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This blog follows the reconstruction of the Revolutionary War Public Armoury on the James Anderson site

Reconstruction of the Blacksmith's & Public Armoury

October 24, 2012

Where is the Gunsmith?

Geddy Shop, home to the gunsmiths.

Several past comments on the blog suggest that a few of our readers are under the impression that Colonial Williamsburg’s gunsmith shop no longer operates.  I want to put that rumor to rest.

I suppose that the Armoury project has created a belief for some that gunsmithing will be part of  Armoury operation and therefore the old gunsmith shop will no longer operate. That is not the case.  The two shops have very different stories to tell, both important to our understanding of the past.

To understand the two stories you must first understand different firearms.  Since earliest settlement, gunsmiths in the colonies manufactured and repaired civilian firearms- sporting guns used by hunters, target shooters, and those concerned for their own personal safety.  Additionally, militia laws required each free white male over the age of 16 to own a long gun, and to turn out periodically to practice military skills with other members of the community.  Colonial territory was simply too large to defend with a professional army, so a system of militia provided security by arming and training citizens to provide for quick defense in case of emergency.  These citizen-soldiers normally armed themselves with guns that could double as sporting weapons to put meat on the table, keep vermin out of the corn, defend one’s property from intruders, and provide some amusement in the form of target shooting.    Civilian firearms included rifles, fowling pieces (shotguns) and pistols.  These weapons could be bought commercially as imports from Great Britain, or could be custom ordered from a local gunsmith- built to fit the owner’s physical stature, and artistically embellished to fit the owner’s status and good taste.

Military arms are made with a different set of goals.  Arming soldiers with weapons made in a standard pattern allows for ease in manufacture, ease of maintenance, ease of training, ease in fitting with ammunition, and efficiency of loading and firing.  Most governments developed weapons for infantry that were characterized by stout construction and simple ornament.  With smooth-bored barrels, steel ramrods, and designed to accept a bayonet, these weapons were designed for high-volume fire and to withstand the abuse of hand-to-hand combat.

Stocking a rifle.

When a government seeks to arm soldiers, weapons are needed in great quantity.  Manufacture of large quantities of standard-patterned weapons is most efficiently carried out with specialized labor.  James Hunter’s works, the Rappahannock Forge in Falmouth, Virginia, was established as one of Virginia’s primary weapon manufactories during the Revolutionary War.  Hunter organized the works for efficient manufacture of arms, employing layers of managerial oversight and specialized labor as can be seen in a 1775 advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper:

 

Philadelphia, Oct. 18, 1775

Wanted

At the ironworks and mills of James Hunter, Esq; on the Falls of the Rappahannock river, …     A gunsmith, a complete artist, able to take the charge of a shop, and twenty-four hands under his care and direction.

Ten gunlocksmiths.

Four ditto stockers

Two complete workmen for turning and welding gun-barrels

Two ditto for boring and grinding ditto

A good file cutter.

 

In Hunter’s works, forging barrels, finishing barrels, lock-making, and gun stocking were all distinct jobs requiring different levels of expertise.   

Two pistols nearing completion.

Small colonial gunsmith shops like the Geddy Shop did not have the need for such specialization and layered management as production demands were modest and often for one-of-a-kind firearms.  It was not unusual for the same workman to forge and finish the ironwork, cast and finish the brass, stock the gun, and finish with carved and engraved decorative elements. Small family-owned and operated gunsmith shops provided local customers with custom firearms and offered repair and maintenance services.  In small urban communities like Williamsburg, the shops often diversified.  The Geddys, for example, advertised that they carried out the work of a cutler and brass founder in addition to their gun work.

While the Armoury will clean and repair military muskets, and work on other weaponry such as swords and tomahawks, we do not intend to supplant the work of our gunsmiths at the Geddy site.  The gunsmiths are active and busy a few blocks away operating a small, family-run gun shop typical of many American gunsmith shops.  They carry on the heritage of early American firearms manufacture, producing flintlock rifles, fowling pieces, and pistols that are not only functional firearms, but works of art.

 -Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Blacksmith, Master of the Shop.

Funded by a generous gift from Forrest E. Mars Jr., of Big Horn, Wyoming.

Comments

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  1. As always, Ken, interesting commentary. Having visited Geddy since the gunsmithing was moved there, it appears space is very limited and frequently, there has been little, if any, interpretation of that skill. I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting the completed Armory facility; but will you be displaying a sample of the arms produced therein? I know that space is tight throughout the Town; but the team may want to consider finding space in one of the buildings where the story and comparisons of the weapons can be demonstrated and interpreted, even if not every day.

    • Mike- Good to hear from you. Sorry to hear that your visits to the Geddy left you wanting to know more about the gunsmithing aspects of the business. At the Geddy, our gunsmiths are working along with brass founders, and so depending on the time of your visit and who was working in the shop, the focus may have leaned more toward brass founding than gunsmithing. I urge you to stop by the Geddy on your next visit and see the activity there. The gunsmiths will be happy to tell you more about civilian firearms.

      Our furnishings in the Armoury do include cases of muskets, packaged and shipped to the Armoury for repair. The Anderson site fixed damaged weapons rather than making new ones, so our manufacture was limited to making replacement parts and refurbishing damaged weapons. Our Armourers from the Magazine work in the Armoury periodically doing what Armourers do- cleaning and maintaining weapons used in our military programming. In the last phase of construction next year, we will be adding a workshop for weapons work, for polishing and restocking weapons. By the beginning of 2014, we should have the Armoury site operating fully.

  2. There is an incredible amount of interpretive information about military weaponry available at the magazine. Additionally, the weapons collection at the museum offers additional information as well.

