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MUNITIONS. Derived from a Latin word meaning "fortification," "munitions," through long usage, has come to mean, in a strict sense, weapons and ammunition, although broadly it embraces all war materials. "Ammunition" has the same derivation, but it has come to apply strictly to propellants, projectiles, and explosives. Neutrality legislation and embargoes, along with definitions of contraband of war, invest the broader term "munitions" with legal significance. But in legal language it almost never stands alone. In treaties, legislative acts, and proclamations it usually forms part of a redundancy as "arms and munitions of war" or gives way to the synonymous triplet "arms, ammunition, or implements of war."

In March 1912 the attorney general issued a "practical working definition" of "arms or munitions of war" for the use of border officials in enforcing an embargo on such items to Mexico. His list included

weapons of every species used for the destruction of life, and projectiles, cartridges, ammunition of all sorts, and other supplies used or useful in connection therewith, including parts used for the repair or manufacture of such arms, and raw material employed in the manufacture of such ammunition; also dynamite, nitroglycerin, or other explosive substances; also gun mountings, limber boxes, limbers, and military wagons; field forges and their component parts, comprising equipment of a distinctively military character; articles of camp equipment and their distinctive component parts; and implements manufactured exclusively for the manufacture of implements of war, or for the manufacture or repair of arms or war material.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's list of items to be considered as arms, ammunition, and implements of war prohibited for export to belligerents under the Neutrality Act of 1935 included firearms, machine guns, artillery, bombs, torpedoes, mines, tanks, war vessels of all types, aircraft, aircraft engines and certain parts, and poison gas.

During the American Revolution the colonial militia and Continental forces depended largely on British and European models of muskets and artillery, although some American innovations were already apparent. Perhaps the most storied of these was the rifle, especially the Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles. Made practical by the use of a greased patch that would permit muzzle loading with a tightly fitting ball down the grooved bore, these rifles, in the hands of those who had them, possessed a range and accuracy superior to smooth-bore muskets. The principal artillery pieces of the period were cast-iron, bronze, and brass cannon, taking shot of four, nine, twelve, or thirty-two pounds—and thus known as four-pounders, nine-pounders, and so on—and siege mortars.

The first major improvements in small arms after the Revolution and the War of 1812 were in breech-loaders and repeaters. Although the first breech-loading rifle, the Hall, made its appearance in 1819 and was adjusted to percussion ammunition in 1833, the muzzle-loading musket remained the standard infantry arm in the U.S. Army until the end of the Mexican-American War. In fact, muzzle loaders remained the Army's chief weapon during the opening phase of the Civil War.

The quality and quantity of the Union infantry's and cavalry's repeating rifles and carbines gave it one of the greatest advantages of the Civil War, although these were slow in winning acceptance. At first, those armed with Spring field rifles converted them to breechloaders, which were still single-shot. But the spectacular success of Colt revolvers (pistols) in the Mexican-American War made nothing seem more reasonable than the development of a repeating rifle that operated on the same principle—the use of a rotating cylinder. Colt introduced the first repeating rifle in 1858. The missing link was the metallic cartridge, just being developed, which was much safer than the paper cartridges that sometimes accidentally ignited in the cylinder, causing severe burns on the hands or face. The Sharps repeating rifle tested well in 1860, but it still used paper cartridges. The fifteen-shot Henry and the seven-shot Spencer—"the seven-forked lightning"—proved to be the best of the newer models and had a great impact on the last year of the war.

Even after the demonstrated success of repeating rifles in the Civil War, U.S. soldiers still carried single-shot Spring fields twenty-five years later. The Winchester model of 1873 became famous throughout the West, and everyone except the army used it. The army tested but did not accept other models by Remington and by the Spring field Armory. Government policies so discouraged the Winchester Company that it did not even enter the competition in 1890, when the army finally accepted a repeating rifle, the Danish-designed Krag-Jörgensen magazine rifle, which became the standard shoulder weapon of U.S. forces in the Spanish-American War.

The all-time favorite U.S. rifle among marksmen was the .30-caliber Spring field Model 1903, but it found only slight use in World War I, when the U.S. Army mainly used an adaptation of the British Enfield in the interest of making maximum use of industrial capacity. During World War II and the Korean War, the eight-shot Garand, or M-1, a semiautomatic rifle that was not as accurate as the 1903 but fired more rapidly and with less "kick," was the standard rifle. In the Vietnam War the army favored the M-16, a lighter rifle that used .22-caliber ammunition. Ironically, the United States had adopted the M-14 rifle, which took the standardized NATO 7.62 mm (.30-caliber) cartridge, and then proceeded to go into mass production of the M-16, which used a different-sized cartridge.

