Remington Armory

A Detailed History

Source:  "History of Herkimer County, N.Y.," F. W. Beers & Co., New York, 1879, pages 164-168

The Remington Armory

Our history of this immense institution is taken from an article which appeared in the Iron Age in 1872, revised and corrected by Mr. D. D. Devoe, who has been for the most of his life connected with the institution.

The story of industrial progress is hardly ever without its romantic episode at the start.  In 1816, Eliphalet Remington, senior, the founder of the present house, a youth maturing to manhood, worked upon his father's farm, a clearing in the wilds of Herkimer county, some eighty miles west of Albany.  The farm, of considerable extent, lay upon the banks of a small stream, Clear creek, which ran little more than a league, with constant fall, down through a romantic gorge, to finally add its tribute to the Mohawk river.  Fifty odd years have wrought wonderful changes in the stream and its relations.  The Erie Canal and the large village of Ilion now intercept its waters, which, according to the memory of old denizens of the neighborhood, possess hardly more than half their ancient volume.  A rough country road winds up "the gulf," whose hill-sides, barren of trees, show cause enough for the decadence of the waters.  One must not, however, look for the change at the starting point.  The old farm dwelling still stands, but progress has done no more than erect a rustic saw-mill and an uncouth brick attempt at a sulphur spa, for its surroundings.  The spa is a failure, and the old mill only a suggestion for the sketcher.  Time, as usual, has gone down stream with her changes, erected, where was not a single house at the commencement of the century, Ilion with its unique industry, dug out the great water-way from the West to the seaboard, and threaded the Mohawk valley with the principal line of railroad in the Union.

The first Remington arm was produced in this wise.  Young Eliphalet, then but 19 years of age, asked his father one day for money to buy a gun, and was met by very much such an answer as might be expected from a hard-working farmer.  Unable to secure the desired gift from the paternal appreciation of his necessities, the boy was not, however, without hope or resource.  One of the original properties of the farm was a forge, even then old from disuse, though still offering capabilities which ready wit and energy could turn to account.  Eliphalet found no difficulty in securing enough iron about the premises for his purpose, and, with what might almost be termed inspiration, was soon able to get his material in proper condition for forging.  By persistent effort and a remarkable adaptation of his crude appliances, he finally completed a barrel which satisfied his ambition.  At the first opportunity he made a journey to Utica, then a considerable town.  There he entrusted his barrel to a gunsmith to be rifled.  An old lock plate picked out of a pile of scrap iron was of assistance to him, he making the inside parts himself with the ready-made screws obtained from the accommodating gunsmith.  He was thus enabled to complete that important part of the gun.  The stock was conveniently obtained from the plentiful supply of curl and birds-eye maple growing at the door.

Happily the smith was clever enough and candid enough to recognize the really excellent quality of his customer's production.  Whether it may have been a material superiority, due, we must presume, rather to accidental cause than to any metallurgical practice of intuition, or whether the mechanical achievement was something extraordinary, neither tradition nor relict can now determine.  The barrel was certainly so complete a success as to extort the praise of the expert, and young Remington was so encouraged by this unlooked for endorsement of his skill that he soon followed up his first effort by others.  That positive excellence must have distinguished not only the first production, but those immediately succeeding it, is apparent.  The writer's efforts to obtain one of the original barrels have been unfortunately resultless.  Suffice it that the fame of the new fabrication began soon to fill the country side, and the young producer found the resources of himself and the old forge taxed to their utmost.  Thenceforward he applied himself to barrel making, gradually extending his craftsmanship to the stocking and lock fitting of the guns.  From 1817 to about 1831, the business was prosecuted at the place of its inception, though the capacity of the "works" was measurably increased by the building of a stocking shop and another small structure.

Founding of the Works at Ilion

In 1828, the Eire Canal having been made through the valley of the Mohawk, Mr. Remington, after a few years' hard experience of the difficulty of conducting his growing business at so considerable a distance from that thoroughfare, with wise prevision of the future, purchased a large tract of land where now stands Ilion.  His first erection, a low one-story building, is included in the present forging shop.  The variety and capacity of plant for some years was not increased to any great extent, though the distinct business of barrel making experienced a natural and healthy growth.  In 1835, the establishment of Ames & Co., of Springfield, Mass., which had a United States contract for a number of thousands of carbines, wished to dispose of a portion of its award then uncompleted, and of its gun-finishing machinery.  Mr. Remington became the purchaser of both contract and plant.  At this time, his first government contract necessitating an increase of shop capacity, he erected a frame building of considerable size for that day, which is still standing, and known as "the old armory."  Before finishing the carbine order, the enterprise of the rising establishment was encouraged by the reception of another contract - this time for 5,000 Harper's Ferry rifles.  Tools were forthwith made or bought and the work proceeded with, still another contract for 5,000 similar arms coming before the first was finished.  At this date (1835 to 1840) the machine plant amounted to four milling machines, one stocking machine and one turning lathe, the fixtures or tools having to be changed as occasion demanded.  About 1840, two of Mr. Remington's sons coming of age, became active in the enterprise.  It is worthy of record that the experience of the father of the difficulty of possessing a gun was, though in a lighter degree, repeated by the sons, the story being that when one of the sons asked his father for a fowling piece, the latter answered that he would be more liberal than his parent had been with him, that he would contribute the barrel, but the youngster must, in this instance, furnish stock and lock himself.  The terms were readily accepted by the now elder of the Remington Bro's. and he finished the gun at the works in the Gulf before their removal to Ilion.

