Mystery Man: William Jenks, inventor of the Jenks Carbine

Texas Johnny

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Jan 29, 2019
Location
Texas
I acquired a U.S. Navy Jenks carbine last month, and it tweaked my interest in the carbine’s designer, William Jenks. Jenks designed a different type of carbine having a sideways mounted firing mechanism, which was nicknamed the “Mule Ear” carbine. The carbine during the years up to the Civil War went through a number of iterations, including originally having a flintlock firing system, later switched to a percussion cap system. The Confederacy captured some of an earlier Naval version of the carbine and issued them to Virginia cavalry units. The U.S. Ordnance Department purchased 1,000 Jenks carbines during the war, although they were modified to accommodate a self-contained linen cartridge.

I attempted to find more information about Jenks, but I quickly realized there was not many details about him. Online references were limited, although I did find quite a bit about a different William Jenks (1778-1866), a Massachusetts clergyman and scholar. I did find Jenks’ first firearm patent which had been granted to him while Jenks was living in Columbia, South Carolina. Jenks also had another patent in 1834 for a cotton seed hulling device, again while he was living in Columbia. I also found, online, a 1916 Remington Centennial Celebration in Ilion, NY, which mentioned the former William Jenks’ home.

After checking many sources, I could not even find where or when Jenks was born or where and when he died. To me he had become a mystery man. The Jenks carbine is listed in many firearm books, so I scoured the sources they used, when they bothered to list footnotes. From John McAulay excellent books, Civil War Breechloading Rifles and Civil War Carbines, Volume II, I found that there was a series of six articles on the Jenks carbine written in 1964 by Andrew F. Lustyik in The Gun Report. Fortunately, I was able to find and purchase all the 1964 issues of The Gun Report. I also found that Lustyik was likely the premier research on the Jenks carbine. Alas, I would find out about the mystery man! When I opened the first article low and behold there was an oil painting portrait of Jenks, but unfortunately, Jenks the man was apparently as elusive to Lustyik as he was to everyone else. Although there was an abundance of information on Jenks’ firearm, in the Lustyik articles, there was very little about Jenks’ personal life. In fact, Lustyik even stated in the first article, “The dates of Jenk's birth and death are unknown.” I found another Jenks carbine article written by Lustyik in the April 1969 issue of The American Rifleman, and I was able to find and purchase a copy of it off eBay. Unfortunately, that article was also short on details about Jenks life.

When Jenks got his first carbine contract, one with the U.S. Navy in 1841, he turned to Ames Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts to manufacture his carbine. By 1845 Jenks and Ames had a new contract from the U.S. Navy for another 1,000 carbines. Eliphalet Remington of Remington Arms began, after he learned of the Navy contract, negotiations to acquire both the Navy contract and the Ames gun making machinery. From Lustyik’s article, I learned that when Remington met Jenks, he was apparently favorable impressed with him. Remington purchased the Ames contract and machinery and he recruited Jenks to come and work for him in Ilion, NY. I found Jenks, listed at age 45, in the 1850 U.S. Census residing in Ilion with his wife, Elizabeth age 47, daughter Sarah age 18, and son Winfield age 7. His occupation is listed as “government agent” and he had real estate valued at $6,000.

With that information I began searching for Jenks using Remington Arms sources. I found a footnote reference to Jenks, which listed the source as, Remington Arms In American History by Alden Hatch. I was able to find a used copy of the book and when I received it was surprised to find an entire chapter on Jenks and the Jenks carbine. According to the book, Jenks did move to Ilion, NY where he worked for Remington. In the book Hatch gives us a description of Jenks, “Jenks was a Yankee, of Welsh descent, with curly hair, round eager eyes, a straight chiseled nose, and a thin, unhappy mouth. He looked like a minor poet, but his appearance of delicacy was strangely deceptive. For Jenks had the fire and imagination of a true genius, and a resilient inner core that had enabled him to buck bureaucratic indolence and red tape for nearly a decade, until by sheer perseverance (plus the excellence of his invention) he had dragooned the Navy into ordering a few of his guns. In Remington, he saw a chance to realize his ambitious dreams.”

