Today the largest collection of historic military firearms in the country is actually under the care of the National Parks Service (NPS), which oversees the Springfield Armory, the United State’s first armory. It was there that weapons were manufactured for every American conflict from the War of 1812 through Vietnam until it was closed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1968.
Its origins go back to the American Revolution when in 1777 General George Washington ordered the creation of Springfield Armory as a place to store ammunition and gun carriages in New England. The town of Springfield, Mass. was chosen thanks to its proximity to New York, Boston and Albany, but also because it was far enough up the Connecticut River that it couldn’t be attacked by ocean-going British warships. During the Revolutionary War, the Arsenal at Springfield produced cartridges as well as gun carriages, while it also was used to store muskets, cannons and other weapons for the Continental Army. However, it is widely believed that actual arms were produced there during the Revolutionary War.
A victorious and newly independent United States required a standing army. The site was maintained by the new U.S. Army with the Springfield Armory becoming 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. 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 to be 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. However, even before Secretary McNamara opted to close the armory and turn it into a museum, weapons had become more technical while the American firearms industry grew—it was unable to produce or even design the weapons that would be needed for future conflicts.
In1964 the United States Department of Defense determined that private suppliers could provide the necessary weapons to meet the need 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 the Armory became a national historic site and part of the National Park System, which today oversees the museum.
However, the evolution of the facility from the U.S. military’s arsenal to the museum has 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. In fact, the site has maintained a museum throughout much of its history. The collection had served as a technical reference library for the engineers working at Armory, and the first museum opened for the staff in 1866—and to the public in 1871.
As just one part of the greater Springfield Armory National Historic Site, it houses one of the finest collections of military small arms in the world. This includes seven thousand firearms as well as about one thousand swords, bayonets and other edged weapons, plus several thousand accessories, parts, gauges and other items.
During its almost 147 years as the nation's main armory, it also produced brass ordnance, various artillery shells, musket balls, caps and paper cartridges, as well as many of those muskets, swords, rifles and even various military stores and implements that are part of the collection today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and website. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.