The name Henry O. Peabody ought to be well known by all fans of military firearms–but it isn’t. As has been the case with so many inventive geniuses over the ages, Peabody’s name and work have been overshadowed by others who took what he designed, changed it, and attached their own monikers to it. As with writers/artists, the lot of the inventor/designer is not always an easy one.
In 1862 Peabody patented a breech-loading rifle but was unable to perfect it in time to play a major role in the American Civil War (1860-1865). His basic design was based upon a pivoting breechblock, the front of which pivoted down on a transverse pin fixed through both the upper rear of the breechblock and the upper rear of the box-like receiver. As the breechblock was lowered, it exposed the barrel chamber and permitted the insertion of a cartridge. The rifle was fired by means of a musket-style outside hammer whose lockwork was inletted into the buttstock behind the receiver.
In operation, the hammer was set on halfcock, and the loading lever/trigger guard was pulled down to expose the chamber so that a cartridge could be slid down the grooved top of the breechblock into the chamber. As the lever was pulled up, an upward extension of the lever pushed the breechblock into battery and acted as a prop to keep it closed. When pulled down, the prop engaged a hooked portion of the block’s undersurface and lowered it. As the breechblock was lowered, it activated an extractor that pulled the spent cartridge case from the chamber, throwing it clear of the receiver.
All in all, it was a strong, simple, rugged, and foolproof design eminently suited for military service. Peabody’s first rifles were chambered for a proprietary, rimfire cartridge known as the .44-40-50.
The story of the Peabody rifle is intertwined with that of the Providence Tool Company, which was primarily concerned with the manufacture of such mundane items as hammers, pickaxes, marlinspikes, nuts, and bolts.
When the American Civil War erupted, the company obtained a contract to manufacture rifled muskets for the U.S. Army and eventually delivered 60,000 units. During the war, the company purchased Peabody’s patents, and while samples of a carbine were submitted to the U.S. Army, no decision was made before the war ended. However, the basic soundness of the design led the company to promote it.
In 1865 the company entered the Peabody rifles and carbines in Army trials, and after extensive tests of durability, accuracy, weather resistance, and serviceability, the board declared the Peabody the winner. Unfortunately, with postwar financial constraints, the Army decided to adopt a rifle and carbine developed at Springfield Arsenal that had the advantage of being produced by modifying the vast number of rifled muskets already on hand.
The first large sale of Peabody rifles occurred in 1866. Canada, then a British colony, was under threat of invasion by Irish nationalists (the Fenian Brotherhood) who hoped to capture Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) and exchange it to Great Britain for Irish independence.
There were few British regular troops in Canada, and the Canadian militia was undermanned and poorly equipped. Requests for Snider rifles from Britain were turned down, so the Canadians placed an order for 5,000 rifles with the Providence Tool Company.
Canadian contract rifles were chambered for the rimfire .50-60 Peabody cartridge. Approximately 3,000 were delivered and used by the Canadians to defeat several Fenian incursions. With the threat removed–and Sniders now arriving from Britain–the Canadians declined to accept the remaining 2,000 rifles.
The next country to purchase the Peabody was Switzerland. To tide them over until the Vetterli rifle could be perfected, the Swiss contracted for a large number of rifles chambered for the Patrone M.67 10.4mm (a.k.a. .41 Swiss Rimfire). Most were issued to engineer troops (Genie-Gewehr system Peabody M.67) and sharpshooters (Scharfschützen-Gewehr system Peabody M.67).
Prosperity continued to shine upon the company. With armies all around the world racing to reequip their troops with the new breed of metallic-cartridge, breech-loading rifle, the Peabody found a ready market. The following year Romania ordered 30,000 rifles chambered for the centerfire 11.4mm Cartus Md. 1868 (11.4x49R Romanian Peabody) cartridge. They were known as the Arma Md. 1868. They proved to be long-lived rifles with some showing up in the Balkans as late as World War I. The Spanish Fusil Peabody de Ejercito de Ultramar Mo. 1868 was ordered to equip colonial troops in Cuba and was chambered for the .50 Spencer cartridge. Approximately 25,000 rifles and 5,000 carbines were delivered.
