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American Gun Making History

( Originally Published 1940 )

The gun is a vitally important aspect of American craftsmanship. Because iron is its primary material and because the early gunsmith was often a specializing blacksmith, we can logically consider the gun in this chapter.

In its extremely primitive form, the match-lock, the gun appeared at the beginning of the 14th century. Germany, in the 16th century, produced the wheel-lock. This was a complicated weapon in which the explosion was produced by sparks struck by the revolving of a serrated wheel against a flint. The wheel was revolved by the trigger action. A more satisfactory form was the later flint-lock. It had fewer mechanical frailties. A flint was held by the hammer, which fell upon metal, striking the necessary spark in the priming pan. The flint-lock was the important gun through the period of the Revolution and until the development of the percussion gun using a fulminating charge.

One of the fundamental principles of the efficient firearm, a principle destined to be of great significance in American history, was the process of "rifling," from which the "rifle" takes its name. The problem of the early gunsmith was to make his bullet conform to the shape of the barrel. It was found that grooves within the barrel enabled the soft bullets to expand under the force of the explosion, and fit the barrel with a minimum of leakage. It was already known that a spiral movement to the right enhanced the accuracy and carrying-power of a pro jectile. These principles were combined, to the great improvement of firearms, by the Viennese, Gaspard Koller, early in the 15th century. The process of rifling was never employed to its full measure of efficiency until the advent of modern precision machinery.

The Colonial Americans largely used the prevailing types of smooth bore flint-lock musket. But the Pennsylvania-Germans were another story. They had brought with them the German rifles. These were none too accurate, as individual pieces, and, like the musket, had to be used in ranks for military effectiveness.

This did not fill the needs of peaceful settlers, who needed a reliable weapon with an accuracy adequate to the hunting of small and elusive game. Painstaking gunsmiths slenderized and lengthened the barrels and improved the rifling. The resultant weapon was known as the "Pennsylvania Rifle" and was, by a wide margin, the best gun in the world at the time. It contributed largely, both in use and in moral effect, to the American victory in the Revolution.

The Pennsylvania Rifle made possible the demoralizing guerrilla warfare in which hidden marksmen harried British ranks. The British recourse to Hessians, as mercenaries, was largely in the hope that their German rifles would offset the American guns. This hope was disappointed for the German guns were neither so skillfully made nor so well handled.

The Pennsylvania Rifle, however, was by no means the exclusive weapon of the Continentals. In terms of numbers, the chief gun of the American army was a smooth bore French weapon called the Charleville Musket. It was later manufactured by the Springfield Armory and became the first gun officially made by the United States Government for the use of its armies.

An American, Thomas Shaw, of Philadelphia, played a role in the development of percussion caps. But the true pioneer of fulminating powder was an Englishman, the Reverend Alexan der John Forsyth, early in the 19th century. Another American, Jacob Snider, made one of the best early breech-loading rifles. The first practical machine gun was an American creation. It was made by Gatling, in Chicago, and consisted of ten barrels, revolving around a cylindrical axis, coming into firing position in rapid succession. It fired 250 shots a minute and was successfully used in the Civil War, even though its heavy, cumbersome mechanism was a far cry from the up-to-date light machine gun.

But the two names which are of the greatest significance in American gunmaking are Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt. Eli Whitney was a latter-day craftsman, whose ambitions far out stripped any practical reliance on his own handiwork. Whitney represents one aspect of modern craft, as the man who creates, manually, a first model, relegating its duplication in mass to machine processes. His cotton gin, just such a case, brought him no profits due to the frenzied pirating of the device and the futility of the endless litigation in which he engaged, attempting to establish and enforce a patent.

Whitney came into his own as an arms-maker. In 1798 he undertook an unprecedented government contract for the manufacture of 10,000 "stand of arms," to be delivered in two years. He took eight years to fill the order. The government was tolerant, for in that time Whitney developed precision machine methods for the first manufacture of uniform arms with completely interchangeable parts, an impossibility for the most gifted hand craftsman. Subsequently, having established a fully equipped plant at Whitneyville, Connecticut, he undertook another government contract for 30,000 guns, which he fulfilled to the letter.

Samuel Colt was another craftsman contemptuous of his manual abilities beyond the point of initial demonstration. As a boy, on a single ill-relished voyage as a seaman, he whittled a wooden model of his famous six-shooter. The story of his years of struggle to manufacture and exploit this weapon is irrelevant here. The interesting fact is that Colt extended Whitney's principle. Where Whitney had begun uniform manufacture and division of labor, Colt actually applied the full-fledged assembly line, the fully developed industrial method with which Ford much later became popularly associated. Colt died, in 1862, at the relatively early age of forty-eight.

Although Americans have made other contributions in the field, arms-making, beyond the point here considered, becomes too specialized and too wholly a scientific machine process for us to pursue.

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