By Steve Richards
Turns out that just about all the guns we have found in South Florida’s museums – including actual artifacts - were made in Connecticut. The Winchester Rifle in the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum was made in New Haven, the Savage Navy Revolver in the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House was made in Middletown, and the Colt Revolver Rifle at the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was made in Hartford.
Not just Connecticut is represented in So Flo’s museums. Massachusetts is close though not with actual artifacts, At least, not for our purposes as we try to tell the story of South Florida – and the nation – through its guns. Many of the firearms found in our museums haven’t had their provenience determined and are not necessarily from South Florida.
In contrast, the Savage skeleton spent more than a century buried under water off Key West before being discovered there. It is an actual artifact of the Civil War as these guns were only made in the early years of the war and with limited distribution to Union troops. All the organic material has disintegrated leaving only the steel frame demonstrating its submerged history. Examples like this are extremely rare and this is the oldest such example we have found, not counting the flintlock pistol found across the street from the Custom House in the Mel Fischer Maritime Museum. That gun dates back to 1700 but was found on a shipwreck and unlikely to be a part of South Florida’s history per se. Though it does represent the kind of guns the pirates and Spanish were using in these parts at that time.
The New England connection is no surprise. Back in the day Massachusetts and Connecticut armed the USA. The Springfield Armory was built in 1795 to arm the fledgling new country. Samuel Colt got his start providing the army with a revolver rifle during the Second Seminole War when the army needed a repeating rifle that would overcome the Seminole’s tactical innovation of drawing fire and then charging as the soldiers reloaded. The Savage incorporated innovations on Colt’s cap-and-ball design that reduced the risk of “chain-firing” all six cylinders simultaneously. The .36 caliber “Navy” design was dropped by the army early on, Savage decided not to retool, and that was the end of these “ugly” revolvers.
While some of these famous names live on, the original companies – aside from Colt - are mostly gone, and the old factories largely boarded up. Sometimes, as in New Haven and Hartford, real estate developers have begun to take over the behemoth factories, at least partially.
Several of the iconic brands have been repurposed, like the Springfield Armory which was converted to a national park in the mid-1970’s, but whose name is now in use by a company with no relationship to the original armory which shut down production in 1968.
I just returned from a research trek through Connecticut and Massachusetts to document where these companies are now. Interestingly, most of their gun designs are available in brand new versions though built largely in Europe. Colt still makes rifles in West Hartford but not at its old sprawling factory under the blue onion dome. Even it was recently sold to a Czech gun maker. Henry Rifles are being manufactured again in the USA though not in New Haven. This predecessor of the Winchester was produced by the New Haven Arms Company before a long and tortured road to bankruptcy and eventual takeover by FN Herstal, of Belgium.
European companies finding a way to make our old guns profitably, and then selling them back to us.
Free trade is awesome though it begs the question: Why can’t we build them here? Especially since the original factories are largely available as is the high-end labor and innovators. It would seem like the old guns would be pretty lucrative as the European offerings often get into the $2,000+ range, way more than most AR-15’s.
Personally, I’d like to see America’s civilian rifle arsenal de-risked. Not that AR-15’s aren’t awesome and fun to shoot – they are. They’re just too lethal. Assault rifles replaced with those like we used to make – by American workers. With government subsidies paying a big chunk of the cost to subsidize an American industry that pioneered the industrial revolution. It’s also worth noting that the original Savage factory in Middletown was water powered long before “hydro-power” was even a thing.
The potential for thousands of skilled U.S. manufacturing jobs coming back to America while getting some of our most devastating weapons off the street – all while generating fat profits for the American gun industry. Sounds like a win-win-win.
Crazy as it might sound.
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