    • Chuck- You are correct about the Magazine program. Military staff at the Magazine does a great job of presenting military program information. There are some original British muskets in the Magazine, and even more on display in the DeWitt Wallace Museum. In fact, Colonial Williamsburg has one of the most comprehensive collections of British Military firearms available for public view. I know that the curatorial staff is discussing an updated firearms display for the Dewitt Wallace Museum that will better highlight Virginia’s weapon manufacturing efforts during the war. We will be increasing our programs and presentations in the next few years to better tell the story of the industrial buildup which was driven by the need for war materials in the Chesapeake.

  3. Perhaps this has been posted previously and I fail to recall it as such, but could the WC authories post a tentative “shed-dual” for the erection of the tin shop building?

    • Rick- We just recently set the landmark dates for tinsmith shop construction. Our plan is to raise the frame on December 21, work on enclosing the builidng in late December and early January, finish the interior during February and March, with a planned “opening” of the building in late March or early April. We will announce the dates with greater precision as we see how the work progresses. In the blacksmith shop we are making hardware for the tin shop at present, and will be making tooling for the tin shop during the winter, with plans to have an operational program by summer.

  4. The blog columns are very informative and enjoyable, as usual. Who would have thought that raspberry seeds would indicate someone lived nearby! Or that lead would be worthy of stealing and that framing members placed close together would be a theft deterrent. I would think the effort required to pry into the building, or the noise would keep thieves away. (But then who would think air conditioners would be stolen as they are today.) We are planning a fall 2013 visit, but now I see there are plans for additional buildings which will be under construction when we visit. Keep up the good work and thanks again.

    Dave

    • Dave- Glad to hear that you are following the blog, and finding it informative. We have plenty of construction planned for 2013, including the tinsmtih shop, a second workshop building, a storage building, and a privy. That will complete the collection of buildings that we believe were on the site in 1780. We plan on having a grand opening in November of 2013. Join us if you can!

  5. Good day to the archaelogists. I tremendously enjoyed the article by Meredith Poole and Andy Edwards in the recent edition of the “Williamsburg Journal” pertaining to the two skeltal remains. It never ceases to amaze me what is yet to be discovered.
    The article by Ken Swartz pertaining to the work at the Armoury and the gunsmith shop was additionally informative. A close eye will be kept on the webcams to watch the growth of the rest of the Armoury buildings.

    • Ron- I second your positive review of the article by Meredith and Andy. I have the good fortune to be here in close communication with them as each new discovery is made. Usually, each new discovery leads to new questions, new research needs, and ultimately, additional insights.

      Do keep an eye on the webcams. We plan the tinsmith shop frame raising on December 21st, and the camera will be following progress of that building. In the mean time, it may return to the blacksmith shop interior for a few weeks.

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve had time to do more than just browse the latest posts-once school starts, computer time is limited! There is a lot happening at CW, as usual. Last night, I was reading the fall issue of the CW Journal and found a couple of things that sparked questions/comments. Ken-had no idea you were training to be a tinsmith. How’s that going for you? I expect to see some pictures soon! This next question may have been answered in a previous post, but I’m asking anyway. With 40 smiths working at the armoury, were they working in shifts? That is a large number of men for that size of an amoury. I’m also curious about cows’ hooves being turned into “neat’s foot oil.”

    I have yet to read Meredith’s article regarding the skeleton find in 2010. That is something I missed previously. I’m sure I will have questions for you, Meredith. Wishing I could make another trip before the year is out.

    • Mimi- Thanks for the questions. Curator Erik Goldstein and I took a class in tinsmithing with Master Tinsmith Bill McMillen in the summer of 2011. My goal was not necessarily to become a tinsmith myself, but to understand the trade enough to develop a furnishing plan for the shop, and to evaluate the work of potential candidates for the positions within the tinsmith shop. It was an intensive hands-on class, and we did make several pieces of tinware, including cups and mugs, trays, a bread basket, candle sconce and a coffee pot. We plan to hire two tinsmiths in the next couple of months to operate the shop, with plans to have an operational shop by next summer. The experience was useful for both Erik and myself, and along with Bill McMillen’s advisory assistance, we should have a top-notch tinsmith shop in the coming years.

      As for the 40 workmen- I suspect that about half of them worked in the Armoury building itself. James Anderson also had a workshop with “two forges and eight vises for the gunsmtith’s trade” in a building on the adjacent lot (which we will not include in the Armoury site’s active interpretive programming). This building provided work space for another 10 or 15 workmen. There were also cooks in the kitchen, and workmen (perhaps in the workshop building to be built in 2013) who were invloved in gun stocking (making the wooden stock of the firearm).

      I don’t believe that there was shift work, as the work day is defined by available sunlight. Lacking a source of cheap artificial light, there is little productive work that can be done once the sun sets. Extending the opportunity for work is one of the great impacts of electrical lighting, where you can have the same light at midnight that you have at midday.

      Neats foot oil is an animal fat that is extracted from cattle hooves by boiling them and collecting the oil. According to the OED, “neats foot” is the heel of a cow, and the source of oil- used especially in dressing leather.

      Hope this is helpful, and we look forward to seeing you on your next visit.

  7. I recently purchased a home which has a Folger Adam Williamsburg reproduction rim brass lock (knob by knob) with no outside cylinder and bit key. The key was misplaced by the movers the very first day I moved in and I am desperate to find a replacement or have another made. I can send a photo of same. Could you advise if you can provide a solution to my problem? I would be more than happy to remove the lock and personally drive to Williamsburg and discuss same. Any comments you can provide will be most helpful. I thank you in advance for any courtesies extended to me.


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