Mises Daily Articles

Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Twitter icon
Home | Mises Library | American Musketeers

American Musketeers

  • 4281.jpg

Tags The EntrepreneurFree MarketsWar and Foreign PolicyEntrepreneurship

05/31/2010H.C. EngelbrechtF. C. Hanighen

[Excerpted from chapter 4 of Merchants of Death]

America made excellent gunpowder. It also produced superior small arms. The end of the Civil War gave a tremendous impetus to the sales campaign of American arms makers. The bottom had more than fallen out of their domestic market. With large plant, personnel, and stocks on their hands, the arms manufacturers had to seek foreign outlets. Moreover, the secondhand merchants were pressing them in the smaller countries and they found it necessary to seek out the ordnance departments of the Great Powers. But the most potent cause for expansion was that the world was ready to buy American small arms.

A trio of American manufacturers had emerged whose products were now world famous — Colt, Winchester, and Remington. As early as 1851, at the London World's Fair, American rifles were a sensation, and they received medals. The British sent commissions to the United States to study factory methods and they were gladly and proudly shown through various arsenals.

This hospitality had its reward in immediate and large orders. Between 1855 and 1870 the following governments bought American machinery for the manufacture of rifles and pistols: England, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Turkey, Sweden, Denmark, and Egypt, to mention the most important. Others followed in subsequent years — namely, Japan, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico.

So important did this branch of American industry become that the United States government issued a special Report on the Manufacture of Fire-arms and Ammunition, prepared by Charles H. Fitch, giving detailed descriptions with drawings of American machinery for the manufacture of small arms.[1] The Report records that there were then 38 establishments in the United States making small arms and five establishments manufacturing ammunition for these.

There was a reason for this. Back in the early years of the century, Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, turned his attention to rifles. He told Jefferson that he could make guns so much alike that any part of one would fit another. Army officers ridiculed the idea, but Whitney went ahead and set up a shop that demonstrated the practical value of interchangeable parts. Whitney's muskets were used in the War of 1812 and scored a great victory for this kind of manufacture. Whitney's principle was adopted by all of modern industry and made possible the era of mass production.[2]

Samuel Colt was one of the first to develop Whitney's ideas.[3] He was enchanted by the idea of the arms merchants' business from his early youth. He had been absorbed by the story of Fulton's attempt to sell a submarine and torpedo to the French and English governments and he had an aptitude for inventing. He perfected a torpedo that amazed President Tyler, but it did not impress the military traditionalists of the War Department, who took no steps to aid in its development. Indeed some of Colt's early struggles bear a certain resemblance to Fulton's.

However, it was not a torpedo upon which he based his hopes. It was the first revolver of modern times. There were many four-barreled pistols made before the 19th century, but they had all been handicapped by firing devices and general clumsiness of construction. But at the time Colt began tinkering with pistols, the percussion cap was in use. Colt took out a patent on his first revolver in 1835. He established a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, capitalized at $250,000, and submitted his product to the War Department.

Trial was made before a committee of officers who reported unanimously that they were "entirely unsuited to general purposes of the service." But Colt would not be discouraged by the obtuseness of these conservatives. He made further improvements in the weapon and took it himself to Florida, where the United States was waging a bushwhacking sort of war with the Seminole Indians. There he interested many army officers who reported favorably on it, but not strongly enough to make the War Department reverse its decision.

Colt's company failed in 1842, a victim of military conservatism, but meanwhile, unknown to the executives, the revolver was making a great success in Texas. Fighting conditions there required some improvement on the slow-firing muskets in use at that time. It was horseback fighting with stealthy Indians and Mexicans who could use the lariat, and a weapon was needed that could be fired rapidly from the saddle.

Colonel Walker and other daredevils who made up the famous Texas Rangers found the new revolver a priceless and indispensable arm in this sort of warfare.[4] Indeed the history of the conquest of the Great Plains was largely the history of the Colt revolver. These weapons in the early 1840s sold for as much as $200 apiece, which must have given the bankrupt Colt ample cause for thought when he recollected that he had offered them to the War Department for $25.

