Friday, June 07, 2013

Lock, Stock and Barrel

I have heard the phrase "lock, stock and barrel" all my life, signifying "the whole thing". I had never realized what it meant. The three major components of a musket are the lock (think matchlock or flintlock -- the firing mechanism), the stock and the barrel. In the 18th century gun making was a craft activity. It consisted of making a lock, a stock and a barrel and then mating them together. Most of the people making guns apparently could not make the lock -- the most complex portion of the device, and bought locks from other specialized makers. Only a master gunsmith could make the whole musket -- the lock, stock and barrel.

I have started reading Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change by Merritt Roe Smith. I just read the section about the construction of muskets at the armory when that was a craft, before it became a mechanized manufacturing process. I had not realized how complex a craft that was, nor how poor the products of the craft were likely to be.

The barrel, for example, was made by first producing a long, flat piece of iron. That was then hammered into a round, cylindrical shape and the ends welded together along the length of the barrel by hammering their joint. The barrel was bored to a degree of smoothness, and pounded as straight as the gunsmith could manage. The outside was ground smooth. Since the process of all that hammering made the iron brittle, it was annealed. Then it was tested. If two projectiles could be fired through the barrel without it splitting or exploding, the barrel was considered fit for use; more than ten percent of the barrels made at the armory in the early 19th century failed this simple test. Lord knows how many blew up in their users hands when actually in use.

The lock was the hardest part to make by hand. It had many small parts and they had to fit and work together. If they did not work properly, the final weapon would not fire. There were no interchangeable parts in craft production of muskets; each of the many parts of the flint lock had to be filed into fitting properly with the others. The resulting mechanism was fragile and often broke in battle. Without interchangeable parts, the musket with a broken lock had to be sent back to the armory or a gunsmith for repair.

I assume that the products of a long, highly specialized craft production had to be expensive; they would have been too expensive for many people to own privately. Sending one to a gunsmith or an armory for repair would have been a relatively frequent, expensive and time consuming process.

I have always assumed that the accuracy of a smooth bore musket firing hand made balls using relatively poorly standardized black powder, measured by hand (especially in the heat of battle) would be dismal. I had not added in the thought that the barrel might not be properly seated in the stock, that it might be bent in manufacture, and that there might be considerable slack in the lock leading to considerable and variable delay between the pulling of the trigger and the firing of the powder. Learning to use a musket would have been difficult, practice expensive, and maintenance difficult and expensive. Even a well maintained musket used by a reasonably skilled militiaman would have been very inaccurate as compared with a modern rifle.

All of this puts the second amendment of the Constitution into a different light. A militia would have had to fire en mass in a battle to have any chance of reasonable effect against an enemy force, and it would have to get up close to the enemy. It would have to drill and practice. And it would have to have means of assurance that its soldiers would have operational weapons, powder of reasonable quality, and balls that fit their muskets. It would have had to find ways to assure that the costs of buying and maintaining muskets for all the militiamen were covered. It would have had to assure that the soldiers spent enough time at the range to maintain skill in using their muskets, but not so much that a significant portion would be broken or at the gun shop for repair when needed. This puts "a well regulated militia" into a light I had not recognized in the past.

In this vintage print, the armory is on the right of the picture, along the side of the Potomac River.

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