Manufacturer of the Peabody Rifles
During the War Between the States the race to develop breech-loading rifles firing fixed cartridges was in high gear. Among others, Henry O. Peabody (of Boston) was busy making contract .58 caliber Model 1861 percussion military rifles at his facility, the Providence Tool Company, in Providence, Rhode Island. However, he was also planning a new breech-loading rifle to replace that cap-n-ball rifle.
Henry O. Peabody’s brainchild, which bore his name, was quite advanced for its time. Called the Model 1862 Peabody, it was made from that year into the 1880’s. Like most breech-loading rifle mechanisms of the day, that of the Peabody was rear locking, that is, the breech was blocked at the rear. The Peabody’s breech (or bolt) was not only almost totally housed in a very strong rectangular receiver, but it also was locked very slightly downward during recoil. Thus, the hinged breech bolt was seated against the back of the massive receiver and locked rigidly in battery by an extension of its lever.
When the Peabody’s lever was dropped, and the front of the bolt followed, it automatically struck the massive “L” shaped ejector, which pivoted to send the case back along the sloping bolt and upward out of the rifle. Then, when a fresh cartridge was inserted into the chamber, the lever was pulled back up to re-lock, ready for the next shot. Because of an efficient leverage design, when the action was opened, the Peabody’s lever traveled only a short distance, allowing it to be easily operated from the prone position. The relatively straight line design of its stock also helped in the prone position, as well as reducing felt recoil.
Faster and Safer Operation
Like almost all rifles of the time, breech loading and otherwise, the Peabody used an outside hammer mounted on the right side just behind the receiver. The hammer had three positions, down, safe and fully cocked like the Sharps and later models of the “Trap-Door.” However, where the Sharps’ falling block the and Allin conversion (“Trap Door”) both required that the hammer be pulled back to half cock or the safety notch before opening, the Peabody did not. In the heat of battle, however, no one stopped there, but pulled the hammer to full cock before reloading. If it firing wasn’t called for the hammer had to be “safely” lowered onto the safe position. With the Peabody this was not necessary.
With the Peabody, after the rifle is fired, the lever is simply lowered to eject the empty casing. The hammer does not need to be cocked to the safety notch to prevent damage to the firing pin nose, as in the case of the Sharps, because the breech swings down in an arc away from the case. Another cartridge is then loaded and, because the lever has such a short throw, the right fingers grasp the lever as the right thumb grasps the hammer, and the hammer is cocked as the lever is brought up to close the breech. This technique was illustrated in an old Peabody manual for rapid fire of the rifle. Even if the lever was brought up without cocking the hammer, causing the firing pin to drag across the primer, the round could not go off until the breech was closed. For normal, slow fire, cocking the hammer to the safety notch before lowering the hammer is recommended, but the rapid-fire technique was just another unique feature of the Peabody.
Because the Peabody had such a short lever throw it allowed reloading to take place while the shooter remained on his belly against the ground without having to roll to one side, or elevate himself, as with the Sharps. While the “Trap Door’s” action also allowed this, neither it, nor the Sharps were near as strong as the Peabody.
In the rifle trials of 1865 conducted by Major Theodore Laidly, dozens of breech-loading cartridge rifles were torture tested during the search for a rifle to replace the Model 1863 percussion rifle of the Union Army, including an entry designed by Major Laidly himself. When the testing came to overloaded cartridges the sample rifles began blowing up, one by one, except for the Peabody. Finally, after the Peabody was loaded with multiple charges of power and balls, and still did not fail, the testing was stopped.
While it seemed likely that the Peabody would be adopted by the U.S. Military, three all too familiar things prevented this. First, the Peabody was expensive to manufacture, and second, its favored competitor was the much weaker, but inexpensive “Trap Door” conversion of the thousands of percussion Model 1863 rifles, which had been designed by designer, Erskine Allin, of Springfield Armory. Initially these consisted of relatively crude “Trap Door” actions using the .58 caliber Berdan cartridge. In addition, the war was over, so large military funding cuts were made. As time passed the more refined “Trap Door” action was used in the then new Model 1870 50-70 caliber rifle and eventually the Model 1873 firing the renowned .45-70 Government cartridge.
