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From Little Workbenches, Huge Benchmarks

From Little Workbenches, Huge Benchmarks

By: Chip Saunders

The history of The Industrial Age can be traced rather well by following the history of firearms development. For throughout Man's history, almost all new technological developments have been either related to or directly stemmed from war-fighting science, or has been applied to same. And this can be observed rather starkly in America's history. But while historical developments of firearms and firearms technology in the rest of the world were primarily the result of military programs run from government armories, in America, many of the most important developments were the result of private individuals tinkering in their garage or workshop. And some of these had global impact.

Eli Whitney, known for inventing the cotton gin, also contributed greatly to firearms technology, but is considered by many the father of industrial standardized of production. When he was young, working to put himself through college at Yale, Whitney was a nail-maker. This was back when nails were made one at a time by hand. He graduated with a degree in law and moved in with the widow of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene on her plantation in Georgia.

Uninspired by the practice of law, Whitney soon turned to his mechanical talents in the plantation workshop, where he conceived his famous cotton gin. Despite being trained as a lawyer, Eli had difficulty fighting infringement of his patent on the gin, and after years of fruitless litigation, he turned to firearms instead. With his experience in nail-making and producing his intricate and complicated cotton gin, Eli was aware that what slowed production and made all such things cost more (and more difficult to repair) was that no 2 mechanical items,...whether they be cotton gin, firearm or even a lowly nail,...were exactly the same. All firearms of the period were made individually, one at a time. Each component was hand-fitted, and parts of one weapon from the same factory made on the same day by the same worker would likely not fit on another gun without the time and labor-intensive (read that as expensive) process of fitting by hand. Whitney set about rectifying this. His efforts led him to "go pro", so to speak, and he opened his firearms company in New Haven, Connecticut, which even today is home to other major gun companies that followed him there and established themselves, such as Colt, Winchester, Marlin, Mossberg and dozens of others, earning it the nickname "Arsenal of America".

Famously, Eli Whitney went to Washington, taking with him ten pieces of each part of a musket. He exhibited these to the Secretary of War, as a succession of piles of different parts. Selecting indiscriminately from each of the piles, he put together ten muskets, an achievement which was looked on with amazement. Unheard of interchangeability. The Secretary was so impressed by this, he commissioned Whitney to help establish the United States Arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts and Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  To this day, the same interchangeability must be demonstrated by every weapon system the U.S. military considers, and is the very first test conducted of a prospective design.

And all of this from a failed lawyer who decided to tinker around in the plantation workshop instead.

Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt Revolver. Nearly everyone has heard of him. Due to his designs, handguns evolved into truly more useful and utilitarian tools. And he too got his start playing around in the family workshop. But Sam was a bit more colorful of a character than Eli. When he died during the Civil War in 1862, he was one of the wealthiest men in America, and his company still thrives today.

Young Samuel preferred reading The Compendium Of Knowledge to his bible, and was fascinated by its articles on Robert Fulton and gunpowder, which motivated Colt throughout his life. His father owned a textile plant in Ware, Massachusetts and at age 15, Sam went to work there, where he had access to tools, materials, and the factory workers' expertise. Following the encyclopedia, Samuel built a homemade galvanic cell (an electrical battery). On the Fourth of July in that year he declared that he would blow up a raft on Ware Pond using underwater explosives; although the raft was missed, the explosion was still impressive. Sent to boarding school, he amused his classmates with pyrotechnics. In 1830, a July 4th accident caused a fire that ended his schooling, and his father then sent him off to learn the seaman's trade. When Colt returned to the United States in 1832, he went back to work for his father, and built two guns, a rifle and a pistol. The first completed pistol exploded when it was fired, but the rifle performed well.

Samuel needed find a way to pay for the development of his ideas. He had learned about nitrous oxide (laughing gas) from the factory chemist in his father's textile plant, so he took a portable lab on the road and earned a living performing laughing gas demonstrations across the United States and Canada, billing himself as "the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New-York, London and Calcutta". Colt conceived of himself as a man of science and thought if he could enlighten people about a new idea like nitrous oxide, he could in turn make people more receptive to his new idea concerning a revolver. He started his lectures on street corners and soon worked his way up to lecture halls and museums. The lectures launched Colt's celebrated career as a pioneer Madison Avenue-style pitchman. His public speaking skills were so prized that he was thought to be a doctor and was pressed into service to cure an apparent cholera epidemic on board a riverboat by giving his patients a dose of nitrous oxide.

