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WHITNEY “PHOENIX” BREECHLOADING RIFLE – AN EARLY PROTOTYPE SPECIMEN IN A DESIRABLE CALIBER .50-70 GOVERNMENT – A SCARCE RIFLE IN VERY GOOD CONDITION:  Manufactured by the Whitney Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut, the Phoenix Rifle was one of the last attempts by the company to retain a viable presence in the military arms market.  While little record of the development and history of the Phoenix rifle survives, the total production of all Phoenix sporting rifles, military rifles, carbines, and shotguns is estimated at 25,000 – 15,000 of these were produced in the military rifle configuration.  Flayderman notes that in spite of the considerable production of military rifles, they are rarely encountered.   

This rifle exhibits some interesting features which depart from the standard post-1874 production Phoenix military rifle.  This rifle was purchased from a very old extensive collection of Whitney Arms and it was described in the collector’s records as “Phoenix Prototype Musket .50 CF Eli Whitney”.    

This rifle bears a notable difference in profile from the Phoenix Military Rifle pictured in Flayderman’s Guide.  The rifle shown in Flayderman’s has a longer section of exposed barrel (or a shorter fore stock) and the upper sling swivel is attached to the middle barrel band.  He states that all military rifles were fitted with 35” long barrels.  I believe this statement applies only to the later production Phoenix Military Rifles produced after the 1874 patent was issued.  I have noted several surviving Phoenix military rifles which have 32” barrels.  I think it notable that the 32” length is consistent with the Models 1868 and 1870 Springfield Rifles of the same era and this may be a key to the history of this particular rifle.   

Flayderman also states that all “production Phoenix longarms bear only the marking PHOENIX, PATENT MAY 24, 74 with the caliber normally stamped at breech.”  The Phoenix patent date is not stamped on the barrel of this rifle and the absence of this stamping may indicate it was produced prior to the issue of the patent.   

It is known that Whitney submitted the Phoenix Military Rifle to some of the US Army Small Arms Trials in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s.  This rifle presents in a style and configuration similar to all of the other US Army Trial Rifles, incorporating the standard US Army nose cap, barrel bands and band springs, cleaning rod, and buttplate.  As noted above, the barrel of this rifle is the same length as the Models 1868 and 1870 Springfield Rifles, the length of the forearm on this rifle is such that the exposed barrel end is similar to what is seen on the other US Army Trial Rifles, and the upper sling swivel is attached to the upper band such as it is on the Springfield Rifles.  Whitney offered the Phoenix rifles in several different calibers, and while various trial arms were submitted in the .40-.50 caliber range, this specimen is chambered for the .50 Caliber Government (.50-70), which would have been a wise choice by Whitney as it was the standard government cartridge during the period of those trials.   

It is a distinct possibility that this specimen was produced before, or at the time of, the Army Trials and as such, it might well have been one of Whitney’s “prototypes” as indicated in the old collector’s records.  As this rifle appears to predate the issue of the 1874 patent, the patent cited by Flayderman was not in force at the time of its production and therefore could not have been stamped on the barrel when this rifle was manufactured.   

The barrel is stamped “50” – indicating the caliber - on the top center line of the barrel immediately forward of the receiver.  This location is consistent with the caliber stampings on other Phoenix Rifles.   

This Phoenix Rifle has survived the years in overall very good condition.  The 32” barrel has a smooth bright surface showing evidence of use and handling, but no pitting.  The bore retains strong distinct rifling throughout, with some darkened spots, but no severe pitting which interrupts the rifling.  The receiver is clean and smooth with no significant wear or pitting, and both the receiver and trigger guard have a nice naturally aged plum brown color.  The breech and unique extractor (right side of the receiver) function properly with no excessive play, and the hammer-trigger mechanisms are crisp and function smoothly. 

The correct rear sight is present and complete with a fully functional leaf and slide.  The correct cleaning rod is present.  The barrel bands and butt plate are bright and smooth, and match the barrel surface.   

The stocks have a very attractive red walnut color.  The forearm retains nice edges with only minor wear to some of the edges of the cleaning rod channel.  The butt stock shows evidence of use and wear commensurate with a military rifle, but no abuse, and there are no cracks, breaks or other damage.     

This is a very nice specimen of the Whitney Phoenix Military Rifle with a particularly evocative possibility of being one of Whitney’s entries in the early Indian War Army Small Arms Trials.  A scarce piece in any case, this Phoenix Military Rifle would make a nice addition to a collection of Indian Wars era early metallic cartridge arms.  (0239)  $2650


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