Early American Gunsmithing: A Family Affair

When I was researching the history of American gun culture, I spent quite a bit of time looking for evidence of gunsmiths—both those who made guns, and those who repaired them.  What was quite intriguing to me was how often gunsmithing was a craft that passed down from father to son.  

I suppose that this should not have been a surprise.  Until the federal government consciously transformed gun making from a craft to an industrial enterprise, starting in the 1790s, gunsmithing would have been like any other occupation of the time: your shop was in your home, or perhaps immediately adjacent to it.  It would only be natural that your children would be pressed into service, learn the skills, and take over the family business when the father died, or became too old to perform the most physically demanding aspects, such as forging barrels.

Some families in the gun business stayed in it for generations.  Richard Waters emigrated to Massachusetts from England about 1632.  A descendant in 1878 observed that Waters “was by profession a gun manufacturer; married the daughter of a gun maker, and it is a noteworthy fact that the business of gun making has been hereditary in some branch of the Waters families almost continuously since.”1  
Eltweed Pomeroy set up gunsmithing at Dorchester in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  The colonial government granted him 1000 acres on the Connecticut River, on the condition that he carry on the business of gun making there.  Seven generations of his family continued in that line of work until 1849.2  
Perhaps the best known of these families are the Henrys of Pennsylvania.  An invoice shows that on January 26, 1765, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania gunsmith John Henry bought hundreds of gun parts: “93 Hamers... 77 Cocks... 81 Cock Pins... 90 Bridles... 79 Tumblers... 2 Groce Gun Bolts... 258 Fuzee Main Springs... 281 Hamer Springs... 263 Cocks... 278 Cock Pins... 305 Bridles... 271 Tumblers... 225 Forg'd Britches...”3  John Henry was making gunlocks, and complete guns—and not on a small scale.  This was his primary occupation throughout the 1770s, with receipts for rifles made and money owed for a variety of repair services.4  
William Henry I, John Henry’s brother, was also making guns before the Revolution in Lancaster.  In 1766, he paid William Bradford for advertising, apparently for the gun business.5  During the Revolution, William Henry of Nazareth had a number of contracts to produce rifles for the Pennsylvania government6 (along with other military goods), as well a providing gun repair services to the state.7  Henry’s contracts with the state and federal government continued after the Revolution.8

William Henry I’s descendants were making guns for at least five generations, ending with Granville Henry in the 1890s.  We are fortunate that unlike many of the other early gunmaking families, for the Henrys, we have a surprisingly complete sets of documents.  William Henry I’s son, William Henry II, moved gun making operations to Nazareth around 1778, gradually expanding into a modern factory after 1792.  The volume of surviving documents provides extensive evidence of the scale of the Henry family gun making business, and the business sophistication of its proprietors.

Throughout much of the period 1808 to 1825, J. Joseph Henry II (grandson of William Henry I) operated the Nazareth gun factory, while his brother William Henry III operated the Philadelphia based sales and parts procurement office.  J. Joseph, the elder brother, appears to have received top billing; an undated business card lists his name, “Manufactures Rifles, Fowling pieces, Barels, Gun locks &c. of every description.  No. 290 North third Street Philadelphia.”9  
While the Henry family business is among the better known, there were other long surviving early Republic gun making firms.  The Tryon gun making business, which partnered with the Henry firm in the making of muskets for federal contracts in 1814, remained in the gunsmithing business from 1811 until at least 1911.10  The Molls have a similar story to the Henrys on a smaller scale.  William Moll left a rifle-making tool to his son John Moll I, sometime after 1747, for the tool was so inscribed.  By 1772, he appears in records as "John Moll, Gunsmith" living in Allentown, Pennsylvania,11 and a surviving early rifle is known to have been made by him.12  John Moll made firearms for the Pennsylvania government during the Revolution.13 John Moll II carried on his father’s gun making business, selling it to his son John Moll III in 1820, who was still a gunsmith as late as 1883.  John Moll II's other son, Peter Moll, was making rifles in Hellertown by 1826, and also made pistols.14
Along with these dynasties of gun making, there are many examples somewhat more short-lived.  For example, one of my ancestors, nineteen generations back, was Thomas Nash, who settled at New Haven in 1640.  He was not only a gunsmith, but the colony’s armorer, ordered to “keepe the Towne Muskitts in his hands, and look to them well, that they be always in good order fitt for service….”15  His first son, John Nash, also was a gunsmith16—and an expert witness in what appears to have been America’s first firearms product liability suit, in 1645!17  Joseph Nash, Thomas Nash’s second son, and Timothy, the youngest son, were both trained as gunsmiths, and apparently worked at least briefly as such, before focusing on blacksmith work.18  
Specialization in small towns was not practical; to earn a living, you needed to be willing to do whatever work was currently in demand, and so blacksmiths often worked as gunsmiths, as needed.  A stolen gun that shows up in Massachusetts court records shows the continuity of gunsmithing in the Nash family.  Timothy’s son Daniel Nash is listed as a blacksmith,19 but appears in the records in 1699, when the authorities found a stolen gun in Daniel’s shop, apparently brought to him for repair.20

