The Remington Story

Part 1

SOURCE: "LEGACY - Annals of Herkimer County" (Vol 2, No. 4, 1987) is published quarterly by the Herkimer County Historical Society, 400 North Main Street, Herkimer, N.Y. 13350.

Individual copies of LEGACY may be purchased by contacting the Society at the above address, or by visiting their website: http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyhchs/ On the site you can review a list of which copies of LEGACY are still available and their content under "gift shop" then "books".

We are grateful to the Herkimer County Historical Society, which holds the copyrights, for granting us permission to reproduce the following article for our reader's enjoyment.

The Forge In The Gorge

The Story of The Beginnings of the Remington Industries:
From A Better Gun Barrel To Prosperity

By H.J. Swinney

This article appeared last April in The Gun Report, a journal for gun enthusiasts. LEGACY is grateful to the publishers for permission to reprint it. In the course of the author's thirty-five year study of the gunmaker's trade in New York State, little - known material has come to light and new insights have been developed about the early story of what is today the Remington Arms Company. The notes that follow concern Eliphalet Remington's early specialization in gun barrels rather than guns, and the almost incredible growth of the Remington enterprise during the Civil War. Swinney is Director Emeritus of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, Rochester, and was the first Director of the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake.

South of the village of Ilion, the land slopes steeply up from the Mohawk Valley flats to the general plateau level of central New York, almost a thousand feet higher. Through this rough escarpment, a north-flowing tributary of the Mohawk River has cut a precipitous valley, called locally the lion Gulf (sometimes “Gulph” or “Gorge”). It was in the lion Gulf that Eliphalet Remington, who had come to New York State from Connecticut in 1800, built a forge and blacksmith shop sometime between 1812 and 1814.

Eliphalet had a son Eliphalet Junior, born October 28, 1793. When the first Eliphalet died, June 28, 1828, Eliphalet Junior became simply Eliphalet; but in the fall of that year his son Eliphalet was born, so that the second Eliphalet became Eliphalet Senior and the little son--the third of the name--became Eliphalet Junior. It was the second man of the name, the original Eliphalet Junior, who founded what became the Remington Arms Company; because of the confusion caused by the sequence of Eliphalets, he is hereafter referred to as the Founder.

Tradition has it that in 1816 the Founder, then 22, asked his father for money for a rifle but was refused; he is said thereupon to have forged himself a barrel in the family workshop and to have carried it to Utica (about 12 miles) to have it reamed and rifled. According to the tale, the completed rifle was so successful that it attracted orders from neighbors--and the Founder was in the gun business.

In the authorized company history, Remington Arms in American History (New York, 1956), Alden Hatch dismisses the tradition about the father’s refusal on the grounds that it is out of character. He prefers the idea that the Founder decided that he could make a better gun than he could buy. But this is implausible on the face of it. There were already trained riflemakers in the area, and well-made rifles were available--and the craft is so exacting that it is unlikely (at a charitable assessment) that an inexperienced young man working at a family forge could improve on the product of a regularly trained gunsmith.

But it is possible that the Founder’s father had some knowledge of barrel forging. The possibility hinges on the whereabouts of his home in Connecticut before he moved to New York State.

The Founder’s father grew up in Suffield, Connecticut and in the absence of records to the contrary, it seems likely that he lived there or thereabouts after his marriage in 1791. Thus he was very close to Springfield Armory, where barrels were certainly being forged by 1795 and probably a good deal earlier. It is by no means impossible that the Founder’s father was acquainted with armory workmen; for all we know, he may have worked there himself as a young man. In one way or another, he may quite possibly have picked up an understanding of how barrels were forged. And if he could have passed on at least the rudiments of the process to his son in 1816, the traditional story of the Founder’s success at forging his first barrel becomes less implausible--though the idea is mere conjecture.

When the Founder finished the first barrel in 1816, he is said to have carried it on his shoulder to Utica to have it reamed and rifled. Hatch says that the famous Morgan James did the skilled work, but that is not possible; Morgan James, the gunsmith, was not born until 1815 or 1816. He was a baby in arms when the Founder made his barrel, and he did not open his own shop in Utica until 1840 or 1841. The first directory of Utica, issued in 1817, lists a shoemaker named Morgan James, and Hatch seems to have assumed that this was the gunsmith--but in fact it was the gunsmith’s father, who died in the very late 1820s. In later years, the Founder undoubtedly would have known Morgan James the gunsmith, who became the most renowned maker of target rifles after the death of Edwin Wesson in the early 1850s--but he could not have known him in 1816.

