Springfield Armory – A Historic American Treasure

Springfield Armory – A Historic American Treasure

If there is one place that could possibly begin to embody the rich and diverse history of the American firearm industry, it has to be the Springfield Armory located in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Armory, now turned National Park, played a key role in many firearm advancements, and helped to lead the way for the Industrial Revolution with ingenious technological innovations. Springfield Armory has employed some brilliant minds over the years. Many of which have made contributions that have had an impact felt way beyond the firearms industry.

The Springfield Armory was first founded in 1777 after General George Washington visited the area and determined its location to be the ideal for storing firearms and manufacturing ammunition and gun carriages during the Revolutionary War. The armory was placed strategically with access to major waterways and roads, but yet sat protected atop a bluff enabling it to be easily defended if needed. It also stood just beyond the reach of enemy ships traveling inland from the sea.

Firearm production first began at the Armory after a direct order from President Washington to convert the facility to a working factory. The very first firearm to be manufactured at the Springfield location was the French “Charleville” Flintlock Musket. It was produced from 1795 to around 1845. For 123 years after that final musket left the factory, Springfield would continue to be a primary supplier of the nation’s arsenal. They produced everything from those early black powder guns to modern automatic weapons. The Armory ceased all production in 1968 after nearly two centuries of weapons development and manufacturing.

Today the Armory is run by the National Parks Service and houses the nation's largest firearm collection. It is located at the rear of the Springfield Technology Community College campus in the city of Springfield, and is open to the public free of charge. Its museum offers a historical glimpse at the many military armaments of the United States, global arms, and a number of milestones in industrial achievements.

One of the most notable items on display is the duplicating lathe, the first of its kind to be capable of replicating the form of a pattern object. It utilized a friction wheel that was designed to roll over the sample object and transmitted its position onto the cutting blade producing an identical replica. The lathe was the design of Thomas Blanchard who was an employee of the Springfield Armory. His invention proved to be a major development for mass-production factories in all areas of industry, and revolutionized the way irregular shaped items, such as gun stocks, were manufactured.

Springfield 1873

Early in the 1800s the Armory began mass-producing fully interchangeable weapons. This came to be possible because of several factors. Breakthroughs in machinery, such as Blanchard’s lathe, allowed the capability of duplicating wooden parts. At the same time, just down the river in Hartford, inventor Eli Whitney had been working on creating a factory that could perform similar functions with metal components and developing methods for a more productive workforce. His idea was to have machines do the bulk of the labor, and the workers to conduct one small task at a time, so that at the end of the process all of the firearm components could simply be assembled into a completed gun. His inventions and thoughtful layout of how a factory should function made firearm production faster than ever before. President-elect Thomas Jefferson, who was a strong supporter of Whitney, believed that the methods created by the inventor were going to be the basis for all future production in America. Both the Springfield and Harper’s Ferry arsenals began incorporating Whitney’s techniques a short time later. It was truly the birth of the assembly line, and in the following century it would create the basis for all industries to mass-produce their goods. Makers of bicycles, automobiles, aircraft, and other products would all owe a debt of gratitude to the innovators at Springfield, Eli Whitney, and the firearms industry as a whole.

Up until the Civil War, the Springfield Armory shared the task of manufacturing military arms with the second national armory, the Harper’s Ferry Armory in West Virginia (then just called Virginia). However, Harper’s Ferry was destroyed early on in the war. Any manufacturing equipment that was salvaged from it was taken south by Confederate Troops, thus leaving Springfield as the only remaining national armory after the war had ended.

Following the Civil War, the government wanted to focus on building breech-loaded weapons that fired metallic cartridges. Since there were thousands of muzzle-loaded weapons still left over from the war, it decided to first hold an open competition for a conversion design that would allow these rifles to be modernized. The Master Armorer at Springfield had the answer. Erskine S. Allin developed the “Trapdoor” breech mechanism that could be adapted to all the existing muzzle-loading rifles.

From that point on, the 19th century was filled with firearm innovations.  As a result, the newly manufactured rifles were better suited for battle. They offered faster reloading, greater accuracy, and were overall more efficient than Civil War era weapons. The first gun of this type to leave the production line was the Springfield Trapdoor Rifle. There were a few variations of this rifle designed by Allin, but the most used and manufactured was the Springfield Model 1873, which was issued to the Army, and became one of the primary battle rifles used throughout the Indian Wars.

