top of page

American System
             of Manufacturing 

Before machine precision tools and their advancements, work was done by hand or by tools that still required a lot of labor. Later, machine tools were created. Before those tools’ advancements that promoted an effective process for shaping work, machines had limited “precision, durability and speed.”1 The root of the machine problem lay in the amount of skilled labor available to the industry. Due to the small numbers of machinists and mechanical engineers, the potential for good designs was limited.2 The American System of Manufacturing helped to overcome those difficulties through specializing labor and creating machines that could standardize production in both the manufacturing and arms industries.

The American System of Manufacturing was also called the “Uniformity System,”3 and actually was influenced by inventors in France.4  The term "American System of Manufacturers" was introduced to the manufacturing sector (not the economic plan) in the 1850s by an "English observer."5a The observer that coined the term was most likely part of the 1854 Committee o the Machinery of the United States of America sent by the Royal Small Arms Commission after the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition.6b The term was formally used by historians starting in the 1930s.5a   That process, starting in the first half of the 19th century, drove the perfection of “mechanized mass production of standardized commodities using interchangeable parts.”7 Some of those commodities were carbines whose parts were made with machine tools and measured with gauges to check uniformity for interchangeability. Historian Donald R. Hoke presented a simpler definition of the American System: "the mass production of interchangeable parts on specialized machinery arranged in sequential operation."8 What is discussed on this webpage is a specific kind of American System, the "New England armory practice," that used gauges to determine interchangeability.9


Illustration  featuring musket production at Springfield Armory in 1861. Click picture to enlarge image.​

Although the system promoted uniformity, its products had varying degrees of interchangeability.10 According to another historian, Paul Usleding, "it is approximately correct to state that the 'American system' of the nineteenth century was a precision system in which the principal type of accuracy improvement was size accuracy even though, most often, work pieces were produced to fit common fixtures, tools, and gauges and not to exact size relative to a universal standard of measurement."11 Each piece were not fully identical, rather each was compatible with the other parts of the gun that it attached to or came in contact with, so that the gun could function with the piece, even if it was not the original. Through the American System, accuracy continued to increase in the nineteenth century.11

Guns were the first product of the American System, and then the process spread to other U.S. industries.12 Much like the carbines’ advancements, the American System of Manufacturing would not have been able to evolve without the help of the government’s financial backing12 as well as the military’s demand to standardize arms and other products.13 In fact, the Ordnance Department,c through its armories and arsenals such as the Springfield Armory,d pioneered the uniformity process. According to Historian Paul A. C. Koistinen, “The Ordnance Department led the way in this outstanding achievement as primary producer; as a source of contracts, model weapons, patterns, gauges, and parts; as advisor and guide to private firms; and as inspector of the finished products."14 In that way, the department spread knowledge and tools to the private sector, giving those companies means to succeed. Once the methods of uniformity took hold in those private companies, they began to become established in their industry. Innovations in gun technology was a result of a collaborative effort of state and the private companies, and without their relationship built upon expertise and equipment sharing, the arms industry could not have advanced as quickly as it had.

Springfield Armory

Springfield Armory, located in Springfield, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of small arms innovation due to the use of the American System of Manufacturing.15 Springfield Armory did produce some carbines for the Civil War, but they were not as prominent as the privately manufactured carbines. Springfield was best known for its rifles that were created and used during the Civil War. Although not a prominent manufacturer of carbines, the armory was a leader in the mass production of arms and was a forerunner in the innovation in arms, including advancements that influenced the manufacture of carbines.

As a primary producer of arms, the armory used a gauging system to measure parts at every step of the process, working to create uniform parts. Springfield also used division of labor and specialized machine tools to promote full production capacity.16 Workers manned particular machines that made a certain type of part, instead of being involved in the creation of most, if not all, of the arm.

The Springfield Armory was originally home to craftsmen who created many parts of a gun. However, starting around the turn of the nineteenth century, those men started construct less parts of each gun. Therefore, more men had to work on one gun as they specialized their operation. At the Springfield Armory in 1815, there were just 36 different jobs to create one gun, and in ten years it increased to 100 jobs. By 1855, Springfield arms, in general, were made with 400 different operations.17

During the Civil War, the Springfield Armory was the only federal armory making arms, which forced the government to turn to private American manufacturers for the production of arms as well as European companies for the manufacture of several types of rifles.  The American System was introduced to attract labor through increased productivity instead of reducing the number of workmen.18 Its production rate continually increased during that time. By the end of the war, the armory manufactured 802,000 Model .58 rifled muskets.19 According to Koistinen, “This quantity was a remarkable feat, and by 1865 Springfield was the largest arsenal in the world in terms of output and size.”20 The armory was capable of that output because of the American System. On average the government-produced arms at Springfield were around 63 percent cheaper than the rifled muskets produced by private firms.14 The American System of Manufacturing was indeed a success story for Springfield.