Probably the most significant change in artillery during the period immediately preceding the Civil War was the adoption in 1857 of the "Napoleon" gun, a smoothbore bronze cannon that had proved itself in the Crimean War. Introduced by Napoleon III in an effort to simplify his field artillery system with a single general-purpose weapon that could perform the functions of howitzers as well as guns, this twelve-pounder was efficient enough and maneuverable enough to reduce the need for other calibers. Its ammunition included solid shot, cannister, grape, explosive shell, spherical case, and carcass (incendiary).

Artillery improvements during the Civil War mostly moved in the direction of greater size and strength and in the introduction of rifled cannon on a large scale. A process devised by Maj. Thomas J. Rodman for casting guns on a hollow core and cooling from the inside added considerable strength to the Dahlgren gun. Robert P. Parrott found that it was possible to add great strength to the breech of a gun—and so to its power and range—by encasing it with coiled wrought-iron hoops mounted red hot and then shrunk to a tight fit by cooling. Some of these guns were of tremendous size and strength. The "Swamp Angel," which Parrott built, hurled two-hundred-pound shells more than four miles into Charleston, South Carolina. With one 4.2-inch (30-pound) gun, Parrott fired 4,605 rounds before the tube burst. At that time the greatest limitation on artillery was the lack of a good recoil mechanism.

Inventors overcame that deficiency before World War I, the war of artillery par excellence. By far the best recoil system and "recuperators" were those on the French seventy-five-millimeter gun the Allied forces used as their main field artillery weapon. This gun fired a sixteen-pound shell over a range of three miles at thirty rounds per minute. Combatants mounted many heavy guns on railroad cars for long-range bombardment. The American Expeditionary Force, while relying on the French for most of its artillery, did bring in a number of U.S. fourteen-inch naval guns for use in land warfare.

The other weapon that dominated the battlefield in World War I and remained prominent until after World War II was the machine gun, which had its beginning in the multibarreled Gatling gun of the Civil War. Hiram S. Maxim, an American inventor, developed the first practical automatic machine gun. John M. Browning developed his recoil-operated machine gun in 1900, and in 1917 the U.S. Army adopted this "best of all machine guns"—a .30-caliber, recoil-operated, belt-fed, water-cooled, heavy weapon fired from a tripod mount. A version of this gun with an air-cooling jacket served as a light machine gun, but the army favored the Browning automatic rifle, introduced near the end of World War I and widely used in World War II. Soldiers usually used a bipod to fire the Browning rifle, a gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, shoulder weapon, with a cyclic rate of 550 rounds a minute. Turned down by the U.S. Army just before the outbreak of World War I, the Lewis light machine gun, fed from a revolving drum, came into widespread use in the British Army early in that war. Airplanes used it widely, and the Marine Corps adopted it, but the U.S. Army never adopted it for general ground use.

The tank, the airplane, and poison gas marked the other major developments in munitions during World War I. Both the tank and the plane were the results of American inventions, but the United States was slow to adopt both.

World War II relied largely on improved versions of World War I weapons. The numbers and effectiveness of tanks and airplanes—including especially the long-range heavy bombers—characterized the military operations of that war. Jet fighter planes had come into use by the time of the Korean War, and helicopters became a favorite for supply and medical evacuation. In Vietnam the jet bomber, the B-52, having a range of more than 12,000 miles and carrying a weapons load of 75,000 pounds, was the chief instrument of heavy aerial bombing.

Naval vessels have gone through periods of swift change. Steam power came into use during the Mexican and Civil wars, and the Civil War saw the introduction of the ironclad. The "Great White Fleet" of U.S. armored cruisers and battleships impressed the world in the round-the-world cruise of the battle fleet in 1907–1909. The 1906 British battleship Dreadnought, carrying ten twelve-inch guns in center-line turrets and having a speed of twenty-one knots, established a new standard for battle-ships. This same period saw the conversion from coal to oil and the introduction of the steam turbine for the propulsion of vessels.

The widespread use of the submarine provided the greatest innovation of World War I in naval warfare, and in World War II became a major weapon. Development has been continual and spectacular since the advent of nuclear propulsion gave submarines practically unlimited range. By the 1970s about 60 percent of the U.S. attack submarine fleet of more than ninety vessels relied on nuclear power.

