10 Facts About the Springfield Armory

Though Massachusetts isn’t exactly known as a state that has strong support for the Second Amendment, the town of Springfield was arguably the birthplace of the U.S. firearms industry. Even today, it is the unofficial capital of “Gun Valley,” the chain of factories that included the likes of Smith & Wesson and Savage Arms in Western Massachusetts to Sturm Ruger & Co. and Colt in Connecticut.

More importantly, it is home to the original Springfield Armory — more formally known as the United States Armory and Arsenal at Springfield. Today firearms enthusiasts are likely to think of the Illinois-based firm of the same name, which isn’t actually connected to its older namesake, the United States’ first armory in Springfield, Mass.

Springfield Armory
With a collection of thousands of firearms, the Springfield Armory is truly the center of American firearms history. (Photo by the author)

However, the Springfield Armory and Arsenal doesn’t actually manufacture firearms anymore — and hasn’t since the 1960s. Yet, the original facility is maintained by the National Park Service and it is home to a museum that chronicles the history of the armory and the firearms produced there.

Moreover, unlike other military museums that developed their respective collections after the fact — notably the small arms collections of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Rosensteel Collection and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP’s The Claude Fuller Collection — the collection at the Springfield Armory was already well established before the site became a National Park. It was further expanded with the addition of the Benton Small Arms Collection, and today is one of the finest museums devoted to firearms anywhere in the United States.

On the 35 acres behind the main building is now the site of the Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), which is the only “technical” community college in the Bay State. It continues to promote the legacy of technological innovation at the Springfield Armory.

Here are some other facts about America’s first armory and arsenal:

1. George Washington ordered its construction.

In 1777, General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, ordered the creation of the Springfield Armory as a place to store ammunition and gun carriages in New England. The town of Springfield, Mass. was chosen thanks to its proximity to New York, Boston, and Albany and because it was far enough up the Connecticut River that it couldn’t be attacked by ocean-going warships.

2. The Springfield Armory produced America’s first firearms, but not until after the revolution.

The Arsenal at Springfield didn’t initially serve as an armory, but it did produce cartridges as well as gun carriages during the Revolutionary War. It was also used to store muskets, cannons, and other weapons for the Continental Army.

3) Millions of firearms were produced at the arsenal.

After the Revolutionary War, the site was maintained by the new U.S. Army, and the Springfield Armory became the primary center for the manufacture of U.S. military firearms from 1795 until 1968.

Springfield Armory Diorama
This diorama lays out how the massiveness of the Springfield Armory, and how it was able to produce literally millions of firearms. (Photo by the author)

It also produced brass ordnance, various artillery shells, musket balls, caps, and paper cartridges, as well as swords and even various military stores and implements.

In total, about 8 million complete shoulder arms, including muskets and rifles, were produced at the Springfield Armory. That doesn’t include the millions of spare parts the Armory also produced for each model and the millions of bayonets, swords, machine guns, pistols, sporting rifles, and grenade launchers they produced over the years. The current museum has strived to ensure that many of the items produced at the facility throughout its history are now on display.

4) It played a crucial role in the Industrial Revolution.

The Springfield Armory wasn’t just the center of Gun Valley; it was much the epicenter of the early Industrial Revolution in the United States. Much of that grew out of the military’s fascination with interchangeable parts, which was based on the theory that it would be easier to simply replace firearm parts than to make battlefield repairs.

The original machinery of the Springfield Armory
Before Henry Ford’s assembly lines were making the Model T, the Springfield Armory was mass-producing rifles for the U.S. military. (Photo by the author) 

Mass production of truly interchangeable parts demanded greater use of machines, improved gauging, quality control, and division of labor. All were characteristics of the Industrial Revolution and were employed at the Springfield Armory.

5. An anti-war poem was written about the Springfield Armory.

Published in early 1845 by noted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Arsenal at Springfield” was his desperate plea for peace as the clouds of civil war were already on the horizon. The poem described rows of finished guns and pointed out that upwards of 1,000,000 were stockpiled there, stored vertically in open racks.

The arsenal soon became known as the Organ of Muskets as the result of his poem.

An Organ of Muskets
It is easy to see how the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saw an “Organ of Muskets” within the facility. (Photo by the author)

6. The armory played a decisive role in the American Civil War.

After the destruction of the Harpers Ferry Armory in the opening days of the American Civil War, the Springfield Armory was the only government manufacturer of arms — until the establishment of the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois in 1862

The Springfield factory went on to play a decisive role in the American Civil War; producing the bulk of the weaponry used by Union troops which, in sum, outpaced Confederate firearm production by a ratio of 32 to 1.

7. A significant number of American small arms were developed there.

From the original Springfield Model 1795, a number of notable American rifles were designed and produced at the Springfield Armory. These included the M1873 “Trapdoor,” and, of course, the M1903 bolt action rifle. In addition, the now infamous M1 Garand was also developed and produced at the Springfield Armory.

History of the M1903 display
Among the firearms produced in large numbers at the facility was, of course, the Springfield M1903. (Photo by the author)

8. The last firearm produced at the Springfield Armory was the M14.

The last weapon that was designed at the Armory is one that is not without some controversy — namely the M14, which was meant to replace both the Browning Automatic Rifle and the M1 Garand. It marked the end of an era for the Springfield Armory.

In 1964 the United States Department of Defense determined that the private suppliers could provide the necessary weapons to meet the needs of the military. Four years later, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced the closure of the Springfield Armory. Several out-portions of the armory were even sold off, including the historic “Water Shops” production facilities.

9. The Springfield Armory continued to play a role in firearms development.

Even as the Springfield Armory no longer produced many of the weapons used by the U.S. military in the 20th century, it remained the location where many weapons were developed. It was at the Armory that plans and specifications were also drawn up for use by the private contractors and weapon manufacturers.

Among the modern small arms designed at the famous facility included the M60 Machine Gun, the M79 Grenade Launcher, and the 20mm M61 Vulcan.

10. There has been a museum on the site for 150 Years.

The closure of the Springfield Armory could have essentially erased the history of American small arms development and manufacturing. But fortunately, that didn’t happen. The buildings and grounds were designated a historic landmark in the 1960s, and in 1974 the Armory became a national historic site and part of the National Park System, which today oversees the museum.

Springfield Armory Mishaps
Not every factory museum would so proudly show off its “mishaps!” (Photo by the author)

Moreover, the site had already been home to a museum, which first opened in 1866 for employees and U.S. military officials. It was then open to the public in 1871 and today attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

As noted, it is now home to one of the most significant collections of firearms in the United States. According to the National Parks Service, there are about 10,000 cataloged objects in the museum collection. That includes more than 7,000 firearms, as well as about 1,000 swords, bayonets, and other edged weapons, plus several thousand accessories, parts, gauges, and other items. It is truly a collection like no other.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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