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How the Government Launched the U.S. Gun Industry

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    How the Government Launched the U.S. Gun Industry

    The fight over gun control is often cast politically as a conflict between government and the interests of private citizens and companies. “She hates us, and she’s coming for every bit of our freedom,” National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference in March about Hillary Clinton’s gun control position.
    It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it was the government that first incubated the American gun industry, and the icons of the American gun culture—including Winchester and Colt—thereafter developed a commercial market out of what had started as the public-private business of providing for the common defense. This public-private separation is at the root of our modern gun politics.
    In the 1790s, the United States had a gun problem—it did not have enough of them. It had been undergunned in the Revolutionary War, and it was still undergunned. The Blair Report on the colonies’ military preparedness in 1756 concluded that the “militia amounts to about 36,000 but not above half that number are armed.” More than 40 years later, the situation was still dire. The new nation still relied on what many saw as a “disgraceful resort” to foreign markets for guns. Although the government did manage to secure gun shipments from some of the more advanced European gunsmiths, many were seized by ruthless privateers and pirates roaming the coastal waters. Prized Charleville muskets from the Revolutionary War were already ancient and obsolete. And the government still had only a limited number of private smiths to meet the public need. After the Revolutionary War, many gunsmiths had gone back to more profitable crafts.
    And so Congress went to work, establishing the country’s first two national armories. The Springfield Armory, builtto produce “a good and efficient magazine for the reception of the public ammunition,” opened in Massachusetts in 1794, and the Harpers Ferry Armory followed, opening in West Virginia in 1798. But as much as Congress wanted to boost production, early national gun manufacturing was far from a streamlined operation. Armory gunsmiths were as happily irregular as their guns. They worked at their own pace. They came and went as they pleased, took frequent holidays and kept their tools as an informal fee for their work. They drank hard liquor and left their stations to gamble, gossip and roughhouse. Armory gunsmiths produced guns just as they would in their own shops: by hand, one at a time, at a bench, on an anvil.
    At the time, gunsmiths took pride in the artistic merits and individuality of their product. Henry Mauger, who worked as a stone mason in the summer and a gunsmith in the winter, advertised that he made “fancy civilian arms with a distinctive flair.” Here, on the cusp of its demise, gunsmithing entered a golden age of craftsmanship—similar to other high-art crafts of silversmithing and goldsmithing, clock-making and pewter works.
    That all began to change as the need for more domestically produced guns rose—especially guns for national defense whose parts might be exchanged on the battlefield. For this purpose, guns would have to be shorn of the gunsmith’s “distinctive flair”—and a full-fledged domestic gun industry created.
    The gun industry emerged out of the pit of inventor Eli Whitney’s personal and pecuniary despair. He wrote to his business partner, Phineas Miller, in 1797, “I have labored hard against the strong current of Disappointment which has been threatening to carry us down the Cataract of distruction.” Unless some “speedy relief” was obtained, he would face “extreme embarrassment” financially. He was “perfectly miserable.”
    The South had pilfered Whitney’s beloved cotton gin, and this theft was the source of Whitney’s financial and spiritual angst. Because he had lost a claim on a machine that would revolutionize the South’s economy, further entrenching slavery, he decided he would invent machines that would revolutionize the North’s.
    In 1798, a new opportunity serendipitously presented itself: guns.
    “Bankruptcy and ruin were constantly staring me straight in the face,” Whitney reflected to his dear friend Josiah Stebbins. At a time when he was in debt to the tune of $4,000, “an opportunity offered to contract for manufacturing muskets for the U. States,” he wrote. “I embraced it.”
    Whitney made things, but the end of a particular thing was of less interest to him than the means of making it. The point, Stebbins consoled him, was to “strike out some new invention which will astonish the World and command all their Purse Strings”—whatever that invention may be. Whitney had never made a gun before, and he had no acquaintance with the gunsmith’s craft. But in 1798, he obtained one of 27 contracts the government issued for small arms. The other 26 gunsmiths combined agreed to manufacture a total of 30,200 muskets by the old methods. Whitney contracted to make an outrageous 10,000 full standof arms (a “stand of arms” was a complete set of weapons for one soldier: for example, a rifle and a bayonet) at $13.40 for each stand.