By the start of the Spanish American War in 1898, gun technology had grown leaps and bounds from the early days at Springfield. At that time the Armory was producing bolt-action repeating Krag rifles for the U.S. Troops, but the government, and in particular Teddy Roosevelt, wanted something better. After being outclassed by the Spanish and their 1893 Mauser Rifle, the U.S. Government had the Armory focus on duplicating the Mauser’s efficiency. Rifles, that were captured from the enemy troops in Cuba during the war, were sent to Springfield to be evaluated, and with a consortable effort by the Armory’s designers, they began to build a more capable rifle for the U.S. Military.

Ultimately they came up with what would become the most popular and battle tested rifle to ever leave their factory. The Springfield 1903 bolt-action rifle was everything Roosevelt had hoped for, a durable magazine fed rifle with a strong action. Roosevelt's only complaint was with the flimsy rod bayonet design, which was quickly addressed with the adoption of the much sturdier Model 1905 bayonet.

1905 Bayonet

The similarities between the 1903 and Mauser design were many. Use of a non-rotating extractor, dual-locking lugs, and 5-round staggered magazines are just a few of the things that drew the attention of Mauser’s patent holders. A lawsuit eventually ensued, and the U.S. Government did pay for some patent violations, but the Army got a great rifle that would last through decades of reliable service.

The infantry rifle was not the only deficiency brought into focus during the Spanish War, and although we have discussed the pistol trials in detail in a previous article, it’s worth a quick mention here as well. The Springfield Armory was the location of the 1911 pistol trials, where John Browning and Colt made military small arms history.

The next major firearm advancement to happen in Springfield was the M1 Garand. A .30 caliber semi-automatic rifle invented by the Canadian-American gun designer John Garand. Garand was also employed by the Springfield Armory and worked on several prototypes that were submitted for U.S. Military trials. After several years of tribulations due mostly to bureaucratic indecision regarding caliber and design, the M1 Garand finally received approval and became the primary service rifle in 1934. It was used during WWII, the Korean War, and saw limited use in Vietnam as well.

M1 Garand

It is also worth noting that not all of the firearms invented at Springfield were for the purpose of war. The lifesaving gun or Lyle Gun was a line throwing, cannon like device developed for the purpose of water rescue. Army Captain David A. Lyle, a graduate of West Point and MIT, was an ordnance specialist at San Francisco Benicia Arsenal when he was assigned the task of building a rescue device. He transferred from his post to the Springfield Armory, and spent the next two years experimenting. In 1878 he had created a lightweight gun that could launch a rescue line accurately up to 700 yards. The gun was placed into service along the nation’s coastline and aboard vessels. It is estimated that by 1906 it had already been credited with saving 4,500 lives. Several companies undertook the production of the Lyle Gun and it remained in service until after WWII when it was replaced by a modern rocket propelled device.

The very last firearm to roll off the assembly line at the Springfield Armory was the M14. A 7.62mm automatic rifle that was built from another combined effort of Springfield Armory engineers, based on a design by Springfield Armory’s own Earle Harvey.

After undergoing extensive trials, the M14 was adopted as a primary service weapon in 1959. Its primary service was relatively short lived and it was replaced by the M16 in 1964, but the M14 remains in limited use throughout the military today. Many ceremonial soldiers, honor guards, and drill teams can be seen swinging around the M14 Rifle.

1903 Rifle

During our research of the Armory, several key things have become apparent. First and foremost is that through 174 years of United States' conflicts, the Springfield Armory was the epicenter of our nation’s arsenal. The Springfield 1903 and the M1 Garand rifles that were created there still remain two of the most battle tested rifles ever made. Many of the efforts that were focussed on improving the armory and the production of firearms in general, greatly contributed to the Industrial Revolution, and to the overall manufacturing practices that are still used today. A visit to the Springfield National Park could possibly be the most informative couple of hours anyone will ever spend in a museum. Within its walls lie many historical treasures that not only help to tell the tale of a growing nation, but also the global advancements that sparked change throughout the industrialized world.