Gunpowder, Munitions, and Weapons (Military)

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Firearms have played a significant role in America's history. The story of their evolution chronicles the development of industry and technology. Moreover, firearms were linked to early concepts of national defense. Hence, understanding the importance of firearms is critical to understanding America's civic and industrial beginnings.


Two categories of firearms existed: civilian and military. Civilians kept shotguns, rifles, and pistols at home for hunting, sport, and self-defense. Most of these firearms were made by and purchased from local gunsmiths. Military firearms for national or state defense included muskets, rifles, carbines, and pistols. Unlike privately owned guns, military firearms were often manufactured at government-owned arsenals. In times of demand, however, contracts were given to private businessmen as a way to augment the government's output.

Firearm technology remained the same throughout much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The standard ignition system was the flintlock. This mechanism, which was fitted to the side of the weapon, contained the hammer and steel (also called a frizzen). The hammer's jaws held a piece of flint; the steel was an L-shaped piece of metal that covered a depression called the pan. A small amount of gunpowder was placed in the pan and then covered by the steel, hinged to allow it to move back and forth. A pull of the trigger released the hammer, causing the flint to strike the upright arm of the steel and push it forward. The contact between the flint and steel produced a spark that ignited the powder in the now-exposed pan. Flame passed through a small hole in the gun's barrel, igniting the main charge that had been forced down the barrel by the ramrod. The system had drawbacks, as flintlock firearms were prone to misfire. In addition, wind, rain, and heavy dew often rendered flintlocks inoperable.

Firearms fell into two categories based on their design and use. Smoothbore weapons had a barrel that was smooth on the inside. These firearms, which were easy to load but lacked range, included muskets, shotguns, and most pistols. Rifles had spiral

grooves (rifling) cut into the inside of their barrels, a feature that caused the bullet to spin as it left the barrel, imparting greater accuracy and range to the projectile. Although the military adopted a small number of rifled arms for use by soldiers, rifles were mainly used by civilians for hunting prior to 1850. The military preferred the higher rate of fire for the musket (three times a minute for a musket opposed to one time a minute for a rifle) and accepted the shorter range (one hundred yards for a musket opposed to three hundred yards for a rifle). Although the frontiersmen with their rifles were credited with winning the Battle of New Orleans, in reality the muskets and artillery in the hands of the army saved the day for Andrew Jackson.

A national militia. On 8 May 1792, the U.S. Congress created a national militia that mandated gun ownership. The law declared that "each and every free-bodied white male citizens of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen, and under the age of forty-five years, (except as hereinafter exempted) shall severally, and respectfully, be enrolled in the militia." The law required each member of the militia to arm himself with either "a good musket" or "a good rifle" with the appropriate accouterment and ammunition. The prevailing notion was that the citizens of the Republic should form the nation's true military force. Moreover, a national militia, regulated by the states, would serve as a counterweight to the professional corps, which Congress deliberately kept small for fear of a standing army.

Firearms manufacture. The militia law directly stimulated the development of the firearms industry in the early Republic. Congress decreed that within five years of its passage, all muskets should be uniform in design. In 1794 Congress passed an act to facilitate the mandated standardization by establishing government arsenals to manufacture and repair weapons. That year Springfield, Massachusetts, was selected as the site of the nation's first arsenal, primarily because the Connecticut River town was already the location of workshops that had provided weapons during the American Revolution. In 1796 a second arsenal was established at the confluence of two rivers, the Shenandoah and Potomac, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia). Production was slow at first with only 245 muskets manufactured at Springfield in 1795, but that number steadily rose. By 1810, the arsenal at Harpers Ferry was producing ten thousand muskets a year.

One inventor significantly contributed to the higher arsenal output. Eli Whitney, who is most remembered for his cotton gin, introduced the concepts of interchangeable parts and division of labor into arms manufacturing. Whitney, who received a contract in 1798 to privately manufacture ten thousand muskets, revolutionized the industry by separating production into a series of steps that could be performed by semiskilled labor. The change sped production because workers operated water-powered machines that made identical copies of each part. Interchangeable parts did not need to be hand fitted, saving time as well as eliminating the need for skilled craftsmen. Although still in its primitive stage, Whitney's system used at his factory near New Haven, Connecticut, soon spread to other arsenals. Moreover, other industries adopted the system, further propelling the industrial revolution.

