U.S. Lock Plates
By Craig L Barry
December 2010 Civil War News - The Watchdog

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This is the standard U.S. Model 1861 lock plate with the heraldic
spread eagle. The attitude is left (facing) with an olive branch in left
talon and 13 arrows in the right talon. The head of the eagle faces towards the olive branch, rather than the arrows, advocating peace rather than war. Keep in mind it is from the perspective of the eagle,
not the viewer. The U.S.Model 1842 muskets had the eagle facing right in the direction of the arrows, meaning “war.”

A question Civil War reenactors often ask about U.S. Model rifles and muskets is why the Federal eagles on the lock plates of some models look different and face different directions.

The one feature found on many U.S.-made infantry arms of the Civil War era is the ubiquitous Federal “spread eagle.” It is the common distinguishing mark found on U.S. Armory-produced military arms beginning in 1795 and it continued to be stamped on arms produced for the next almost 100 years.

However, there are differences. After you inspect a representative number of such lock plates it becomes apparent that the eagle markings are not all alike and some distinctive patterns begin to emerge.

One key difference in particular is noteworthy.

When the Founding Fathers were looking for a symbol of our new national heritage in 1782, they selected the bald eagle. It is ironic that after renouncing the British monarchy with its long history of heraldry, the first symbol selected to represent the new American republic would be the eagle, one of the most common symbols of European heraldry used for coats of arms.

In heraldic terms, the Federal eagle is displayed with its wings outstretched or spread, as seen in Pimbley’s Dictionary of Heraldry, Baltimore Publishing, 1908.

While widely used, the eagle was still less common than the lion-based heraldic symbols, especially in Britain. It is safe to say the eagle is by far the most frequently found ornithology-based heraldic symbol. Traditionally associated from the time of the Greeks and Romans as a messenger of the gods, the eagle represented courage, strength and immortality. It is more common in Continental European heraldry.

In contradiction to the rules of heraldry, the shield covering the Federal eagle’s breast has an odd number of vertical stripes, 13, an obvious reference to the 13 original states. In traditional Western heraldry a shield should not be vertically striped or of an uneven number of stripes. One of the original U.S. designs featured chevrons in place of stripes for this reason.

There is one key difference between the first American eagle designs on earlier U.S. muskets and those of the Civil War era and later. The earlier spread eagles all hold an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other.

The design of the Great Seal shows the eagle facing “dexter,” the heraldic term meaning situated on the right, thus to the so-called honorable side, favoring the olive branch of peace.

Ironically, the dexter side of the shield is that opposite the left hand of the spectator. The eagle is found facing this way on the lock plates of all U.S. Model muskets from 1795 to 1842.

For some reason the eagle is reversed on the lock plate beginning with the U.S. Model 1855 rifle-musket, which features a very prominent reversed Federal eagle on the tape primer door, and all U.S. military arms made thereafter that feature an exterior lock mechanism with a lock plate.

The reversed eagle faces “sinister,” left, with the olive branch left and the arrows now on the right. Hence, in heraldic terms this placement of the olive branch on the left with arrows on the right conveys the opposite meaning from the original design, with the arrows being a symbol of aggression.

As if the message was not clear enough, the eagle is also sometimes depicted during the Civil War-era holding arrows alone in both talons. The reason for the reversal of the heraldic eagle is not documented to my knowledge, but the sinister design continued for so many years that it is not likely to have passed accidentally without notice.

The reversed eagle is not only found on rifle-musket lock plates. Breast plates, hat ornaments and other military insignias of the Federal spread eagle are also sometimes found reversed. Therefore, it was no doubt an intentional change in design beginning around 1855, according to Robert S. Koppelman, writing in The American College of Heraldry’s October 2003 quarterly, The Armiger’s News.

The Great Seal of the United States and other official eagle symbols, including branch of military service flags, have never changed from the original design.

Lastly, while most Civil War-era U.S. 1861 model rifle-muskets have similar looking Federal spread eagle lock plate stamps, there are some minor differences.

An obvious variation is the eagle stamp used by Alfred Jenks & Son. The Bridesburg Armory eagle, which was stamped on close to 100,000 U.S. 1861s produced by Jenks on several Federal contracts, is noticeably thicker with a shorter neck and broader wingspan. This thicker Bridesburg eagle is the style duplicated by at least one manufacturer of reproduction U.S. model rifle-muskets.

There are other subtle variations in size and placement among the various period commercial contractors. For example, the Providence Tool Company lock plate design places a slightly larger eagle between the letters “U” and “S,” compared to the Norwich or Trenton lock plates which feature a noticeably smaller eagle with the “U” and “S” placed together elsewhere on the plate.

The extra-large eagle in front of an unfurled American flag on the Whitneyville contract U.S. pattern rifle-muskets is so distinct as to constitute a completely different lock plate design from the others.

Contributing to the design variations, the tools and dies used in the stamping process wore out and had to be periodically replaced. There is an element of artwork in cutting the dies for the replacement stamps, and some examples from the same maker show differences for no other reason than this.