Who did rifle the Founder’s barrel? A gunsmith named A.H. Stevens, about whom almost nothing is known, was working in Utica in 1816 and 1817, but the more likely probability is the better-known Riley Rogers. Rogers had opened a gunshop in 1811, and his surviving products show that he was a competent riflemaker. He had a substantial shop; he took apprentices; and he is one of only five or six upstate New York gunsmiths listed in the Industrial Schedules of the Census of the United States for 1820. In the absence of all other information, the probability is that Riley Rogers rifled the original Remington barrel.

But, however the first barrel was made and by whomever it was rifled, the Remingtons, Founder and father, were soon in the business of making gun barrels commercially. Whether, as tradition has it, the Founder made a few guns for neighbors and thus drifted into the business, or whether he planned to become a barrel forger is unknown, but his production soon began to rise. Hatch quotes (page 38) from a ledger of 1825, an item of 3,128 bushels of charcoal purchased for $139.00. This was a lot of charcoal for the day, and the large amount demonstrates that the business had already expanded far beyond the scale of a common gunsmith shop.

By this time the product appears to have been exclusively barrels, or nearly so. J. Leander Bishop in A History of American Manufacturers From 1608 to 1860...(Philadelphia, 1861) says (page 642) of the Remington factory,

“For many years [after 1829] the business was limited to the fabrication of barrels...”

and he goes on to say that complete guns were not made until military orders in quantity came in.

It is necessary to reflect a little about Bishop’s statement. His book was published in 1861, which means that his information must have been gathered before that year. This was therefore within the lifetime of the Founder who, with his sons, was actively running the Remington firm until his death in the summer of 1861. In the middle 1850s the total number of men employed was only about 50, and there were almost certainly no managerial people other than the Remingtons themselves. When a significant author like Bishop asked questions about the firm and its history, the answers must logically have been furnished by the Founder himself. Bishop’s information almost certainly came from Eliphalet Remington, possibly indirectly, but probably directly.

The Founder may not have meant that literally no complete guns were ever made before the middle 1840s, when the contracts for the 1841 military rifle and the Jenks carbine came in. He may, for example, have thought that in comparison to the thousands of military arms produced under those and subsequent contracts, a few earlier sporting rifles were not significant in the context of Bishop’s question.

Yet there the statement is, and it seems to have come from the mouth of the Founder. Even after conceding that it need not be taken absolutely literally, it is still clear and unequivocal: “For many years the business was limited to the fabrication of barrels...”.

Barrel forging was apparently a brisk business, and Remington had a lot of competition in the 1830s. Since the 1820s, gunsmiths had been opening shops all across upstate New York in the dozens of burgeoning cities and villages, and the center of the sporting-rifle trade had been shifting to New York State, with its booming economy based on the Erie Canal. Demand for barrels must have risen, and that was presumably why the Founder moved the business from the small family forge in the Gulf to the site of present-day lion. In the cramped, steep-sided Gulf, expansion would have been a practical impossibility, while Ilion (not yet so named) offered plenty of space as well as water power. Hatch, no doubt quoting company papers, says (page 41) that on January I, 1828, the Founder bought 100 acres (land on which the present factory buildings stand) and promptly built “a stone drop forge” building. As a matter of fact, the building probably housed water-driven tilt hammers rather than drops (which were and are more used for forging shaped parts in dies than for working bar stock like barrels), but a forge shop for quantity production it must have been.

The Founder’s father was injured in a fall from a wagon June 22, 1828, and died five days later. Henceforth, the Founder was the senior Eliphalet Remington and the sole proprietor of the works until his sons came of age.

A number of other gun barrel forges operated in upstate New York. Smith Cogswell in Troy and John M. Caswell in Lansingburgh were both offering barrels in the very early 1820s. Abiel Losey and Alva Lull were working in Butternuts (modern Morris) by about 1816 and may have been forging barrels even before that in Chenango County. Henry McCormick made barrels before 1820 in Owego, and in Ithaca Levi Coon set up a hammer (for which Triphammer Falls is named) to forge barrels late in 1820 or early in 1821. In 1835 Coon established the barrel forge in Mott’s Corners (modern Brooktondale) that was run for almost half a century afterward, first by Alva Lull and then by his descendants and Abiel Losey’s. The Medbery family of gunsmiths in New Berlin were working in the later eighteenth century; Thomas Medbery may have made barrels there then, and he financed Losey and Lull in Butternuts. Cyrus Jackson was certainly forging barrels in New Berlin in the early 1820s, too. William Antis had come from Pennsylvania to Canandaigua and had opened a gunshop in 1790, the first year of settlement of the village; he had been trained when gunsmiths normally forged barrels themselves--and in Canandaigua in the 1790s he would have had no source of supply for barrels other than his own shop. There must have been other barrel forgers whose names we no longer know.