I picked up a key piece of information in the book, that being the year of Jenks’ death, 1859. Apparently, at some point in time Jenks left Ilion and moved to Arlington, VA, seemingly to work on securing government firearm contracts. According to Hatch, Jenks purchased a 100-acre farm outside of Arlington. Hatch also mentions the death of Jenks in 1859 when he was accidentally killed when he was knocked off a hay wagon while the wagon entered his barn.

With an approximate date of birth and year and location of his death I began to search genealogical records and I fairly certain I have found Jenks. He was born 26 May 1805 in Lyme, New Hampshire and died in 1859 at the age of 54. Thus far I have not yet been able to determine his exact date of death. He apparently married Elizabeth Beach in 1832 in Lyme. Elizabeth survived Jenks and died in 1863. They are buried together in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. It is interesting to note that Jenks and U.S. General Winfield Scott were friends, according to Hatch’s book. Hatch claims that Scott was a frequent visitor to the Jenks farm. It is also interesting to note that Jenks’ last child is a son is named Winfield S. Jenks (1843-1914).

There is still much to discover about Jenks. I really have not yet done any serious genealogical or records search work on him, but I hope to find more about this mystery man Jenks. If you have any additional information or sources, I would be most interested in hearing from you.

Wm Jenks from Gun Digest article.JPG


Navy Ames-Jenks Mule Ear Breech Loading Percussion Carbine from Rock Island-Right-CUTOUT_canvas.jpg


20210608_190159-CUTOUT.jpg


Jenks Marker at Rock Creek Cemetery fromm FindAGrave.jpg
 

Story

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
Thanks Story! Yes I found him too. Pretty certain he is not the firearm inventor, looks like this William Jenks was a farmer and never left Rhode Island.

William A. Jenks, 1805-1859
Foster, Providence County, Rhode Island, USA

Figured you might have, but I've found that collecting and presenting all contradictory evidence along the way helps frame the 'true' narrative - as well as making things easier for those in the Peanut Gallery to help (ie; knowing which trails you've been down that seem to be dead ends).
 

CivilWarTalk

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CivilWarTalk

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There is also a Wm. Jenks who was a Reverend, who lived in in Massachusetts, but I can't tell for sure that it's "not" the same man.... He had a son named Lemuel....

"Lemuel P. Jenks, the son of the Rev. William Jenks of Boston, Mass, was a patent solicitor in Boston. At one time he was a general commission and forwarding merchant in New Orleans. He also lived in Baltimore, possibly from 1852 to 1854. In addition to his interest in inventions, he was concerned with copper and chrome mining and saltpetre manufacturing. Letters and other unbound papers relating to inventions and to mining ventures in the United States, Canada, and Cuba."

https://invention.si.edu/lemuel-p-jenks-business-records-collection-1844-1879

Weird coincidence, this guy's son was an inventor at the same time? I'm not sure if I'm looking at the same family, or someone else entirely....
 

CivilWarTalk

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Here is an interesting snip from the Army and Navy Chronicle:

Extract from the report of a Committee of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association at the second exhibition held in Boston, September 1839​
....​
173. WILLIAM JENKS Chicopee Falls, Mass, Seven Rifles and one Carbine​
.....

Also more to read on that page about the carbine's performance....

https://www.google.com/books/editio...ion&pg=RA1-PA57&printsec=frontcover&bsq=jenks
 

CivilWarTalk

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1627413214798.png

Rigid bolt locks, i.e. having locking elements rigidly mounted on the bolt or bolt handle and on the barrel or breech-housing respectively the bolt being rocked about a notional axis transverse to the barrel axis

WILLIAM JENKS, OF COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA.
IMPROVEMENT IN FIRE-ARMS.
Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 747, dated May 25, 1838.

To all whom it may concern.-

Be it known that I, WILLIAM JENKS, of Columbia, in the district of Itichland and State of South Carolina, have invented an Improvement in the Manner of Constructing Fire-Arms of Various Kinds; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full and exact description thereof.

My improvement consists in a new mode of constructing such fire-arms as are made to load at the breech, and the accompanying drawings represent it as applied to a ride, common gun, or fire-arms in general, the general construction being the same with whatever kind of fire-arms it may be used.

