Arms industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Starting with small, government-owned facilities as some of the first industrial facilities in the United States, the arms industry has expanded into large corporate entities. The arms industry has been one of the leading drivers of American technology in pursuit of superior weaponry for the defense of the United States. During the country’s wars, the arms industry provided the tools to defend U.S. interests, but it often struggled to survive in times of peace.

The American arms industry began with government facilities that produced weapons solely for the U.S. military. Determined to be independent of foreign sources of weaponry, President George Washington created the first arms facilities to provide small arms for the Army and ships for the Navy. In 1794, Washington signed legislation that created the first two armories for the U.S. Army. One was located in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the other was placed in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia). Both locations were strategically located to support armies in both the northern and the southern portions of the country. Both were also close to sources of waterpower to operate the machinery, and both also sat astride major transportation routes. Whereas the Harpers Ferry armory existed entirely as a manufacturing and storage facility, the Springfield armory had the additional function of weapons design. The Springfield Armory designed and manufactured every major small arm of the U.S. Army until the 1960’s. Other arsenals supplemented the work at Springfield and Harpers Ferry.Arms industry

The Frankford Arsenal, established in 1816 near Philadelphia, was the major producer of ammunition for the Army until it closed in 1977. The Watervliet Arsenal, founded in 1813 near Troy, New York, was the main producer of artillery for the United States, a function it continues to serve. Ships for the U.S. Navy came from a series of government-run naval yards. The first naval yard, established at League Island near Philadelphia in 1801, was a major production facility, building and maintaining a large number of ships until the base closed in 1995. Most major coastal cities boasted a ship facility by the 1830’s, with the most important yards at Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Norfolk, Virginia.

The Late Nineteenth Century

The structure of the American arms industry remained primarily in government hands throughout the nineteenth century. The United States fought few major wars, and the wars that did occur did not require much additional production outside the government-owned facilities. Even the demands of the U.S. Civil War, U.S.;arms industryCivil War could be met by these limited facilities. When new weapons technology emerged in the nineteenth century, the government-run facilities absorbed the new technology instead of placing orders with nongovernment firms. When new technology emerged, government arsenals simply adapted the existing weapons to accept the new technology. Likewise, Navy shipyards adapted new marine technologies into older accepted production methods, preserving the government’s control over its supply of arms. The only major exception to this tradition was the Colt Manufacturing CompanyColt Manufacturing Company. The company’s founder, Samuel Colt, SamuelColt, set up a factory in Hartford, Connecticut, to produce his greatest invention, the world’s first practical revolving chamber pistol. Because the new invention was so superior to earlier pistols, the Army wished to adopt it, but Colt held the patent to his invention and would not give up control of his pistol to the government. Instead, Colt sold pistols to the Army for more than a century, and it was the largest private arms producer in America until the late nineteenth century.

Shift to the Private Sector

By the close of the nineteenth century, circumstances had changed the American arms industry. The rapid expansion of technology was changing existing weapons at such a rate that the existing armories and yards could not keep up. More important, private research and innovation were generating new technology outside the control of government-owned facilities, and if the Army and Navy wanted the new technology, they would have to pay for it. In 1892, for instance, the Army needed a new rifle to replace its obsolete models. Unable to produce a suitable rifle at the Springfield Armory, the War Department eventually purchased the rights to the Krag rifle from its designers, although the Army would manufacture the rifle at the Springfield Armory.

Springfield also wound up producing other outside designs at the armory, most notably the designs of John Moses Browning, John MosesBrowning, the greatest American firearms designer. Springfield Armory eventually manufactured pistols, rifles, and machine guns designed by Browning. The Navy was also forced to use outside companies and designs when its own yards could not keep pace with technology. Shipbuilding industryThe USS Indiana, America’s first modern battleship, was constructed in 1893 at the William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company in Philadelphia, because no Navy yard was capable of launching a ship of its size. Eventually, the Navy began to produce large ships in its own yards, but most of the early American battleships were constructed in private yards. After John Philip Holland, John PhilipHolland introduced his first practical Submarinessubmarine in 1897, the Navy had to purchase submarines from the private Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut, a company started by Holland and Isaac Rice to market the new device.

In World War II, the American arms industry played a huge part in the United States’ military success. Private firms, especially the Aerospace industryaerospace industry, provided key technological breakthroughs that the U.S. government could not produce itself. While existing government armories produced small arms and artillery for the Army, new military technology came from the arms industry. Companies such as Boeing, North American, Martin, and Consolidated produced aircraft far more advanced than anything the government could produce.

The arms industry also provided the ability to produce in quantities that the war demanded. Private yards produced most of the thousands of vessels procured by the U.S. Navy. A good example was the landing craft, vehicle/personnel (LCVP), an innovative amphibious landing craft designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins used in dozens of beach landings throughout the war. Private arms production also churned out mass-produced merchant vessels, the Liberty ships, in numbers the government could not hope to produce. World War II also marked the beginning of commercial businesses’ entry into the defense industry as companies created arms industry wings. A good example of this was the Ford Motor Company;military applicationsFord Motor Company. Instead of producing cars during World War II, Ford built automotive vehicles (like trucks and tanks) for the Army, but also diversified into aircraft production. Private arms manufacturers, however, still had to accommodate government demands. Boeing Aircraft, for instance, developed the B-29 Superfortress, the most advanced bomber in the world at the time, but the government forced Boeing to share its production secrets with the Martin Company, which built the B-29 under license at its plant near Omaha, Nebraska. Boeing did not like the situation, but it had to accede, because Boeing lacked the production capacity to build the aircraft in the numbers the government needed on such short notice.

