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Harpers Ferry rifle captured from USS President

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This rifle is a model 1803 Harpers Ferry, made at the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Although this gun may have started out as a standard United States Navy issue weapon, it was changed dramatically by a later owner. Most notably, the patch box on the stock is inscribed: “Taken from the Maintop of the U.S.S. PRESIDENT after her capture by H.M.S. ENDYMION, 15th January 1815 by W.N. Griffiths. Midshipman H.M.S. TENEDOS.”

USS President was the fastest of the six original American frigates. In January of 1815, USS President, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, encountered a British blockade while attempting to sail from New York. The British squadron, comprised of HMS Majestic, HMS Endymion, HMS Pomone, and HMS Tenedos, gave chase to the American ship. HMS Endymion, a warship specifically designed and outfitted to fight the large American frigates, engaged President first. Both ships received significant damage in the ensuing fight. Decatur, seeing that Endymion was immobilized by the exchange, chose to flee, but his ship was slowed by damage and overtaken by Pomone and Tenedos. After taking fire from Pomone, President surrendered and was taken back to England as a prize. She was too badly damaged to be refitted and was later broken up at Portsmouth, England.

William Nelson Griffiths, Esq., a midshipman in the British Royal Navy aboard Tenedos, was directly involved in the capture of President and would have been permitted to take this rifle as a personal souvenir. After retrieving the badly damaged gun, Griffiths later had it repaired with a new stock and converted it from flintlock ignition to percussion cap. George Dyer, whose name appears on the lock plate of the gun, was a gunsmith working out of Bristol, England during the early to mid-1800s. Dyer probably repaired and converted the rifle in the second quarter of the 19th century. Every part of the gun, except the stock and parts of the lock, are original 1803 Harpers Ferry. The back of the barrel was cut off to accommodate the new firing mechanism and with it went most of the Harpers Ferry markings, though the rifle still bears the armory serial number: “447”. The gun appears heavily used but well handled; the hammer, however, is cracked.

Griffiths served on a number of ships throughout his Royal Navy career. In 1815 he served on HMS Tenedos under Captain Hyde Parker as part of the British blockade of New York. He later went on to serve under Captain William Edward Parry on multiple polar expeditions between 1819 and 1823. He rose to the rank of lieutenant on November 13, 1823, and eventually reached the rank of commander before his retirement from the Navy in 1864. He died at the age of 78 in 1878.

Federal Arsenal, Harpers Ferry, Virginia

Date Created

Wood, Metal

[H]2 1/8 in. [W]6 3/8 in.

Catalog Number

Credit Line
USS Constitution Museum Collection. Mr. Sherman Morss Bequest.

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