While Henry Peabody had developed an internal firing mechanism, which was automatically cocked when the lever was lowered, the U.S. Army’s interest in maintaining a traditional large, outside hammer caused the system to be temporarily shelved. Although the army did not adopt his rifle, Peabody sold quantities of them to U.S. State Militias, as well as civilians and to a number of foreign governments in various other calibers. These included the .40-90 Peabody “What Cheer,” .44-60 “Creedmoor,” .44-95 Peabody “What Cheer,” .45 Peabody rim fire, .50-60 Peabody rim fire, 10.4x38mm(R), .433 Spanish, .45-70 Govt., .50-70 Govt. and the 56-50 (Spencer) rim fire.
Military establishments that adopted the Peabody included Canada (3,000), Switzerland (15,000), France (33,000), along with Romania, Mexico (8,500) and Spain (+ - 10,000). U.S. State Militias that adopted the Peabody were Connecticut (2,000), Massachusetts (2,941) and South Carolina that bought 350 of the rare Peabody saddle ring Carbines. While it is unknown how many ultra rare Peabody sporting rifles and target rifles were made, the total production from 1866 to 1871 totaled 112,000. Although Peabody did produce substantial numbers of Peabody-Martini rifles with his internal firing mechanism, his design was eventually pirated to finally be used on one of the most successful military rifles of the 19th Century, the British Martini rifle with Peabody not getting so much as a cent for it.
The New Peabody
Frank Wierus is not only a master machinist and metallurgist, but has also been a firearms enthusiast all his life. After years as a military contractor, he became semi-retired, allowing him to pursue a longtime dream; recreating the Model 1862 Peabody rifle. Called the New Peabody, the rifle would be made by an equally new company, the Providence Tool Company, this time, of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Yes, Frank Wierus acquired the long defunct name of the original producer of the Peabody rifle.
With help from friends, Bill Flanagan, of Eau Clair Schuetzen Society and master machinist, Fred Schram, Frank Wierus began a modern reproduction of the Model 1862 Peabody rifle ion several variations including the Rough & Ready Hunter, the Killdeer Hunter, The Raton Target, the Das Schuetzen and the What Cheer Deluxe Target Rifle. Most of these models are offered in specific calibers, sights, stocks & etc., but options are also available.
Options include octagon and round match grade barrels by Douglas and Green Mountain, main components from Quality Castings, plain and fancy wood, pistol grips or straight wrists, checkering by Tim Smith and hand engraving by John Downing are all options, as well as barrel and long range tang sights from Lee Shaver and Steve Baldwin, crescent or shotgun butt’s and various forend configurations. Set triggers, however, are standard, as is a true bone/charcoal color case finish on the receiver, breechblock, hammer and lever, and special bluing by Valley Plating, Greenbay. Custom slings are from Leatherman Leather and for those who prefer a receiver peep aperture, Providence Tool offers Frank Wierus’ Pattern 21 sight, an improved version of the original Model 21 sight made by Lyman a century ago. This excellent sight can also be installed on centerfire Winchester, Marlin lever action rifles and others.
Caliber selections include .30-40 Gov., .32-40, .38-55, .38-56, .40-65, .45-60 and .45-70 Govt., .50-70 Govt. and a modern rendition of the classic .44-100 Peabody What Cheer cartridge. The largest of the Peabody cartridges, the .44-100 Peabody What Cheer was designed for the long-range competition matches held at the famous What Cheer shooting range outside Providence, Road Island. The new Peabody version is called the .45-100 What Cheer and uses a bottleneck case with a 500-grain .458 caliber lead bullet. This cartridge is available in the Peabody What Cheer rifle, the right receiver of which has What Cheer hand engraved on the right side. Other rimmed cartridges will follow.
Resurrecting Original Peabody’s
A few years ago I asked Frank Wierus if his New Peabody parts were interchangeable with those of original rifles. He told me that although he had added a small amount material to the exterior of the receiver to increase strength, the receiver’s inner parts, lock work, barrel threads and most others were designed from originals taking measurements from a dozen six old Peabody’s. The sights and double set trigger used in the new rifles, while different, will work in original guns. The new hammer, however, extends slightly farther to the left, due to the widened receiver, so would have to have a small amount of material removed from its inner face.
