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The Springfield Armory Museum

By Robert M. Hausman

At America’s birth, the republic faced a world of hostile monarchies. It was obvious a plan was needed to ensure the security of the 13 states. Thus, on April 2, 1794, Congress passed, “An Act to Provide for the Erecting and Repairing of Arsenals and Magazines.” This legislation set Springfield Armory on a 174 year career as the main supplier of arms to the U.S. military.

The site at Springfield, Massachusetts, was chosen due to its strategic position above the Enfield Falls of the Connecticut River. The location made it less vulnerable to attack by potential enemies. And during the Revolutionary War, this important location had served as the primary arsenal for munitions and supplies.

Inventions such as the Blanchard Lathe (developed in 1822) that allowed for mass production of gun stocks, the concept of interchangeable parts, and rudimentary assembly lines, all trace their origins to Springfield Armory. The Armory was the first major employer in Springfield and the advances initiated in the complex started the city on the path that made it a manufacturing center.

The Armory’s extraordinary response to the demands of World War Two marked its crowning achievement. The then new semi-automatic M1 rifle was produced with a production process allowing inexperienced workers to handle many operations. Wartime production necessitated the recruitment of thousands of women who made up about 43% of the Armory’s workforce of 13,500 employees in 1943.

After the war, the Armory, which had always focused on production, had difficulty adjusting to an uncertain postwar mission stressing research and development. The Armory also fared poorly in the complex bureaucratic infighting within the defense establishment. Finally, in a cost-cutting move, it was decided to place greater emphasis on purchasing from private contractors for the government’s arms needs. So, in 1964, then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced the closing of the institution, which was completed in 1968.

While the Armory no longer manufactures firearms, it maintains one of the most extensive small arms museums in the country containing approximately 6,800 firearms. During and after the Civil War, large numbers of captured and surplus weapons were sent to the Armory to be reconditioned. Samples of these arms, particularly those of historical interest, were put aside and these formed the nucleus of the Armory museum collection. Established in 1872, the museum’s concept is as a “reference library” of arms.

The Flintlock Musket

By following the history of the guns produced at the Armory, one can trace the history of small arms development over the last two hundred years. The first model produced at the Armory, the U.S. Flintlock Musket Model 1795, was a French designed arm imported to America in large quantities during the Revolutionary War. With its three iron barrel bands, it was considered a rugged piece. It weighed about 9-pounds and was approximately 60-inches long. Firing a .69 caliber lead ball from its smooth bore barrel, the maximum effective range was about 100 yards. A 14- to 15-inch steel bayonet was fitted for close combat use.

The Percussion Musket

The advent of the percussion ignition system concept in 1807 and the invention of the percussion cap in 1814, prodded Springfield Armory into producing arms utilizing the more modern ignition to replace the flintlocks that had been in use for centuries. Conservative military leaders, however, waited until the latter part of 1841 to authorize such production.

The first produced, the Model 1842 Musket, was really the Model 1840 flintlock with a percussion lock installed in place of the flintlock frizzen and pan. Production began in 1844 and about 172,000 were made. It was also Springfield’s first model using completely interchangeable parts.

While the practice of rifling barrels to achieve greater accuracy and range of projectiles was in use in Europe as early as the late 15th Century, such arms did not come into general employ in combat operations until much later as military tactics of the day called for the placement of a heavy and quick field of fire while troops advanced. Accuracy was not so important as was ease of loading; forcing a tight-fitting lead ball against rifling grooves greatly slowed the reloading process.

The Rifle-Musket

All of this was changed in 1855 when Springfield Armory began production of the Model 1855 Rifle-Musket incorporating newly developed technologies. The first was the French invented Minie Bullet, composed of a projectile with a hollow conical base that, while smaller in diameter than the bore to allow rapid loading, expanded upon firing to contact the rifling.

The other technology was the utilization of the Maynard tape lock, consisting of a roll of waxed paper with spaced dots of fulminate of mercury (with a similar appearance to roll caps used in children’s cap guns). Each time the hammer was cocked, the lock mechanism would advance the tape a notch over the nipple, thus eliminating the need for the soldier to position a percussion cap each time the gun was fired. Chambered for .58 caliber 500-grain bullets, good accuracy could be achieved at distances up to 600 yards. By 1861, with the Civil War raging, the Armory produced the Model 1861 Rifle-Musket - basically a Model 1855 without the Maynard lock, as it had proved somewhat unreliable.

The Trapdoor & Krag Rifles

In the closing months of the Civil War, and for several years thereafter, the Armory produced a number of experimental breech-loading arms in limited quantities. But in 1873, the Trapdoor .45 caliber rifle, which carried its three-piece cleaning rod in a compartment within the buttstock, proved the most successful.

Becoming standard issue for U.S. troops, the Trapdoor rifle played a major role in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. With the introduction of bolt action magazine fed rifles and the invention of smokeless propellants in the closing years of the 19th Century, the single shot Trapdoor rifle was retired.

In 1892, the Norwegian designed bolt action Krag-Jorgensen .30 caliber 5-shot rifle was adopted by the U.S. and Springfield Armory tooled up to produce them. Over 475,000 Krags were produced from 1894 to 1903.

The 1903 Springfield

In 1900, Springfield Armory completed a prototype of an improved bolt action magazine-fed rifle firing a new cannelured .30 caliber cartridge with a blunt nose bullet. After going through some design modifications, the final form was designated “U.S. Magazine Rifle, Caliber .30, Model of 1903,” or the more popular ’03 Springfield. In 1906, a new .30 caliber load was developed with a sharp pointed boat tail bullet that became the famed .30-06 Springfield cartridge.

By the time America entered World War One, Springfield Armory had produced over 800,000 ’03 Springfield rifles, and kept the rifle’s production lines humming for years in a number of different variations. Over one million were produced

The M1 Garand

The ‘03’s replacement, the M1 Garand rifle, was described by General George S. Patton, Jr. as, “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” A semi-automatically loading, gas-operated 8-shot arm, it was invented by John C. Garand, a career employee at the Armory. Beginning production in 1937, over 3 1/2 million were produced by the time the Second World War ended in 1945, and a million more were made in the post-war years. The U.S. Army’s adoption of the M14, 7.62mm, selective-fire rifle in 1957, effectively ended the Armory’s production of the M1.

The M14

The M14, basically a modified M1 designed to handle the higher powered 7.62mm and to deliver full-auto firing capability, was the last major arms design Springfield Armory produced until it closed in 1968. In a fitting tribute, more than two decades after the Armory closed, the M21 sniper rifles (basically a National Match conditioned M14), were used by Special Operations snipers in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.

Getting There

Springfield Armory National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service, is located in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and close to both Interstate 91 and the Massachusetts Turnpike. It is open 10 AM to 4:30 PM Wednesdays through Sundays and is closed on January 1, Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Admission is free. For more information, call: (413) 734-8551.

Among the upcoming exhibitions SAR readers will be particularly interested in is the upcoming “Evolution of the Machine Gun.” Planned for 1999, the exhibit will trace the origins of full-auto weapons from the design concepts contained in the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci through today’s Mini-Guns. Call the museum for more information.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)
and was posted online on March 10, 2017

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