The Birmingham System of Gun Manufacture

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Pat Holscher
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Thu Feb 07, 2013 8:32 pm

The Birmingham System of Gun Manufacture, Vol 64, No. 4. Military Collector & Historian. Craig L. Barry

This short article deals with the Birmingham England firearms trade, principally during the American Civil War, during which Birmingham was doing quite well producing Enfield pattern rifle muskets for both sides. The article explores the Birmingham system of manufacture in which individual firearms components, such as locks and barrels, were made by artisans who specialized in those parts, with the finished rifle to be assembled by a separate factory. The war was not only a huge economic opportunity for Birmingham, but the systems swan song as after the war the system basically collapsed and became more of a true factory system.

Interesting look into an aspect of the British firearms industry I wasn't otherwise familiar with. Also interesting to note that, if the British records are correct, over 1M rifles were sent to the United States during the war.
Pat

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JV Puleo
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 7:49 am

The system described in the article is one of the wonders of the early-industrial world. It was fully developed by the middle of the 18th century and probably dates back as early as the first quarter of the 17th century. It is commonly associated with the 19th century because that is the period that the most records and artifacts survive from. I think he's a bit confused on some points... the lockmaker, for instance, was probably the person who assembled the lock. The component parts were made by specialists just as barrels were. While the general thrust of the article is spot on, the trade was specialized to a much greater degree than I thought was implied and all of these systems and procedures were more than 100 years old at the time. My own feeling is that the fantastic efficiency of the B'ham gun trade (and all similar metal working trades) actually retarded the adoption of mass production techniques in Britain.
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 8:04 am

JV Puleo wrote:The system described in the article is one of the wonders of the early-industrial world. It was fully developed by the middle of the 18th century and probably dates back as early as the first quarter of the 17th century. It is commonly associated with the 19th century because that is the period that the most records and artifacts survive from. I think he's a bit confused on some points... the lockmaker, for instance, was probably the person who assembled the lock. The component parts were made by specialists just as barrels were. While the general thrust of the article is spot on, the trade was specialized to a much greater degree than I thought was implied and all of these systems and procedures were more than 100 years old at the time. My own feeling is that the fantastic efficiency of the B'ham gun trade (and all similar metal working trades) actually retarded the adoption of mass production techniques in Britain.
It's a very interesting concept.

Were the component parts manufacturers small shops, or somewhat sizable?
Pat

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JV Puleo
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 12:22 pm

As far as we know, virtually all were made in small, more or less independent shops. The term used at the time was "small masters" and seems to imply a shop with as few as two men and perhaps as many as 15. There were very few "large" shops in the gun trade until after the American CW. The notion that the small shops continued on making "Birmingham Gas Pipes" is also mistaken, as it the myth that the end of the CW war brought mass unemployment.In fact, B'ham production actually increased after the war and most of the rifles supplied to America were delivered by the end of 1862.

The term "gas pipes" is also very misleading. I does not come from a hopelessly cheap gun barrel but from the the fact that B'ham was one of the first British cities with a municipal gas street lighting system. When it was installed, the necessary tubing was expensive and supposedly, to avoid expense, the tens of thousands of musket barrels left over from the Napoleonic wars were used as "gas pipes." Where it is applied to guns, it referred to cheap export muskets made from obsolete parts... not necessarily bad parts. Greener is not a particularly reliable source. He was, after all a gun manufacturer and had a bone to pick with anyone "stealing" his business by selling cheaper guns made from surplus parts. (This was W. Greener, the father of the better known WW Greener)

The B'ham small shop/master method of manufacture continued on supplying the civilian market with everything from extremely cheap to extremely expensive guns, mostly shot guns, right up to almost the present day. Until after the CW virtually every side-by-side double in America was made in B'ham and the only element that challenged their domination of the market was even cheaper Belgian-made guns that don't start to arrive in the US in significant quantity until after the CW.
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Philip S
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Sun Feb 10, 2013 10:33 pm

The American gun trade was similar. While it is true that the "American system" of rifle production which used machine tools and gauges eventually took over most civilian muzzleloading guns were made in small shops. Even the larger operations such as Henry (of eastern PA) were cottage based. Williamsburg and other historic places give the impression that the gunsmiths made the barrels, carved the stocks, and all the parts by hand. While this happened in some isolated areas it was the exception and certainly was not true in colonial Williamsburg. Early 18-19th Century gunsmiths could more accurately be called "stockers." They purchased parts from others and assembled them into guns. A close examination of KY rifles, for example, will show purchased locks, buttplates, brass trigger guards, etc. Remington got its start furnishing barrels to gunsmiths and a large proportion of locks came from Britain. The artistry came in the assembly, carving of the stock, and decoration.
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Mon Feb 11, 2013 1:02 pm

I wonder if this all reflects the condition of industry at the time, with Birmingham being sort of a freakish example in that it was so well developed it kept on keeping on.

The reason I wonder that is that Philip's comments caused me to recall that in the Colonial period there were still "Plowmen" in the English Colonies. Perhaps there were in Great Britain itself. They were independent contractors who owned a plow and the means of pulling it.

We tend to think of farmers owning plows and horses or mules to pull them, but at least for a relatively significant period before the Revolution there were Plowmen who made their living contracting out their services and the use of their implement, which in turn means that a lot of farmers either chose not to own a plow or could not afford to do so.

So perhaps, in that state of economic development, distribution of production was the necessary norm.
Pat

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JV Puleo
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Fri Mar 01, 2013 3:54 pm

For a genuinely scholarly description of this subject, see "The Birmingham Gun Trade" by David Williams.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, David and I spent today in the storage area of the Birmingham Science and Art Museum looking over the stuff that isn't on display. We saw some very interesting stuff, including 3 or 4 genuine Birmingham-made African trade muskets. Tens of thousands of them were made but they are almost unknown today. These were the first I'd ever seen.

jp
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