Shotgun News, May 1, 2005, pp. 24-25
Counting Gunsmiths in Early America
One of the little research projects that I have been working on the last several years, as regular readers of this column know, is a book about the development of gun culture in the United States. One aspect of that book is, "How many gunsmiths were there in early America?" This is an issue that became important only because Michael Bellesiles's book Arming America (Knopf, 2000), made the claim that there were so few guns in America that gunsmiths could not make a living here,1 that only a "handful" of gunsmiths worked here in the first 150 years of settlement,2 and that right up to the Revolution, Americans could not make guns.3 At best, Americans could only assemble guns from parts, and they did not even do that very often, because there was so little demand for them. Even after the Revolution, Bellesiles claims, Americans were almost completely incompetent at the business of making guns, and what few were made here before 1848 were almost entirely made as part of U.S. Government contracts.4
If you read Shotgun News, you are probably inclined to either be enraged by such a claim, or laugh yourself silly. American museums are full of guns that were made here in the period before 1840--and they are not particularly scarce. Of course, you are not the crowd that needs to be enlightened; it is academics, journalists, and other opinion makers. As part of my efforts, I have been gathering information about early American gunsmiths--not only those craftsmen that repaired guns, but also those who made them.
Now, some of you have books up on the shelf filled with information about early gunsmiths, volumes such as A. Merwyn Carey's American Firearms Makers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1953), or Arcadi Gluckman's American Gun Makers (Harrisburg, Penn.: The Stackpole Co., 1953). Unfortunately, these books, because they were written primarily for gun collectors, do not meet the exacting standards required to satisfy academics. There are no sources listed for the information about these early gunsmiths. I believe that Carey and Gluckman--and more recent compilers of these lists--are honest and careful, but if you cannot point to a particular source for the information that these books contain, scholars--and those who pretend to be scholars--will not take that information very seriously.
Some of the more recent authors working in this field have been a lot more careful to use the scholarly mechanism of source citation. As an example, I am very impressed with Daniel D. Hartzler's Arms Makers of Maryland (George Shumway: York, Penn. 1977). I have dug into the sources that he cites enough to know that I can check his sources, and be confident that they say what he says that they say.
So far, I have information on about 2400 Americans who worked as gunsmiths in the period 1607-1840, for which I can identify a city, or at least a region, a name, and a year or years in which they worked at either making or repairing guns, or parts of guns. For every gunsmith that I included in this data base, I have probably left at least one out, because the information I was able to find did not identify exactly what years he (and in a few cases, she) worked, or in what region.
But along with the gunsmiths that I can identify--and in some cases, where I do not have quite enough information to include them--there are a lot of other gunsmiths that were certainly present, but who have left no records. In many cases, I know about gunsmiths because of a single reference to them--and sometimes, they are only a bystander to the situation or event described. An advertisement from 1737 South Carolina described where a sale of merchandise would be held as, "William Cathcart next door to Mr. Miller's the Gun-smith in Church-street..."5 This is the only known reference to Mr. Miller "the Gun-smith." How many other gunsmiths worked in South Carolina in the 1730s for whom we do not have such indirect evidence? Gunsmith Daniel Nash, who worked in Southfield, Massachusetts in 1699, left a trace only because a stolen gun was found in his shop, and this was mentioned in a criminal case.6
Even when a gunsmith is the primary reason that records exist, there is often only one survivingreference to his occupation. John Whitten is only mentioned once in the historical records, and then, only because of an tragedy. A great fire in 1760 Boston destroyed a public pier on which Whitten kept his shop. We can be sure that Whitten was a gunsmith, based on the inventory for which he sought reimbursement ("25 Gun locks... 22 Fire Arms" and various gunsmithing tools).7 Another example that I found during my recent research at the Masschusetts Historical Society was buried in the pages of the Massachusetts colony's account books for 1714-16--which have not been published. (I was very carefully turning the original pages of a bound book in which Jeremiah Allen had recorded the colony's accounts.) "Samuel Lamb Armourer at Castle William" received payment from Massachusetts colony for "cleaning & fixing arms & Bayonetts" in 1714. This is the only reference to Samuel Lamb's work as a gunsmith that I have found anywhere.8
Newspaper advertisements often tell us, only in passing, about a gunsmith--and sometimes, only once. The only known reference to a "Mr. Prevost, gunsmith" is the exhibition of a miniature version of a European city on display in his shop in 1763.9 William Palmer, a gunsmith in 1761 Philadelphia, appears in the historical record only because he mentioned his occupation when advertising for the return of some goods stolen from his shop.10 In 1773, Jacob Allen, "Gun-smith" had a shop in Maiden Lane, New York City--and the only mention of his business is that another merchant's ad described his location as "between the House of Mr. Jacob Allen's, Gun-smith and Mr. John Taylor Brass-Founder."11 James Steel, a blacksmith and gunsmith of Catham County, North Carolina, makes only one appearance in the historical record: a newspaper article that lists his occupation, and that he was wanted for murder.12 The Continental Congress ordered payment to a Peter Agnew "for repairing Arms for the Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion"13 but there are no other references to him as a gunsmith. Was this a one-time job by someone who was not a gunsmith? Or did he work for many years as a gunsmith, and left only this one indication in the official record? There are many other examples of gunsmiths known by one or two casual references--far too many to fit into this article.
Gunsmiths were a fundamental part of the early American economy. My statistical measures suggest that about 0.1% of the population in big cities in the late Colonial and early Republic period worked primarily as gunsmiths--and there were apparently large numbers of other Americans who worked at some other profession, and did gun repar on the side. Often these were blacksmiths, locksmiths, or clockmakers--but one especially bizarre example seems appropriate to close this article:
"Ignatius Leitner.... continues to draw deeds, mortgages, Power of Attorney, apprentice indentures, Bills, Notes, State executor and adminstrators accounts. He will as usual clerk at vendues and take inventories and all other instruments of writing done on shortest notice.... He continues and keeps hands at work in his former branches as making rifles, still cocks, casting rivets, gun mountings, etc. at the lowest prices."14
And you thought you did a lot of different jobs during the day!