    In early 1801, Whitney arrived at the muddy, unfinished White House carrying a mysterious black box. He was ready to exhibit its contents to the president and other top officials, and he proclaimed confidently to President John Adams and his advisers that he was now as ready to produce 10,000 muskets as to produce one. Before their astonished eyes, Whitney placed ten of each part of a musket on the table and proceeded to assemble ten rifles out of them. After the meeting, Thomas
    Jefferson wrote an introductory letter to Virginia Governor James Monroe, saying that Whitney had made molds and machines “so exactly equal,” that one could “take 100 locks to pieces and mingle their parts and the hundreds locks may be put together … without employing a smith.”
    Whitney envisioned an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between the government and fledgling manufacturers like himself for the production of public arms. The public, he wrote, was getting a domestic source of guns, not work “done by vagabond, worthless foreigners,” and the arms would be produced “for the interest of the public” at as “low a RATE as possible.” Whitney had the “vanity to suppose” they would be the best in America and equal to any in the world. He shared technology, such as milling machines, with the national armories. In return, Whitney requested and received special protection from competition in his gun business. He wrote to Wolcott, the treasury secretary, in July 1798 pointing out that Wolcott’s notion of establishing other armories in Whitney’s region would “occasion such a competition it would be ruinous to both.” It would “raise the price of labour” intolerably, not to mention the price of charcoal. “These are the considerations which materially affect the Contractor,” he explained, “and are not uninteresting to ‘The Public.’” Nor did he think that blending his contract with another was wise. If he could barely make 10,000 stand of arms in time, with labor and materials shortages, it was “folly to think of making double the quantity in the same place.” Wolcott readily acquiesced to Whitney, despite a number of competitive proposals for public arms, and agreed to “guard by all means in my power … against the mischiefs of too great a competition.”
    Fully 11 years after he signed the contract with the federal government, in 1809, Whitney delivered the last of his 10,000 stand of arms. It was doubtless a relief, but Whitney was anxious about the future. He would not—could not—have built his manufactory without federal patronage, and he would not—could not—occupy his machines, the new imperative of industrial production, without yet more public contracts, indefinitely. Other aspiring gun manufacturers agreed that they required and deserved special government support. There were no other sources of continuous and adequate demand at the time to justify the daunting initial outlay of capital. The Ordnance Department explained in 1823 that no gun manufacturer would have survived, or attempted, industrial production without assurance of the “steady support and patronage given by the Government,” because no other market assured the volume of sales that machine production required.
    Indeed, all but Whitney who attempted to participate in the early gun industry “were either ruined by the attempt or found the business so unprofitable and hazardous” as to make it undesirable. Even after Congress approved a permanent appropriation for arms in 1808, most fledgling gun industrialists failed. In the gun business’s infancy, Colt expert William Hosley wrote, military contracts amounted to “government supplied venture capital,” by which industrialists honed their manufactories, machines and knowledge.
    In this phase of the gun business—the forgotten public foundation for the later commercial success of Oliver Winchester, Colt and others—the gun business was largely the war business; the U.S. government was the guaranteed customer and market, and a collaborative rather than a proprietary attitude toward innovation, design and technology prevailed.
    Some balked at the partnership. Commander General Callender Irvine—Whitney called him “a poor, pitiful villainous piece of a thing in the place of a public officer”—was one who had doubts about the intimacy of enterprise and the public arms business. Why should the United States rely on private contractors who wanted only to get “public money” to build massive facilities for their own commercial pursuits? “Better to increase the number of our public establishments,” he argued, dispense with private gunmakers, “and bring the whole under the superintendence of one judicious and independent man.” Irvine imagined himself that man, although independent he was not: He had an interest in the promotion of one particular firearm, the Wickham rifle.
