By: Peter Suciu
To many people today, “Springfield Armory” bring to mind the Illinois-based firearms firm that was founded in 1974 and has become one of the largest firearm companies in the world. While the company has continued to make fine firearms for the past 25 years, it actually isn’t connected to its much older namesake: the United States’ first armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.
I speak of the "original" Springfield Armory, which was the primary center for the manufacture of United States military firearms from 1777 until its closing in 1968. Today, it is a museum and part of the National Parks Service (NPS).
Unlike other NPS "military" museums that developed collections after the fact – notably the small arms collections of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s (NMP) Rosensteel Collection and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMPs Claude Fuller Collection – the collection at the Springfield Armory was already well-established before the site became a national park. In fact, the original Armory Museum was founded in 1866 and opened to the public in 1871.
While the entire Springfield Armory National Historic Site is managed by the NPS, just one part of it now houses the museum, which contains simply one of finest collections of military small arms in the world.
Origins of the Arsenal and Early History
The Springfield Armory is almost as old as our country itself, and its origins date back to 1777 when Gen. George Washington ordered its creation as a place to store ammunition and gun carriages in New England.
Springfield, Mass. was an ideal location thanks to its proximity to New York, Boston, and Albany, and also because it was far enough up the Connecticut River that it couldn’t be attacked by ocean-going warships.
During the American Revolution, the arsenal at Springfield produced cartridges as well as gun carriages, and the site was also used to store muskets, cannons, and other weapons for the Continental Army. Arms weren’t actually produced at the site until after the war had ended, however.
The museum’s collection chronicles the development of the M1 Garand, which was described by General George S. Patton as being "the greatest battle implement ever devised."
The site was maintained by the U.S. Army, and the Springfield Armory became the primary center for the manufacture of U.S. military firearms from 1795 until 1968. It was where the first American-designed musket was produced beginning in 1795, and throughout the next two centuries the Springfield Armory was where many famous firearms, including the Springfield "Trapdoor," the Springfield Model 1903 bolt action rifle, and notably the M1 Garand were first developed and produced.
The last small arm developed at the Springfield Armory was the M14, which was used in the 1960s as the main battle rifle for the American military, until it was displaced by the AR-15/M-16.
The Springfield Armory National Historic Site is part of the National Parks Service system.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, dozens of firms stepped up to produce the weapons required for the war effort, and it was clear that private industry could outpace what the Armory could produce.
As a result, the Springfield Armory’s role evolved. The last weapon that was designed at the Springfield Armory was one that is not without some controversy: the M14. That select-fire weapon was meant to replace both the Browning Automatic Rifle and the M1 Garand. Its development marked the end of an era for the Springfield Armory in multiple ways.
It was not only the last shoulder arm produced by Springfield Armory. The museum covers the unique history of the rifle, from its development, including how it was originally meant to be a larger, select-fire version of the M1 Garand for the invasion of Japan. As the atomic bomb ensured that invasion wasn’t necessary, the project took on a longer timeline.
The U.S. military even considered adopting the Belgian-designed FN-FAL instead, but patriotism won out, and the Armory’s design was adopted in 1957. Within only a few short years, though, it was determined that the M14 wasn’t the right weapon for the job, and the military looked to outside military contractors. The result was the development of the AR-15/M-16 – and that also signaled the end for the Springfield Armory.
From the late 1960s, private contractors began to produce more rifles than the Armory. Yet, 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 such weapons were developed. It was here that plans and specifications were also drawn up for use by the private contractors and weapon manufacturers.
In 1964, the United States Department of Defense determined the private suppliers could provide the necessary weapons to meet the needs of the military, and in 1968, the Springfield Armory was closed. The buildings and grounds were designated as a historic landmark in the 1960s, and in 1974 , he Armory became a national historic site and part of the National Park System, which today oversees the museum.
All of the aforementioned firearms developed at the Armory are now included in the museum’s vast collection, which includes about 10,000 cataloged objects. This includes more than 7,000 firearms as well as about 1,000 swords, bayonets, and other edged weapons, plus accessories, parts, gauges, and other items.
Throughout the 147 years serving as the nation’s main armory, Springfield Armory produced brass ordnance, artillery shells, musket balls, caps and paper cartridges, and items such as these make up the bulk of the collection. Today, about two-thirds of those items in the collection were either made at or modified by Springfield Armory.
In fact, the collection was organized as a museum not for the public, but beginning in 1866 was meant to be a technical reference library for the engineers who worked there. Just five years later, the doors opened to the public. While the staff today can’t say with certainty how many weapons were produced at the site, it is clear that it played a major role in the development of the American military over the course of nearly 150 years.
It is estimated that somewhere between seven to eight million complete shoulder arms, including muskets and rifles, were produced at the site. In addition, millions of spare parts were also produced at the Armory for each model. Then there are the millions of bayonets, swords, machine guns, pistols, sporting rifles, and grenade launchers that were also manufactured on the site.
Moreover, the evolution of the facility from the military’s arsenal to museum has also allowed the story of many of the American military’s most famous weapons to be told in detail not possible at other military or firearms museums.
The Springfield Armory’s notable collections of rare firearms includes firearms that were used in the making of America, but its exhibits highlight how many notable weapons were designed , including the M1873 "Trapdoor," the M1903, the M1 Garand, and as noted, the M14 – as well as other weapons that few people even knew were developed at the Armory. These include such iconic weapons as the M60 Machine Gun, the M79 Grenade Launcher, and the 20mm M61 Vulcan.
Very few museums anywhere in the world go into such detail on specific weapons as the Springfield Armory, and thanks to the hard work of the National Parks Service, the collection should be there to be seen and enjoyed by firearms enthusiasts for decades to come.
Visting the Museum:
Springfield Armory National Historic Site
One Armory Square, Suite 2
Springfield, MA 01105
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at [email protected].