THE PERIOD BETWEEN THE REVOLUTION AND THE CLOSE OF THE CENTURY – Part 2
The first gunlock made at Springfield was filed by hand by Alexander Crawford after a struggle of three days. There were forty employees only the first year at Springfield Armory, and they succeeded in making only 245 muskets, or less than one per day. In 1796 they made 836 muskets, in 1797 1028, in 1798 1044, in 1799 4595, and in 1800 4862, the rapid increase being due to the efficient teaching of Robert Orr, the master armorer. At Harper's Ferry the production was far lower.
The output of the two armories, plus the contractor arms of 1794, plus the old arms on hand, being insufficient to the needs to the army and the militia, the purchase of arms in quantity became necessary. In 1798 Congress authorized the purchase of thirty thousand stands of muskets, and, bearing in mind Washington's plea of some years past for the encouragement of home manufactures, awarded contracts to Eli Whitney, D. Gilbert, and McCormick, all Americans, and advanced money to each. So far as known neither Whitney (the cotton-gin inventor) nor Gilbert (a prominent lawyer, manufacturer, and politician of Brookfield, Mass.) had ever made a gun before. McCormick is believed to have made arms in connection with large business enterprises of previous times, and may have been one of those who furnished part of the 1794 muskets. All three proved worthy of the trust, and produced excellently made muskets as evidenced by specimens still in existence. Of the three, Whitney was the ablest from the mechanical point of view. He introduced with success the innovation attempted unsuccessfully by France some years before of interchangeability of parts formed from stampings and finished to gage. He built factory buildings, supervised the making of all tools and machinery upon the premises, and produced the first American guns made and finished almost entirely by machinery. He was ten years in fulfilling his contract, but at the end of that time he had an arms factory which operated far beyond his lifetime, while the other two contractors had had enough of the tribulations of the business. The arms produced by the three contractors were unlike, and unlike those of Springfield and the Ferry — unlike in details, but they corresponded in generalities. All three contractors stamped their arms with their name and the date when the gun was finished.
It was about this time that locks for firing cannon came into use in America. They were first used in the English navy, invented or introduced by the British admiral Sir Charles Douglass about 1780, and were taken up by the Americans between 1785 and 1790. It is not known that any were made before 1800 at the government armories; they were purchased of the English contractors. A cannon lock consisted of a brass box containing a gunlock mechanism, and having a cock and frizzen upon its upper face, with a trigger lever at the rear containing an eye for attaching a lanyard. The lock fastened to loops set into the breech of a cannon, and could be applied or detached almost instantly. It superseded the lighted match and the flash from a pistol, and had several advantages: the gunner could stand further from the cannon, and by having a series of lanyards attached to a single line could fire a whole battery simultaneously.
In the fifteen years preceding 1800 the double barreled shotgun became the favorite birding-piece of the wealthy planters of the South and of the sporting sons of the rich merchants of the North. The principle was very old, and snaphance and flint double barrels of Spanish make were prized in the seventeenth century. They were good weapons, too, although long, poor in balance, and heavy on account of their size. The popularity of the double gun came about through the perfections devised and applied by the celebrated Henry Nock of London. Nock made it short, with half stock, set the balancing point just in front of the trigger guard, inclined the axes of the barrels to a point about thirty yards in front of the muzzle, improved the ribbing of the barrels, improved the form of the powder chamber so as to get greater efficiency from the powder, improved the process of barrel boring to such an extent that his barrels were cylinders of almost mathematical correctness, made locks of wonderful refinements in workmanship, and made his guns not merely admirably serviceable weapons, but guns of beautiful grace and finish also. His patronage by the nobility brought him fame which culminated in his becoming gun maker to the king. His works were brought to the United States by those able to afford them, and became the inspiration of the gunsmiths there, just as they inspired the youthful Joseph Manton in Nock's own city; but with this difference, that no American achieved the fame of the master, while Manton, in middle life, became more famous than his teacher.
Among American gunsmiths of this period noted for ingenuity in fashioning sporting weapons was the John Golcher, of Easton, Pennsylvania, who had been employed during the Revolution in the Committee of Safety armory as instructor. After the war he devoted himself to the production of ingenious novelties in that line. He became particularly celebrated for the accuracy and quality of his single lock over-and-under revolving barrel rifles, and for multi-shot arms having a single barrel to take superposed loads with traveling lock. Besides these he produced a variety of ingenious arms, the principles of which were probably new to him, as he had not the resources of travel and literature, but which were nevertheless old. In fact, in this the twilight of the flint period, it is questionable if any variety of firearms could be produced which had not been invented before. In some cases Golcher did a little better than his predecessors, and, if he had been favored by Fortune with a Colonel Hawker to advertise his skill, as was Manton, his celebrity would have been more in accord with his genius.
The close of the eighteenth century was marked by no radical changes in weapons of sport or of war. All civilized nations were using the flintlock for a firing mechanism, and its limitations were reached and could not be overstepped. Distinct progress in the mechanics and particularly in the science of firearms was still a score or more of years ahead. Since then the changes have been so great that nothing remains of the firearms of the early days of our country but the principle of using the energyexplosion to propel a.projectile, and a barrel to give direction to its flight. There are yet many problems to meet. Their solution may have more influence upon the future than the arms of our ancestors had upon the past.
Sawyer, Charles. Firearms in American History. Boston: The Author,
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