    Irvine harassed Whitney, whom he considered “not a practical Gun Smith,” with dubious complaints over the quality of his muskets (although Whitney had produced more guns than any other American, he was, in fact, not a gunsmith). Irvine refused to pay him without changes to the bayonet and barrel. In Whitney’s response one hears the emboldened, intricate language of contract and an emboldened gun manufacturer beginning to chafe against the presumptions of the government as a customer. He would make no alterations to his gun unless he received “suitable remuneration … but I think it should be done by AGREEMENT, and not ORDER.” To Whitney, his contract with the government was akin to one “between two private individuals,” no more or less sacred; to Irvine, the government and the commonweal’s interests put a thumb on the contractual scale and tacitly gave him more power to bully if not dictate the terms. Irvine tried and failed to pass legislation in 1813 to have both public armories and private manufacturers under one superintendent.

    Whatever his personal interests, or animus, Irvine had raised a core problem of guns in America: How could the common good be reconciled with commercial imperatives, and should an object so critical to the public’s well-being be entrusted to private entrepreneurs? This tension between commerce and commonweal, differently articulated and usually eclipsed, was a part of the American gun legacy from the start. Over the next decades, from the 1820s to the early 1840s, it would grow more extreme.

    Whitney’s labors were a prototype for industry writ large, and, more specifically, the manufacture of guns with interchangeable parts. This effort never would have begun, or succeeded, in the very early 1800s without the guaranteed market and support of the US government. But the symbiosis of government and private enterprise was not to last.
    In 1836, one of the people who are now most indelibly associated with the guns of the Old West as in Baltimore, Maryland, scraping out a living at the intersection of magic and technology. Samuel Colt—who would put his name on the Colt revolver—was a public showman of the amusing wonders of nitrous oxide—laughing gas. Traveling as “Dr. Samuel Coult,” not the last of his largely fabricated honorifics, Colt provided “Scientific Amusement” to audiences from Quebec to New Orleans by demonstrating the gas’s “singular and amusing effects” on “menageries” of volunteers, sometimes placed in cages and nets, who inhaled it.
    Colt enlisted a local mechanic in Baltimore, John Pearson, to prototype his pistol in 1836. He envisioned a multi-firing arm, a revolver, with multiple chambers discharged through one barrel by use of a lock and spring design. It was, his first biographer wrote, a “new tool,” a “miracle of much in little.” Samuel Colt meanwhile was busy advancing his understanding of industry, especially processes applicable to gun manufacture, by interviewing personnel at iron mines, an ax factory, a sword factory, “all parts of the U.S. Armory” and a gun manufacturer’s operations in Middletown, Connecticut, where owner Simeon North was using a groundbreaking model of interchangeability.
    At this time,the government had been, and still was, a flourishing incubator for gun innovation and industrial advances in general. At Springfield, fledgling capitalists, technologists and employees of the Ordnance Department worked toward a shared goal of interchangeability and machine production as well as toward their own individual goals. The federal contract system fostered—even demanded—cooperation and collaboration. By an open-door policy, any aspiring entrepreneur or mechanic could wander in, sketch, ask questions and leave with new, potentially profitable ideas to apply to textiles and other vanguard industries. The collaborative advance of interchangeable production and the demise of the gunsmith—related processes that unfolded throughout the 1820s and 1830s—cleared the path for the commercial gun industry.
    Meanwhile, established gunsmiths from the early 1800s were going extinct as a class, their disappearance traceable in the New Haven city directory and the U.S. Census of Industry, whose tally moved over time from the number of “gunsmiths” to “arms manufacturers.” The craft way of life, with gambling, drinking and spontaneous production, had been replaced by the 1850s at the E. Remington & Sons manufactory with “work rules,” such as: “Godliness, cleanliness and punctuality are the necessities of a good business.” The modernization of arms production—the key shift from the craft to the industrial phase of the gun business’s biography—would be complete by the 1850s. An observer of the process noticed the effect of interchangeability on men. “Each workman becomes adept at his part. … The consequences … to the workman is that not one of them becomes a finished armorer.” Although he makes firearms, “he cannot make a fire-arm.” The gun’s manufacture became a more fractured, microscopic process with each generation, and the totality of the gun, and its consequence, became harder to see.
