One American manufacturer of military weapons seems less frequently collected at this point, and the study of his production and marketing of military products is a study of American history, Yankee ingenuity and the early years of American business all rolled into one subject -- the firm of Eli Whitney. Indeed, the name of Eli Whitney is so woven into the fabric of the American Civil War that I doubt this name shall ever be forgotten.
Eli Whitney was born in Connecticut in 1765. At the age of 28, only one year removed from his studies at Yale, Whitney invented the cotton gin, completing design and working model in ten days! Whitney did not properly protect his genius, and infringements and outright theft by partners resulted in little profit for Whitney from his first endeavor. However, the invention and its' immediate impact on the American economy established Whitneys' lifelong reputation as a mechanical/industrial wizard. Many scholars recognize the invention of the cotton gin as one of the catalysts leading to the Civil War.
In 1798, Whitney received a contract from the young U.S. government to produce 10,000 "stand of arms." The proposal that Whitney submitted suggested that these muskets would be so constructed as to maintain interchangeable parts. Whitney also proved, in the manufacture of these guns, that workman with little or no skills could be trained to operate machinery and turn out subassemblies in great quantities. Here lies the basis of American economic and industrial thought for the next 150 years!
Whitney operated what he called a "private Armory," and called his plant the Whitneyville Armory during his lifetime. His early products include: the 1798 U.S. and Connecticut Contracts Musket; the pre-1812 Connecticut and New York Contracts Muskets; the 1812 U.S. and Massachusetts Contracts Musket; and, the 1822 U.S. Contract Musket. Whitneys' only son was born in 1821, four years before the elder Whitneys' death. Prior to 1825, Eli, Sr. entered into an agreement with two nephews, Philos and E. W. Blake, and the Blakes ran the armory until 1834, at which time interim trustees (Edwards and Goodrich) ran the establishment until 1842, when Eli Whitney, Jr. came of legal age and took control.
Young Whitneys' first commercial endeavor was to produce the Model 1841 Percussion Rifle for the U. S. government. A total of 22,500 were produced under 4 contracts from 1842 until 1854, however, Whitney always claimed he never made a cent on the product. Weapons manufactured at both public and private armories were subject to "the inspection of Gauges" to maintain part interchangability. These inspections resulted in many rejects, in part and in whole. Eventually, Whitney purchased condemned parts from Springfield and combined his own condemned parts with sub-assemblies purchased in England following the Crimean War to produce a line of weapons Whitney himself labeled "Good and Serviceable Arms not subject to government inspection of gauges." As the political climate heated up in America in the late 1850s, Whitney began production of five distinct Good and Serviceable Arms; the Model 1855 type; the "Richmond" type humpback lock Rifle-Musket; the Enfield type Rifle-Musket; the Enfield type Rifle; and the Model 1841 type Rifle. All of these models had lockplates simply marked "E. WHITNEY," some over "N. HAVEN" and were each produced in limited (from 500 to 2,000) quantities.
One very much sought after Whitney product is the PLYMOUTH RIFLE, officially known as the 1861 Navy Percussion Rifle. Over 10,000 guns were completed between 1863 and 1864. This awesome weapon was produced on the recommendation of Captain John Dahlgren. The .69 caliber, 2-band design was first designed and tested by the Dahlgren on board the USS Plymouth between 1856 - 58, and was nicknamed thereafter the "Plymouth Rifle."
The large number of muskets required by the federal forces after the beginning of hostilities in 1861 resulted in two federal and one state contract for Whitney, all based on the Model 1861 Springfield. Whitney also produced, entirely on speculation, what collectors know as the "MANTON" marked rifle- musket. These efforts produced 29,000 military long arms for use by the combatants of the American Civil War, but it is not the end of the collectors interest in Civil War ordnance produced by Whitney.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable, if still least known, effort of the Whitneyville Armory was the production of 1,000 Walker Revolvers as a subcontractor for Samuel Colt. A very short time after the closing of his Paterson, NJ facility, Colt received an order for 1,000 pistols for use by mounted soldiers in the Mexican War. Colt assigned his entire contract to young Eli Whitney, Jr.s' company. Although this was the era that gave birth to robber barons and cut-throat business tactics, Whitney produced the Walkers and turned over all dies and equipment to Colt when Sam opened his factory in nearby Hartford. Unlike other manufacturers, Whitney never infringed on any of the Colt patents, yet managed to produce eight distinct models of percussion revolvers between 1850 and 1865.
The first three Whitney revolvers were manufactured from 1850 to 1853 in limited quantities and small quantities. Whitney remained with small caliber revolvers when he produced his two most popular handguns, the Whitney Navy and Pocket Revolvers. The Navy was produced in .36 caliber with a 6-shot capacity, while the Pocket Model had a 5-shot .31 caliber cylinder More then 30,000 revolvers were manufactured in both Models, and many can be viewed in Civil War Museums and collections today.
Arms designed and manufactured by Eli Whitney, Sr. and Jr., remain an important piece of American history. Interested readers who desire to begin a collection of Civil War related weapons should be aware of the importance of the Whitneyville production.
By the time you read this, the 91st National Skirmish will be complete and I'll be broke (again). Enjoy warm weather and good friends, and until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.
go to Tony Beck index
go to Tom Kelley index