Under Alexander B. Dyer’s direction, the Springfield Armory was able to greatly increase its output during
the war by expanding the factory and increasing the number of shifts.
21 (Dyer was superintendent of the
armory from August 1861 to 1864, when he was appointed Chief of Ordnance.20) By 1865, the Armory was
the largest arms factory in the world and produced around 300,000 arms per year at full capacity.
22 Below
is part of a front-page article that appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette on Friday Morning, April 26, 1861:

                  The Springfield, Mass., Armory.
                       The Springfield Republican says.
                  There are 350 men employed in the armory, and its production is about 1,500 rifle muskets each
                  month. With  new machinery and more mechanics, there is shop room and enough to extend this
                  to 2,500 a month; and by working day and night employing double sets of workmen, the capacity
                  of the establishment may even be increased to 4,000 or 5,000 muskets a month. The necessities of
                  the Government, in this crisis, will doubtless produce immediate orders for working the armory
                  up to the latter production, and then it will give employment to from 1,000 to 1,200 men.

The increase in workers and new machines allowed for the armory to supply more troops with good quality
weapons. Moreover, the Civil War’s demands further established the American System of Manufacturing.

The Move to the Private Sector

During the 1830s, the American System of Manufacturing moved to the private sector of the arms industry.
23 Then at the outbreak of the Civil War, the federal government sought to create its own arms, but the need far outweighed its output capability, and the government looked to the American private sector for their manufacturing ability and expertise. Starting in 1862, businesses located closer to government arsenals had an increased chance of being awarded a government contract.24 Once awarded a contract, the private companies received (as needed) gauges, patterns, and model pieces from Springfield Armory, promoting standardization as well as the American System of Manufacturing method.25 Springfield Armory, itself, depended upon contractors, and indirectly subcontractors, to keep up with the growing need and demand of arms and their replacement parts.26

The American System of Manufacturing helped to fuel the quick expansion in the arms and manufacturing industries that, in turn, allowed for the rapid mobilization of troops. However, the transition from peacetime to wartime production was not an easy transition for every company. The companies were initially ill prepared for producing such a large amount of products and were (at least initially) unable to fill orders fast enough. The close proximity of private manufacturers meant that they competed for skilled labor; therefore, productivity—both overall, and each individual factory’s—declined.27 Furthermore, the purchase of machines required to promote uniformity as well as the constant quest for interchangeable parts was economically challenging for some private firms (while other, particularly larger, private firms found it profitable in the long run because they could manufacture enough products to cover most if not all of the costs).

a The term “American System” was not initially or solely applied to manufacturing. Henry Clay applied the term for his economic plan.

b For further information about the Royal Small Arms Commission and their visit,  refer to Peter Smithurst, "The Guns and Gun-making 
Machinery of Robbins and Lawrence" (Windsor, VT: American Precision Museum, 2007), 5.

c Between 1815 and 1840, the Ordnance Department focused its attention on creating interchangeable parts through “mechanized mass production” and also issued contracts with private companies. However, in the 1840s, the government slowly stopped contracting with private companies until the Civil War.28 Conversely, some scholars, such as Donald R. Hoke in Ingenious Yankees: The Rised of the Amerian System of Manufactures in the Private Sector, believe that the American System of Manufacturing was driven, or at least in the large part, by private companies.

d Although the Springfield Armory did not regularly manufacture carbines, it is still vital to understanding the Uniformity System.

1 Ross, Thomson,“Eras of Technological Convergence:  Machine Tools and Mechanization in the United States 1820-1929” (Economic History Association meetings, University of Vermont, September 2010), 14.

2  Thomson, "Eras of Technological Convergence, 14-15.

3 Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: the American Industrial Revolution, 1790 – 1860 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 218.

4 Barton C. Hacker, American Military Technology:  A Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006), 10; Otto Mayr and Robert C. Post, eds, Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufacturers (Washington, D. C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 68.

5 Mayr and Post, Yankee Enterprise, 1.

​6 David A. Hounshell, From American System of Manufacturing to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 15-16.

7 Paul A. C. Koistinen, Beating Plowshares Into Swords:  The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1606¬1865 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 78. 

8 Donald R. Hoke, Donald R. Ingenious Yankees:  The Rise of the American System of Manufacturers in the Private Sector (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990), 3.

9 Hoke, Ingenious Yankees, 20.

10 Mayr and Post, Yankee Enterprise, ​128.​

11 Mayr and Post, Yankee Enterprise, ​104.

12 Edwin A. Battison, Muskets to Mass Production:  The Men & The Times that shaped American Manufacturing (Windsor, Vermont: The American Precision Museum, 1976) 24.

13 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 79.

14 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 165. 

15  Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 80.

16 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 108.

​17 Hindle and Lubar, Engines of Change, 228.

18 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 163; Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union:  Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 71.

19 L. T. C. Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M. I. T. Press, 1965), 152.

20 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 163.

21 Davis, Arming the Union, 69-70.

22 Hacker, American Military Technology, 33.

23 Koistinen, ​Beating Plowshares into Swords, 78-79.

24 Mark Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861 – 1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 82.

25 Davis, Arming the Union, 71.

26 Felicia Johnson Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley: A Regional Study of the Economic Development of the Small Arms Industry, 1798-1870 (Menasha, Wisconsin: George Banta Publishing Company, 1948), 80.

27 Davis, Arming the Union, 81.

28 Koistinen, Beating Plowshares into Swords, 79-80.

29 Hoke, Ingenious Yankees, 12.


and the Springfield Armory

the piece of metal or wood that is molded into a machine part or carbine part


Springfield Armory c. 1860-1865

bottom of page