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As Eli Whitney wrote after completing his 1798 contract to produce 10,000 stands of arms, "A good musket is a complicated engine and difficult to make — difficult of execution because the conformation of most of its parts correspond with no regular geometrical figure."1 The task he had undertaken was precisely that execution, 10,000 times each, of 50 parts of more or less irregular conformation, to make them fit together into smoothly operating firearms, and to make them durable for use by soldiers. To achieve this, he had to begin from scratch at his newly purchased water-power site at Mill Rock, rebuild the dam, install water wheels, and construct buildings to house the operations of converting raw materials — metals and wood — into "complicated engines."
A "stand of arms" included the musket and its bayonet and ramrod, both of which also had to fit securely and smoothly to the weapon and be durable in use. The conversion of metals into ramrods, bayonets, barrels, locks, and "mountings" took place, broadly speaking, in two stages: the first shaping required heat and the second required cutting tools. Except for the barrels, these two processes at the Whitney Armory took place in buildings on opposite sides of the Mill River. On the east bank were the forge fires for the shaping of parts; on the west bank were the machines and tools for the cutting of parts. It is probable that the welding, grinding, and boring of the barrels all took place on the west bank, although the evidence on this point so far is inconclusive, after which they were test-fired in a proof house on the east bank. In Eli Whitney Jr's day, the heat-treating operations of case-hardening and annealing also took place on the east bank and a foundry was added to the complex of buildings there, to allow shaping by casting as well as by forging. Conversion of hardwood into shaped and "inletted" gunstocks and of softwood into shipping crates took place on the west bank, as did the assembly of the parts and packing of completed weapons.
Over the ninety years of the Whitney Armory's existence, much technological change took place both in metal and wood-working machinery and in metallurgical capabilities. Changes also took place in the designs of the firearms produced. For both reasons, the Armory saw successive periods of renewal of structures and of equipment, which would then grow obsolete and be replaced again. In this process machines and tools were scrapped or recycled, so remaining material evidence concerning what went on inside the Armory buildings is very scarce. So is written evidence in any detail. What is known about the technique of firearms manufacture in the early nineteenth century mostly derives from records of the United States armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, where techniques for specialization and mechanization of work were carried further than in the smaller private arms factories like Whitney's, even if they had originated in the latter places. So caution should guide inferences drawn from Springfield evidence about what specific techniques were in use at the Whitney Armory at any given time.
In 1825, however, 195 separate operations in musket production were listed in a report about Springfield Armory, and were identified as performed by hand or by waterpower. The number of operations per part ranged from three for the sear to 24 for the barrel. Among them were, for instance, five for the trigger: forging by hand, trimming by water, filing by hand, polishing by water, and hardening by hand.2 At the Whitney Armory, as we currently understand the site, if a trigger went through the same sequence, it would be forged in the east bank forge shop, then taken to the west bank machine and filing shop for trimming, filing and polishing, and returned to the east bank for hardening before finally joining other parts of the "mounting" in the stocking shop on the west bank. Each of the other 29 musket parts mentioned in the list would follow its own sequence of journeys back and forth across the Mill River for shaping, cutting, and heat treating. Although this seems an inefficient arrangement by modern standards of industrial engineering, it was a far less awkward situation than the one at Springfield, in which the water-powered operations were a mile away from the hill-top location of the manual operations.3 Eli Whitney had initially acquainted himself with this difficulty at Springfield before deciding to locate all of his musket production at the mill site instead of using his cotton gin shop on Wooster Street, two miles away, for hand operations.
Visitors to the Whitney Armory in 1825 and in 1880 would see very different sites but the basic distinction between the functions of the east bank and west bank structures would be the same.