The Magazine

The American Way with Guns

Our national story is firearms all the way down

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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To demonstrate the advantages of standardization and to secure government contracts, Whitney traveled to Washington, carrying the parts for 10 separate muskets. He put the parts into piles before the secretary of war and proceeded to assemble 10 muskets from parts randomly selected from the piles.

The secretary was impressed.

After Whitney’s breakthrough, other makers began producing guns, parts for guns, and ammunition in the Connecticut River Valley; so many that it became known, in time, as “Gun Valley.” The list makes for a kind of roll call of the great makers of American guns: Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Sharps. In the second half of the 19th century, some 300 firms were building firearms or their parts in the Connecticut River Valley.

It is fair to say that it was here that Americans showed the world how to make things—good quality things in great numbers at prices that made them affordable. A plant in, of all places, Windsor, Vermont, was turning out muskets by the hundred during the war with Mexico. The plant upped production during the Civil War and supplied the government with thousands of muskets at a price of less than 20 dollars each.

Eli Whitney’s company, the first of the Connecticut Valley manufacturers, survived his death in 1825 and was eventually acquired by one of the iconic names in the history of American arms: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven. The Winchester brand is remembered for many things, not the least of which is the “gun that won the West,” a lever-action rifle known as the Model 1873, which was shortened to Model 73. Buffalo Bill carried one and called it “the Boss.”

There is a lot of romance around the 73. The lever action was something that enabled Hollywood actors to do some fancy business, working it one-handed or rapid fire and making a big impression on the kids who wanted BB guns that looked like the rifles they saw the cowboys use in the movies. The Daisy Outdoor Products company obliged them by producing something called the “Red Ryder carbine,” after a Saturday matinee cowboy character.

The Winchester 73 was an essential element in the life of the American West and, less remembered and certainly less romanticized, also in the lives of those who built it in the factories back East. They worked long hours, six days a week, in conditions that would be considered beyond harsh today. They turned out those rifles by the thousand and they made about $600 a year in factories that became the envy of the world.

If the Model 73 was the iconic cowboy rifle, then the Colt Peacemaker was the coeval handgun. The famous six-shooter was also introduced in 1873 and became a part of the furniture of movie and television westerns and was replicated in millions of cap pistols. It has become the Platonic ideal of the revolver and is still being made and shot by aficionados and buffs and reenactors.

The name “Colt” became more or less synonymous with the word “revolver” and fittingly so. Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut, came up with the idea of the revolver while barely a teenager and at sea, where he had gone after being expelled from school in Amherst. He returned from his time before the mast with a wooden model of the gun.

Many years and one bankruptcy later, he signed a contract with the Army. The nation was at war with Mexico, and General Zachary Taylor wanted his men armed with revolvers. Colt had made and a sold a few before his business failed, and he’d had the foresight to hang on to his patents but not much else. Still, he had brass and he met the contract. Soon, he had built a thriving factory in Hartford and was so successful and famous that he was invited to address a committee of Parliament in London, where they weren’t doing as well at making guns as people like Colt, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sam Colt told Parliament that he would be ashamed to produce anything like what the British were turning out, and that he was not especially impressed with the supposedly superior skills of British craftsmen.

“I began here by employing the highest-priced men that I could find to do difficult things, but I had to remove the whole of these high-priced men. Then I tried the cheapest I could find, and the more ignorant a man was, the more brains he had for my purpose; and the result was this: I had men now in my employ that I started with at two shillings a day, and in one short year I cannot spare them at eight shillings a day.”

His audience had the good judgment to take the impertinent American seriously. Parliament sent a committee to visit his plant and then replicate it as the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield.

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