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.
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 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.
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
In World War II, the American arms industry played a huge part in the United States’ military success. Private firms, especially the
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
World War II workers assemble Garand rifles in an armory as part of the war effort.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
American Industrial Revolution
World War I
World War II