Springfield Armory

From Academic Kids

From 1794 to 1968 the Springfield Armory was a center for the manufacture of U.S. military small arms and the site of many important technological advances.

The Armory site was selected by President George Washington. Although Springfield, Massachusetts was only a small, struggling village, its geographical advantages were obvious. The town was located at the intersection of major highways and the Connecticut River but far enough upstream to be safe from enemy attack. Supplies, skilled manpower, and adequate waterpower for manufacturing were all close at hand. No wonder Col. Henry Knox, Gen. Washington's Chief of Artillery, concluded that "the plain just above Springfield is perhaps one of the most proper spots on every account" for the location of an arsenal. The land had been used as a training field for militia since the 1600s. In 1777 "The Arsenal at Springfield" was established to manufacture cartridges and gun carriages for the American Revolution.

During the Revolution the arsenal stored muskets, cannon, and other weapons. Barracks, shops, storehouses, and a magazine were built, but no arms were manufactured. After the war, the government kept the facility to store arms for future needs.

By the 1780s the Arsenal was a major ammunition and weapons depot. In 1787 poor farmers from western Massachusetts, led by Daniel Shays, tried to seize the arms at Springfield. This was a key event leading to the Federal Constitution Convention. Those involved in the rebellion planned to use the weapons to force the closure of the State and county courts that were taking their lands for debt. Confronted by the cannons of an organized state militia, they failed in their desperate attempt. Yet the incident led many of the wealthier people, who feared for their property at the hands of an armed rabble, to vote for the new Federal Constitution and support a stronger central government.

In 1794 the new Federal government decided to manufacture its own muskets so that the United States would not be dependent on foreign arms. President Washington selected Springfield as the site for one of the two Federal Armories (the other being Harper's Ferry). Production of weaponry at the Armory began in 1795 when 245 flintlock muskets were produced monthly by 40 workers.

Springfield Armory soon became a center for invention and development. In 1819 Thomas Blanchard developed a special lathe for the consistent mass production of rifle stocks. Thomas Blanchard worked at Springfield Armory for 5 years. The lathe enabled an unskilled workman to quickly and easily turn out identical irregular shapes. The large drum turned two wheels: a friction wheel that followed the contours of the metal rifle pattern, and the cutting wheel that imitated the movements of the friction wheel to make an exact replica of the pattern in wood.In the 1840s the old flintlock gave way to a percussion ignition system that increased the reliability and simplicity of longarms.

In the period before the Civil War, Springfield Armory was largely involved in the growth and influence of the Industrial Revolution. Much of this grew out of the military's fascination with interchangeable parts, based on the theory that it would be easier to simply replace firearm parts than make battlefield repairs. Mass production of truly interchangeable parts demanded greater use of machines, improved gauging, quality control, and division of labor; all characteristics of the Industrial Revolution. From these individual components, the concept of the assembly line was devised. With the destruction of Harper's Ferry during the Civil War, the Springfield Armory became the only federal manufacturing point for small arms until the 20th century.

In 1865, Master Armorer Erskine Allin introduced the "Allin Conversion", which incorporated the far more advanced design of breech-loading into the now-obsolete muzzle-loaders, thereby extending their service life. In 1891 a new function was assigned to the Armory –– it became the army's main laboratory for the development and testing of new small arms.

One of the most distinctive elements of the Armory is the fence surrounding the site which was started after the Civil War and completed in 1890. Unable to find funding for the purchase of a fence, Major James W. Ripley requested obsolete cannons from government storage, some from the Revolutionary War. He had the cannons sent to a local foundry to be melted down. The foundry kept some of the iron as payment, and the remainder was cast into 9-foot palings, formed as pikes and spearheads which were then sunk into a red sandstone base.

During the Spanish-American War, it was recognized that the Spanish Mauser, Model of 1893, exhibited characteristics superior to the "trapdoor" Springfield and Krag-Jørgensen rifles carried by the United States troops. On August 15, 1900, Springfield Armory completed an experimental magazine rifle which they believed to be an improvement over the Krag. They fashioned a clip loading magazine rifle in which the cartridges were contained within the stock, preventing damage to an otherwise exposed magazine. It was approved for production in 1903 hence the nickname "The Springfield '03".

By the time that the United States entered World War I, approximately 843,239 standard service Model 1903 rifles had been manufactured. However this was insufficient to arm U.S. troops for an undertaking of the magnitude of World War I. During the war Springfield Armory produced over 265,620 Model 1903 rifles. In addition, the War Department contracted for production of the M1917 Enfield Rifle to help aid American troops. These, along with the additional 47,251 rifles produced by the Rock Island Arsenal and the weapons already in service, were enough to supply the war effort.

In 1919, when John Garand was 20, he came to Springfield, where he worked to develop a semi-automatic rifle. Over the next five years many designs were submitted for the rifle, but none met the army's rigid specifications. In 1924, Garand offered a design that was approved for further testing. This was the famous M1, or "Garand rifle" as it came to be known after the name of its inventor. The army adopted the rifle in 1936, and production began the next year. Thus began what was to become the greatest production effort in the history of Springfield Armory. During the entire production history of the M1 rifle, Springfield Armory produced over 4.5 million of them.

The M1s accuracy and durability in battle earned it high praise. General Douglas MacArthur reported on the M1 to the Ordnance Department during heavy fighting on Bataan that: "Under combat conditions it operated with no mechanical defects and when used in foxholes did not develop stoppages from dust or dirt. It has been in almost constant action for as much as a week without cleaning or lubrication." Further testament to the M1s role in combat was given by another well respected military officer. General George S. Patton, Jr. reported to the Ordnance Department on January 26, 1945: "In my opinion, the M1 Rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised." In the face of overwhelming odds, the capability of the M1 rifle to deliver superior firepower would most often carry the day.

The last small arm developed by the Armory was the M14. The M14 has evolved over the years into the present day U.S. sniping rifle –– the M-21.

By the time the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam conflict, Springfield Armory developed not only rifles but machine guns for ground and air use, grenade launchers, and associated equipment. Many weapons were not manufactured at the Armory, but plans and specifications were drawn up for the use of private contractors who built them elsewhere.

In 1968, in a controversial economy measure, the Defense Department closed the installation. For almost two centuries the hilltop overlooking the Connecticut River had been an important place for the development and manufacture of arms for the American soldier. The facility evolved from a place where skilled craftsmen built, piece by piece, one musket at a time, into a center pioneering in mass-production techniques, and finally into an institute famous for its research and development.

The site is now a museum run by the National Park Service, as the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.

In 1974, the Springfield Armory brand name was purchased by Robert Reese, who formed a new company to manufacture M1A rifles. This company, now owned and run by Reese's sons, manufactures a wide array of firearms under the Springfield Armory name. However, the company is not located near the former armory site; it is now in Geneseo, Illinois. For this company, see Springfield, Inc.

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