The word "arsenal," derived from an Arabic phrase meaning a "house of manufacture," entered western usage around the mid-sixteenth century. The words "arsenal," "armory," and "magazine" are often used synonymously. Traditionally, an armory focuses on the manufacturing, repair, and storage of weapons, while a magazine is a structure or complex that supports storage of munitions and equipage. By definition, an arsenal represents specialized industrial structures for the purpose of manufacture, repair, storage, and supply of both arms of various size and type and their associated munitions and equipage.
In the seventeenth century, a powder magazine was established in each English colony in North America by royal charter. These magazines varied in size and construction from earthen cellars to grand structures. Although militia laws required each male to own a suitable firearm with a supply of fixed or ready-made cartridges, large stores of powder and shot remained centralized in the magazines. Powder was stored in wooden barrels secured by wooden hoops and issued to the militia in emergencies. Various militia manuals of the day provided instructions for making fixed cartridges from loose powder, paper, and ball. To support English industry, by the mid-eighteenth century powder manufacture in the North American colonies was forbidden by law and weapons for the militia were either imported or stocked locally using imported parts.
The French and Indian War (1754–1760) forced the British army to establish a series of magazines running from Philadelphia to Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) to support forces on the northwest frontier. The town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was selected as the site for a central grand magazine including arms and equipment shops unique to the colonies.
During the American Revolution (1775–1783), the new nation lacked arms and ordnance manufacturing sites. On 9 January 1777 the Continental Congress established a magazine and manufacturing laboratory on the site of the old English works at Carlisle. The Carlisle complex combined the French arsenal concept of state-run manufacturing combined with the English method of using government inspected contractors from the surrounding areas to provide raw materials and semi-finished goods. At the end of hostilities, Congress sold off the arsenal equipment at Carlisle, leaving a token amount of ordnance stores at Fort Pitt and West Point, New York.
After the War of 1812 (1812–1815), the country began a program of rebuilding the various powder magazines and associated buildings, taking full advantage of the latest European technological innovations. Vaulted brick ceilings, traversed entrances, ventilation shafts, and lightning rods were added to arsenal and magazine architecture to increase safety and protect material. Designs sought to minimize the blast effect by forcing the roof up rather than the walls out. The use of exposed metal was minimized to reduce sparks, and tools of copper, wood, and leather would become standard when working with gunpowder. By 1816 the federal government had established an arsenal system based on five manufacturing plants. Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia), and Springfield, Massachusetts, produced small arms; Watervliet, New York, and Watertown, Massachusetts, produced artillery; and munitions and small-arms ammunition were produced and stored at Frankford, Pennsylvania. Production at these plants was supplemented by government inspected private contractors as need arose.
In the 1820s the federal armories of Springfield and Harpers Ferry, established respectively in 1794 and 1796 on the French model, developed production techniques that revolutionized the factory system. By 1822 the federal arsenals could produce complete machine-made weapons with interchangeable parts and stocks. These advances were the result of machines and gauges developed by John D. Hall for his breech-loading rifle at Harpers Ferry and Thomas Blanchard's duplicating lathe for making gun stocks developed at the Springfield armory. These production methods would become known as the American system and serve as a benchmark of the Industrial Revolution.
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