The original European settlers in what became the United States brought firearms with them for hunting and self-defense. Weapons were also imported from Europe to equip the militias formed in the English colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to fight hostile Indian tribes and to resist incursions by the French and the Spanish. Later, many of these weapons were used by revolutionary forces to fight the British. There were never enough weapons to go around, however, and so the importation of arms from friendly European governments became a major priority for the Continental Congress and its overseas representatives, including Benjamin Franklin. Only when France agreed in 1778 to aid the American rebels with arms and troops was the success of the Revolution assured.
After the Revolution the infant Republic continued to rely on imported weapons for many of its military requirements. To reduce this reliance, Congress voted in 1794 to establish government-owned facilities for the manufacture of firearms. These installations, most notably the army arsenals in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), gradually acquired expertise in the mass production of rifles and carbines.
Although these facilities were largely able to satisfy government requirements during periods of relative calm, they could not produce sufficient weapons in times of war—as during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846–1848. To supplement production at Springfield and Harpers Ferry, the War Department contracted with private gunmakers such as Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont, and Remington Arms of Ilion, New York—thus giving a significant boost to the development of a commercial arms industry in the United States. Many of these firms failed or were absorbed by others when government contracts disappeared, but others survived by embracing new technologies and finding foreign customers for their innovative products.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the United States possessed a significant arms-making capacity. Together the various army arsenals and their civilian counterparts were capable of manufacturing hundreds of thousands of firearms per year. But even this impressive capacity was insufficient to satisfy the prodigious demands of war, and so both sides were forced to procure additional arms from abroad. Although both the Union and the Confederacy turned to foreign suppliers for a certain percentage of their military equipment, the need for imports was especially acute in the South. Because most of America's arms-making capacity was located in the North, the Union could satisfy a larger share of its military requirements from domestic factories than could the South. As a result, the Confederacy placed a greater emphasis on military imports than did the North, and both sides became engaged in an elaborate diplomatic struggle over arms transfers—with the South seeking to procure weapons from sympathetic powers in Europe and the North seeking to persuade these states to deny arms to the rebels. In the end the Northerners prevailed in this contest, as the major European powers—whatever their political sympathies—chose to eschew involvement in the conflict. This did not, however, deter the North from declaring a naval blockade of the South and deploying hundreds of ships in a determined effort to prevent the smuggling of arms to Confederate forces.
The Civil War, like the wars that preceded it, proved to be an enormous boon to the private arms industry. Once the war ended, however, the U.S. government sharply reduced its procurement of commercially manufactured weapons. To survive in this new environment, private arms companies such as Remington, Winchester, and Colt looked to the civilian market and to foreign customers for the orders needed to survive. This in turn spurred the introduction of new gun designs and manufacturing processes. As a result, American gun firms became adept at the mass production of cheap, reliable, and highly effective firearms.
Although the U.S. government did not always take advantage of this burgeoning capability, other governments were less inhibited. Samuel Remington, the president of Remington Arms Company, opened a sales office in Paris and secured lucrative contracts for the sale of rifles and ammunition to several European countries. Other U.S. firms, including Winchester, also obtained significant contracts from European governments. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, for example, the French army ordered 100,000 rifles and 18 million rounds of ammunition from the Union Metallic Cartridge Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut (later a division of Remington Arms).
The capacity of American military firms to produce large quantities of weaponry in a relatively short amount of time was next tested in 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe. Although the U.S. government initially adopted a policy of neutrality in the conflict, President Woodrow Wilson allowed American firms to sell arms and ammunition to the Allied powers. Desperate to supplement their own manufacturing capabilities, Britain, France, and Russia then contracted with American companies to produce large numbers of guns and cartridges. The British, for example, ordered one million Enfield rifles from Remington. As one such order followed another, American military exports jumped from $40 million in 1914 to $1.3 billion in 1916 and $2.3 billion in the final nineteen months of war. This marked the first time that U.S. arms manufacturers played a truly significant role in the international weapons trade.