The development of army weapons progressed through three overlapping but fairly distinct periods: the craft era, from the colonial period through the early nineteenth century; the industrial era, from the early nineteenth century through World War II; and the technological era, from World War II to the present.
The Craft Era.The early colonists were armed with weapons made by small groups of craftsmen. The necessity for these weapons was driven by the need to tame a wilderness inhabited by natives not amenable to conversion. The colonists originally armed themselves with armor and pikes, which soon proved their lack of utility in hostile terrain against bows and arrows. Matchlocks worked somewhat better, but their unreliability, particularly in wet weather, led to the development of flintlocks, the most famous of which was the “Pennsylvania” or “Kentucky” rifle. The serious role of individual armament in colonial society was evident in legislation prescribing the weaponry each militia soldier had to provide and in the establishment of public arsenals to supplement the supply of private arms.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, weapons were a major concern. The scarcity of powder caused Gen. George Washington great anxiety; small arms were often defective; and artillery was almost nonexistent. Powder was at a premium throughout the Revolution, but the combination of a number of small mills in patriot hands and imports from France kept the supply adequate. Muskets were in short supply in the New York campaign of 1776, but the militia's practice of retaining their personal weapons put a number of British army “Brown Bess” muskets in American hands, which were supplemented as the war progressed by importing French Charlevilles. Thus, throughout most of the war, both the Continental army and the militia were supplied with adequate individual weapons equal in quality to those of their British adversaries. The one unresolved deficiency, common to almost all revolutionary armies, was that the wide variety of types greatly complicated problems of maintenance and supply.
The lack of artillery was made good by the boldness, initiative, and genius of a single individual: Henry Knox. Knox not only captured Fort Ticonderoga; he transported some sixty liberated guns by sled to Washington's army. He also developed improved carriages that allowed light guns to accompany troops into battle, giving the Continentals a decided tactical advantage at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. The American Revolution was not won by superior weaponry, but it would not have been won without a usually reliable supply of adequate weapons—the best that a craft system and human ingenuity could produce.
The Industrial Era.Daniel Shays's Rebellion of 1786 demonstrated the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and led the new Constitutional government to provide more effectively for the common defense. One of its provisions was the establishment of government arsenals for the manufacture of powder, small arms, and gun carriages. At least equally significant, perhaps more so, was its policy to issue contracts for weapons manufacture. This sponsorship did a great deal to nurture the idea of standard manufacturing processes and the concomitant concept of interchangeable parts, particularly in the case of the most notable weapons contractor, Eli Whitney. Like the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 was not won by superior weapons. It did, however, bring to an end an almost two‐century period of concern with national survival, ushering in a century of virtual freedom from external aggression and violence. It also demonstrated the utility of standardized weapons manufactured to government specification.
By the Mexican War of 1846, American troops were supposed to be armed with the 1841 percussion musket, but many still carried flintlock models of 1822 and 1840. Despite their standardization and the increased reliability of the percussion cap over the flintlock, each of these weapons shared two common characteristics with their Revolutionary War forebears: a smoothbore, and an effective range of about 100 yards. American artillery employment, however, had advanced dramatically. At the Battle of Palo Alto, Maj. Samuel Ringold demonstrated that light artillery maneuvered aggressively in the defense could break up an infantry attack made by superior forces.
On the eve of the Civil War, many American officers thought Ringold's tactics could be used in the attack as well as the defense. This calculation was upset by a significant advance in small‐arms technology: the development for the rifled musket of a lead projectile—the minié ball—that expanded into the grooves of the rifling and spun out of the barrel with a stability that made it accurate to ranges of up to 500 yards and lethal up to 1,000. This capacity, combined with developments in artillery that allowed it progressively to engage attacking infantry formations with rifled shell, solid shot, and canister, tilted the tactical equation firmly in the favor of the defense.
