The First Official Pistol-maker of the United States during the Revolutionary Era

Author: Allen Kozloski

The American Revolution and war with England resulted in the need for firearms. Individual artisans rushed to meet this demand. The colonial assembly passed legislation that reflected this demand: “A bounty of 5 shillings will be paid for each stand of arms ‘with a good lock’ made in the colony.” –Connecticut General Assembly 1775. (North, 1916, 174).

One artisan, Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut, responded to this opportunity, seeing it as his patriotic obligation. In 1781, sixteen-year-old Simeon, soldiering a rifle, marched from Berlin to Old Saybrook hoping to enlist in the Continental Army. Upon his arrival, he discovered peace negotiations were underway and was not mustered into the ranks of the Continentals (North, 1913, 25). Although he did not serve as a soldier, Simeon North would make it his life’s mission to arm the military of the United States in case it came under threat in a future armed conflict.

North was born to an affluent family, a descendent of one of the original five founders of Berlin, whose wealth came from the production of farm equipment. Using his family’s money, Simeon purchased a sawmill and convert it to manufacture pistols. On March 9, 1799, Simeon secured his first government contract to produce 500 pistols within a year. This order secured North’s place as the first official pistol maker of the United States. Since the North family had no previous experience in gunsmiting, he used the 1777 Charleville Flintlock Pistol as a model for his guns. While Simeon was not a revolutionary inventor of a new type of gun, his importance lies in the shift from the handicraft era of manufacturing to large-scale production. The production of 500 pistols within a year is a monumental task to be undertaken by any skilled artisan, much less a newcomer to the industry.

In the handicraft era of manufacturing, firearms were produced in smaller quantities by blacksmiths, while contracts were sealed by handshakes and the personal assurance to fulfill a quota. This business model will guide North during the transitional era of manufacturing. By compartmentalizing jobs, employees such as fillers, fitters, and woodworkers will each be assigned to construct individual parts of the pistol. Through repetition, early models of North’s pistols achieved a high degree of precision and were a reliable sidearm for military forces.

By 1813, the demand created by another war, surpassed North’s means of production forcing him to build a larger factory in Middletown, Connecticut with a greater waterpower supply that the Berlin factory had from Spruce Brook. When the factory was constructed in 1816, North began work on a contract for 20,000 pistols marking a key shift in handicraft to industrialized mass production.

Figure 1: Personal Collection of Allen Kozloski

Around 1816, he invented the mode of milling iron and turning gun barrels. The milling machine was believed to be first utilized in the Middletown factory. While the milling machine revolutionized firearm production and was insurmountably valuable in the field of precision and interchangeability, North would not initially receive credit for this invention. This is due to two reasons: the first being the first rifle to achieve true intangibility is the 1848 Halls rifle of Harpers Ferry, while the second is the fact Simeon North never filed a patent for one of his firearms or the milling machine used in production.

North’s contributions were overlooked until recent works, such as From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States by David Hounshell recognized North’s importance to the field of manufacturing as a pivotal figure influencing the introduction and advancement of machining tools and the concept of interchangeable parts.

In a letter to the war department North states. “Sir, I believe it is the duty of every American citizen to unite and assist the government at this time in repelling the unjustifiable, tyrannical and imperial orders and decrees heaped upon us by the war powers of Europe, and you may depend that nothing shall be waiting on my part to support the rights of the Union: every branch of this business shall be crowded to the greatest extremities.”(Jeska, 1993,5 ).

North’s letter shows both his devotion to arming the military and the sacrifice of personal gain over the new nation’s collective security. By not filling a patent, he would aid other manufacturers to meet the firearm demands of the military.

While North was late to fulfill several of the deadlines of the enormous arms contracts, the apologetic tone of his assurance that he is taking all possible measures to hasten production proved invaluable in securing future contracts from the military. North success is also due to the demand for firearms and the limited manufacturers capable of fulfilling large orders. Simeon North’s success as an early pioneer of interchangeability of parts and his precise large-scale production is the result of the necessity of the United States to arm itself to resist European powers during the revolutionary period.

Recommended for further reading:

Gordon, Robert B. “Simeon North, John Hall, and Mechanized Manufacturing.” Technology and Culture 30, no. 1 (1989): 179-88. doi:10.2307/3105469.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. No. 4. JHU Press, 1985.

North, Catherine. History of Berlin Connecticut. New Haven: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company, 1916.

Simeon North, Robert Jeska. Early Simeon North Pistol correspondence with comments by Robert Jeska. Plainwell MI. 1993.

S.N.D. North, LL.D. and Ralph H. North. Simeon North, First Official Pistol Maker of the United States: a Memoir. Concord: The Rumford Press, 1913.

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