Two years later the Spanish placed a second order for rifles chambered for the 11x58R Remington (.43 Spanish) cartridge. The Fusil Peabody de Ejercito de Ultramar Mo. 1868/70 was identical to the earlier rifle. Approximately 10,000 were delivered to Spain, and an additional 8,500 were sold to Mexico. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French purchased 33,000 Spanish-pattern Peabodys, and smaller quantities of rifles were purchased by Turkey, Japan, and the Netherlands for trials purposes.
The company continued to promote the Peabody in the U.S., and while it was unable to interest the U.S. Army, the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and South Carolina all purchased Peabody rifles in .43 Spanish to equip their militias. In 1877 Connecticut returned its rifles to the factory to be refurbished, rebarreled for the standard .45-70-405 cartridge, and fitted with new rear sights.
As I mentioned earlier, the demise of the Peabody was the result of someone else improving it, and in 1866 an Austrian engineer named Friederich von Martini modified the Peabody. He replaced the cumbersome outside hammer with a spring-loaded striker/firing pin assembly inside the breechblock that was cocked as the breechblock was lowered. He also strengthened the extractor–which had always been a weak point in the original rifle–and utilized a separate lever (instead of the trigger guard) to lower the breechblock. These changes resulted in a simplified and stronger receiver and a faster locktime, which impro
ved accuracy and allowed a much higher rate of fire. Martini’s improved rifle was entered in British army trials, and in 1871 it was adopted as the Rifle, Breech-loading, Martini-Henry Mark I.
Martini freely admitted that his rifle was based upon the Peabody, and in 1873 the Providence Tool Company began producing Martini’s rifle as the Peabody-Martini for sale outside of Great Britain. Production of the Peabody was terminated in 1873, although rifles still in storage were purchased by Peru in 1879.
Shooting A Peabody
Collector Mike Gibbins was kind enough to provide me with a Connecticut State Militia rifle chambered for the .45-70 cartridge. Overall condition was very nice, although it had been re-blued by a previous owner. While the bore displayed a fair amount of pitting, strong rifling was still evident.
For some unexplained reason, the Connecticut and Massachusetts contract rifles lacked sling swivels. There was a small, inletted plaque on the butt marked “CONN. 224,” which I assume was the inventory or rack number, and in front of the plaque was stamped “CO B 4,” which I assume meant the 4th rifle issued to Company B. At some time in its history, the rifle had been retrofitted with a rear sight from a Remington Rolling Block.
For test-firing I obtained a supply of Black Hills cowboy action .45-70 cartridges, which were loaded with a modest charge of smokeless powder and a 405-grain flatnose, lead bullet. Firing five rounds across my PACT chronograph produced an average velocity of 1,217 fps.
At the range I set targets out on the 75-yard backstop, hunkered down behind some sandbags, placed the hammer on halfcock, lowered the breechblock, and slid a thumb-sized .45-70 into the chamber. I raised the breechblock, pulled the hammer back to fullcock, took a careful sight picture, and stroked the trigger.
With the rear sight set on 100 yards, at three-quarters that distance, the slow-moving 405-grain bullets printed about 12 inches high. A bit of experimentation showed the proper amount of “Kentucky elevation” to use, and I managed to produce well-centered groups in the 3.5- to 4.5-inch range.
Loading was foolproof and fumble-free, and if I gave the trigger guard a quick opening jerk, the extractor would throw spent cases completely clear of the breech. A trained soldier would have been able to keep up an impressive rate of fire.
I found the Peabody to be an eminently shootable rifle. It was simple, accurate, and fast in action. It was easily a match for–and superior to–many of its contemporaries.