M. James Fly Reels – Utica, NY

“M. James” marked fly reels were made by Morgan James around the 1850’s in Utica, NY. Morgan James was a well known and famous gunsmith. His expertise is well known and appreciated among the vintage rifle collecting community. We know that James did make over 1,000 of his high quality rifles and pistols. He was perhaps best known for his high quality target rifles with telescopic sights. However, he must have made only a few of his fly reels for his friends and for special requests based on the number of reels that have been found. The exact dates when James made his fly reels are unknown. At the time of this writing, only 3 Morgan James fly reels are known to have been found.

The best history we have about Morgan James comes from an article written by H.J. Swinney in the Spring 1994 issue of the “Fishing Collectibles Magazine.” H. J. Swinney is a noted historian and held positions as Director, Adirondack Museum; Director, Idaho Historical Society; and later Director Emeritus of the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. Swinney is also the author of the 5 volume book set “The New York State Firearms Trade.” The determination of Morgan Jame’s history is mostly based on Swinney’s studies. Information was also found in John Ratcliffe Chapman’s 1848 book entitled “Instructions to Young Marksmen.” Chapman was a British civil engineer credited with inventing the telescopic rifle sight. Some of the dates are based on Morgan James’ listings in city directories and may be off a year or two because of this. The estimates of Morgan James’s timeline can be summarized as follows:

  • 1815: Born in Utica, NY
  • 1830: Began apprenticeship for gunsmith Riley Rogers in Utica, NY
  • 1837 – 1841: Making rifles in Litchfield, CT
  • 1841 – 1850: Making rifles and telescopic sights with cross hairs in his own shop in Utica, NY
  • 1851 – 1854: Making rifles as “James & Ferriss” in Utica, NY
  • 1855 – 1868: Making rifles and telescopic sights with cross hairs in Utica, NY
  • 1870: Working for Remington Arms Co. in Ilion, NY
  • 1878: Died at age 68 in Ilion, NY

One can’t talk about the Morgan James fly reel’s qualities without looking at one in detail. The photos of the reel below show an engraving on one of his reels that reads “Greene Smith, Presented by, M. James.” The Smith reel was found with a letter written from him to his father Gerrit Smith in 1864 describing his war status. At this time, Greene Smith was a 24 year old 2nd Lieutenant in the Union Artillery in the Civil War under General White. A copy of the letter is also shown below. It is not known for what occasion Morgan James presented the reel to Greene Smith, but it must have been something quite special.

This lovely little M. James side mount fly reel shown below measures about 2 5/8 inches in diameter and has about a 1/2 inch wide spool. Around the two circumference edges are lines of fine knurling. The reel has a tapered decorative knob that is made of ivory. Inside is a constant acting click mechanism that works in both directions when the face plate is turned.

M. James fly reels are considered to be made by one of the great New York reel makers.

The MORGAN JAMES Fly Reel – Utica, NY, Circa 1850’s or 1860’s

Greene Smith letter

The GREENE SMITH Letter to His Father in 1864