Government procurement. Although Congress created the national militia and decreed the appropriate type of weapons to be used, not until 1808 did it agree to supply states with those arms. Militiamen were expected to provide their own firearms, which Congress exempted from seizure for payment of debt. In the meantime, some states established their own arsenals or purchased firearms from contractors. Congress finally acted in the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard naval encounter of 1807, when it appeared that the United States and Great Britain were headed toward war. The national government agreed to an annual allotment of $200,000 to purchase arms for the national militia. In reality, the procurement system failed to work as intended for two reasons: (1) the federal government initially lacked adequate resources to meet the need, and (2) individual states routinely failed to send in their annual militia returns indicating how many weapons were required. By 1861, however, hundred of thousands of weapons had been distributed to the states, unintentionally arming the South in its attempt to break up the Union.

gunpowder and ammunition

Firearms were of little use without gunpowder, ball, or shot. Civilians usually separated their bullets and gunpowder, keeping the projectiles in a leather pouch and the powder in a hollowed-out bull's horn or copper flask. Military ammunition, though, required the bullet and gunpowder to be rolled together in a paper wrapper, making it easier for the soldier to handle when loading. For years, hunters and soldiers had painstakingly poured molten lead into hand molds, plierlike devices that contained spherical cavities which formed the liquefied metal into bullets. New technology made hand casting obsolete when water-powered machines were developed that could press the soft metal into hundreds of balls at a time. By mid-century, one man operating a water-driven press could produce thirty thousand bullets in a ten-hour shift. It was also discovered that molten lead formed perfect spheres when poured from a height. Vertical shot towers soon became an efficient way to mass-produce bullets. The lead, which formed different size balls depending on the size of the droplet, landed on a cushion of sawdust. Once collected, the bullets passed through gauges that separated them by caliber. Arsenal workers rolled and packaged cartridges on an assembly line, meaning that soldiers no longer had to prepare their own ammunition in the field.

Gunpowder production benefited from advances in technology. The basic composition of gunpowder (seventy-five parts saltpeter, fifteen parts charcoal, ten parts sulfur) had not changed since its discovery, but industrialization allowed the propellant to be mass-produced. Production created several side industries: mining for guano (nitrogen-rich bat dung) and sulfur and charcoal manufacturing. Once the ingredients were combined, the mixture formed hard slabs. Broken into pieces by tumbling or rolling, the fragments were passed through screens and sorted by grain size suitable for cannon, musket, rifle, or pistol. Although the national government operated its own powder mills, private mills sprang up to provide for the needs of the nation, both military and civilian. DuPont, the most successful of these private firms, was started in 1802 by the French émigré E. I. du Pont on the Brandywine River at Wilmington, Delaware. Du Pont's success with gunpowder placed his company in position to become a leader in the chemical industry.

The arms industry would see even greater changes by the middle of the nineteenth century. The invention of percussion caps, small brass cups filled with an explosive compound, made the flintlock obsolete. Moreover, inventor Samuel Colt (1814–1862) developed revolving pistols and rifles that allowed the shooter to fire multiple times without reloading. By the 1850s, inventors had found a way to combine the primer, gunpowder, and bullet into a self-contained metal cartridge. Thus, a century that began with single-shot, muzzle-loading firearms saw the rise of repeating rifles and pistols that "won the West."

See alsoArsenals; Firearms (Nonmilitary); Forts and Fortifications .


Callan, John F. The Military Laws of the United States. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1863.

Russell, Carl P. Guns on the Early Frontiers: A History of Firearms from Colonial Times through the Years of the Western Fur Trade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Scott, Henry. Military Dictionary. New York: Van Nostrand, 1864.

U.S. War Department. Ordnance Manual for the Use of Officers of the United States Army, 1841. Washington, D.C.: J. and G. S. Gideon, 1841.

Richard Bruce Winders