September 5, 2019
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The American Revolution was already well underway when the delegates to the Continental Congress officially declared independence on July 4, 1776. Months before in the spring of ‘76, a shortage of arms was apparent. This was caused by a variety of factors including lack of maintenance, a shortage of field armorers to make repairs, and the propensity of short-term militia soldiers taking arms that they had been issued in one form or another home with them when their service was up.
Even though an arms-centric facility at Springfield, Massachusetts, had been established in 1777, it was an armory, which was a place where arms and ammunition were to be stored. The arsenal at Springfield wouldn’t actually produce an American-made arm until the Model 1795, well after independence had been solidified.
General Washington tried to procure more arms by borrowing them from the states and by purchasing them from individuals. Spain and France also sent arms to support the cause, but there was still a shortage.
Because of the lack of arms, soldiers in the Continental Army used whatever muskets, rifles, pistols, pikes, bayonets, etc that they could get. This meant that there was no standardization in the ranks. One man may be armed with a shotgun while the man on either side of him may have a pistol or a musket. Trying to drill men armed with a variety of weapons was no easy task, and the variety of calibers meant that standard issue ammunition was out of the question.
Even more problematic than the lack of standardization was that this hodge-podge of weaponry made it difficult for the Congress and the Army to identify which arms belonged to the new government and which ones were brought into the field by the soldiers themselves.
To remedy this issue, the Board of War (which included future 2nd President of the United States, John Adams, and Benjamin Harrison V, father and great-grandfather of the 9th and 23rd Presidents of the United States, respectively) made a recommendation on February 14, 1777, to mark all arms owned by the government with “U STATES.” Ten days later, the Continental Congress resolved that all arms and accouterments be marked “UNITED STATES.”
While the concept of marking arms and accoutrements became standardized, the implementation and uniformity of it was not. Markings could be found on either side of the buttstock, arranged in one line or two, struck with single letter punches or specially-made ones that spelled everything out, use of abbreviations, and lock plates that were often struck with just a “US” because of a lack of space.
Regardless of how the markings appeared, the important thing was that they did indeed actually appear. No matter the variation, it made one thing very clear: these guns were part of a new country’s military.
By mid-April 1777, all parties involved in the issuing, storing, and maintaining of government-owned arms had been informed of the new regulations. Just like that, the new nation of the United States had laid claim to its first official military weapons and equipment, despite having no official armories and no standardized arms, accouterments, or accessories.
Even though you’d never know it by looking at a random assemblage of them, guns with these marking on them represent the earliest form of official US military firearms. As such, they are highly prized by collectors of martial arms.
Congressman Alfred Ely helped recruit soldiers to the 13th New York Volunteers to fight in the Civil War. Concerned about their preparedness, heRead more
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