First Place Social and Natural Sciences First Year Level
The Bullet of Industry: Interchangeable Parts in Gun Production
FYEC 237.10 – Ethics and Capitalism
Professors Edward Showalter and Robert Gray
Before the origination of the American System of Manufacture, guns were individually
made by craftsmen – a long and slow process. Craftsmen required special training,
and when guns were damaged only a specialist could repair them, and repair was expensive
and time-consuming. Gun ownership was exceptional for American citizens in the eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries, and the government was unable to supply those on
the frontier with the much-needed weapons (Bellisiles 426). However, this all changed
with the advent of industrialization, bringing with it the American System and thus
the introduction of interchangeable parts in guns. This revolutionized the gun industry,
making them cheaper, easier, and faster to produce as well as repair, and rendering
the process of making guns so efficient and cheap that America was catapulted to
the status of the industrial leader of the world.
The American System that was so integral to industrialization in America was mainly
effective for its two important attributes: the manufacture and assembly of identical,
interchangeable parts, and the production thereof using highly mechanized assembly
lines (Encyclopedia 923). The production of interchangeable parts was a revolutionary
concept, but substantial technological advances were needed to render it possible.
Recent studies have shown that Eli Whitney, whom history often credits with the
invention and application of interchangeable gun parts, was more involved with advertising
the idea and neither originated nor developed the idea of mechanized production
of interchangeable guns (Hounshell 30-1).
Rather more important were Samuel Colt – and his famous gun manufacturing company
of the same name – and the federal armories of Harper’s Ferry and Springfield. Both
were integral in the adaptation of the American System and interchangeable parts
to the mass manufacture of guns, as well as the maximization of input-output efficiency
through their use of complex machinery. The federal armories, supported by the U.S.
government’s Ordnance Department, were famed for the successful mechanization of
their factories, leading to a disproportionately high output rate of muskets as
compared to the labor force, expenditures, and sizes of the armories (Smith 222-3).
This output rate was mainly due to their vast technological advances, which radiated
out from the American gun industry to numerous other industries both national and
worldwide, including the famed Ford Model T car that finally made automobiles affordable.
Interchangeable parts also spurred the invention of Numerical Control, or NC, almost
a century later. To make interchangeable parts, machinery must be able to build
parts to tolerance – that is, the parts must all conform to one exact set of dimensions.
This requires accurate machinery that will not wear out – and as technology evolved,
NC grew out of the need for more accurate machinery. NC, or Computer Numerical Control
as it is now known, uses numerical interpolation to create a “memory” of the product,
which is used to repeatedly make exact replicas (Bleier).
Politically, increased gun manufacture using the American System established America
as the world’s military and industrial leader, and this only increased as the American
System spread to other American industries. The government was heavily invested
in the idea of uniformity among guns, as demonstrated by the insistence that the
national armories and the Ordinance Department exhibited throughout the struggle
to adapt to the new mechanized system of production (Smith 110). Domestic production
increased exponentially, which meant that America did not have to rely as much on
foreign markets for the supply of guns for the military. This advantage was tested
in 1989 when the Bush administration imposed a gun import ban on all foreign suppliers
of assault weapons, creating a huge demand for guns from U.S. arms makers (Johnson).
The immediate concern that led to the concept of interchangeable parts was purely
military – to rectify the problem of thousands of damaged weapons being rendered
virtually useless, when they could have been repaired in the field using interchangeable
parts. (Smith 106) However, people soon realized that the economic benefits were
tremendous. The manufacture of such guns was astoundingly affordable and efficient.
In the Harpers Ferry Rifle Works, under the visionary John H. Hall, the first rifles
produced in 1824 had a unit cost of $20.59 for expenditures of production. In 1832,
the unit cost was $14.50 – and the guns of Harpers Ferry were considered expensive
compared to the far more efficient factories of Simeon North (Smith 220).
The benefits surpassed production efficiency – interchangeable, identical parts
allowed for easy repair of guns simply by replacing the damaged part with an identical,
unblemished one. This was economically advantageous to the military as well as private
citizens, because identical parts were readily available to anyone who wanted them,
and there was no need to bring the guns to specialists for expensive repair or maintenance.
In fact, there was only one economic disadvantage that presented a huge problem
for the early pioneers such as Whitney, Colt, and Hall: capital. Mechanized production
of interchangeable parts required huge amounts of capital to initiate such a process,
because all the machines had to be unusually accurate to ensure the parts were made
within tolerance. Well over a third of the Rifle Works’ $432,899 price tag for expenditures
between 1819 and 1835 was for the creation of tools and machinery (Smith 221).
The social impact of interchangeable parts as applicable to guns was primarily negative,
but it was overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive effect on American industries
and is only coming into view in the present day. There are two aspects to the social
facet: the labor force and the influx of guns into society. With the introduction
of machinery in the production of guns, the need for specialized workers was drastically
reduced (Hounshell 20). A company that might need one hundred specialized workers
now only needed ten unspecialized workers to do the same tasks. However, this problem
is not as relevant to the gun industry as it was during the entire Industrial Revolution.
The other social issue was and is far more pressing – the role of guns in society
and the effect of an increased influx of guns into the market. This is evidently
also an ethical issue, and one that has only worsened with the progression of time.
As historian Michael A. Bellesiles so eloquently phrased, “[t]he gun culture grew
with the gun industry”(426). When the gun industry exploded due to increased production
efficiency, America embraced guns. Guns became especially prevalent among the frontiersmen,
where guns were deemed vital to survival, and the urban settlers, where industrialization
made guns a common commodity (Bellesiles 426). This continued even when guns ceased
being necessary for survival, with the Second Amendment protecting anyone who desires
possession of a gun. The prevalence of such a violent and effective weapon leads
to multiple ethical issues, such as the debate of the right of self-defense versus
the role of guns in perpetuating violence. Assault rifles and increasing terrorist
and domestic threats have just worsened the problem. America’s “gun culture” is
now one of the most polarizing issues in American politics, and there seems to be
no end in sight.
There is no argument that interchangeable gun parts and the accompanying mechanization
of the process was an invaluable boon to the American economy, and was invaluable
to America’s rise as one of the world’s most industrialized nations. However, the
massive influx of guns and the resulting “gun culture” that arose in America afterwards
is an ongoing cause for concern. Industrialization of the gun industry was invaluable
in our rise to the top, but it is now one of our worst problems as a nation.
Bellesiles, Michael A. “The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865.”
The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 2. Bloomington, IN: The Organization
of American Historians, 1996. Web. 2 December 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2944942>
Bleier, Norman. “Muskets and Machining.” MAN: Modern Applications News. 1
August 2007. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 December 2012.
Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. Print.
Johnson, Kirk. “Gun Import Ban Enriches Small U.S. Arms Makers.” The New York Times.
14 July 1989. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 December 2012.
Smith, Merritt Roe. Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1977. Print.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 3rd ed. Vol. 29. Chicago: Encyclopedia
Britannica, Inc., 2010. Print.