The weapons issue during the Civil War thus quickly became which side could arm itself with the most rifles and artillery pieces the fastest. The Confederacy was at a decided disadvantage. But the capture of the manufacturing capacity of Harpers Ferry; the expansion of factories in Richmond and Fayetteville, North Carolina; and the limited importation of weapons from Europe allowed it to arm the men available for mobilization and to develop ratios of artillery pieces to soldiers roughly comparable to those of the Union. The problem, of course, was that in absolute terms the Confederacy was significantly outnumbered. The South produced 600,000 rifles during the course of the war; the North imported about that number and manufactured another 1,700,000. Neither side solved the tactical problem of countering the power of the defense. This led to horrendous casualties, which, in the long run, the Union could afford to absorb better than could the Confederacy. It would be foolish to argue that the Union prevailed simply because of numerical superiority. Nevertheless, the American Civil War was demonstrably the first war whose outcome was significantly influenced by the relative industrial capacity of the two sides to produce weapons.
This lesson, however, was soon forgotten. After a long period of constabulary duties, a short war with Spain, and a punitive expedition into Mexico, the U.S. Army found itself almost completely bereft of the tools of modern warfare.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, American soldiers were armed with the very effective Springfield Model 1903 rifle; but there were only 890,000 in the arsenals. They also possessed in the 3‐inch gun an artillery piece comparable in quality to the French 75mm. Here, too, the problem was one of supply. Of the roughly 2,250 artillery pieces in the hands of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918, only 100 were made in the United States. The U.S. Army had not neglected the machine gun, and the Browning Automatic Rifle was among the best in the world. But it was in short supply as well and not issued to divisions departing for France until July 1918. Tanks were another problem entirely. All U.S. tank units were equipped with French tanks; even so, both British and French tank units were needed to help support the American infantry. In short, though the U.S. Army provided a much needed infusion of manpower to the Allied cause in World War I, its lack of suitable weapons placed a significant constraint on its combat effectiveness.
The period between the wars was ambivalent. On one hand, a combination of severe resource deprivation and military conservatism inhibited the army from developing a modern force. Tank development languished and operational concepts of armored warfare were constrained by an infantry‐artillery mind‐set. On the other hand, the army consciously studied the question of industrial mobilization; further refined its relatively progressive education system, which encouraged its small officer corps to study issues of large‐scale war; and developed a sophisticated system for artillery fire control.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Army entered World War II in 1941 unprepared. Troops deploying for the North Africa Campaign were issued antitank rockets, known as bazookas, with no previous instruction as to their technical or tactical employment. At the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943, the light and medium tanks of the First Armored Division, armed with 37mm and low‐velocity 76mm guns, respectively, were devastated by the heavier‐gunned, better‐protected, and more skillfully employed Panzers and antitank guns of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. The American 37mm tank destroyer was an equal disappointment. The one bright spot was the Garand M‐1 rifle, which proved to be a superb infantry weapon throughout the war.
By late 1944, things had changed. Although the Sherman tank was still outgunned by the German Tigers and Panthers, the tank destroyer's armament had been enhanced to 90mm and its role changed from offensive to defensive, recognizing the tank as one of the principal antitank weapons. Equally important, through trial and error, American units had significantly enhanced their techniques of combined arms tactics. After the initial surprise wore off in the Battle of the Bulge, U.S. troops stopped the Germans in their tracks with the sophisticated integration of rifle and machine‐gun fire; land mines; tank destroyers; tanks; and closely coordinated volleys of accurate artillery, augmented by radar‐controlled fuses. Furthermore, all were in adequate quantity. The last observation raises an important point. It is possible to argue that the United States won the war solely through the might of its industrial capacity. However, with the exception of tank development, which never really caught up to the demands of European warfare, the American soldier was well armed; and, of equal significance, by the end of the war his tactics were as good as his weapons.
