Gunsmiths: in defence of Michael Bellesiles’s " Arming America" — Part I

I am not impressed with the charges that Michael Bellesisles’s Arming America is “all lies”. The problem is that by dismissing something as “all lies” isn’t really valid without some serious evidence. And to paint something with whole cloth as being “all lies” makes the original statement a lie if there is actually a significant amount of truth.

That said:

As someone who grew up in the Birmingham, England vicinity and is familiar with expensive British game guns made by the likes of Boss, Holland & Holland,Purdy, E. J. Churchill, John Rigby, James Woodward & Sons, Charles Boswell, William Evans, Atkins Grant & Lang, John Wilkes, John Dickson, Westley Richards and William Powell, I know that a handmade gun is (1) expensive as heck (roughly £25,000) and (2) takes forever to make. So, it resonates with me when Bellesisles points out that guns were expensive and rare in Colonial, and pre-industrial, America.

Let’s say that a musket costs £1/3/- (1 pound and 3 shillings), but that the average annual income is £50. That would make the musket roughly a week’s wages. But remember that there were other expenses such as food and that income would also cover the needs of the entire family under working age. There weren’t too many two income families back then. Also, the average citizen didn’t have a lot of things (one of those post-industrial revolution changes comes in the amount of personal possessions). Probably a change of clothes, some dishes, and cookware. The houses weren’t very big then either, unless you were affluent. Even then, they were fairly tiny by today’s standards.

I have seen 18th century gentleman’s budgets and how they pretty much paid out for things such as servant’s wages, upkeep of property and so on. So, one has to figure out where a firearm would fit into the budget: is it a necessity or a luxury? Think of your current 21st Century budget: can you afford many luxuries?

And they didn’t have consumer loans in the 18th Century!

But, firearms weren’t the only thing that were expensive. Until the early 19th century, pretty much everything was hand made by a craftman, even clothing was handwoven. Every part was different even when serving the same function. You could not buy a new part. You had to go to a craftman and have it “tailor made” to replace the broken part. Needless to say such a process was time consuming and expensive, and sometimes impossible.

In the 18th century firearms (rifles, pistols, and muskets) were all hand made by gunsmiths. Gun making was a craft. Some pistols were so fancy as to be almost works of art. Pistols and muskets were all essentially one-of-a-kind craft objects. When something broke, repair was difficult because the replacement part needed to be handmade.

This takes me to a couple of neat and gratuitous videos about British Gunsmithing from Mark Williams’s Industrial Revelations. The first is about Birmingham Gunsmiths and the Second is about the proofing process, which is how firearms were, and still are, tested in the UK to show they were safe.

While Birmingham was the “foremost arms producer in the world”, what exactly was the status of colonial gunsmiths? How many were there really? I see quotes such as this one saying that:

“Firearms were rare in colonial America, with only a total of 18 gunsmiths serving Virginia from 1607 to 1770, and only two advertised in New York City from 1726 to 1776.”

On the other hand, Clayton Cramer, comes up with a number of “2400 Americans who worked as gunsmiths in the period 1607-1840”. OK, Cramer is extending his period to well beyond the period in question (1607-1794), which in my mind is the period up to The year that the new Federal government decided to manufacture its own muskets so that the United States would not be dependent on foreign arms. Maybe that explains why the large discrepancy between the figures. Not to mention, that number would make the American colonies the largest arms producer in the world, not Birmingham or London. Stack the deck with some later (post-1794) arrivals and others who might not properly be called gunsmiths to come up with an inflated figure.

To pursue the entirety of this trade, a gunsmith must possess skills as a mechanic, a metalworker, a woodworker, and an artisan

I know that some gunsmith shops had multiple workers specialising in various tasks. Harold B. Gill’s The gunsmith in colonial Virginia gives the following example: Adam Stephen and Anthony Noble set up a gunsmith shop in Martinsburg, VA during the revolution and employed 30 workers performing various functions in the process of making 18 stand per week during the war for independence.

This book is interesting as it shows the household inventories for several gunsmiths, which gives you an idea how few possessions they had.

Prior to 1794, There were no real large scale arms manufacturers in the United States. In 1794, the United States Congress passed a bill calling “for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines”. President George Washington, given wide latitude in carrying out this order, selected Harpers Ferry, then a part of Virginia, for the location of the Harpers Ferry National Armory. Harper’s Ferry was the Second Arsenal in the United States, The first being the The Springfield Armory

The land in Springfield, MA had been used as a training field for militia since the 1600s. In 1777 “The Arsenal at Springfield” was established to manufacture cartridges and gun carriages for the American Revolution. During the Revolution the arsenal stored muskets, cannon, and other weapons. Barracks, shops, storehouses, and a magazine were built, but no arms were manufactured. After the war, the government kept the facility to store arms for future needs. By the 1780s the Arsenal was a major ammunition and weapons depot; however, production of weaponry at the Springfield Armory began in 1795 when 220 flintlock muskets were produced.

As an aside, in 1787 poor farmers from western Massachusetts, led by Daniel Shays, tried to seize the arms at Springfield. This was a key event leading to the Federal Constitution Convention. Those involved in the rebellion planned to use the weapons to force the closure of the State and county courts that were taking their lands for debt.

Now, wouldn’t these frontier farmers have had guns if they were so common? Why raid the Springfield Arsenal? Especially since they were mostly veterans of the revolutionary war: wouldn’t they have just taken their muskets from the mantle? Another point, these were the frontier farmers that the framers were concerned and there is more than enough documentary proof for this, Justice Kennedy.

Anyway, naturally interchangeable parts were closely tied to military history, as is the history of manufacturing in general. Doesn’t it make sense to have interchangable parts rather than have to handcraft a new part if you have hundreds of firearms?