After World War I the aircraft carrier began to come into prominence. During World War II battleships were used more for providing support for landing operations than for direct ship-to-ship combat. By the end of the war, the battleship had given way almost completely to the aircraft carrier. In the post–World War II period nuclear power came into use in the 76,000-ton supercarrier Enterprise, and in 1973 Congress authorized its use in another supercarrier that would be the world's first billion-dollar weapon system.

The most spectacular development of all in munitions was the intercontinental ballistic missile with its nuclear warhead. The atomic bomb introduced near the close of World War II had a rating of twenty kilotons; that is, its explosive force equaled that of twenty thousand tons of TNT. In 1961 the Soviet Union deployed the SS-7 Saddler missile, said to have a warhead with a yield of five megatons, the equivalent of 5 million tons of TNT. The U.S. Titan, deployed a year later, was of equal or greater magnitude, but in 1965 the Soviets claimed their SS-9 Scarp had a warhead of twenty to twenty-five megatons. The race was on.


A major problem of public policy has always been the determination of what kind of industry should provide munitions of war and what measures should be instituted for encouragement, on the one hand, and control, on the other. The usual assumption in the United States has been that the munitions industry should combine public and private ownership—that government armories, arsenals, and shipyards should set standards of quality, provide experience for accurate pricing, and fill essential needs for armaments for peacetime military forces but that private contractors should provide most of the capacity and flexibility needed for war mobilization.

The vast majority of the weapons that American colonists used in the colonial wars came from England. Several colonial foundries cast cannons, and colonial gunpowder mills supplied some powder. These activities increased during the revolution, but most munitions came from French and other European sources and from the raids of privateers against British ships.

After the revolution, American leaders were anxious to free the country of dependence on Europe for the means of defense. Two men of genius, Alexander Hamilton and Eli Whitney led the way in setting the course for the national arms policy of the United States. In his report of 1783 on a military peace establishment, Hamilton urged the founding of "public manufactories of arms, powder, etc." In his celebrated report on manufactures eight years later, he once again stressed the importance of the development of domestic industries for national security. In 1794 Congress authorized the construction of some national armories, and four years later it authorized contracting for the private manufacture of arms. Congress chose Spring field, Massachusetts, as the site for the first national armory, and George Washington himself chose the site for the second: Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where the manufacture of muskets began in 1797.

Whitney's great contribution—a contribution indeed to the whole of American industry—was to pursue the manufacture of muskets with interchangeable parts. At his arms plant in New Haven, Connecticut, he sought to substitute machinery for much of the skill of individual gunsmiths when he set to work on his first government contract in 1798, establishing a principle that later became one of the key ideas underlying the system of mass production.

One of the most important steps in the development of a domestic arms industry in the United States was the enactment, in 1808, of a bill that provided for the appropriation of an annual sum of $200,000 "for the purpose of providing arms and military equipment for the whole body of the militia of the United States," either by purchase or by manufacture. Nineteen firms signed contracts to produce 85,200 muskets in five years. None of the guns were delivered satisfactorily on schedule, but the effort set a pattern for encouraging private arms manufacture over the next forty years. Six private armories enjoyed contract renewals until the late 1840s: Whitney; Lemuel Pomeroy of Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and As a Waters of Sutton, Massachusetts, all of whom specialized in muskets. Contracts also went to Henry Deringer of Philadelphia, who made small arms; Simeon North of Middletown, Connnecticut, who specialized in pistols; and Nathan Starr, also of Middletown, who made swords.

The War of 1812 also helped place the production of artillery on a more secure basis. The West Point Foundry began to make cannon in 1816 under the direction of Gouverneur Kemble and quickly became the leading supplier of heavy ordnance. Government assurances of continued support convinced the entrepreneurs behind this and several other projects to establish and maintain foundries. While depending on private manufacturers for guns, the government itself went into the business of constructing carriages, limbers, and caissons at arsenals in Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Watervliet, New York.