While Frank Wierus had not much about making replacement Peabody parts, this changed in 2014 when one of his Peabody customers, Joe Drees, the new owner of a rare original, 20-inch barrel Peabody Saddle Ring Carbine asked if the gun could be outfitted with several replacement screws and other small parts together with a new breechblock to convert it from its original .56-50 (Spencer) rim fire caliber to a .50 caliber centerfire cartridge. Frank said he should be able to do it if the gun was in safe condition, but it would be strictly limited to using black powder and lead bullets since the receiver was made of iron. Joe Drees is an avid black powder shooter who was well aware of the dangers of using smokeless powders and jacketed bullets in 19th century firearms.
When Joe brought the carbine in, Frank took a few photos that require little or no dialog, as viewed here. Frank took the needed parts in the white and checked them for size and fit. The face of the original hammer was somewhat peened, probably from dry firing, so Frank decided to use a new one in the conversion. A new centerfire breechblock was literally a drop-in with no modification needed, but the face of the new hammer required slight modification, due to the old receiver’s walls being thinner. The single stage trigger was left as it was.
Once all the new Peabody parts were installed they were checked for fit, function and headspace. They were then heat-treated and/or color/case hardened using bone and charcoal, and finally antiqued to match the patina of the original, as closely as possible using plum brown. Of course all or the original parts were retained, so the gun could be returned to rim fire using its original parts.
Starline makes .56-50 brass to the original 1.156” length, so these cases loaded with 35-grains of FFG black powder behind a 340 lead bullet cast from a Lyman #515139 mold. These were sized and lubed with Providence’s own lube, and seated to a depth just touching the lands ahead of the chamber. But how would it shoot?
The finished Peabody .56-50 “centerfire” was tested was ready to baptized using the above hand loads. Frank Wierus tested it at 50-yards from the bench and achieved center hits. Muzzle velocity was not recorded, but that of the original .56-50 rim fire cartridge is listed at 1,230 fps with a 350-grain bullet. With modern centerfire cases being heavier in the base and web a maximum of 40-grains of powder should provide a MV of about 950 fps, but since this cartridge ha not yet been chronographed it an educated guess.
When I received the carbine for a few days it was in December with snow and double digit temperatures here in Colorado and I didn’t care about measuring MV, so only shot the gun at 50- and 100-yards, and my 100-yard shooting was offhand. The carbine had stout recoil, but was less than I expected, and felt similar to that from a 12-gauge skeet load.
At 50-yards the carbine produced 5-shot groups in the area of 3.5 inches. At 100 yards from the shoulder standing, my hits were within 8 inches and were dead on in windage, but were about 6-inches high. Empty casings flipped out when the breech was opened and landed about one or two feet from where I stood. The handling of The Peabody SRC was comparable to that of my near new original Springfield .45-70 Govt. Model 1873 “Trapdoor” SRC, #19,456, which has a little more recoil.
When I was out of ammunition, I cleaned the carbine with MP-7 from Windfalls Dist., my all time favorite cleaner for black powder. I then oiled the carbine, packed it up and sent it back to Providence Tool Company to be returned to its owner. I have fired several of Providence Tools’ Peabody rifles, but shooting an original, especially such a rare one, was quite an opportunity. Frank Wierus agreed that making a modern copy of the Peabody Saddle Ring Carbine in .56-50 centerfire would be a simple matter, and he now has ten new 20-inch barrels in-house made to original Peabody carbine specifications. These have .510 bores with a 1-in-26-inch twist and can be finished in a custom patina to match original guns, or blue with new Peabody Carbine orders.
In addition, Frank reports that original Peabody military rifles made for Switzerland were imported back to the U.S. years ago, and that most are in very good to excellent condition. They are also relatively inexpensive and could be converted and rebuilt by Providence Tool Company. That could open up an additional new chapter to the Peabody rifle.
For more information on the fabulous New Peabody rifles contact the Providence Tool Company, N3138 Pine Road Cascade, WI 53011, (920) 918-8234 firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember Thomas Jefferson said; “People in fear of a government is tyranny; the government in fear of the people is liberty!” To keep your Peabody rifle and the rest of your guns JOIN THE NRA…DO IT NOW! GPJ