Books are my business, and as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I have to thin out my collection at home due to space considerations. I stumbled across an old Numrich catalog the other day and could not resist the temptation to page through it. Oh what joy to see just about every part I might ever need for my Winchester 1894 and 1895, my Lee Enfield, and of course my beloved .30-40 Krag Jorgensen from 1901.
A few days later, a book arrived at my office asking me to review it for this blog. I contacted the publisher and made it clear that if it was good, I’d write it up that way, and if it wasn’t, then I’d say so and why.
The book in question is A Legacy in Arms: American Firearm Manufacture, Design, and Artistry, 1800-1900 by Richard C. Rattenbury. This is a fascinating tome for many reasons, but the one that struck me right off and produced a flashback to my Numrich catalog was the early chapters on firearm manufacturing in the United States.
Let’s step back a bit. We really do take things, like interchangeability of parts, etc., as just a normal way of life. But turn the clock back, and it was a completely different world in the early 1800s right up to the beginning of the American Civil War.
In this republic, gun making was an individual endeavor and a very time consuming one at that. Even the best of the hundreds of small gunsmiths could, in a good run, produce two rifles a month! Throughout the 18th century and right into the first few decades of the 19th , firearms were handcrafted literally from scratch. A gunsmith was required to perform the functions of a barrel maker, locksmith, stock maker, brass caster, filer, fitter, assembler, and if they were really high end, a metal engraver and wood carver. No wonder the production of these firearms was so low. Throw into this mix that no two rifles were exactly alike, and you had a major problem if you purchased your firearm in Connecticut and it broke while you were carving out a new life for yourself in, say, Ohio.
It was not until the genius of Samuel Colt and like-minded entrepreneurs did this “uniqueness” to firearms come to an abrupt halt by instituting what was known as The American System of Manufactures. Essentially what this meant was all things mechanical, in this case firearms, would be manufactured to exacting standards of sameness and the resulting parts would be completely interchangeable with any firearm of the same model. Overnight the hundreds of unique gunsmiths that littered the towns and cities of the northeast vanished from the American scene, never to return.
This marvelous book is broken down into three parts. Part 1 is: From Craftsman to Industrial Mechanic, Part 2: From Colt to Winchester, and Part 3: From Functional Sculpture to Steel Canvas. Many folks upon opening this tome may relegate it to “coffee table” status, but they would be gravely mistaken. Unlike many gun books, the captions that accompany the many photographs are extremely detailed and tell a unique story specifically for that item.
The foreword to this needed addition to firearms history was written by R. L. Wilson, who is without a doubt one of the greatest authorities in the world on this subject matter. As a side note, the index is very thorough and the bibliography comprehensive, something that a librarian always considers crucial in any monograph.
In short, this will be a welcomed addition to your bookshelf, and it will contribute substantially to your knowledge of this particularly fascinating genre.
Rattenbury, Richard C. A Legacy in Arms: American Firearm Manufacture, Design, and Artistry, 1800-1900, Western legacies series. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2014.
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