The biggest munitions contractor of the Civil War was Parrott (West Point Arms and Cannon Foundry), to which Congress awarded 2,332 contracts with a value of $4,733,059. Close behind was Samuel Colt's Patent Fire Arms Company at Hartford, Connecticut, which held 267 contracts for a total value of $4,687,031. No fewer than fifteen companies—including such names as J. T. Ames, Herman Baker and Company, Alfred Jenks and Son, Naylor and Company, E. Remington and Sons, Sharpe's Rifle Manufacturing Company, Starr Arms Company, and Spencer Arms Company—had contracts amounting to at least $1 million each. The old firm of Eli Whitney of Whitneyville remained in the picture, but only to the extent of $353,647. Private industry supplied all the artillery (although the federal arsenals manufactured carriages and caissons), all the gunpowder, and a large part of the small arms that the government needed. The Spring field Armory turned out 802,000 rifled muskets, some of which used parts manufactured by private industry. Private arms makers produced 670,600 of these Spring field weapons. Other purchases, from domestic industry and from abroad, included nearly 1,225,000 muskets and rifles, more than 400,000 carbines, and 372,800 revolvers.

With the advent of World War I, American leaders looked for every possible facility, government or private, that they could put to use. Not only did the government expand its arsenals and factories, but it stimulated the construction of vast new government-owned or government-financed plants. Probably the most ambitious, disappointing, dramatic, and controversial production story of the war was that of aircraft. And the brightest spot in that story was the development and production of the Liberty engine. Packard, Ford, General Motors (Buick and Cadillac), Nordyke and Marman, Willys-Overland, Olds, and Trego Motors shared in this mass-production effort, which was ensnared in all of the difficulties of trying to start an aircraft industry almost from scratch. In addition to the problems of finding aeronautical engineers, building factories, developing designs, and organizing production, planners had to overcome serious shortages of materials. They had to develop long-staple cotton cloth, used for covering the airplanes, to replace linen; create a new dope for applying to the cloth for weatherproofing; cultivate castor beans to supply the necessary lubricants until a satisfactory mineral oil could be developed; and increase the supplies of spruce, the principal wood used in airframes.

The Liberty engine's design incorporated all the best features of known engines in a way suited to mass production. Less than six weeks after engineers began drawing plans in May 1917, the government received the first working model of an eight-cylinder Liberty engine, and within another six weeks a twelve-cylinder model had completed its fifty-hour test. By August 1917 the Aircraft Production Board had placed contracts with Ford for 10,000 of the eight-cylinder engines, and with Packard for 22,500 of the twelve-cylinder. Total orders surpassed 64,000, although actual production to the date of the armistice amounted only to 13,500, of which 4,400 reached the American Expeditionary Forces overseas and 1,000 reached the Allies.

Industrial mobilization and production of munitions during World War II generally followed the pattern of World War I, but on a vastly larger scale. The biggest and most complex single project of the war undoubtedly was the making of the atomic bomb. This was a $2.2 billion undertaking under the direction of the Manhattan Project of the Corps of Engineers. It involved the coordinated efforts of scientists, engineers, and laborers; of universities; and of industrial corporations. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson called it "the greatest achievement of the combined efforts of science, industry, and the military in all history."

But production of war materials on a great scale has always brought questions about profiteering, corrupt bargains, the selling of influence, and the influence of special interests on national policy in a way that might be contrary to the national interest. Such serious charges have arisen in every war, and the seriousness tends to be proportional to the magnitude and duration of the war, although peacetime arms production may be equally subject to such practices or suspicions.

One of the most dramatic appeals against the munitions makers as "merchants of death" came in 1935–1936 with the hearings of the Senate's Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry, under the chairmanship of Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota. Although the committee failed in its aim to establish that munitions makers were a major cause of war, it probably fanned the flames of isolationist sentiment then rising in the country. This sentiment produced the arms embargo provisions in the neutrality acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937. Secretary of State Cordell Hull later wrote in his Memoirs: "It is doubtful that any Congressional committee has ever had a more unfortunate effect on our foreign relations, unless it be the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considering the Treaty of Versailles submitted by President Wilson." Others would minimize its influence on legislation.

In the ever-growing complexities of munitions manufacture since World War II, nagging questions remain about the extent to which companies dependent on government contracts for their very existence influence national security policy, urging the government to retain, adopt, or emphasize certain weapon systems—whether aircraft, naval vessels, or missiles—in which they have a direct financial interest. President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself brought this question into focus when, in his farewell speech, he warned,

In the councils of Government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the destructive use of misplaced power exists and will persist. … Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.


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James A.Huston/c. w.

See alsoAmerican System ; Bombing ; Colt Six-Shooter ; Fortifications ; Military-Industrial Complex ; Missiles, Military ; Mobilization ; Nuclear Weapons ; Ordnance .

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