Having some money saved and keeping his idea alive of being an inventor as opposed to a "medicine man", Colt decided to embark once again on his revolving gun dream. But recognizing his skill was as a promoter and marketeer rather than as a gunsmith, he hired a professional gunsmith in New York to do the actual development of his ideas. In 1835, with a working prototype, Colt filed for his first patent.

And keeping with early love for fireworks and pyrotechnics, Colt also set about inventing waterproof underwater detonators and waterproof cables, with an eye towards contracts with the U.S. Navy for mines. However, opposition from John Quincy Adams, who was serving as a US Representative from Massachusetts' 8th Congressional District scuttled the project as "not fair and honest warfare" and called the Colt mine an "unchristian contraption". With that project now blown out of the water (pun intended), he returned to the revolver.

The rest of the history of the Colt revolver is well known to most, so there is not much need to go into it here. It became so popular, it was used by both sides during the Civil War, and the frontier was settled with it as well.

And all this sprang forth from a kid tinkering in the workshop at his father's business.

Primers are the spark plugs of modern cartridges used in guns. They initiate the burning propellant inside that makes everything go bang. And it was a retired Civil War General and former national champion marksman who invented the type used today.

Hiram Berdan was born in Phelps, a small town in Ontario County, New York.  A mechanical engineer in New York City, he had been the top rifle shot in the country for fifteen years prior to the Civil War. Before the war, he invented a repeating rifle and a patented musket ball. He had also developed the first commercial gold amalgamation machine to separate gold from ore. He invented a reaper and a mechanical bakery. His inventions had brought him wealth and international fame. But his innovation was not merely mechanical. He used his status as the nation's premier marksman to persuade the Union forces to let him raise up two special regiments of fellow marksmen. And the tactics used by the Sharpshooters (operating in small teams, using stealth and cover, trying to maintain distance to the enemy) are believed to be the direct parent of later American fighting tactics, which impact our troops fighting today.

After the war, Berdan devoted his time to developing ways of improving the concept of the rifle. In his New York residence, he devised ways of converting muzzle-loading rifles into breach-loaders. He invented a means for the fabrication of copper cartridges (a forerunner to drawn brass cartridges used today), and most famously, the device which today still carries his name, cartridge primers,...the particular style of which he invented being called Berdan primers.

Berdan primers are used in most ammunition produced for military weapons today, although here in the U.S. and most of the west, it is Boxer primers which are preferred. But Col. Boxer of England developed his primer 4 years after Berdan, and was merely improving on his design, so it is recognized that Berdan is the father of the modern cartridge system. Ammunition cartridges already existed, but they were finicky and not entirely reliable. Most were rimfire or pinfire type. Fiddling around in his workshop, Berdan sought to find a way to utilize standard percussion caps then currently used on muskets, and see if they couldn't be pressed into use in a cartridge design. He succeeded, and gun design and capability took a quantum leap forward as a result, making possible future guns like the lever-action repeater all the way up to today's modern sniper rifles and machineguns.

As a retired man of class and leisure, Berdan would toil in his shop throughout the week to improve upon gun things, then weekly go take his customized weapons to local competitions to try out his new tweaks. It was basic research and development work. Although his experiences in the war had left him incapable of matching his previous championship performances, he remained well respected in the competition circuit, and everyone paid attention to his new ideas and gadgets he always brought with him to the matches he would attend. Between that and his contacts from military service, he had a second life as a successful inventor of weapon systems and accoutrements. His ammunition initiating system would go on to dominate the known world.

The most prolific gun designer in American history, and thereby perhaps the world, was John Moses Browning. His name lives on in the Browning firearm company even today. Born to Mormon pioneers in Ogden, Utah in 1855, the young Mr. Browning had the distinct advantage of being the son of a gunsmith, from whom he was taught basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and encouraged to experiment with new concepts. And so it was that at only 13 years old, tinkering in his fathers shop, he produced his first own design for a "falling block" type of single-shot rifle. Upon adulthood, he then founded his own manufacturing operation and began to produce this firearm, securing his first patent at age 24. The design eventually evolved into the Model 1885 single shot rifle. Winchester took notice of the design and bought it from Browning, as well as a lever-action design, which Winchester marketed as the Model 1886. This led to a 20 year collaborative relationship between Browning and Winchester, whereby most of the great iconic rifles and shotguns that Winchester became known for, and whom most people remember as "Winchesters", were more accurately in fact "Brownings". 