Along with these examples of gunsmith families that are well documented and easy to follow, there are many others where gunsmithing was, so to speak, in the genes, but the records are simply not complete enough to do more than suggest the extent.  We often have a few surviving firearms made by members of these families, but exact dates and relationships are often impossible to determine, such as the Sheetz (or Sheets) family of Lancaster and York Counties in Pennsylvania.  We have dates for Philip Sheetz, but for fifteen of his descendants and cousins in the Revolutionary period and early Republic, we know only that they worked as gunsmiths, but not the exact years.  

Similarly, the Hertzog family produced at least three generations of gunsmiths from 1776 through the 1840s, but we have only partial dates for three of the five Hertzogs known to have worked as gunsmiths.21   The Hawken family of gunsmiths included at least fifteen gunsmiths in early America, but firm date information is only available for ten of them.22  
The Rizor family of gunsmiths suffers from too many cousins with the same first and last name, living too close to each other, making a real mess of the records.  This greatly complicates the process of figuring out who worked as a gunsmith, and in what years.23
Kauffman’s Early American Gunsmiths lists Christian Paulsey as a gunsmith in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, but does not provide any dates.24  Hartzler tells us about the Marker family of gunsmiths: Daniel Marker, George Marker, Jr., and Paul Marker who made rifles that have survived—but gives us nothing more definite than “during the flintlock period….”25

During my research into early American gunsmiths, I have made a point of recording every such worker where I can identify a location and date.  For the period through 1840, I have identified more than 2300 such gunsmiths.  Some are obvious father and son relationships.  Henry Watkeys appears as a gunsmith in 1775 New York City—and 25 years later, Henry Watkeys, Jr. is a gunsmith in that same city.  Similarly, Hendrick Van Dewater, Sr. was a gunsmith in New York City 1717-20—and Hendrick Van Dewater, Jr., was a gunsmith in that same city 1727-84.

In many cases, there are unusual last names that suggest a family relationship, such as Casper Yost of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, John Yost of Georgetown, Maryland, and Henry Yost of Frederick County, Maryland, all around the time of the Revolution.  Similarly, a Richard Wingert was a gunsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the Revolution, and a William Wingert is a gunsmith in 1837 Detroit—almost fifty years later.  

One of the more intriguing family relationships that I have found involves a Rebecca Nicholson, listed as a gunsmith in Philadelphia in 1800.26  It was sometimes the case that after a gunsmith died that his widow would remain actively involved in the business—but usually, there was a son that took over.  There is a John Nicholson, Sr., who is listed as a gunsmith in Philadelphia as early as 177427 and as late as 1796.28  There is also a John B. Nicholson, Jr., listed as a gunsmith in Philadelphia in 1800.29  Rebecca Nicholson might be the widow of the elder John Nicholson—but Rebecca and John B. Nicholson, Jr., are listed as gunsmiths at different addresses.  It seems unlikely (although not impossible) that the widow would continue operating independently of her son.  Was Rebecca perhaps the brother of John B. Nicholson, Jr.?  It would be remarkable—but there are other remarkable examples from the period of women invading traditionally male occupations.  Without much more research, this question remains an intriguing and curious possibility.
The transformation of gun making to a modern industrial enterprise was, on the whole, a net gain for not only the gun making business, but America as a whole.  What was lost was the old system of highly skilled craftsmen making an entire gun, after years of learning to make individual parts as an apprentice.  When a father in 1825 asked the superintendent of the Springfield Armory about apprenticing his son there to learn the gunsmith’s trade, he was encouraged to apprentice his son to an individual tradesman, as he would more likely learn all the skills required to become a gunsmith there.  Springfield Armory was already well on its way towards specialization and division of labor.30  A more efficient system—but one that lost the craftsman tradition, and soon, the family tradition of gunmaking.

