Materiality of a Rifle Gun: Gunsmithing at Colonial Williamsburg

When Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard “Sully” Sullivan instructed us to feel the weight of his completed work by holding an unloaded rifle as if to shoot, my classmate leaned the butt into her stomach and extended the barrel outwards. “Hold that up higher!” Sully instructed, helping her to pull the rifle up to her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she responded. “I never held one, or even learned how to.”

As we passed the gun shop’s creations around, Sully explained to us that in colonial Virginia, nearly everyone over the age of thirteen would have known how to properly hold and operate a firearm. Beginning in 1684, the militia statute required all freemen to own and train with a gun so that they would be properly outfitted and practiced should the need for a militia arise. As a result, gun ownership for white households was mandatory in many territories. Additionally, guns served as an important hunting tool that helped to secure meat, in addition to providing protection if communities were attacked by Native Americans. Thus, in the back country where raids were more common and merchant-sold food was hard to come by, most families had at least one firearm; in urban areas their presence would be more limited. Yet, despite their regular presence, rifled guns were an investment. The cheapest guns—many of them fowling pieces—cost roughly the same price as a pair of shoes, or 2 ¼ pounds of tea; the more expensive models ran eight to twelve times that.

The gunsmith’s trade sign at Colonial Williamsburg. Image courtsey of Colonial Williamsburg.

These factors of use and investment within early 18th century colonial Virginia shaped the American gunsmith’s trade in two seemingly disparate ways. First, because guns were common and expensive, many colonial gunsmiths primarily served as repairmen. These smiths would have frequent contracts to repair various aspects of guns. To do so, they depended heavily on European imports for parts and finished weapons. Thus, most gunsmiths needed to have a working knowledge of all twenty-one trades associated with gun-smithing, from the freeform and creative work of the ornamental engraving to the precise work of lock-making.

Those gunsmiths who did make their own guns participated in the development of the American style rifle. To best cater to frontier needs, these American rifles were longer and lighter than European models to increase accuracy over greater distances. The biggest shops might hire journeymen and apprentices who could cover the various trades associated with gun-smithing, and Sully’s team continues to do much of their own work.  However, many colonial American rifle makers would have subcontracted for craft specific pieces, such as the curly maple stocks or blued steel for springs. For those creating their own rifles, a single craftsman or even a single shop would have found it difficult to complete enough of the work to sustain a livelihood. Practically, it was just as important to ensure a shop had connections to other tradesmen for outside materials as it was to have a team with the breadth of skills needed inside. Subcontracting (though not specific to gun-smithing) sped up the process of intricate details without compromising too much of the quality or accuracy of the weapons produced.

To understand the need for specialization, it is imperative to not only understand the range of skill, but also the cost of time and material needed to produce an object as complex as the rifled gun. So how were guns made in America?

First the barrel was forged. Once the apprentice started the fire outside in the forge, the master and his journeymen would heat a long piece of iron, using bellows to intensify the heat of the coal in the forge. Once the iron reached a workable heat, it would be removed, placed on an anvil where a journeyman waited with a steel rod. The sheet was welded into a cylindrical shape, wrapping itself around the rod. The iron was continuously re-heated and hammered until a long barrel was produced.

Sully forging a barrel by hammering heated iron around a steel rod.

Once the barrel was in the right shape, the thin hole inside it needed to be cleared of debris, bored, reamed, and rifled. Sully and his team allowed us to act as their apprentices during the reaming part. We each had the opportunity to turn the wheel which spun the reamer (which the shop had made ahead of time) as Sully pushed the oiled barrel forward. As our arms quickly tired out, we found ourselves constantly switching the arm we were using and even which person was doing the work. In the end, our whole team only got a few passes through the barrel – just a small portion of a day’s work for Sully’s shop, let alone the Colonial gunsmith.

Top: boring the barrel of a rifle gun.  Middle: pushing the oiled gun barrel along the reaming bit, which is spun by a person-powered wheel.  Bottom: turning the wheel.

In the meantime, other members of the shop would have carefully produced locks, ramrods, triggers, magazines and many other parts of the guns. Sully and his team let us try our hand at making some these smaller pieces too. We worked with a vice to fold  brass ferrules for holding the ramrod and practiced engraving brass ornament. In the case of the ramrod holders, or ferrules, we were proud that we were able to get acceptable quality work done, but it took us far longer than gunsmiths and we had not even filed the ferrules into their final octagonal shape. Once all the pieces were acquired and each section was completed, the rifle itself would be assembled and tested. But don’t let this short description fool you – all this work together would still have taken over 400 hours to complete just one rifle!

Tiring work!

Though we only had a few passes with the reamer, some engravings and a few brass ramrod holders to show for it, our two hours with the Colonial Williamsburg gunsmiths greatly altered our understanding of materials and creation processes for objects whose lives are more often interpreted by use. The context surrounding these rifles shaped the tradesmen who made them. In return, the rifles themselves shaped the context of the world around them and, most importantly, our perceptions of their meaning. As we struggle to make sense of these objects in our own lives, we can’t help but seek to understand what they meant to those before us.

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By Rebecca Duffy, WPAMC Class of 2018

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For many years, the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg has generously hosted Winterthur students as part of a course in pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Over the course of several days, we students work closely with the tradespeople, trying our hands at a wide range of eighteenth century occupations that bring our studies, quite literally, to life.  Every year, we leave with a deeper understanding of the material world.  This post is part of a series that chronicles our visit in March, 2017.



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