The Mexican War brought a reversal of Colt's misfortune. General Zachary Taylor found that his scouts who were Texas Rangers were invaluable and that one of the reasons was their use of the revolver. Accordingly, he sent imperious demands to the War Department for large orders of Colts. The War Department gave Colt an order for 1,000 revolvers at a price of $24,000, and the inventor immediately started another factory in Connecticut to fill the order. It is said that he had great difficulty in obtaining in the East a sample revolver to serve as a model for his workmen, so much in demand were they in the Southwest. From this time on Colt's fortune was made.

"Indeed the history of the conquest of the Great Plains was largely the history of the Colt revolver. These weapons in the early 1840s sold for as much as $200 apiece, which must have given the bankrupt Colt ample cause for thought when he recollected that he had offered them to the War Department for $25."

He adopted Whitney's system of accurate manufacture, by machinery, of revolvers and carbines; and all his products were neatly and uniformly made. The great virtue of his process was that parts were interchangeable — a virtue that handmade pistols and rifles lacked. Soon he had a fine business sending shipments of triggers, sights, barrels, mainsprings, etc., to all parts of the country where revolver users wished to repair their weapons.

That this was a revolutionary procedure, virtually unknown in Europe, may be noted in the minutes of the British commission to investigate the conditions of small-arms manufacture. Colt, who had established a factory in London, made a great impression on his English interlocutors by his positive opinions on the superiority of his process of manufacture. The following is testimony to the condition of the small arms situation in Europe at that time:

INVESTIGATOR: Do you consider that you make your pistols better by machinery than by hand labor?

COL. COLT: Most certainly.

INVESTIGATOR: And cheaper, also?

COL. COLT: Much cheaper.

Colt became immensely wealthy and a large part of his business came from abroad. He sold to the czar of Russia, particularly, and his products were in use during the Crimean War, on both sides. His home in Connecticut, well named Armsmear, was filled with jeweled snuffboxes, diamonds, testimonial plates, and other gifts from such monarchs and leaders as the czar of Russia, the sultan of Turkey, the king of Siam, Garibaldi, and Louis Kossuth.[5]

The Winchester rifle also benefited from American efficiency processes. It was much in demand and Winchester was noted particularly for his far-traveling and aggressive salesmen. The Winchester repeating rifle, a new marvel in the sixties, became so famous that the Arab tribes of Africa later demanded Winchesters even from their secondhand dealers. When Winchesters were not available in sufficient numbers, the merchants of used guns at times forged the Winchester label on the gun and thus satisfied their customers.

The Winchester can tell of other triumphs. In the 1860s Mexico became the stage of French imperialist ambitions. Napoleon III placed Maximilian and his devoted Queen Carlotta on the Mexican throne, but the Mexicans resented the foreign invasion and refused to recognize their new monarch.

Among the leaders of the rebellion was Don Benito Juarez, former president of Mexico. Juarez had heard of the wonderful repeating rifles of Winchester and immediately placed an order for these new products of Yankee ingenuity. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company was ready enough to fill the order, but it wanted to be sure of its money before making delivery.[6]

"Colonel" Tom Addis, world salesman extraordinary, took a shipment of 1,000 rifles and 500,000 rounds of ammunition to Brownsville, Texas, right on the Mexican border. For two months he waited here, before Juarez gave orders that the munitions be brought to Monterey. Addis journeyed the 240 miles by oxcart train, placed his cases in a storeroom, and covered them with the American flag. For more than four months Juarez tried to get these arms, promising to pay later; but Addis insisted on cash.

Meanwhile Maximilian heard of the Winchesters at Monterey and made frantic efforts to get them for himself. Addis notified the Juarez forces that unless he received payment at once the arms would be sold to Maximilian. Almost immediately keg after keg of loose silver coin arrived and the arms were delivered to Juarez.

Another great problem remained for the doughty Addis: the delivery of his kegs of silver to his company. He loaded his coin into an old stagecoach and headed north for the American border. Hardly out of Monterey he halted the stagecoach, bound his Mexican driver and threw him into the back seat with a noose around his neck. Then he turned out of the highway, where he suspected an ambush and dashed back to the United States over an old abandoned road. Nine months after leaving the Winchester factory with the munitions, Addis landed his kegs of silver in safety at Brownsville. These Winchesters were one of the factors in the overthrow of Maximilian in Mexico.

