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Gunmaking by machinery


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Lecture at the Imperial War Museum, 20th June 2011

Peter G Smithurst
This is a presentation delivered to a monthly meeting of the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association (HBSA) in London, UK.
Curator Emeritus

Published in: Education
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Gunmaking by machinery

  1. 1. Gunmaking by Machinery –birth of the consumer societyLecture at the Imperial War Museum, 20th June 2011Peter G SmithurstCurator EmeritusVisiting Research Fellow, University of HuddersfieldRoyal ArmouriesArmouries DriveLeeds LS10 in the western world take our home comforts for granted – our TV’s, ourcars, our washing machines, a clock in every room, a watch on our wrist, ourPC’s, our vacuum cleaners, our electric hand drills etc. etc. They havebecome part of our everyday life. But, if each one and all its composite partshad to be made from scratch, what then? Even the simplest would probablycost a king’s ransom. We also take for granted that they can easily berepaired by removing a worn or broken part and simply fitting a new one.Take a few more steps along this pathway of thoughts. Take factories forinstance. Some may remember when factories had a “hooter” which blastedout to give warning that it was nearly time for work, and then another blast totell you if you weren’t in the factory you were late! That was all very wellwhere there might be one large factory in a town. If a host of factories hadthem then confusion might set in, especially if they had different startingtimes! And what about other employers – all the shops and offices whichexisted outside a factory?Of course there was a time when a “knocker-up” did his rounds and rattledyour bedroom windows at the appointed time. But who told the “knocker-up”that it was time to be about his business? All very well if everyone had to startwork at the same time and lived the same walking distance from theiremployment – and many actually did. What about public transport. Takerailways for example. The steam locomotive was a wonderful piece ofengineering but for railways to become a real working practical propositionthey had to be organised. There would be little point in running a trainanywhere unless people knew when it was running. So, a timetable wasneeded. The same with coaches and, later, buses and trams.And the only way that could work was if people knew not only the departuretime, but what the time was at any particular instant. What became more andmore imperative was a personal clock. And what made personal clocks andall the other attributes of our everyday lives a possibility? Gunmaking ofcourse!HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 1
  2. 2. But not gunmaking in the fondly imagined romantic sense of a craftsman inhis workshop meticulously crafting something by hand. This was another formof gunmaking entirely which owes its existence to certainly one, and arguablytwo events.The story begins in France in the middle years of the 18 th century. GeneralJean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, hailed as one of Europe’s most ablemilitary engineers, became Director of Artillery and in this capacity was able todetermine policy and exercise control over the design, manufacture andquality, not just of large guns but smallarms as well. Apart from his quest toimprove the standards of the army and its equipment, he also sought to bringsome rationality to military stores by introducing standardized weapons withstandardized parts. (1)General Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de GribeauvalWhen it came to muskets, he appointed Honoré le Blanc to undertake thattask. Le Blanc had been apprenticed in the gun making trade. By the age of27 he was a master armourer at the Charleville manufactory when he wastransferred to St. Etienne to become controlleur of gun lock making. Forsomeone so young to be given such responsibility speaks highly of hispersonal qualities and technical ability. This ability, whilst principally applied toachieving a particular goal, was also directed to such things as experimentingwith new ways of tempering steel and forging gun barrels as well as makingpresentation muskets for officers.In 1777 he designed the new French military musket and, in 1786, Gribeauvalmade funds available for the establishment of an armoury at Vincennes toHBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 2
  3. 3. manufacture muskets with interchangeable parts. However, the death ofGribeauval in 1789, shortly followed by the French Revolution, brought leBlanc’s patronage to an end. But le Blanc did get as far as making each of thelock’s components identical in size and form so that they could just bedropped into place, instead of a lot of fiddly adjustment with fine files.Top; Standard French Model 1777 Musket Lock. Bottom; Le Blanc’sModel 1777 musket lock(Royal Armouries XII.201 and XII.2031 respectively)HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 3
  4. 4. HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 4
  5. 5. internal views of the same locks – the major difference is the lack of anyassembly marks/numbers on le Blanc’s lock (bottom)HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 5
  6. 6. But the project grounded not only because of the death of Gribeauval and thecoming of the French revolution; the gunmakers of France realised theirlivelihood was at stake if le Blanc’s work went any further and they rioted. So,end of part 1.Part 2 unfolded in America shortly after that time. In some senses it wasprecipitated by a little problem known as a revolution, or The War ofIndependence, or if you like, the Second English Civil War! Once the newUnited States had settled down, Thomas Jefferson was sent to Paris as theUS representative. He saw le Blanc’s work and was able to attest to this new“interchangeability” of components and was so impressed he sent samples ofthe musket back to the United States.Having gained independence, the United States wanted to keep it and toensure that, it needed an army. One of Jefferson’s comrades in government,Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, had put the matter verysuccinctly in his report on manufactures:“Not only the wealth, but the independence and security of a country, appearto be materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures. Every nation,with a view to those great objects, ought to endeavour to possess within itselfall the essentials of national supply. These comprise the means ofsubsistence, habitation, clothing and defence.” (2)HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 6