    Standing on the shoulders of public armory advances in interchangeable, uniform production, and the ruins of gunsmithing as a craft, Samuel Colt established his first factory in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1836. Early on, Colt had a few thousand dollars’ worth of guns out on consignment in the commercial market. He had intended originally to produce for both the U.S. government and civilian markets. The main problem—and historical curiosity—is that Colt couldn’t make a profit off of his gun. The civilian market was there to be created, not taken, as Colt, along with Winchester, would soon discover.
    Colt placed his first advertisement on December 22, 1837, in the New York Courier and Enquirer. He speculated in a letter to his cousin that they might sell for as much as $125. Flyers promised a public exhibition of the “Patent Repeating Rifle” at the Battery on a Monday afternoon. Colt, who called himself the “patentee,” promised that the rifles were “eight times more effective and very little more expensive” than any other rifle. He quickly discovered that he had over-“visioned” his market. Only the very wealthy had any interest in considering his gun. The Paterson factory was equipped to produce a large quantity, but of the first lot of two hundred rifles and five hundred pistols manufactured, not even one hundred pistols had sold. The problem was a complicated production design that made the guns expensive to manufacture—and the simple fact, as a gun expert noted, that “multi-firing arms were not needed by the average man.” The American commercial market was not the place to find the needed volume.
    There was another possibility: Colt’s father, Christopher, advised him to go to Europe. Trying to win sales through the U.S. government in 1837, Christopher advised, would “keep back your European interest much to your disadvantage.” Samuel’s father speculated that dealers in England, France and Germany would be of more help to get the his business going than the U.S. government. When Samuel went to Washington to seek a patent for his “idea of a gun revolving by the operation of cocking the lock,” a patent expert advised him to go to Europe, as well, “where he thought these arms were more wanted than here.”
    But that year, as commercial demand failed him, Colt still sought a market in the bewildering world of Washington, a minefield of alliances, patronage and personal interests. He sprinkled his letters with references to colonels and rival gun entrepreneurs who were “great personal friends.” Some were in alliance with one another or “close cronies”; some he called his avowed “enemies”; and some he recognized as superior “intriguers.” Newspaper reporters and other writers conspired in the tangled political alliances by writing on favored patent arms. “The editor of the Georgetown Papers deserves to have his ____ kicked,” C. F. Pond wrote to Colt after Colt’s gun was passed over for another design, the Sharps rifle, supported by such sympathetic coverage.
    Colt was demoralized. If America was born a gun culture, it was not reflected on his bottom line.
    In Hartford, Colt’s Armsmear mansion provided one answer to how Colt ended up solving his problem. Mostly, the cabinet housed exquisite presents and offerings of appreciation to Colt from around the globe. One of the earliest, given to Colt in 1850 from the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was a gold snuff box, with scores of diamonds in a floral pattern on the top. The cabinet also displayed a ring from the Russian grand duke, Alexander Alexandrovich, given to Colt in 1854, with the imperial cipher in tiny diamonds and “the whole surrounded by six brilliants of goodly size,” as Colt’s first biographer put it. Another ring was given to Colt by the king of Sardinia, in appreciation for his revolver. The cabinet contained a tea-caddy and cigar case from Siam, a Koran with extensive gold illumination, a medal from London and a medallion from Italy. The memorials came from all corners of the world and from places with different religions, creeds, cultures and forms of government. But all the gift-givers had one thing in common: They all bought Colt’s guns.
    In 1849, Colt trailblazed the path that the other gun industrialists—Remington, Smith and Wesson, and Winchester—would follow: They went abroad, to Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East, to sell their guns. Colt began “visioning the world as his arms market.” The making of the American gun culture was a global phenomenon. As an American in Vienna later advised gun inventor Hiram Maxim, “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.”
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