Industrial Manifest Destiny: American Firearms Manufacturing and Antebellum Expansion
Some of the United States’ most eminent arms manufacturers had their start in the middle of the nineteenth century. These were also the years that American industry began to surpass Europe’s, and that Americans’ belief in their right to “civilize” the continent became known as “Manifest Destiny.” The common link among these occurences was frontier violence. This article, published in Business History Review, uses War Department papers, congressional reports, and manufacturers’ records to explain how the military conflict associated with territorial expansion drove innovation and market growth in the arms industry, which ultimately laid the groundwork for industrial mass production in the United States.
For the first several decades of the nineteenth century, the majority of small arms manufacturing occurred at two federal armories in Harpers Ferry, VA, and Springfield, MA, and at the factories of a small group of regular government contractors, mostly in New England. These establishments produced more than enough firearms for national military needs, and there was not yet a significant civilian market for guns. This changed in the 1840s, when the Florida Seminole War and the Mexican American War sparked major weapon innovations and expanded the market for military and civilian firearms.
Samuel Colt, for, example patented his first revolver in the 1830s but was not able to establish a profitable armory until the 1850s. His ability to do so resulted from three factors. First, he marketed his revolvers to military officers in Florida during the Seminole War in the 1830s. Second, in response to government experiments, he adapted his firearms to meet the requirements of guerrilla-style warfare in the swamps of Florida. Third, he used soldier testimonies to advertise to civilian consumers. One of Colt’s first print advertisements from the early 1850 depicted scenes from the Mexican American war, and an advertisement from 1858 harkened back to Colt’s being “the first rifle fired” in Florida in 1837. Newspaper articles meanwhile praised the technical achievements of his arms and credited them with victory in Mexico. Following these wars, the U.S. military continued to purchase Colt’s firearms to “subdue those wild and daring tribes” throughout the West.
Other major private arms makers, like Christian Sharps, Smith and Wesson, and Oliver Winchester got their start during this period. They, along with Colt, grew to be the most iconic private arms suppliers of the American West. As the federal government sponsored military action along its frontiers, manufacturers adapted the arms they produced to better suit combat experience. Their success in doing so increased white American settlement in new territory, which further bolstered public and private arms sales.
The American arms industry was world-renowned by the 1850s. The British government sponsored an industrial reconnaissance mission to the United States in 1853, and several years later established an armory that used American methods and machines. The arms industry influenced other manufacturing sectors through technology “spin-off,” and some of the United States’ major industries, such as the machine tool, sewing, and eventually automobile industries incorporated innovations from the arms industry’s production processes.
The United States did not always have a robust firearms market. Nor was it always a leader in manufacturing processes. Both phenomena have roots in nineteenth-century territorial expansion and frontier violence.
Main image: Women grinding barrels of 45 caliber automatics at Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Plant, Hartford, Connecticut, between 1914 and 1918. Source Shutterstock.