August 24, 2022
By Jeff John
In 1861, Charles H. Ballard, designer and chief machinist at Ball & Williams, a firm in which he was once a partner, began offering the new Ballard rifle chambered in the .38 rimfire cartridge. As the Civil War ramped up, the firm soon sought military contracts. The little gun made a dandy cavalry carbine and was easily up-calibered to .44 Henry rimfire, .46 rimfire or .56-56 Spencer rimfire. The Ballard served ably during the Civil War—most famously with the state of Kentucky. One unusual feature added near war’s end was a dual ignition system featuring a percussion nipple below the rimfire firing pin. Once fired, the shooter could pierce the center of the case and charge the Ballard as a breech or muzzleloader, with the spent case sealing the chamber and ignited by a percussion cap.
Some 24,000 early Ballards were made by a dizzying array of companies before the patents fell into the hands of New York retailer Shoverling & Daly in 1875. They put them into the capable hands of John Mahlon Marlin. He reworked the action into what became one of the best single-shot rifles of the 19th century—chambered in cartridges from the .22 Short and .22 Long rimfires up to the .45-100 centerfire. Ballard rimfire actions are cast iron, and the centerfire ones forged steel. All are the same size. The steel guns weigh a hefty two pounds, 10 ounces; the cast iron ones are a little lighter.
J. M. Marlin gave his rifles exceptional barrels renowned for accuracy. Both the single and set triggers are superior, and lock time is very fast. While all the actions work the same way, no major parts freely interchange. The manual of arms couldn’t be simpler, but never open the breech with the hammer cocked. You will damage the trigger and sear. Hammer down, open the breechblock, start a cartridge into the chamber and raise the breechblock. The breechblock will seat the cartridge into the chamber the same way each time and is one of the reasons Ballards are so accurate.
Upon opening, the extractor moves the case out about 1/8 inch. Even with a scope, the generous breech opening allows finger access helpful for plucking out the little rimfire cases and simplifies cleaning from the breech. Breechblock removal requires taking out one screw, although the extractor falls out and you sometimes have to hold your tongue just right to get it back together. My Ballard replicates the Ballard No. 3 PG (pistol grip gallery rifle). The last model offered, it was simply meant to use up parts as the factory wound down Ballard production. The rifle sold for $18 in 1891. All Ballards would disappear in a few more years. The only difference between the PG and the long-cataloged No. 3F (fine gallery rifle) is the use of a standard crescent rifle buttplate instead of the small, two-prong Swiss buttplate favored by the day’s offhand shooters. Both have the pistol grip receiver with its gentle slope gracefully flowing into the pistol grip stock.
Ballard No. 3 rifles were made only in .22 Short and .22 Long. This one has a high serial number indicating it was made near the end of Ballard production. The breechblock halves and receiver have matching serial numbers, so it left Marlin as a rimfire. This one had been rebarreled and chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, a cartridge that arrived several years after Ballard production ceased. The gun was remodeled into a ghastly looking bench rifle. Although the stock was missing, it weighed 14 pounds, with an ungainly 28-inch straight-taper barrel and a plain, ultra-wide, flat, fore-end. The action was pitted externally, and, adding insult, it was badly buffed, rounding every corner and flat, then given a shiny, hot blue.
Because of the action weight, these rifles were rather heavy for a .22, and Marlin tapered the barrels more than on the target models to pare overall weight. But that meant the receiver top flat had to be “dished” so the shooter could see the barrel sights. When this particular barrel was pulled, the receiver cracked across the thin part of the top flat, and the unknown gunsmith silver-soldered a plate over the top, turning it into a flattop receiver. But it’s a rimfire, and the barrel is a thick 0.889 inch there.
Purchased very reasonably at the end of a gun show from a guy who simply didn’t want to carry it any longer, the rifle proved exceptionally accurate and inspired this restoration. The buffing damage was corrected and the pistol grip slope added by careful welding. The heavy, round barrel was machined to the dimensions of Marlin’s 26-inch octagon 3F target profile, and the rifle was restocked to the PG dimensions—creating a graceful, slender perfectly balanced eight-pound sporter. The rifle butt fits much better than do those small Swiss buttplates.
Removing roughly six pounds of barrel didn’t affect accuracy. The period Marble’s peep rear and Montana Vintage Arms globe front sight are zeroed for 50 yards, and an MVA B5 scope—a replica of the period 5X Winchester A5—takes over for 100 yards. It seems fitting somehow that the first and last Ballards were rimfires. The highest serial number recorded is 36,637 on a No. 3 Gallery Rifle in .22. In its heyday, the Ballard came in models from No. 1 to No. 10 with a few “1/2s” and “3/4s” thrown in for good measure. They came in calibers and configurations capable of competing in any of the era’s target games or hunting any game animal.