Browning 1885 Single Shot Rifle
1911 .45 Pistol
Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.)
Later, Browning produced designs that were destined to see service with the U.S. military. These included the 1911 .45 caliber pistol which still sees service today over 100 years after its design, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun (also still serving U.S. soldiers) and the B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle) of WW2. And as far back as 1895, he developed the first gas-operated machine gun (the method most such weapons still use as their basis for operation even today). Entire books have been written about the man fanatics in the gun culture refer to simply as JMB, and this small bit of print does not begin to illuminate the historical nexus this man was and is to manufacturing, military and sporting legacies. Gunsmiths everywhere have plaques hanging in their shops which read, "What would Moses do?"

And yet, this iconic figure also got his start as a mere tinkerer, letting his imagination run free at his father's workbench.

In more modern times, there has been the example of Ronnie Barrett, inventor and manufacturer of the widely recognized and admired Barrett .50 caliber rifles, which serve on battlefields and star in movies all over the globe. A professional photographer by trade before 1982, Ron had no background in manufacturing or engineering. But wanting a .50 BMG rifle, and having no commercially made model available for sale anywhere to purchase, he set about designing one for himself. Barrett sketched a cross-sectioned, full-size rifle, adding different components to it. Once he decided on the concept, he approached some machine shops with his drawings. They told him that if his idea was any good, someone smarter would have already designed it. Ignoring that warning, Ron invited a friend tool and die maker friend to help him with his project. After their regular job responsibilities, the men would start working on Barrett’s ideas, sometimes laboring together all night in a one-bay garage using a small mill and lathe. Barrett also found support from a sheet metal fabricator who allowed him to visit the owner’s shop and work directly with one employee. The resulting gun was the shoulder-fired Barrett rifle, which was created in less than four months.

Ronnie Barrett

After completing his prototype and test firing it on video, Barret displayed it at a Houston  gun show where three people gave him deposits to make a rifle for them. With a limited amount of money, Barrett set up a small shop at his residence in a gravel-floored garage. He began by building a batch of 30 rifles, mainly because the two wooden gun racks he made in his father’s cabinet shop held 15 rifles each. Using his hand-drawing of the new rifle, he placed an advertisement in Shotgun News and soon sold-out the first batch. Barrett was contacted by the CIA, who purchased a number of rifles for the Afghan Mujahideen for use in their war against the Soviet Union.

Since then, the U.S. military has adopted the M82 rifle in all branches of service, and the military forces of the rest of the world have followed suit and purchased it as well. Along the way, it has become a globally recognized icon of weapon design. In fact, in the last 100 years, only seven individuals have invented firearms adopted by the United States Military. And even the most famous of those, JMB, who we discussed previously, had their designs perfected and mass-produced by either the U.S. government or another manufacturing company. Barrett is the only one of the group to create, manufacture, market and mass-produce his firearm independently for the United States government, who adopted it "as is", which is a rare enough event in military purchasing.

On July 15th, 1969, as the nation was watching Apollo 11 on TV, Richard Davis, a young recently discharged Marine was delivering pizzas in Detroit. Because it was sometimes a dangerous profession, he carried a .22 revolver with him. That night, he was forced to use it to shoot 3 armed robbers who were about to murder him. As a Marine, Davis was familiar with body armor. He decided honest people in high risk professions like him deserved some sort of light weight concealable body armor, he set about to design it. He toiled in his garage for years, trying many different soft flexible fabric materials, such as Nylon.  He didn't have that much luck,...until 1975, however, when Kevlar was invented at DuPont. Rich Davis immediately recognized its utility for his purposes.

In 1976, Richard Davis, founded Second Chance Body Armor, and designed the company's first all-Kevlar vest, the Model Y. The lightweight, concealable vest industry was launched and a new form of daily protection for the modern police officer was quickly adapted. However, there was obvious skepticism at first by some as to whether this thin mere fabric could indeed stop bullets. Ever a fine salesman, who understood the power of the demonstration, Rich Davis would shoot himself to show how effectively his vests worked. He holds the world record as the man who has been shot more times than any other living human.