  7. 7. Alexander HamiltonWhen it came to defence, the United States was in a bit of a pickle. Hitherto,most of its arms, in the form of privately owned firearms, had been importedfrom Britain. The only military firearms were, of course, those in the hands ofthe British Army. To equip an army, an army of craftsmen was required andthis was an army America could not muster. As Eli Whitney noted, gunmakingwas “a species of skill which is not possessed in this country to anyconsiderable extent”.(3)However, another of Hamilton’s observations is decidedly prophetic:“If there be anything in a remark often to be met with, namely, that there is, inthe genius of the people of this country, a peculiar aptitude for mechanicimprovements, it would operate as a forcible reason for giving opportunities tothe exercise of that species of talent, by the propagation of manufactures. “ (4)An alternative to the hand-crafted gun had to be found. Jefferson’s report fromParis couldn’t have come at a better time and what had been a curtailedexperiment in France became the holy grail in the United States. Hamilton’sfaith in that peculiar aptitude for mechanic improvements was harnessed tocreate machines as a replacement for craftsmen in the manufacture offirearms. It was the birth of a second industrial revolution which was toeventually reach into almost every corner of society.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 7
  8. 8. The French 1777 musket, in effect, became the standard American musketand in 1798 when Eli Whitney contracted to manufacture 10,000 of them overa period of two years the first step on the pathway of mechanised gunmakingwas taken. This was an extremely ambitious and optimistic venture on thepart of Whitney. Although he had already established himself as an inventorthrough his cotton gin, patented four years earlier, his attempts tomanufacture it do not seem to have met with resounding success. At leastone author believes that whilst Whitney had never manufactured arms before,this contract was entered into simply to save himself from financial ruin overthe litigation surrounding the manufacture his cotton gin. (5) The bold nature ofWhitney’s venture is highlighted by the fact that even the Springfield Armory,the United States major manufactory, could not equal his proposed output.Before long, he was claiming to have manufactured muskets withinterchangeable parts. (6) However, despite this claim being perpetuated inengineering history as a genuine accomplishment, it was, in fact, discountedeven at the time (7) and has been further discredited in more recent years. (8) (9)The contract was not completed until 1809, nine years after the appointedtime, and the muskets produced were described as being of “wretchedquality”. (10) (11) The so-called interchangeability was demonstrated to a group ofinfluential persons including President Elect, Thomas Jefferson, in 1801. Itconsisted of nothing more than the ability to substitute 10 different completelocks in the same musket. It did not apply to the lock components themselves.(12) This must have been a disappointing episode to Jefferson especially whohad submitted the original report on Le Blanc’s achievements, and fell farshort of the concept of interchangeability which was held even at that time.Nevertheless, Whitney’s contributions cannot be dismissed. In his observationthat“ . . . machinery moved by water, adopted to this business, would greatlydiminish the labour and facilitate the manufacture of this article. Machines forforging, rolling, floating, boring, grinding, polishing etc. may be used toadvantage”, he displays a grasp of what was to become the mainstay ofinterchangeable manufacture.During the next fifty years, that technology made remarkable progress and, asfar as the rest of the world was concerned was concerned made its debut atthe Great Exhibition in 1851.Its great proponents were two very different companies. One was owned bythat great showman and entrepreneur, Sam Colt, whose stand was festoonedwith revolvers of all kinds.The other stand contained just six rifles made by Robbins and Lawrence.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 8
  9. 9. Model 1841 “Mississippi” Rifle as exhibited at the Great Exhibition(Royal Armouries XII.430)Whereas Colt made great play of the fact that his guns were made bymachinery, they were not, contrary to popular opinion, truly interchangeable atthat time. But in their factory in the tiny town of Windsor, a backwater ofVermont, Robbins and Lawrence achieved that holy grail. Their rifles werefully interchangeable.The Robbins & Lawrence factory ca 1855HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 9
  10. 10. The Robbins & Lawrence building today – home of The AmericanPrecision MuseumBoth companies excited great interest at the 1851 Exhibition but when thenew Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket came into existence, it was Robbinsand Lawrence who the government turned to when it came to equipping thenew factory at Enfield for its manufacture.Part of their contract to equip Enfield was to manufacture 20,000 P ‘53’s andthis led to their undoing! To cut a long story short, a drought meant that thesawmills preparing the black walnut for the stocks could not function; theblanks were delayed; Robbins & Lawrence could not maintain supply of armsto Britain and defaulted on the contract; the British government’s agents in theUS foreclosed on them and led them into liquidation. But they had already lefttheir mark. Their P ‘53’s were the only ones permitted to have a name otherthan “Tower” or “Enfield” on them – in this case “Windsor”.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 10