The Cold War Era

World War II workers assemble Garand rifles in an armory as part of the war effort.

(Library of Congress)

After World War II, the intensification of the Cold War and the advent of new wartime technology led to a decline in government arms production and almost total reliance on the arms industry. As the pace of technological advancement increased, the portion of the U.S. military’s equipment produced by government armories and shipyards declined. Private technological research had so outpaced government research that the government could no longer compete. Also, as technological breakthroughs occurred, the patents for the new technology remained in private or corporate hands, and if the U.S. military wanted access to those breakthroughs, it would have to buy from the private producers.

The Cold WarCold War also played a large part in the shift to private producers. Unlike earlier wars, when technology plateaued and defense budgets fell, the threat of the Soviet Union forced the United States to spend large amounts on defense and procure the best weaponry available. That meant it had to rely on the private arms industry to maintain a technological and qualitative edge over Soviet weaponry, which government facilities could not provide. As a consequence, government armories and shipyards lost most of their traditional roles and began to close. Even the venerable Springfield Armory lost its traditional tasks when the Army adopted the civilian-designed M16 rifle in 1961, the first non-Springfield-produced rifle in the U.S. Army’s history.

Most of the weaponry produced during the Cold War came from a new manifestation of the arms industry: the defense contractor. Whereas companies like Ford switched to weapons production during World War II before going back to their prewar civilian products, the defense contractors of the Cold War made military hardware as their only line of work. A few major defense contractors (such as Boeing, which produced both civilian airliners and military aircraft) still had a civilian side, but most of the new companies built only military equipment or had only a small presence in nonmilitary industries. Aviation companies such as Military-industrial complex[military industrial complex]Northrop, Grumman, McDonnell, Douglas, and Lockheed relied almost entirely on military orders to survive, and each tried to carve out a niche market for itself. Grumman and McDonnell, for example, specialized in carrier aircraft for the U.S. Navy, while Lockheed was a major producer of transport aircraft.

Civilian shipyards, such as Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, specialized in the construction of aircraft carriers and other large vessels, replacing construction in Navy yards. Other defense contractors emerged as the result of mergers of smaller armament industries. The best example of this type of company was General DynamicsGeneral Dynamics, founded in 1952. The company started out as the Electric Boat Company, the submarine company started by Holland. After government orders for submarines ended after World War II, Electric Boat began to acquire other companies to diversify its offerings in the armaments industry. General Dynamics acquired the Canadian aircraft producer Canadair and the American aircraft and missile company Convair, making General Dynamics a strong contender in several major defense fields. By the 1990’s, General Dynamics was producing F-16 fighters for the Air Force, M-1 battle tanks for the Army, and ships for the Navy all at the same time. The intense competition for business, however, drove some companies to illegal action. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, several defense contractors, including Lockheed and Northrop, were found guilty of bribery and other criminal activity aimed at obtaining contacts for their companies.

After the Cold War

With the end of the Cold War during the 1980’s, the arms industry changed yet again. The decrease in general defense spending caused a huge contraction in the arms industry. Companies without a civilian market and with no means of sustaining themselves either merged or went out of business. In 1967, for instance, McDonnell had merged with Douglas to survive, only to be purchased by Boeing in 1997. Lockheed merged with Martin in 1985 to survive, while Northrop and Grumman merged in 1994. General Dynamics also changed to stay solvent. The company sold off its aviation and missile branches during the 1990’s to concentrate on land vehicle and ship production. Its original company, Electric Boat, still exists as the only submarine producer in the United States. Competition has also become very fierce for the limited defense dollars, as companies stake their future on obtaining the few major defense procurement projects still available. To make matters worse, the globalization of the world economy opened the door for foreign defense contractors, creating still more competition for government contracts.

Further Reading
  • Ball, Robert W. D. Springfield Armory Shoulder Weapons, 1795-1968. Norfolk, Va.: Antique Trader, 1997. A survey of the small arms produced by the Springfield Armory throughout its long contribution to the American arms industry.
  • Boorman, Dean K. A History of Colt Firearms. New York: Lyons, 2001. An examination of the significant contributions of Samuel Colt to the American arms industry. Colt firearms equipped the U.S. Army for most of its history, and Colt has a close relationship with the Springfield Armory.
  • Davis, Kenneth S. Arms, Industry, and America. New York: Wilson, 1971. Somewhat outdated, but still the best general history of the American arms industry, especially in the twentieth century.
  • Goodwin, Jacob. Brotherhood of Arms: General Dynamics and the Business of Defending America. New York: Times Books, 1985. A lengthy history of General Dynamics’ rise to the top of the defense contractor industry, and the diverse products it has produced.
  • Morris, Charles R. Iron Destinies, Lost Opportunities: The Arms Race Between the USA and the USSR, 1945-1987. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. A critical analysis of the role of the arms industry in exacerbating the Cold War and the economic impact of defense spending.
  • Singer, Peter W. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. A study of the newest manifestation of the defense contractor. Privatized defense companies not only produce weapons but also provide hired troops to be used outside the scope of established national armies.

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