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America's Greatest Gunmaker?: Nobody You Know
By Alexander Rose,
Author of American Rifle

Who was the most important gunmaker in American history? There must be at least half a dozen -- and maybe up to a score if you thought hard about it -- leading contenders. Let me get into the spirit of things by naming, off the top of my head and in no particular order, Oliver Winchester, Samuel Colt, Messrs. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Christopher Spencer, John Browning, Christian Sharps, the Remington brothers, John Garand, Eugene Stoner . . .

Each and every one of these individuals could with some justice claim the mantle of America's Greatest Gunmaker. But I'm giving the laurel to someone you've probably never heard of. In my view, instead of languishing in obscurity his name should be not merely a household one, but a national one celebrated each year with a parade, a day off work, a monument, and some fireworks. For it was he who almost singlehandedly laid the foundations for the United States's economic supremacy by developing a first truly "interchangeable" rifle in the first half of the nineteenth century. Think of him as the Alexander Graham Bell of weapons technology, the Steve Jobs of rifle design, the Henry Ford of the gun industry. Only completely obscure. And who never made any money.

So who is this illustrious Unsung Hero already? Blessed with the anodyne name of John Hall, he was Maine born (in 1781) and was obsessed from his early 30s with creating machines -- humans were not up to the task, thought he -- that would make rifles, thousands of them, each perfect and indistinguishable from the others. Hall dreamed that one could manufacture a batch of rifles, dismantle them, randomly mix each gun's parts -- from the tiniest screw upwards -- and then reassemble them. They would function immaculately, or so the theory went.

Now, to us this might not seem so extraordinary a dream; after all, factories around the world today produce many millions of identical television sets, microwave ovens, Barbie dolls, and so forth. Even the computer you may be reading this on is the same in every particular to a vast horde of others. There is nothing inherently individual about it.

At the time, however, what was called "interchangeability" was considered the Holy Grail. So high were the obstacles confronting inventors that few believed it could ever be achieved -- for any product, let alone anything as sophisticated as a rifle. It was destined, they thought, to remain a fool's quest. Only Hall, who had set up a Rifle Works at Harpers Ferry Armory, thought otherwise. For decades, he worked all hours of the day, struggling against disbelieving superiors, costcutting beancounters, and incompetent bureaucrats, to build the world's first mass-produced rifle. Indeed, so driven was Hall that he not only wanted to win the prize but to do it with a highly advanced breechloading weapon. (These then-newfangled guns loaded through an opening behind the barrel and above the trigger, which increased speed of loading and fire, as opposed to muskets, which were charged with ball and powder at the muzzle).

It's difficult to communicate the vaulting ambition of Hall's objectives to modern readers. Just as there was no mode of transport faster than a horse in pre-industrial America, everything, absolutely everything, was made by hand, some elbow grease, and a few tools in small workshops scattered around the country. Take a gunsmith, for instance. Following a lengthy apprenticeship, he would establish his own shop in which he fashioned for himself every part of a gun, from boring the barrel, to molding the screws, to carving the buttstock, to attaching the sights.

Even with an apprentice of his own to help, he could turn out only a few guns a month and owing to the vagaries of construction, his level of skill, his preferences, and the quality of materials, each was slightly different from the one before. To the naked eye, they might look outwardly similar, but in a piece of equipment subjected to the titanic thermo-dynamic forces that a gun is, even an imperceptibly loose nut would eventually shake free and and cause a potentially lethal explosion. Worse, as there were no yardsticks to standardize performance or measurements, one gunsmith's weapon would be profoundly different from that made in an adjacent county or even across the street: Some would be heavier, some would have longer barrels, some fit larger calibers . . . Everything about them was individual, in other words.

Hall was, in the end, a tragic figure. By 1830, after nearly twenty years of toil, he finally had his machines ready, had produced a limited number of rifles, and had acquired a sheaf of admiring reports from the army's trials. On the cusp of worldly success, Hall fell victim to his insistence on working alone, aided only by a team of hand-picked, superbly trained mechanics. Time had caught up with him. His breechloader mechanism, once revolutionary, lagged behind newer entrants to the gun market and upstart rivals (like Colt) were discovering for themselves the secrets of interchangeability. He had always been "difficult to get along with" but he was too old, and now too reluctant to listen to advice or to introduce changes, to keep his fiefdom at the Rifle Works. Gently, he was pushed out of Harpers Ferry by a younger generation of engineers and ordnance specialists.

His health rapidly deteriorated and he died on February 26, 1841. Hall's rifle was shelved shortly after and the world moved on and forgot about him. Today, not a single likeness of the great man exists and just a few specimens of the great Hall breechloader are kept in museums. In fact, while I was writing the book, American Rifle: A Biography, I was allowed to enter the Smithsonian Institution's hallowed Gun Room -- a vast storehouse of deadly weaponry not open to the public. After donning white gloves, I picked up a Hall, still a magnificent piece of engineering after all these years, and marveled at the beauty of its mechanism.

Hall, however, did enjoy a posthumous last laugh. The mechanics to whom he imparted the secrets of interchangeability went forth into the world, multiplying and prospering. In their vast diaspora, they applied the teachings of their high priest to every sector of the country's business enterprise, bringing to an end the era of individual craftsmanship and small-scale manufacturing. Hall's rifle, in short, heralded the shock of a new industrial age and the rise of the American superpower.

The names of Colt, Smith & Wesson, Winchester, and Remington resound still today -- but they owed their all to this plucky, cranky Yankee from Maine.

©2008 Alexander Rose

Author Bio
Alexander Rose earned his doctorate from Cambridge University, where his prizewinning research focused on political and scientific history.  He is the author of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, and his writing has appeared in the Observer, the Washington Post, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.  His latest book, American Rifle: A Biography, is available October 2008 from Delacorte Press.