When Smith Met Wesson, Part 3
When Smith Met Wesson, Part 3
Daniel Wesson arrived in Windsor at the Robbins & Lawrence armory during a time of unprecedented activity. Using machines to mass produce items wasn’t a new idea and anyone interested in mechanics or the business of factory production was aware of the success of Eli Terry, Jr. and other Connecticut clock makers. However, as with N. Kendall & Company’s gun production and the water pumps fabricated by the National Hydraulic Company in Windsor, these production techniques were based on craftwork methods. What had been applied to the production of the Model 1841 muskets in Windsor was a new manufacturing concept that was able to produce a high volume of a complex finished product with unparalleled accuracy that simply couldn’t be attained by the best craft-production methods. As gunsmith brought up in the handcrafted tradition (Edwin Wesson’s gunshop), and one who was already experimenting with cutting edge designs (the Wesson-Leavitt revolver), Daniel Wesson was an ideal choice to represent the interests of the Leonard Pistol Manufacturing Company and learn these new production methods.
The Leonard Dragoon Pistol was expensive to produce and the finished gun both heavy and awkward. The first step was to redesign the pistol so it could be efficiently mass-produced and more suitable for personal defensive. There’s no surviving inventory of the machinery that Wesson brought to Windsor, but most likely they included a lathe, a metal planer, a barrel boring machine, and a grinder –the standards for gun production at the time. These were probably were sold or scrapped soon after their arrival in Windsor since most of the machines used by Robbins & Lawrence for gun production were new inventions or radically redesigned variations of traditional machine tools. This would have been Daniel Wesson’s first lesson at the “Windsor School:” machine tools are designed or modified to fit the production needs of the product and not that products had to be designed so they could be made on existing machines.
Daniel Wesson and Richard Lawrence worked together on redesigning the spring mechanisms for the trigger and revolving hammer that resulted in changing the shape of the handgrip. The single-piece barrel, which had five bores drilled in a large cylinder, was dramatically altered into two sections –a breech (with the nipples for the percussion caps and loading chamber) and a barrel. It was then hinged to the frame instead of being threaded. Other changes include fixing the multiple-bore barrel to the breech by a central threaded rod instead of having threads on the outside circumference, and rifling the bores instead of leaving them smooth. The size of the pistol was also reduced in size (.36 caliber to .28 and .31) to make it more suitable for carrying in a pocket. (At this time holsters were only used for large military dragoon pistols.) These changes were made in 1850 and, as was standard under contract, an additional patent was filed in George Leonard, Junior’s name. Some of the machines used to produce the new Revolving Hammer Pistol existed only at R&L. Certainly this advanced level of research and development for firearms existed nowhere else in 1850.
Robbins & Lawrence was a large shop and in redesigning the pistol Wesson would also have worked with the brilliant machine designer Frederick Howe and the shop foreman Benjamin Tyler Henry. Noted gunsmith Rollin White apparently was involved in redesigning the barrels of the pistol. Lemuel Hedge, another famous Windsor inventor, had moved his business to New York City, but returned home to install his newest invention, the bandsaw, in the R&L factory. It’s not inconceivable that Wesson met him at this time since the pistol grips were most likely roughed out using this new piece of equipment.
In 1850 Courtland Palmer brought the Jennings Repeater to Windsor and contracted R&L to develop the design and manufacture 5,000 rifles. Palmer was a business speculator, what we now call venture capitalist, and he had purchased the patents associated with a repeating rifle that used a preloaded bullet.
Walter Hunt, one of America’s great inventors, patented “Loaded Balls” in August 1848. These conical lead bullets were deeply hollowed in the rear, packed with gunpowder, and capped with a cork disk that had a small central hole – essentially a bullet cartridge ignited by an external detonator (percussion cap). The following August he patents a rifle for his bullet, the “Combined Piston Breech and Firing Cock Repeating Gun” or “Volitional Repeater.” Hunt then places both inventions with New York model maker, invention promoter, and machine shop owner George A. Arrowsmith. Lewis Jennings, a noted gunsmith who worked for Arrowsmith, modified the loading, chambering, and firing mechanism of the Volitional Repeater and a new patent was issued on Christmas Day 1849. All of the patents were then assigned to Arrowsmith and he sold them to Courtland Palmer for $100,000 – a huge sum in 1849.
Richard Lawrence had a considerable amount of experience with revolvers (the Jacquith and Whittier rifles in 1838-39) but there was only one man in the shop who had worked on a rifle with a cartridge magazine: B. Tyler Henry. As an apprentice in John b. Ripley’s gunshop in 1839 he had worked on the “Waterproof Rifle,” an underhammer rifle with reusable steel cartridges that were gravity fed from a magazine in the rifle butt, (Decades later the Waterproof Rifle would be an inspiration to Christopher Spencer for the magazine design in his repeating rifle). Tyler was the logical choice to spearhead the development of the Jennings Repeater.Despite the business interests of his partnership in Hartford, Connecticut; the production development of the Wesson & Leavitt revolver at the Massachusetts Arms Company in Chickopee, Massachusetts; and the distance from his young family, Daniel Wesson stayed in Windsor and became involved with redesigning the Jennings rifle.
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