The different figures are drawn of the ordi- Figure 1 is a perspective view of all that part of the piece which it is necessary to represent; Fig. 2, a vertical section through the middle of the same; Fig. 3, a top view of the breech, with the slide removed; Fig. 4,' a cross-section through the slide and barrel, and Fig. 5 a side view of the slide and plug.

In each of these figures like parts are designated by the same letters of reference.

A part of the upper side of the barrel, toward the breech, is removed, as shown at a, Fig. 1, for the length of about two inches and a quarter, and along the middle. of this an opening is made into the bore of the barrel, and in width equal to about three-fourths of the diameter of said bore. This opening is marked 6. At its forward end, 0, it is opened out circularly, so as to be of the diameter of the bore. The part into which it opens constitutes the chamber for receiving the charge the general bore of the barrel about one-sixteenth of an inch. The opening thus made is covered by d (2, upon the lower side of which there is a tongue, e,which fits into the opening, and

A steel plug or sliding cylinder, ff, which fits the chamber with and slides within it, is attached by screws to the slide above described, as in the manner and for the purpose shown in the drawings. The steel plug and the tongue of the slide to which it is attached are about one-half of the length of the opening into the barrel, but the plug or cylinder projects forward about three sixteenths of an inch, and when the slide is pushed forward the plug passes to that distance within the bore beyond the opening. I sometimes reduce the plug about the middle, as to reduce the friction and to form a chamber for oil. Another opening or mortises made through the side of the barrel, extending forward from the breechpin to one-half the length of the opening in the top. This side opening may be five-sixteenths of an inch in width. Its use is to admit a stop or chock piece, h, to pass in behind the steel plug f when the latter is forced forward. Said stop fills the space between the plug and the breechpin, holding the former firmly in its place.

A lever, working on a joint at the side of the barrel, and from which the stop or chock projects, has a spring, at its forward end, to force the stop into its place, and consequently admitting of its being removed by making pressure on that end. When the piece is to be loaded, the stop is removed from behind the plug and the slide withdrawn. The ball is then dropped in at the opening 0, and, by depressing the muzzle of the piece, this rolls forward to the fore 'end of the chamber. The charge of powder is then poured in and the slide forced forward, an operation which can be performed with great rapidity. Either a flint or percussion lock may be used with equal convenience.

What I claim as of my invention, and desire to secure by Letters Patent, is the combination of the slide, plug, and stop, operating and constructed substantially herein set forth.

WM. JENKS.

Witnesses:

O. H. WILTBERGER
 

Texas Johnny

Corporal
Joined
Jan 29, 2019
Location
Texas
Here is an interesting snip from the Army and Navy Chronicle:

Extract from the report of a Committee of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association at the second exhibition held in Boston, September 1839​
....​
173. WILLIAM JENKS Chicopee Falls, Mass, Seven Rifles and one Carbine​
.....

Also more to read on that page about the carbine's performance....

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Army_and_Navy_Chronicle/G3BMAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=wm. jenks invention&pg=RA1-PA57&printsec=frontcover&bsq=jenks
Mike, thanks so very much! I didn't have any of the newspaper clippings or the write up in Army and Navy Chronicle, I greatly appreciate this, you have gone above and beyond, thanks again. I am continuing to expand my knowledge base on Mr. Jenks, I will keep plugging away at learning more about him. He was a very interesting and talented man, he doesn't deserve to be lost in our history.
 

Texas Johnny

Corporal
Joined
Jan 29, 2019
Location
Texas
Too bad he died before the 1860 Federal Census was taken.

Where can he be placed in the 1850 Federal Census? (That's an ancestry.com thing)

https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8054/#:~:text=The official enumeration day of the 1850 census,Iowa, Wisconsin, and California being the latest editions.
Yes, if he had made it to 1860 we would have a lot more information about him. I found him in the 1850 census located in German Flats in Herkimer County, New York. I am not familiar with that area, but apparently German Flats includes the villages of Ilion and Mohawk. Ilion of course was the home to Remington Arms. I found one account that said Jenks had a home next to Eliphalet Remington. In an Ilion Centennial program in 1916 a reference is made to the Jenks home, which was later acquired by an Esquire Rasbach, and was apparently still standing back then. If you are able to find anything additional please let me know. Thanks!
 
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