  11. 11. A Windsor P’53 (Royal Armouries XII.1628)They left their mark in other ways – from the firearms historian’s point of view,it was with that company that Benjamin Tyler Henry’s work there thatultimately led to the Volcanic, then the Henry Rifle and eventually theWinchester ‘66 and its offspring – the “guns that won the West”! Robbins &Lawrence also perfected the manufacture of, and ran the factory in Hartfordthat produced, Sharps rifles. In the Windsor factory the first turret lathe anduniversal milling machine were conceived – both vitally important in thehistory of manufacturing. They also left their mark in one other way. Themachines they had already supplied to Enfield became the patterns whichwere copied by Greenwood and Batley in Leeds and, in effect, provided thefoundation of G & B’s remarkable rise to fame as an international supplier ofgunmaking equipment and plant right through to the 1960’s.There were two important features of “The American System of Manufacture”as it came to be known. One was the tenet “one machine for one job”.If we take the Enfield Pattern ’53 rifle, it has (depending upon which versionwe choose) around 63 components, and these required in their manufacture719 separate machining operations which were carried out by 680 machines,enabling production of 1,200 rifles per week. Such an operation involved avery large capital outlay beyond the means of the traditional contractors – onlythe government could afford to do it. Production got underway in 1857 and bythe year ending March 1858, 26,739 rifles were manufactured and a new erain gunmaking in Europe was underway.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 11
  12. 12. An original Enfield stock turning machine at the American PrecisionMuseumHBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 12
  13. 13. The second feature was the reliance placed on gauges to check both size andform of a component. This was much faster than usual measuring processeswhich, when it came to complex shapes like the tumbler – referred to by leBlanc as “the brain of the lock” – ordinary measurement was nigh impossible.(all gauges are Royal Armouries, PR.10142)HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 13
  14. 14. HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 14
  15. 15. Both the use of dedicated machines, followed by gauges for checkingcomponents, greatly speeded up manufacture and reduced cost. Not onlythat, the uniformity of components also speeded up assembly and maderepair much simpler. These factors were of primary significance in what wasto follow.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 15
  16. 16. These methods applied to the manufacture of firearms became known inAmerica as “armory practice” but it was quickly realised that the sametechnology could also be applied to the manufacture of other “engineered”goods. One of the earliest to adopt this method was Aaron Dennison who, in1850, founded the Waltham Watch Company and thus laid the foundations ofthe American watch and clock industry. From being the province of thewealthy and functioning almost as status symbols, the “dollar watch” meantthat now nearly every home could have one. The American watch industrygrew and outstripped even that of Switzerland and effectively destroyedBritain’s watch industries in Coventry and Prescott.An ironic reminder of the growth of the American watch industry and itsdecline in Britain.Another eager practitioner around the same time was Isaac Singer whoproduced what was probably the first commercially successful sewingmachine. He also added another feature, the invention of the “instalmentpurchase plan”, which greatly expanded his market by making sewingmachines accessible to almost every home. Even gunmakers began to see awider potential. After the civil war when the demand for guns fell, companiessuch as Remington began to diversify, in this case producing the firstcommercially successful typewriter. Other products fell under its spell. Evenas Colt was establishing his London factory another American, Alfred Hobbs,who gained fame at the Crystal Palace for picking Bramah’s “unpickable” lock,was establishing his London factory to produce door locks using the sametechnology. A few decades later, Henry Ford adapted the system to theproduction of the affordable motor car.Before a century had passed, what had begun as a quest to develop amechanical alternative to the craftsman for the manufacture of firearms hadstimulated a new industrial, social and cultural revolution – the consumersociety.HBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 16
  17. 17. ReferencesHBSA lecture © P Smithurst 2011 17
  18. 18. 121 Bradley, Joseph Guns for the Tsar, Northern Illinois University Press, 1990; p 29 N Alexander Hamilton, Report on Manufactures, 1791, 6th Edn, Philadelphia, 1827; p. 463 Whitney, Eli.4 Alexander Hamilton, op cit; p 2255 Smith, Merritt Roe, Eli Whitney and the American System of Manufacture, Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, ed. Carroll W Pursell Jr., Voice of America, Washington D.C. 1979; p 5066 Singer, C J, E J Holmyard, A Hall and T I Williams, History of Technology, Vol. IV, p. 437. Oxford, 1958,77 Hicks, Major James E, Notes on United States Ordnance, Vol. 1 Small Arms, 1776 1946, p 19. Privately Published, Mount Vernon, New York, 194688 Battison, E. Eli Whitney and the Milling Machine, Smithsonian Journal of History, 1, 1966 (rev’d. 1984) pp 9 – 3499 Gordon, R Who turned the mechanical ideal into mechanical reality, Technology and Culture, 29, No 4, pp 744 - 7781010 Hounshell, D., From the American System to Mass Production 1800 – 1932, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1984; p 321111 Green, Constance M., Eli Whitney and the birth of American Technology, Little, Brown, Boston, 1956: p. 501212 Hounshell, D., From the American System to Mass Production 1800 – 1932, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1984; p 31