A Day at the Armory: Part I

One of the most exciting aspects of historical research is the thrill of finding a truly great primary source. As you probably recall from History 101, a primary source is a document, report or set of observations written contemporaneous with the period you’re studying.  The best primary sources are first-person accounts—these reports from the past give historians our best evidence of what things were really like in a given place and time.

Recently, while researching Hartford’s industrial history for our Places of Invention exhibition, I uncovered a remarkable first person account of the inner working of Samuel Colt’s Hartford Armory from 1857. The observations of the unnamed reporter and (pre-photographic!) renderings by artist Nathaniel Orr provide a rich sense of life in Coltsville and on the factory floor.

Fortunately, copyright protection has expired on such an old piece, so I thought it would be fun to reprint it here. The original article is quite long so I have cut and provided a digest of certain sections, while retaining the descriptions of the factory and grounds. Enjoy!

“Repeating Fire-Arms:  A Day at the Armory of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” United States Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3 (March 1857): 221-249.

Eric’s note: The first part of the article describes Colt’s invention and patenting of the revolver in 1836.  It then describes Colt’s first failed efforts to build a successful business in Paterson, NJ.  In 1847, after correcting some of the defects in his original design, Colt received an order for 1000 revolvers from Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers.  Colt contracted with Eli Whitney, Jr. of Hamden, CT to manufacture the revolvers to his specifications.  The proceeds from this and subsequent orders allowed Colt to establish a temporary factory in his native Hartford, then build his permanent factory in 1855.  The observer from United States Magazine, writing in 1857, describes the two-year old armory.   

[The orders from Colt’s improved revolver enabled him to] …transfer his enterprise to Hartford, his own native town, upon the banks of the Connecticut, where he has at last succeeded in founding an armory, the most magnificent of its kind, it may be safely alleged, in the known world – an establishment, built in the first place by damming out – in a project deemed by many, in its inception, almost superhuman – the waters of the mighty Connecticut in their maddened freshet time – which incorporates, in buildings and machinery, a full million of dollars – which give employment to from six to eight hundred men inside the main building, and to numerous hands outside, – which dispenses daily, in wages alone from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and manufactures, year by year, from seventy-five to one hundred thousand arms…

…Within the corporate limits of the City of Hartford, immediately below the Little or Mill River, is a section land, containing about 250 acres, which, owing to its formerly being submerged at the periodical freshets of the Connecticut River, was available at certain seasons only, and then but for grazing. Colonel Colt selected and purchased this spot as his field of operations. His first move was to erect an embankment, or dyke, by which the waters of the Connecticut were entirely and permanently excluded; thus reclaiming the land for building purposes or tillage, as might be desired. This embankment is about two miles long, averaging over one hundred feet wide at the base, and over forty feet in width at the top, and from ten to twenty feet in height. It is built in the most substantial manner, the sides being covered with osier, both for protection and ornament, and for material for his willow works factory, for which he has brought fifty skilled craftsmen from Germany and plans to build for them Swiss-chalet style houses called the Potsdam village. From the smoothness of the road on the dyke, and the beautiful scenery in the vicinity, the dyke has become the fashionable drive of the citizens.

Drawing of Colt Armory from across the Connecticut River, 1857.

Figure 1. Armory of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, from across the Connecticut River. Notice the earthen work dykes secured by osier (willow) trees on the opposite river bank. From United States Magazine, 1857.

That the operations might be on the most extended scale, and also that the proprietor might have the undivided exertions of his principal assistants in the manufacture, an association was now formed under a special law from the state, styled “Colt’s Patent Fire-arms Manufacturing Company.” The stockholders in the company are few, Colonel Colt being largely the principal, and the others the heads of the various departments of the business. The capital is $1,250,000; the whole of which is invested in the buildings, tools, machinery, raw materials, etc….The new armory…was finished and operations commenced in it in the Fall of 1855.

The motive power is located about in the center of the main building. It consists of a steam engine – cylinder, 36 inches in diameter, 7 foot stroke, fly-wheel 30 feet in diameter, weighing 7 tons. This engine, which is rated at 250 horse power, is supplied with the well-known “Sickel’s Cutoff,” which the superintendent and engineer speak of as the most useful and important addition to the steam-engine since the days of Watt. The steam is furnished from two cylindrical boilers, each 22 feet long and 7 feet in diameter. The power is carried to the attic by a belt working on the fly-wheel; this belt is 118 feet long by 22 inches wide, and travels at the rate of 2,500 feet per minute.

