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Thomas: Americas gun makers key figures in industrial age
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My previous column on the history of the gun took us from gunpowder to the first national armory in the U.S. in Springfield Massachusetts. As I noted, the Springfield Armory led the world in technological advancements that would change manufacturing forever.

The manufacture of firearms at Springfield helped usher in the age of mass production. An ingenious inventor named Thomas Blanchard, who worked for the Springfield Armory for five years, created a special lathe for the production of wooden gun stocks.

Such a lathe allowed for the easy manufacture of objects of irregular shape. This led, for example, to the easy mass production of shoes. Many other technical industries, such as the typewriter, sewing machine and the bicycle, were also born out of the gun industry.

The Springfield Armory also introduced contemporary business practices to manufacturing. Concepts such as hourly wages, and cost accounting practices became customary at Springfield and were important steps in modernizing manufacturing.

The next step in firearms development came from a minister. The Rev. Alexander Forsyth invented the percussion cap. Thus, muzzle-loading guns now did not have to rely on exposed priming powder to fire, were quicker to fire, and were almost completely weather-proof. However, gun users were still plagued by a centuries old problem: They were limited to a single shot before reloading.

Enter Samuel Colt. Making use of the percussion cap, Colt (with the aid of a mechanic, John Pearson) perfected and patented a revolving handgun in 1836. Although little of Colt’s design was original, he ingeniously brought together existing features of previous guns and fashioned them into a mechanically elegant and reliable revolver.

Along with being an inventor, Colt was a shrewd and capable businessman. His genius was not only in his gun design, but in the techniques used to manufacture it. His guns were made using interchangeable parts (made by machine and assembled by hand).

In 1847, with an order of 1,000 pistols from the U.S. Army, and no factory to build them, Colt looked to noted gun maker Eli Whitney (often called “the father of mass production”) to help fill the order. It was the production of guns, and men such as Whitney and Colt, that led the way in the pioneering and perfection of the assembly line.

In 1856, just in time to take advantage of Colt’s expiring patent, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson produced the world’s first revolver that fired a fully self-contained cartridge. This cartridge was a “rimfire” variety that Smith and Wesson patented in 1854.

Around the same time, another American icon enters our history: a wealthy shirt maker named Oliver Winchester. Winchester took over a fledgling arms company in 1855 and in 1857 hired a gunsmith named Tyler Henry to turn it around.

By 1860, Henry had created a breech-loading, lever-action repeating rifle (firing 16 rounds). The Henry Repeating Rifle was a tremendously popular, useful and reliable gun. It was this weapon that began to make the single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle obsolete.

In 1866, Winchester improved on the Henry rifle and produced a model named after himself. The Winchester model 1866 fired 18 rounds, had a wooden forearm to make it less hot to handle and contained the familiar side-loading port.

It was in 1873 that the two most legendary guns of the Old West were produced: the Winchester model 1873 (which was a larger caliber than the 1866 model) and the Colt model 1873, otherwise known as “The Peacemaker.” Again showing his business savvy, Colt built his model to hold the exact same ammunition as the Winchester model 1873.

Next came the “machine gun” and “automatic” weapons. Men such as Richard Gatling and Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim led the way in developing guns that could fire hundreds of rounds per minute. This brings us to the 20th century where fully automatic weapons that could be carried and operated by a single man were common place and necessary for any successful army.

From before the founding of this great nation, firearms have been essential to the preservation of life, the enforcement of law and justice, and the establishment and protection of liberty. Thus, our Founders gave us: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state ...”

What’s more, the technology that drove the progression of firearms and the improved manufacturing and business practices adopted at gun factories propelled the U.S. into the Industrial Age. America owes much to the gun. Americans, whether they are gun owners or not, whether they love them or despise them, would be wise to remember all that the gun has meant to this nation and hope and pray that guns remain in the hands of its citizens.

For more details on the gun, its history and the second Amendment, see my website.

Trevor Thomas is a Hall County resident and frequent columnist.

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