October 24, 2012
Where is the Gunsmith?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.