The accession of his two elder sons to the business gave the founder a temporary respite, grateful enough, we may well believe, after such a quarter of a century of endeavor and achievement.

The award of a third contract - this time for 2,500 Harper's Ferry rifles and for a quantity of Maynard's magazine locks - was the first fruits of the new management and an initial trip to Washington.

In 1847 the Remingtons commenced the construction of pistols, their first effort being a pocket revolver, which from its simplicity and general efficiency secured a market at once.  A short time anterior to the Rebellion in 1861, they began to produce their well known army and navy revolver, since adopted for both branches of the U. S. service.  It is noteworthy that up to 1869-70, notwithstanding the fact of very large contracts for muskets for government - which the summary and illiberal policy of Secretary Stanton at the close of the war rendered in most instances rather ruinous than remunerative for all parties working for the Untied States - the company had found pistol making much more profitable than that of other small arms.  The company now turns out 18 different sizes and patterns of holster and other pistols, from the terribly effective single shot arm of 50 caliber, of a breech-loading system similar to the rifle, to the vest pocket companion, a toy weighing but 3 1/2 ozs., yet in the hands of an expert marksman true enough to kill a squirrel at 50 feet.

The Remington Military Arm

The Remington military breech-loader, of which more than half a million have been made and issued to different governments, first claimed public attention about 1865-6.  At a somewhat earlier date, systems more especially designed for the conversion of muzzle-loaders into breech-loaders, and hardly more than suggesting the principle developed in the present model, were made for trial.  At the board of United States officers, which met at Springfield, Mass., in 1865, a carbine of this early design was one of the sixty odd arms tested.  In the succeeding twelve months radical changes and improvements were made in the system, rendering it in effect an altogether new affair.  The subsequent history of the arm has been one of almost unvarying success, whenever brought into competition with other inventions.  Its record, up to the present date, shows its adoption by the following nations and States:

Denmark, Spain (approved by Marshal Serrano, Minister of War), Sweden, Greece, France (commission of which Colonel Nessler was president), Rome, Egypt, United States (Navy), New York State (Report on New Arms, Board of 1868), Holland (for cavalry), United States Army (commission of which General Schofield was president, also approved by General Sherman, commanding U. S. Army), Cuba (commission of which General Seguera was president), new York State Board of 1871, approved by Governor Hoffman.  Arms have been furnished to governments and private parties as follows:  Denmark, 42,000; Sweden, 30,000; U. S. Navy, 23,000 (rifles, pistols and carbines); Spain, for Cuba, 75,000; France, 150,000; Rome, 10,000; Egypt, 60,000; Japan, 3,000; South Carolina, 5,000 transformed Springfields; U. S. Army, 1,500; also 5,000 rifles and 5,000 pistols, now being manufactured for U. S. Army; South America, 10,000; miscellaneous, 100,000.  Further large orders have been received, making an aggregate of more than half a million arms, constructed upon this system, most of which have been already supplied to troops.  The foregoing detail moreover, does not include possible issues of which the data are beyond our reach, several governments - as for instance, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Greece - which have made this their service arm, possessing the right to manufacture in their State arsenals, under royalty.  It is likewise true that the Swiss Confederation officially adopted the Remington for its troops of the line, but the contract could not be undertaken through large orders already in progress.

Adoption of the Remington for the U. S. Army

The history of the Remington rifle in its relation to the United States government has a present interest that claims a few words additional in this connection.  This system has been from the start a favorite with the navy, 5,000 carbines and 7,000 pistols having been constructed for that service at a very early date, and before any official commission had made choice of a particular arm.  In 1869-70 a commission ordered by the late Admiral Dahlgren, convened at Washington for the purpose of testing various systems and adopting the best for the navy.  This commission, presided over by Commodore Reynolds, and comprising several of the most accomplished officers in the service, subjected a large number of systems to a trial of the most severe character, and, after a considerable time, reported upon the Remington as the best in all respects.  In accordance with this official finding, 10,000 rifles were issued for the naval and marine service in 1870.  It may seem that so exhaustive a trial as that conducted by the navy could have properly served to direct the action of the other branch of the service.  The War Department, however, chose to make its choice of a new arm after tests conducted by its own officers, the Ordnance Bureau particularly urging this independent course.  Consequently, a board of army officers convened at St. Louis in the spring of 1870.  After a very protracted trial of unprecedented severity, in which about fifty systems were tested, this board likewise reported in favor of the Remington, and recommended it for sole adoption in the United States Army.  The decision of the commission, of which Major-General Schofield was chairman, was strongly endorsed by the head of the army, General Sherman, yet the exigeant prudence of General Dyer, chief of the Ordnance Bureau, was still unsatisfied.  This veteran officer accepted and approved the preference expressed for the Remington, but deprecated any immediate and final action upon the recommendation of the board, and ordered that 1,000 stand of rifles and 300 of carbines of each of three systems be made and issued to the army, for the purpose of at least one year's trial of their respective merits, monthly reports to be rendered from the commands thus equipped.  These reports, as they came in, were generally corroborative of the decision of the board, the only faults reported in the Remingtons having been pointed out by the board, and neglected to be remedied in the arms issued.  Meanwhile, the New York State board of 1871, after a very long competition, adopted this gun for the re-armament of the militia, ordering the very changes that were recommended by the army commission at St. Louis.

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