The comment of Darlington, who tells this story, is also interesting:

This is more than a tale of adventure incurred in the line of duty. It gives some hint of how hardy missionaries of industry were, even so shortly after the Civil War, spreading the gospel of American business into the foreign field.

In 1816 Eliphalet Remington, a young American frontier lad, begged his father to buy him a rifle. All the other boys had them and he wanted one too. Hunting was good in the neighboring woods and Eliphalet had ambitions. Daddy Remington refused his son's request, and that refusal was to make history.

Young Eliphalet went and made his own gun, took it to a neighboring town to have it rifled, and discovered that he had an excellent hunting implement. The neighbors discovered this fact also, and before the lad realized it he had become one of the first gun makers in the United States. In this simple and inauspicious manner one of America's outstanding contributions to the armory of Mars had its beginning.

In 1828 young Remington's business compelled him to move to larger quarters, and when the Mexican War came, he was able to take over a government order for rifles. The Civil War increased the demands for Remington rifles to such an extent that the company was obliged to work day and night. Overwork resulted in the death of the owner.[7]

The company went right on. When the war orders stopped the company was virtually ruined. The armament maker's point of view is rather graphically presented by a paragraph heading in the Remington official history that reads, "Peace and Disaster." But if peace meant disaster to the company, it also taught it an important lesson. A company that manufactured more rifles than it could sell to hunters, or to its own government, must seek foreign business.

The moral was so obvious that its implications were grasped at once. One brother was now sent abroad as sales agent and he stayed on the job constantly. Remington rifles were excellent and orders began to pour in. In 1867 the United States Navy ordered 12,000 and Spain 85,000. In 1868 Sweden took 30,000 and Egypt 50,000. Business was certainly picking up. In the following years there was no let up. Among the rifles delivered were the following: 145,000 to France; 21,000 to New York State; 10,000 to Porto Rico; 89,000 to Cuba; 130,000 to Spain; 55,000 to Egypt; 50,000 to Mexico; and 12,000 to Chile.

Now and then misfortune dogged the company's steps. Thus Prussia was ready to place an order for 20,000 rifles. The Prussian king himself came out to the rifle range to try out the gun. He placed the gun against his shoulder, sighted, pressed the trigger — and nothing happened. He threw away the gun in disgust and canceled the order. Examination showed that the cartridge in the gun was defective.

"But if peace meant disaster to the company, it also taught it an important lesson. A company that manufactured more rifles than it could sell to hunters, or to its own government, must seek foreign business."

Another upset occurred in Turkey. Prospects were good for fitting out the entire Turkish army with Remingtons — a matter of 400,000 rifles. In Turkey, as in many other countries, army orders were placed only after the proper persons had been "seen." In crude vernacular this is called "graft"; the Turks called it "royalties" and the amount of "royalties" demanded by the officials was enormous. Remington refused the order.

This Turkish story was repeated several times elsewhere. Huge orders would be in the offing and the contracts almost signed when strong intimations were made that the necessary "royalties" must be paid first. Always Remington refused and foreign orders dropped away rapidly.

At the same time, foreign countries were beginning to build their own rifle factories, equipped with American machinery, and foreign business declined still further. Faced with the dilemma of curtailing his output or diversifying his manufactures, Remington adopted the latter course. Typewriters, sewing machines, and farm implements were added to the list of Remington manufactures and prosperity returned.

Another significant fact in the history of the company was its consolidation with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. One factory in Ilion, New York, producing rifles and pistols and another in Bridgeport, Connecticut, producing cartridges was an excellent business arrangement. The cartridge factory supplied ammunition to those who bought rifles, while typewriters, sewing machines, and farm implements created a substantial basis for peacetime activity.

But the more the sales curve dropped, the more vigorously the Remington drummers pushed their fight for orders — even in the most remote places. Business scouts reported that orders might be had in China. There was always some fighting in that country. They had heard strange stories about the Chinese and their peculiar prejudices and customs. Perhaps the Chinese would not like an agent with Western clothes — many Chinese hated the "foreign devils." Well, that was easy. One agent put on Chinese clothes, made his way to Peking and gained the ear of Li Hung Chang who ordered rifles for the Chinese army.[8] Thereupon a catalogue was issued in the Chinese language and more orders were secured.