So it is not surprising that the first advertisement so far found for Remington barrels also mentioned those of other makers. The gunsmith William Humphreys of Lockport, New York, advertised on December 11, 1833, that he offered barrels of “Remington’s, Sill’s and Millers’ make”. The competitors were A.V. Sill of Buffalo, who soon moved to Illinois, and James and John Miller of Rochester, who were making Miller-patent revolving rifles.

But Remington must have had much larger production capacity than any of these small shops. He could supply barrels in quantity. Felicia Deyrup in Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley (Northampton, Mass., 1948), discusses (page 1 22) the rifles made by Nicanor Kendall at Windsor, Vermont, beginning in 1835, saying,

“The barrels of the Kendall rifles were made by Eliphalet Remington at Ilion, N.Y.”

She seems to be quoting Guy Hubbard, Windsor Industrial History [mimeographed, c. 1922], though her citation applies to her whole paragraph. Gordon’s Gazetteer of the State of New York (Philadelphia, 1836) says, under German Flats,

“Remington’s manufactory of rifle barrels is in this town, providing return of $15,000 per annum.”

If “return” meant “profit”, this must have been a very substantial enterprise for the day, when $300.00 was income enough for a family for a whole year. If iron barrels were $2.00 or $3.00 apiece (they were $3.00 in 1866), it would have taken a lot of barrels to produce a net profit of $15,000. Even if “return” only meant gross sales, this would still indicate a production from 5,000 to 7,500 barrels per years, a number far beyond the capacity of an ordinary shop like Sill’s or the Millers’.

In the early 1840s (according to Hatch, and probably correct), Remington solved the problem of drilling a bar for a barrel blank instead of hammer-welding a flat skelp [A strip of metal - Ed[ either spirally or longitudinally into a tube. Remington was also the first, apparently, to offer steel rifle barrels. (The stamp “Cast Steel”, common on muzzle-loading barrels after the 1850s or so, does not of course mean that the barrel was a casting; it identifies the process by which the steel itself was produced from the parent iron). Even during the Civil War, only Remington and Colt rifle-muskets were fitted with steel barrels; the barrels supplied by all other musket contractors, as well as by Springfield Armory, were iron. And Samuel Colt seems to have gotten the idea from Remington. William B. Edwards in The Story of Colt’s Revolver (Harrisburg, 1953) quotes, page 2 19, correspondence between Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney. Colt’s letter was dated December 8; the year was 1846. Colt said in part:

“P.S. Do you remember the name of the gentleman from the western part of this state (Colt was writing from New York City, and as usual, his spelling was haphazard) who exibated specimans of a steel Rifle Barrel in Washington and endeavored to get a contract from Government when we were there some two or three years since. I have forgotten both his name and address and would like to know them.”

As part of a longer letter also dated December 8, Whitney replied:

“The name of the person you enquire for is Mr. Remington of Remington, Herkimer county, N.Y.”

If Remington had “exibated” steel barrels in 1844 or 1845 (two or three years earlier than Colt’s letter), he must have been experimenting with them before that. Since iron musket barrels were ordinarily lap welded with a longitudinal seam (hence the stringent requirement for proof with a drastic overload), the development of barrels drilled from the solid steel bar was a major advance.

The New York Mercantile Union Business Directory 1850-51 (N.Y.C., 1850) has a suggestive entry under “Gun, Rifle and Pistol Manufacturers”:

“Remington. F. (Gun Barrels) Ilion, German Flats.”

This again implies that the major product was barrels, but the Industrial Schedules of the Census of the United States for 1850 afford the first comprehensive look at the Remington enterprise. The statistics are for the period July 1, 1849, through June 30, 1850. They are quoted here from the microfilm version, which is based on the original in Washington. Reel 1, page 721, line I. The microfilm version does not always quite agree in format and spelling with the manuscript version on file in the Herkimer County Clerk’s Office, but the data in the two versions are identical. The information in the printed form has here been expanded by the inclusion of explanatory words in square brackets for the various categories.

Eliphalet Remington/Gun Factory/$ 15,000 [invested]/50 [hands], $1,250 [monthly payroll] / [materials purchased] 900 gun stocks $825, 3,000 bu. charcoal $180, 8 tons steel $2,400, 35 tons iron $3,000, 100 tons anthracite $600/[product:] 5.400 iron barrels, 850 rifles, 425 steel barrels/[value:] $26,050.

The location of the Remington works had been a place without a post office in the 1830s and early 1840s. It was in the Town of German Flats or Flatts, the latter, curiously, being the official modern spelling.

Continue on to Part 2

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