The Technological Era.World War II marked a watershed in the U.S. Army's approach to weapons. Technological breakthroughs such as high‐frequency radio, radar‐controlled fuses, and shaped‐charge antitank munitions had clearly demonstrated the benefits of scientific advances for ground warfare. Yet the army's initial postwar experiences were disappointing.
In June 1951, Task Force Smith, a battalion‐size force commanded by Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith, deployed to the Korean War with an inadequate number of World War II weapons. Its antitank capacity was nonexistent: it had no mines, no recoilless rifles, no tanks; and the rounds from its 2.36‐inch rocket launchers failed to penetrate the North Koreans' Soviet T‐34 tanks just as they had failed to penetrate the German's Tigers. The task force's Company K carried two 81mm mortar baseplates and two tubes, but lacked both bipods and sights. It soon lost radio contact with its supporting artillery and was forced to conduct a hasty withdrawal. After a seesaw battle up and down the peninsula, the lines stabilized. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway reinfused the Eighth Army with a fighting spirit that employed massive amounts of air and artillery, combined with aggressive infantry tactics to take the high ground. The war ended in a stalemate that was driven primarily by the exigencies of limited war in the nuclear era.
These same constraints shaped the war in Vietnam. But the Vietnam War was also affected by the army's checkered weapons development and lack of operational acumen. The infantryman's principal weapon was by now the M‐16 rifle. It had the advantage of either semiautomatic or automatic fire, but its fine tolerances made it unsuitable to a jungle environment. Helicopters provided an initial advantage in tactical mobility, but this advantage dissipated as soon as infantrymen dismounted. The artillery used improved versions of the 105mm and 155mm howitzer of World War II. The “beehive” canister round was devastatingly effective in repulsing enemy attacks, as were large volumes of indirect fire. But the artillery's overall effectiveness was hostage to the willingness of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units to present suitable targets, which they tended to do only if they could gain the element of surprise. This led to development of sophisticated instruments for locating enemy units in jungle warfare. Never very effective, the effort caused U.S. Army leaders to become extremely interested in sensor and heat‐seeking technology.
This interest paid off handsomely in the post‐Vietnam reform era. After surveying the Arab‐Israeli War of 1973, the U.S. Army promulgated a concise and startling epigram: What can be seen can be hit; what can be hit can be killed. It also worked consciously to fashion its doctrine, training, education, and equipment to repulse a Soviet offensive into Western Europe. The equipment manifestations were the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle; the Abrams tank; the multiple launch rocket system; the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters; and a sophisticated sensor and information distribution system, developed in conjunction with the air force. Rather than being employed on the plains of Europe, these weapons were used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait. And although one must note the ineptitude of the Iraqi High Command, a strong argument can be made that Operation Desert Storm represents a case in which an adequate number of superior weapons in the hands of well‐led, well‐trained troops indeed helped to turn the tide of battle.
Conclusion.The experience of U.S. Army weapons development has been at best uneven, with World War I representing the nadir and the Gulf War the apogee. The key variables appear to have been the American people's willingness to provide for the nation's security; the government's ability to articulate a convincing rationale for such provision and to channel America's productive capacity; and the army's foresight in war preparation and acumen in war conduct. In other words, with minor adaptation, Clausewitz's trinity retains its explanatory power. The future of army weapons development rests on how well these elements are kept in balance with each other and with the exigencies of a constantly changing world.
[See also Armored Vehicles; Army Combat Branches; Army, U.S.; Flamethrowers; Gatling Gun; Weaponry, Air Force; Weaponry, Marine Corps; Weaponry, Naval; Weaponry, Evolution of.]
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Allan Millett and and Peter Maslowski , For the Common Defense, 1984.
Russell Weigley , History of the United States Army, 1984.
Michael Handel , Clausewitz in the Age of Technology, in Michael Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, 1986.
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Alex Roland , Technology, Ground Warfare, and Strategy: The American Paradox, Journal of Military History, 55 (October 1991), pp. 447–67.
Harold R. Winton