New England’s Gun Valley began with George Washington, who in 1777 scouted the site on an old Puritan muster ground in Springfield, Mass. Washington was looking for a place to store weapons out of reach of the British Royal Navy.
The site met Washington’s approval, as it’s located just north of Enfield Falls on the Connecticut River. That put it out of reach of oceangoing vessels.
The Springfield Armory stored musket and cannon and made cartridges and gun carriages for the American Revolution. Then in 1796, it produced the Model 1795 Musket, the first made in the United States. It wouldn’t be the last.
From 1796 to 1968, the Springfield Armory served as the U.S. Army’s main design and production workshop for small arms. In the process, it became the hub of Springfield’s industrial economy and launched dozens of weapons makers and related businesses in the Connecticut Valley. Companies like Colt, Remington and Smith & Wesson gave the region the nickname Gun Valley.
New England’s Gun Valley
The Springfield Armory, along with the one in Harper’s Ferry, came under orders from the U.S. Ordnance Department. The Ordnance Department adopted a new doctrine that weapons should be identical and repairable on the battlefield. It ordered the arsenals to figure out how to do it. The Springfield Armory then developed the manufacturing process known as ‘armory practice.’
Ultimately, the Springfield Armory drew up designs and specifications then farmed out much of the production work in Gun Valley.
One contractor was Eli Whitney. He received a government contract to produce muskets with interchangeable parts, which he did at his armory in Hamden, Conn.
As weapons production geared up during the War of 1812, hundreds of skilled workers flocked to the Connecticut Valley.
During the Civil War, the Springfield Armory supplied most of the small arms for the Union Army, making an astounding 276,200 rifles in 1864. Other factories in Gun Valley got orders for ammunition, swords, cannons, cotton goods, gun carriages and railroad cars.
In 1891, the Springfield Armory got a new job: develop and test small arms. It made pistols and rifles, including the Enfield rifle, for U.S. troops during World War I.
Then beginning in 1936, the Armory made 4.5 million M1 rifles, semiautomatic weapons invented by John Garand. From 1959 to 1964, it made the M14, followed by the M16 used in the Vietnam War.
By 1968, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara closed the Springfield Armory, but Gun Valley remained. Below are some of the major gun makers in and around Gun Valley.
Colt’s Manufacturing Co.
Samuel Colt applied for his first patent for the Colt revolver in 1836, and by the end of 1837 he had produced more than 1,000 of his revolver that would grow up to become an icon. His only problem: no one bought them. Capt. Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers finally saved Colt’s dream. Walker had run across the revolvers in Florida and he had seen their repeating firing.
On the brink of the Mexican-American War of 1846, Walker hunted down Colt to get him to build some more guns, but with revisions. The new gun, for example, should hold six shots and not five. He also wanted some improvements so it would load faster. Colt gladly complied, and immediately set about filling the first order for 1,000 pistols. A second order soon followed.
In 1848 Colt established his factory in Hartford, Conn., and the legend grew from there. In 1855, he built the Colt Armory with machine tools built by Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney. The company made muskets and pistols during the Civil War.
By World War I, Colt had 10,000 employees making semiautomatic pistols. In World War II, 15,000 workers made pistols and machine guns. Colt also made the M16 for the Vietnam War, selling 5 million of them worldwide.
Smith & Wesson
Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson founded Smith & Wesson in 1855 in Springfield, a good time and place to make guns.
They’d founded another company to make the Volcanic Rifle in Norwich, Conn. Oliver Winchester bought it in 1855. Smith went back home to Springfield and Wesson stayed on as plant manager. Then Winchester declared bankruptcy, reorganized and moved to New Haven as the New Haven Arms Co. Later it took the name the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.
Meanwhile Smith and Wesson regrouped in Springfield, rejoined each other and made a cartridge revolver. During the Civil War, Smith and Wesson received a large Federal contract to manufacture pistols. Soldiers even bought them privately for self-defense.
After the war, Smith & Wesson switched to a revolver more suitable to the western frontier. Then in 1899 the company developed the Smith & Wesson Model 10, the standard gun for police officers during much of the 20th century. Smith & Wesson created the .44 Magnum in 1955, immortalized by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films.
The company has changed hands several times, and now calls itself American Outdoor Brands Corp.
Winchester Repeating Arms Co.
The company began as Smith & Wesson began in Gun Valley – Springfield – then moved to New Haven. Winchester made a rifle known as the Model 1873, a lever-action gun known as The Gun That Won the West.
Winchester also made the Enfield rifle for Britain and the U.S. in World War I. It struggled, though, during the Great Depression, and the Olin family purchased its assets in 1935. The company later changed its name to Winchester Western, and it made the M1 carbine in World War I. After the war, Winchester made the M14 rifle.
The New Haven plant closed in 2006, and the Olin Corp. licensed a Japanese company to make some Winchester rifles.
Eliphalet Remington II founded the company in 1816, moving it to Ilion, N.Y., in 1828. Remington still makes firearms at the plant.
Remington’s family sold the company in 1888 to a New York sporting goods company that also owned the Union Metallic Cartridge Co. in Bridgeport and Winchester Repeating Arms Co. It changed Union Metallic name to Remington and continued to make ammunition in Bridgeport.
The New York Times once called the enormous Remington Arms plant ‘the greatest small arms and ammunition plant in the world.’ It may also have ranked as the deadliest.
At its height, Remington Arms employed more than 17,000 workers. Some of them died on the job. On April 4, 1905, three workers were killed in an explosion that blew up an entire building. In 1914, Bridgeport police killed an 18-year-old striking worker, Frank Monte. On March 28, 1942, an explosion killed four women and three men and hurt 80 others.
Today the abandoned Remington Arms plant still sits at 812 Barnum Ave. in Bridgeport.
Carl Gustav Swebilius founded High Standard Firearms in Hamden, Conn., in 1926 to supply firearms companies in the Gun Valley. He bought the Hartford Arms and Equipment Company in 1932 to make .22 caliber pistols. During World War II, High Standard also developed a silent pistol that Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) agents could use behind enemy lines. The company’s assets moved to Texas in the 1990s.
Arthur Savage founded Savage Arms in 1894 in Utica, N.Y., to make rifles, handguns and ammunition. Then during World War I the company merged with Pennsylania-based Driggs-Seabury Ordinance Co. to make machine guns. In 1920, Savage bought Stevens Arms of Chicopee Falls, Mass., where it made Thompson machine guns in World War II.
Eventually Savage Arms moved to Westfield, Mass., and has gone through a bankruptcy and sale.
Sturm Ruger, now the nation’s largest gun maker, was founded in 1949 near, but not in, Gun Valley. It’s in Southport, Conn., with manufacturing facilities in Newport, N.H. making semiautomatic pistols and rifles. Now
Another firearms company located near Gun Valley, SIG Sauer Inc. was founded in 1985 in Newington, N.H., to import and sell firearms from its sister company in Germany.
This story last updated in 2022.
With thanks to Suing the Gun Industry: A Battle at the Crossroads of Gun Control and Mass Torts By Timothy D. Lytton .
Images: Remington Arms by Eric Kilby.