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The Ordnance Department

The Ordnance Department created a very large number of rifles at the Springfield Armory as well as manufactured cartridges in other national armories around the United States. Yet, one of their greatest achievements was their contribution to private arms manufacturers through the American System of Manufacturing.​

Supplier then Consumer

“The North’s depot-arsenal system was an economic powerhouse”
--Mark Wilson,
The Business of the Civil War, p. 78

The Ordnance Department increased advancements in the machine tool industry. According to Dr. Carrie Brown and other scholars, “With the Ordnance Department insisting upon precision metal cutting and efficient systems of production—and bankrolling the developing technology—new methods and machines evolved rapidly in the early nineteenth century.”1 The armories that the Ordnance Department controlled became “model workshops” in the United States for the creation of arms and bolstered innovation in its early years through their experiments with breech-loading arms.2 Through those actions, the Ordnance Department was directly promoting the American System of Manufacturing. The Department and its armory system aided arms and manufacturing innovation by sharing expertise and equipment. During the Civil War, Springfield assisted the contractors, both primary and subcontractors, by giving out sample rifles and gauges to ensure the manufacture of interchangeable parts, which was strongly supported by Ripley.3 That "open-doors policy" helped arms manufacturers, such as Colt, Robbins & Lawrence, and the Sharps Rifle Company.4 By buying contracts, the government stimulated the economy.

Yet, the Ordnance Department's leaders also slowed the arms industry’s advancement in breech-loading and repeating arms by not initially being open to the idea of them. The Ordnance Department officers believed that the breechloaders were not ready for combat and were inferior to muzzleloaders because of the deficiencies in their early models.5 According to 1890s Ordnance Officer Major C. E. Dutton, breechloaders only became more efficient than muzzleloaders when the “centre fire metallic cartridge was perfected.”5 He believed that because the ball, powder, and priming system were separate from each other, breech-loading was not practical. Yet, once the metallic cartridge combined all of these, breech-loading seemed like the next logical step.5 Inventors, manufacturers, arms companies’ businessmen, leading politicians--including President Lincoln--and military men advocated for breechloaders and the latest arms technology. Yet, Chief Ripley’s Ordnance Department never fully embraced those improvements. The government did not officially start to look to breechloading and carbines as a viable option for U.S. soldiers until October 22, 1864 at Chief of Ordnance Dyer’s recommendation.6

1.Carrie Brown, “Guns for Billy Yank: The Armory in Windsor Meets the Challenge of Civil War” Vermont History 79, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2011): 144.

2 Major C. E. Dutton, “The Ordnance Department” in Theo F. Rodenbough and William L. Haskin, eds., The Army of the United States Historical Sketches of Staff and Line with Portraits of Generals-in-Chief (New York: Maynard, Merrill Co., 1896), 129.

3 Mark Wilson, The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861 – 1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 75-76.

4 Otto Mayr and Robert C. Post, eds. Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufacturers (Washington, D. C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 88.

5 Dutton, The Ordnance Department, 134.

6 Dean S. Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire:  A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition, Part One (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1997), 37.

The Ordnance


Springfield Armory, c. 1860

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