President Washington chose national armory sites at Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Harpers Ferry, selected largely for sectional and other political reasons, had abundant water power but no prior record as an arsenal or arms factory. With the notable exception of John Hall's work in making early interchangeable, breech-loading rifles, Harpers Ferry Armory rarely reached the production levels, or initiated the mechanical or organizational developments, seen at Springfield. Both armories remained the only federal small arms factories until the Civil War, when the destruction of the Harpers Ferry site left Springfield as the only national armory into the very early twentieth century.
A map of New England
The Springfield site in 1794 was an unlikely industrial center. As a federal installation, it began as a Revolutionary War storage and supply depot, responsible primarily for repairing small arms, making gun carriages and musket cartridges, and storing powder and various war materials. Continental war planners saw Springfield's position, more than 60 miles up the Connecticut River, as secure from potential naval assault, and the presence of at least some gunsmiths as a promising labor force. From 1782 to 1794, the depot served as a public magazine for storage of arms and powder. As one of a few such federal installations, the depot become the core of the Armory, more or less on the basis of existing if somewhat flimsy facilities. The depot took root on Springfield's town Training Field, which the Continental Congress leased from the town as a matter of convenience. The site was well above the river town east of the Connecticut River, on a rather steep-sided plateau far from any water power sources. A more promising industrial site for the Armory on the west side of the river was eliminated by local opposition to the possibility of unruly mechanics disturbing a farming community.
By 1794, there were perhaps a dozen frame workshops and storage buildings, defining the east, south, and northeast sides of what became known as Armory Square, with some structures in the middle of the square. A brick magazine for powder storage, built well east of these buildings, was the principal addition between 1781 and 1794. We know little about the workings of the Revolutionary War or early Federal depot, although many of the same buildings as well as some barracks became early Armory shops, generally defining a spatial pattern which persisted throughout most of the Armory's history: manufacturing operations on the east and northeast sides of Armory Square, storage or arsenal facilities on the south side, and barracks or officers' quarters on the north and northwest sides. After a fire cleared the quadrangle interior of structures in 1801, this space remained open and evolved with the buildings on the outside in a familiar military pattern.
Early Armory managers moved quickly to provide waterpower and more facilities, purchasing in 1795 the Training Field and the first of an eventual four sites on the Mill River, a mile south of the Training Field. The basic division between the Hill Shops, as the original plant came to be known, and the Water Shops remained a permanent challenge to Armory managers. The distance between the Hill and Water Shops, and among the Water Shops themselves, created a great deal of hauling between different manufacturing steps. There were other problems inherent in the Armory’s building arrangement. The Mill River was a limited waterpower source, inhibiting early mechanical operations and requiring somewhat haphazard dispersal of different musket-making operations. No single site available to the government could accommodate all Armory requirements.
Benjamin Prescott - Armory Superintendent (1805-1813)
Some of the first Armory superintendents, notably Benjamin Prescott (in charge November 1805 - August 1813), began to impose a division of labor on this complicated situation after about 1805, establishing separate shops for separate operations. Limited physical facilities, and dispersed millseats, did not allow for complete or effective division by task. Sporadic beginnings of mechanization accompanied early Armory growth, as water shop operations by 1815 included limited milling and slitting of some screws and lock components; boring, grinding, and polishing of barrels; and possibly trip-hammers for the difficult hammering and welding of iron sheets into rough barrels. The watershops through the first half of the 19th century were relatively small structures, reflecting the waterpower limitations. After 1808, when Prescott obtained the third and uppermost millseat, these and all other new Armory manufacturing facilities were built of stone, brick, or other fire-resistant materials. All hand- or foot-powered work was concentrated in a few shops at the east and northeast sides of Armory Square on the Hill, including forging and filing of most lock components and other small metal parts needed to hold a musket together, and stockmaking prior to the introduction of Thomas Blanchard's waterpowered machinery around 1823.
Prescott's initiatives also included the beginnings of a comprehensive record-keeping system, organized on a monthly basis by workshop, which helped regulate costs and productivity. Under his charge, Armory musket production nearly tripled, to more than 10,000 per year in 1812. Yet Armory operations before 1815 had serious policy and organizational problems, as well as siting difficulties and limited mechanization, which inhibited weapons production. There were few standards for small arms manufacture, a number of private arms makers and suppliers who increased the variations in arms quality, and no central direction or oversight of procurement and manufacture. The Secretary of War was in charge of several conflicting lines of authority in these matters, and the armory superintendents could not even control their own supplies. As the War of 1812 began, Congress authorized creation of an Army Ordnance Department to oversee procurement and inspection of cannon, and inspection of manufactured or purchased small arms. A Commissary-General of Purchases directed actual small arms manufacture and purchase, however. In the confusion which followed, the Armory spent more time repairing older, poorly made weapons than it did making better new ones. Arms procurement in general was so chaotic during this war that the head of the Ordnance Department, Col. Decius Wadsworth, was able to gain control of all Army ordnance, including management of the national armories, within several months of the war's end.
Excerpted from CONSERVATIVE INNOVATORS AND MILITARY SMALL ARMS: AN INDUSTRIAL HISTORY OF THE SPRINGFIELD ARMORY, 1794-1968, prepared for US NPS by Michael S. Raber, Patrick M. Malone, Robert B. Gordon, and Carolyn C. Cooper, August 1989.