By the mid-to-late 1980s, an estimated 1/3 to 1/2 of police patrol officers wore concealable vests daily. By 2006, more than 2,000 documented police vest "saves" were recorded, validating the success and efficiency of lightweight concealable body armor as a standard piece of everyday police equipment. 

All from a guy who survived a gunfight one dark night in Detroit and decided to make something to keep folks alive.

You probably see the common thread here by now to all these stories;...Individuals, self-motivated, who got their start on the road to bigger and better things (sometimes GREAT things) in the area of guns and self-protection by just tinkering around at a bench or in a workshop at home before moving on to full fledged manufacturing. And they were able to do it because they were (mostly) free. Free to do with their energies and passions whatever they wished to, so long as they didn't trespass against anyone else.

Contrast that against the current case of Defense Distributed, developers of "The Wikiweapon". 

Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed

Defense Distributed is a little different than the examples previously shown here in that Defense Distributed is not seeking to turn a profit. It is an ideological enterprise, conceived and established toward making a point and promoting an idea and a technology, encouraging that they grow symbiotically together.

The fellows behind Defense Distributed are infatuated with 3-dimensional printing; the technology by which a computer file of an object is sent via the internet to a location where a machine that slowly builds out of small globs of molten plastic a faithfully accurate dimensional copy of the item. DD seeks to design a simple plastic gun, downloadable as a file, and make it available to anyone anywhere in the world who has 3D printer. The fellows at DD are primarily students, and primarily from Arkansas, working on the project in their spare time outside of any school or lab setting. They have gotten far along in their endeavor. But now, everything seems ready to unravel. 
The Wiki Weapon:

Being tech-savvy, they tried to get funding for their project via a "crowd-sourcing" website for entrepreneurs called Indiegogo. And they were succeeding. But Indiegogo suddenly decided they wanted to not in any way be associated with the program, and dropped Defense Distributed from their location. But that wasn't all. The manufacturer of the 3D printer the boys wanted to use, once they learned of what their product would be used for, declared the lease agreement for the rental of their machine to be null and void and sent people over to the residence where is sat to repossess it. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobbacco, and Firearms, has threatened to shut the effort down due to lack of licensing, safety pre-approval inspections, and other pointlessly expensive and difficult to comply with regulatory hoops. In fact, some are expecting a raid of the homes of the participants' very soon.

What would John Moses Browning do?
A little note here about the main photo for this article. Jimmy Stewart plays Davis Marshall Williams, (in the 1952 movie, ‘Carbine Williams’)the real life inventor of the world famous M-1 Carbine automatic riffle used in WWII. It all started when Marsh, who was one to do things his way, was caught distilling moonshine, and was accused and convicted of shooting a federal officer in the process. This at first placed him in the chain gang which labeled him as a hard case. Later, to make room for those more deserving, he was moved to a prison farm, where he came under the direction of Captain H.T. Peoples. The Captain was a mild mannered warden, who did not shy from discipline when necessary, but also believed that given the opportunity, most men will respond to good. Believing that Marsh was just such a person, the Captain gave him every opportunity to reform, so much so, that he eventually allowed Marsh to work in the tool shop on his spare time to develop and build by hand, a working riffle, inside the prison farm itself.

While in prison, he starts to work on a repeating rifle with a short piston, an innovation that would prove to be the foundation of the M1 carbine. After getting early parole, he had a successful career further refining his invention and developing several new manufacturing techniques in arms production. Click here to view movie trailer, or to purchase movie.

WWII M1 Carbine

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Comments in Response

Comment by: Chip Saunders (#1007)
   Entered on: 2012-10-07 17:32:40

In fact, I thought about including "Carbine" Williams in this article. But since the theme of the issue was small homeshop entreprenuerialism,  and Williams was a not allowed to profit from his work in the prison where he first developed what would become the M1 Carbine, I excluded him. In fact, when Williams went to work for Winchester to further develop the M1 Carbine, Winchester denied him royalties, and merely paid him a straight wage, which was a large part of the falling out between Williams and Winchester execs. Winchester made millions of dollars producing M1 Carbines for the U.S. gov't, while Williams struggled to invent other things to bring him an income.

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