1 Asa H. Waters, Gun Making in Sutton and Millbury (Worcester, Mass.: Lucius P. Goddard, 1878), 3-5; Felicia Johnson Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley: A Regional Study of the Economic Development of the Small Arms Industry, 1798-1870 (Menasha, Wisc.: George Banta Publishing Co., 1948), 33.

2 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 33; “Colonel Seth Pomeroy,” The American Review 7[May, 1848]:461; M.L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980), 149-150.

3 Historical Society of Pennsylvania Henry Papers, 2:9, at Historical Society of Pennsylvania (hereinafter HSP Henry Papers).

4 HSP Henry Papers, 1:7, 2:18, 20, 21, 29.

5 Henry Papers at Hagley Museum and Library (hereinafter, Hagley Henry Papers), accession 1309, series 2, box 8.

6 Samuel Hazard, ed., Colonial Records of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Penn.: Theo Fenn, 1852), 10:523.

7 Hazard, Colonial Records of Pennsylvania, 11:506.

8 Thomas E. Holt, “Pennsylvania 1798 Contract Muskets,” American Society of Arms Collectors 2 [November, 1956], 19-20; Arcadi Gluckman, United States Muskets, Rifles and Carbines (Buffalo, N.Y.: Otto Ulbrich Co., 1948), 69-82, 104-116.

9 Series 2, Folder 7, Hagley Henry Papers.

10 Charles Z. Tryon, The History Of A Business Established One Hundred Years Ago (Philadelphia: n.p. [1911]).

11 Earl S. Heffner, Jr., The Moll Gunsmiths (Point Lookout, Mo.: School of the Ozarks, Book Division, 1972), 5-6.

12 Henry J. Kauffman, The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle (Morgantown, Penn.: Masthof Press, 2005), 100.

13 William Jacob Heller, “The Gun Makers of Old Northampton,” 7, in Henry Melchior Muhlenberg Richards, ed., The Pennsylvania-German in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (Lancaster, Penn.: New Era Printing Co., 1908).

14 Heffner, The Moll Gunsmiths, 13-14, 18-19, 21-24, 27.

15 Sylvester Nash, The Nash Family; or Records of the Descendants of Thomas Nash of New Haven, Connecticut, 1640 (Hartford, Conn.: Case, Tiffany & Co., 1853), 13-14, 16.

16 Nash, The Nash Family, 19-20.

17 Charles J. Hoadly, ed., Records Of The Colony And Plantation Of New Haven, From 1638 To 1649 (Hartford,

Conn.: Case, Tiffany, 1857), 176-77; Clayton E. Cramer, "America's First Firearms Product Liability Suit?", Shotgun News, November 19, 2001, 18-19.

18 Nash, The Nash Family, 24, 27.

19 Nash, The Nash Family, 37.

20 Joseph H. Smith, ed., Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702): The Pynchon Court Record, An Original Judges' Diary of the Administration of Justice in the Springfield Courts in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 362-3.  

21 James Whisker, The Gunsmith’s Trade (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 14-15.

22 Daniel D. Hartzler, Arms Makers of Maryland (George Shumway: York, Penn. 1977), 169-92.

23 Hartzler, Arms Makers of Maryland, 238-44.

24 Henry J. Kauffman, Early American Gunsmiths: 1650-1850 (New York: Bramhall House, 1952), 73.

25 Hartzler, Arms Makers of Maryland, 51, 212-16.

26 New Trade Directory for Philadelphia, Anno 1800 (Philadelphia: n.p., 1800), 75.

27 William Henry Egle, ed., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, Penn.: William Stanley Ray, 1897), 3rd ser., 14:225.

28 Thomas Stephens, Stephen’s Philadelphia Directory, For 1796 (Philadelphia: n.p., 1796).

29 New Trade Directory for Philadelphia, Anno 1800 (Philadelphia: n.p., 1800), 75.

30 Whisker, The Gunsmith’s Trade, 4-5.