In fact, the Chinese were more progressive than the French. When the Remington-Lee repeaters appeared on the market, the Chinese were among the first to buy them. Shortly afterwards they met the French in battle, and Chinese progressivism won over French conservatism. At the Battle of Lang Son in the 1880s the French with their Kropatchek guns were three times repulsed by the Chinese armed with Remington-Lees. The American-made guns could be recharged in a few seconds, while those of the French took much longer. The latter were at the mercy of the foe when their magazines were empty.

During the Russo-Turk War (1879) both belligerents placed their orders with the Remington company. The Turk order of 210 million rounds of ammunition was the largest order placed in the United States up to that time. The rest of this tale must be told by the official historian:

Then Russia and Turkey decided to fight. Both patronized the Bridgeport factory, and the strange situation developed of one plant daily grinding out thousands of cartridges for the combatants to fire against each other in deadly battle. Both nations had their inspectors at the works. The officers treated each other with formal courtesy while they inspected millions of the little messengers of death which were to fill the air of Southeastern Europe with noise and destruction.[9]

At the same time business prospects appeared in Cuba. The island was in revolt against the cruelties of the Spanish masters. The revolutionists knew good rifles and ammunition, hence they bought from Remington. But there was danger that the Spaniards would have to be content with inferior products. They tried to buy from Remington, but Remington was busy with Russian orders. Would the Russians stand in the way of the Spaniards and insist on having their orders filled first? Would they permit so unfair a war to be waged in which one side was equipped with Remington rifles and ammunition while the other was not?

The Russians found a way out. General Alexander Gorloff rejected a large order of cartridges. There was nothing wrong with the cartridges, but a secret understanding existed that Spain would be enabled to buy them. Thus was prevented what threatened to be a wholly unfair conflict. Every reasonable person will agree with the comment of the Remington chronicler: "It was well that Spain secured this shipment since the [Cuban] Insurrectionists had not neglected to provide themselves with Remington rifles and UMC ammunition."[10]

Remington was not unknown in South America — the continent of wars and revolutions. Sometimes the Latin republics fought one another, at other times they were busy with one of their meaningless insurrections in which the Outs tried to become the Ins. Sometimes foreign war and internal revolt would occur simultaneously. In one case there was the curious situation of two nations, Colombia and Venezuela, at war with each other, while a separate insurrection was proceeding in each country; all four of the warring bodies fired UMC bullets from Remington rifles.

But Remington's biggest exploits came during the Franco-Prussian War.[11] The French were in dire need of arms and munitions of all kinds. Among others, they appointed Remington as their American agent and promised him first 5% and then 2.5% commission on all purchases. Remington set to work at once. He needed arms that were ready for immediate shipment and he decided that the US government was the best place to get them. It was only a few years after the Civil War and Congress had passed legislation authorizing the sale of all "damaged" arms. This was Remington's opportunity.

Remington did not act in his own name. He appointed as his agent one Thomas Richardson who carried on the negotiations with the government officials. The US Army had a considerable number of Springfield breechloaders manufactured in 1866. Richardson determined to get these. Oddly enough, the responsible ordnance officials were ready at once to sell the rifles. About 37,000 of them were called in from all parts of the nation. They were taken away from the soldiers and sent to the New York armory. After some minor repairs they were ready for shipment to France.

But Remington also wanted ammunition with these guns. He dickered with the officials and made his purchase of the rifles depend upon an adequate supply of cartridges. Now the army had only three million cartridges at hand, which was not nearly enough. How would he get the rest? The ordnance officials obligingly gave orders to the government arsenal at Frankford to manufacture additional cartridges. In the end, Remington received from the government 17 million cartridges, most of which were specially manufactured for this order.

The United States government itself was thus manufacturing and selling munitions to one of the belligerents in a war — a bad breach of neutrality. International law had always recognized the right of private firms in neutral countries to sell munitions of war to any and all belligerents, subject of course to the laws of contraband and to the danger of confiscation if caught. But for a neutral government to do this was an unneutral act.

Remington, elated over this first success, continued his work. He went to the navy officials and he made them an offer. The navy had nine Gatling guns in good condition. Suppose now that it were possible to secure nine new Gatling guns in six months without the least charge, would the navy relinquish these nine immediately to Remington? The navy agreed.