Fully appreciating the great interest manifested by our readers in descriptions of this kind, we will now proceed to conduct them through the interior of this immense industrial pile, and on the way we will endeavor to explain, as understandingly as possible, the various processes of the manufacture, from the raw metal and wood, to the complete and effective arms familiarly known as Colt’s Revolvers.

Leaving the office we cross the bridge, pass down through the machine shop, engine room, etc., to the rear parallel, an apartment 40 by 50 feet square, the center of which is appropriated as the store-room for iron and steel. Large quantities of these materials, in bars and rods, are stored here in charge of a responsible party, whose duty it is to fill the orders from the contractors, and render an accurate statement of such deliveries to the main storekeeper’s department. This latter system is universal throughout the establishment – thus the materials of all kinds can be readily accounted for, no matter what their state of transposition.

Drawing of the furnaces and anvils of Colt Armory's forging shop, 1857.

Figure 2: The furnaces and anvils of Colt’s forging shop. From United States Magazine, 1857.

We now follow them to the armory proper, which, in the first place, is the second story of the front parallel. This is probably not only the most spacious, but the best arranged and fitted workshop extant. We fully understand this to be a broad and sweeping assertion, yet we have an abundance of competent authority to back the opinion. On first entering this immense room, from the office, the tout ensemble is really grand and imposing, and the beholder is readily impressed with an exalted opinion of the vast mechanical resources of the corporation. The room is 500 feet long by 60 feet wide, and 16 feet high. It is lighted, on all sides, by 110 windows that reach nearly from floor to ceiling; it is warmed by steam from the boilers – the pipers being under the benches, running completely around the sides and ends; there are the perfect arrangements for ventilation, and sufficient gas burners to illuminate the whole for night-work. Running along through the center is a row of cast-iron columns, sixty in number, to which is attached the shafting – which here is arranged as a continuous pulley – for driving the machines, as close together as possible, only allowing sufficient space to get around and work them. The whole of this immense floor space is covered with machine tools. Each portion of the fire-arm has its particular section. As we enter the door the first group of machines appears to be exclusively employed in chambering cylinders; the next turning and shaping them; here another is boring barrels; another group is milling the lockframes; still another is drilling them; beyond are a score of machines boring and screw-cutting the nipples, and next to them a number of others are making screws; here are the rifling machines, and there the machines for boring rifle-barrels; now we come to the jigging machines that mortice out the lock-frames; and thus it goes on all over this great hive of physical and mental exertion.

Drawing of the second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting, 1857.

Figure 3: The second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting. From United States Magazine, 1857.

As soon as completed the different parts are carried to the story above, which, with the exception of the machinery and the columns through the center, is an exact counterpart of the room below. It is designated the Inspecting and Assembling Department. Here the different parts are most minutely inspected; this embraces a series of operations which in the aggregate amount to considerable; the tools to inspect a cylinder, for example, are fifteen in number, each of which must gauge to a hair; the greatest nicety is observed, and it is absolutely impossible to get a slighted piece of work beyond this point.

The finished arm is laid on a rack, ready for the prover; of course many others accompany it to the department of this official, which is located in the third story of the rear building. Here each chamber is loaded with the largest charge possible, and practically tested by firing; after which, they are wiped out by the prover and returned to the inspection department. The inspectors again take them apart, thoroughly clean and oil them, when they are for the last time put together and placed in a rack for the final inspection. This is done by Mr. William Tuller, a gentleman who has been in the constant employment of Colonel Colt since the manufacture commenced in Hartford. The parts having been so thoroughly examined and tested, it would seem that this last inspection was scarcely necessary; but, after a short observation, we saw several laid aside. Taking up one with a small mark on the barrel, “Why do you reject this?” we inquired. “Pass that to-day, and probably much larger blemishes would appear to-morrow,” replied Mr. T. The order from the Principal is perfection; and a small scratch in the bluing or varnish is sufficient to prevent the arm passing. The finished arm is now returned to the store room; from whence, after being papered, they are sent to the wareroom – situated in the basement of the office building; from this they are sent to nearly every portion of the habitable globe.

In round numbers it might be stated that supposing the cost of an arm to be 100; of this the wages of those who attended to and passed pieces through the machines was 10 per cent, and those of the best class workmen engaged in assembling the weapons was also 10 per cent, thus leaving 80 per cent for the duty done by the machinery.

Stay tuned for Part II of the article…

One thought on “A Day at the Armory: Part I

  1. Hello Eric, I am a high school student doing a paper on Samuel Colt. One of my points is that he treated his workers well and that he set new standards in the manufacturing industry. I love this article but unfortunately my teacher considers it tertiary I was wondering if you could tell me where you found it so i may use it as well.

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