In the U.S., Eli Whitney saw the potential benefit of developing “interchangeable parts” for the firearms of the United States military, and thus, around 1798, he built ten guns, all containing the same exact parts and mechanisms, and disassembled them before the United States Congress. He placed the parts in a large mixed pile and, with help, reassembled all of the weapons right in front of Congress, much like Blanc had done some years before.

The Congress was immensely impressed and ordered a standard for all United States equipment. With interchangeable parts, the problems that had plagued the era of unique weapons and equipment passed, and if one mechanism in a weapon failed, a new piece could be ordered and the weapon would not have to be discarded. The hitch was that the guns Whitney showed congress were made by hand at great cost by extremely skilled workmen. Whitney, however, was never able to design a manufacturing process capable of producing guns with interchangeable parts.

Springfield Armory was a center for invention and development. In 1819 Thomas Blanchard developed a special lathe for the consistent mass production of rifle stocks. The lathe enabled an unskilled workman to quickly and easily turn out identical irregular shapes. The large drum turned two wheels: a friction wheel that followed the contours of the metal rifle pattern, and the cutting wheel that imitated the movements of the friction wheel to make an exact replica of the pattern in wood.In the 1840s the old flintlock gave way to a percussion ignition system that increased the reliability and simplicity of longarms.

Not only do we have changes in the manufacture of firearms, but the manufacturing industry changed with the introduction of mass production in many industries. The crude nature of 18th Century manufacturing would have been a limitation on the production of firearms in the colonies.

There is a list of Federal arsenals at the time of the Civil War here.

Get my point?

Or to quote George M. Dennison

As every American historian knows (and knew), no guns were made in the colonies, and relatively few in the United States until well into the 19th century.

So, by the early 19th Century, we have mass produced, interchangable parts revolutionising the manufacturing sector: in particular the firearms industry. Such that The invention of the Colt revolver by Samuel Colt in 1836 revolutionized gunsmithing, and manufacturing of firearms moved from being handmade to precision machine-built manufacturing. Add in that 13 Federal arsenals had been built by 1840. One of these was the Frankford Arsenal, which opened in 1816, it was the center of U.S. military small-arms ammunition design and development until its closure in 1977. So, we have a thriving firearms industry in the US by around 1820.

My question is does Clayton Cramer stack the deck by adding nearly half the 19th century to the years of American firearms manufacturing? Has he just tacked on a bunch of gunsmiths to inflate the figure for the colonial period? Cramer points out that “There are no sources listed for the information about these early gunsmiths. I believe that Carey and Gluckman–and more recent compilers of these lists–are honest and careful, but if you cannot point to a particular source for the information that these books contain, scholars–and those who pretend to be scholars–will not take that information very seriously.”

Funny, but Cramer, in his typically hypocritical manner, trashed Belleisles for doing the same thing. How can Cramer use sources which aren’t verifiable?

Here is a lovely critique of Cramer:

We hate it when our friends become famous, goes the song. And one of the odder experiences that the internet offers to us old-timers is that of watching our former sporting companions in the increasingly nostalgic exercise known as “usenet flamewars” become transmuted through the magic of ceaseless self-promotion into Acknowledged Authorities on one of the subjects in which they were previously considered Tiresome Cranks. 

So it is with the strange case of Clayton Cramer. A decade ago, Cramer was such a notorious blowhard that he rated his own, not at all complimentary section in the (now long defunct) net.legends FAQ, on account of his nigh-pathological inability to refrain from endless debates about homosexuality, no matter how inappropriate the forum. His very name still prompts shudders of immense retrospective annoyance from the people who frequented Usenet at the time. He was a crank’s crank, and his arrival in a discussion group was like the sudden appearance of a bloody inscription on the mantelpiece — Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin — or a group of circling buzzards: a grim herald of another formerly useful and/or amusing forum about to enter its death throes.

I’m not in any position to cogently criticize Mr. Cramer’s second amendment scholarship, and the general consensus seems to be that he knows his stuff on that score: I’m happy to assume that that’s correct. But based on Mr. Cramer’s creative approach to the truth back when I had the inclination to personally joust with him (just to save you a bit of time: the money quote from the above-linked exegesis is where he manages to dig up an article from from Redbook Magazine in the 70s that claims that homosexuals perpetuate themselves via assaultive pederasty; this is presented as ipso facto proof the subseqent scholarship on the subject is a coverup), I would suggest that if Clayton Cramer claimed that the sky is blue, you’d probably want to rent a spectrometer and double-check to be sure.

From Cramer:

But along with the gunsmiths that I can identify–and in some cases, where I do not have quite enough information to include them–there are a lot of other gunsmiths that were certainly present, but who have left no records. In many cases, I know about gunsmiths because of a single reference to them–and sometimes, they are only a bystander to the situation or event described. An advertisement from 1737 South Carolina described where a sale of merchandise would be held as, “William Cathcart next door to Mr. Miller’s the Gun-smith in Church-street…” This is the only known reference to Mr. Miller “the Gun-smith.” How many other gunsmiths worked in South Carolina in the 1730s for whom we do not have such indirect evidence? Gunsmith Daniel Nash, who worked in Southfield, Massachusetts in 1699, left a trace only because a stolen gun was found in his shop, and this was mentioned in a criminal case 

In legal terms, this is called hearsay. It is also anecdotal. Perhaps this could be called faith, which is lovely in religion, but has no place in scholarship. Honestly, it looks a bit like the loose behaviour that Cramer accused Bellesisles of perpetrating. I have known that Cramer is rather hypocritical in his scholarly methodology. Not to mention, he tends to use facts which are totally irrelevant to the issue. He does have a reputation, which makes it a shame that Bellesisles was roasted on the basis of this modern day Titus Oates.

Next in this series, free speech in academics.

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