Remington took the Gatling guns and sent them to France. Colt, famous manufacturer of pistols and machine guns, was given an order for nine of the latest Gatling guns to be delivered in six months. In addition, the government demanded a guarantee deposit of $14,000 until the new guns were delivered. Remington made the deposit and the Gatling guns went from the navy arsenals to France.

"International law had always recognized the right of private firms in neutral countries to sell munitions of war to any and all belligerents, subject of course to the laws of contraband and to the danger of confiscation if caught. But for a neutral government to do this was an unneutral act."

Still Remington was not satisfied. The officials had been accommodating, commissions had been good, and he believed he might make more purchases from the government. At that time, the navy was manufacturing 10,000 rifles in the Springfield armory. The guns were not quite complete. Suddenly an agent of Remington appeared at the navy offices and reported that the new guns were "defective." An inspector immediately proceeded to the armory and reported that Remington was right.

But the guns were not really "defective." They were incomplete. As "defective" arms, these new navy rifles were subject to sale according to the provisions of Congress. Remington at once bid for them and they were allotted to him. The rifles were then completed and France received another shipment of 10,000 rifles.

News of these proceedings could not be kept secret. The Germans heard of it, but they did nothing. The war was in their favor and Bismarck remarked, jokingly, that it was not very difficult to collect these American arms on the Loire.

The German-Americans protested, and finally a Senate committee was appointed to examine into the matter. On the committee was Carl Schurz.[12] Since Schurz was a German-American, and since he produced all the important witnesses that revealed the real facts in the case, he was accused of everything this side of treason, and it was charged that German spies had furnished him the information. The committee report justified the actions of the ordnance officials and the matter seemed ended.

Then Carl Schurz arose in the Senate and in one of his most famous speeches he tore the entire committee report to pieces. A lame attempt of the committee majority to reply fell flat and Schurz succeeded in telling all the facts and branding them as unneutral acts against a friendly country. Schurz's speech is still remembered and was recalled by a member of Congress as recently as 1928.

These energetic feats of salesmanship reached a climax during the siege of Paris. The Germans, now on the threshold of complete victory, had drawn their iron cordon around the French capital, and the French defense was badly disorganized; in particular they needed guns and ammunition, not only to withstand the siege but also to arm the various armies that were still operating in the provinces. It should be no surprise, then, that Remington should have a salesman on the ground. Mr. W.W. Reynolds, their agent, was in the beleaguered city.

Certainly the right place and the right time, for he secured a large order from the desperate government. But how could he get by the German lines to place it? Gambetta, fiery leader of the new government, had secured a balloon in which he planned to escape and to rouse the spirits of the people in the rest of the country. Reynolds secured another balloon and the two men passed safely over the German lines. Reynolds placed the order with his company.

Colt, Winchester, and Remington illustrate the importance of the Industrial Revolution in the arms industry. The machine-made rifle and pistol with their interchangeable parts were bound to win out over the best products of skilled artisans turning out hand-fashioned guns. All nations who could afford the new death machine, with its technical perfection, equipped their armies with these inventions of American ingenuity.


[1] The report was published as an Extra Census Bulletin (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882).

[2] Brooks Darlington, "The Curse of Empire," Du Pont Magazine 26 (1932): p. 4.

[3] See Henry Barnard, Armsmear; W.B. Webb, The Great Plains.

[4] Samuel Hamilton Walker.

[5] Hungarian revolutionary and briefly president of the country.

[6] Darlington, "The Curse of Empire," pp. 3–5.

[7] The Remington story is told in a richly ornamented volume written and published by the Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Co., entitled A New Chapter in an Old Story (New York: 1912). All quotations are taken from this volume, unless otherwise indicated.

[8] Chinese bureaucrat, best known as viceroy of Zhili, equivalent to governor of the province surrounding Beijing.

[9] A New Chapter in an Old Story, p. 1870.

[10] Ibid., p. 1872.

[11] See Carl Schurz's speech in the US Senate, "Sales of Arms to French Agents," Congressional Globe, 43rd Cong., 2d sess., 1872, pp. 531–39.

[12] US senator from Missouri, 1869–1875.

Image source:
Shield icon interview