multiple attacks along the Canadian border at Niagara and in the St. Lawrence Valley. Measured in days, there were some initial, local successes, but shortly thereafter, the Fenians retreated into the US where Federal authorities slapped their hands if they promised not to try an invasion again, let them retain their arms and even bought them train tickets home, which brings us to our third player.

There is no more interesting period in arms history than the brief transitional period between muzzleloaders and breechloaders, particularly the wide scale conversions of muzzleloading muskets into breechloaders. Every major military power found itself with huge stores of muzzleloaders in the 1860’s and began searching for cartridge conversion solutions. The US adopted the Allin “Trapdoor” system, and the British, the Snyder. During the 1860’s each major power carried out extensive trials to determine which conversion system was best suited for the muskets on hand and which was the most economical. In the end, most of the conversion systems adopted turned out to be indigenous national designs.

Joseph and George Needham of London, England, patented a rather unusual, but inexpensive, conversion system. It is best described in Claude Fuller’s extensive study, The Breech-Loader in the Service 1816-1917 where he says, “The barrel of the gun is cut off about 3 inches in front of the breech-pin and screwed into a new breech-receiver. The breechblock consists of a solid piece of iron hinged to the front of the receiver, and moving in a horizontal plane. The original lock is retained, but the hammer is prolonged into a wedge-formed key, which in firing, descends into a vertical slot, cut into the rear of the breech-block, thus locking the breech into place and at the same time the wedge drives forward the firing pin.” The Needham system was indeed tested by the US but rejected.

Recreated .58 caliber centerfire ammunition is a hoot to shoot in the Needham (above).
A rare .58 caliber centerfire round of ammunition (below, left) compared to its successor,
the .50-70 Gov’t (right).

Ironic Conversion

By 1867 the Fenians had regrouped and reorganized. Still intent on invading Canada, they realized they would now be facing Canadians armed with .577 Snyder breechloaders. The solution they selected was to convert their BRIDESBURG muskets into .58 caliber centerfires using the simple, economical Needham system. A secret conversion workshop was set up in Trenton, N.J., where their existing stores of muskets were converted into breechloaders.

The fighting Irish re-invaded Canada from Vermont in 1870, 200 strong carrying .58 caliber Needham conversions. The invasion was met with a massive Canadian military response.
The Fenians who were not taken prisoner retreated into Vermont, there immediately arrested, their Needham conversions confiscated. A year later the guns were sold off to the famous New York City surplus arms dealer, Shuyler, Hartley and Graham. The last listing of Needham conversions for retail sale appeared in Bannerman’s 1920 catalog.

Surprisingly enough, when BRIDESBURG Needham conversions show up, they’re in pretty good shape as pictured here. Being simple, the actions are usually fully functional and .58-caliber ammunition is not hard to whip up.

Shooting partner, Cyrus McKeown, came up with a simple solution to produce a .58 caliber centerfire case to fit the Needham chamber. He took a .577 Snyder case and trimmed it to 1.7 inches, loaded it with 10 grains of Trail Boss plus a pinch of kapok and seated a 492-grain .577 Minié ball (Lyman 585213). In the case of this Needham, the Snyder case rim proved too thin to headspace correctly so we had to lathe turn some thin steel washers to bring the thickness of the rim into correct headspace.

Accuracy? Because of their 200 to 250 meter adjusted battle sights and rainbow trajectories, we like to shoot our early military cartridge rifles at 30 yards. Heck, we’re just having fun. Anyway, with the above load, the Needham can place five shots into a 6- to 8-inch group all day long. Average velocity is 770 fps. Shoot, old timer, shoot!

The neat part about holding and shooting a Bridesburg-Needham is the possibility the musket in your hands might have invaded Canada first as a muzzleloader and sometime later as a breechloader. Great story. Great history. Great gun.

FURTHER READING
The Breech-Loader in the Service 1816-1917, by Claude E. Fuller. OP, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values 9th Edition, by Norm Flayderman $28.66, Gun Digest, F+W Publications, 4868 Innovation Drive (Bldg 2), Fort Collins, CO 80525, (855) 840-5120, www.gundigeststore.com

Needham Conversion

ACTION: Needham conversion of Springfield musket,
CALIBER: .58 centerfire
CAPACITY: 1
BARREL LENGTH: 37.25 inches
OVERALL LENGTH: 55 inches
WEIGHT: 9 pounds
FINISH: Armory bright
SIGHTS: Original musket
STOCK: Walnut

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