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Importance of the Harpers Ferry arsenal in preparation of the Civil War

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The Harpers Ferry arsenal and the John Hall Rifle Works were instrumental in preparations for the Civil War, manufacturing over 600,000 firearms from 1804 to 1861. The facility was one of two in the country – the other being Springfield, Massachusetts where they made the Springfield Rifle.

John H. Hall was the primary gunsmith, arriving from New England in 1819. His patents for the gun making machinery revolutionized the manufacturing of firearms. His idea of producing interchangeable parts changed the manufacturing process from individually made guns to machine made parts. His attention to detail included over five dozen inspection devices to insure each and every single part was identical.

Hall’s Rifle US Model 1819 included a pivoting breech-loading receiver on his flintlock rifle. It was a gun adopted by the U.S. Army. In his description of his process, Hall wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, explaining “I have succeeded in an object which has hitherto completely baffled all the endeavors of those who have heretofore attempted it – I have succeeded on establishing methods for fabricating arms exactly alike and with economy, by the hands of common workmen, and in such manner as to ensure a perfect observance of any established model.”

When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Virginia militia stole the gun making equipment and took it Richmond, as the South had no arsenal. Unfortunately for the Confederates, they were never able to get the equipment working and relied mostly on firearms either produced prior to the war or from sources in Europe.

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