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Godfathers of the Gun

Behind the landmark weapons of the past century are five brilliant innovators whose unconventional thinking revolutionized American warfare. Here’s a closer look at their groundbreaking achievements, and why they still matter to the Guard today.

Few things are more crucial to Soldiers than the guns they carry. Whether it's an infantryman with an M4 carbine, a sniper with an M2010 rifle or an MP with an M9 Beretta, a Soldier’s life depends on their weapon. It must be well designed, accurate, reliable. It must be the best the country has to offer.

And in the United States, the bar is set high—thanks in large part to a handful of brilliant inventors, designers, engineers and gunsmiths who revolutionized weapon-making in the 19th and 20th centuries. During that time, the nation was a veritable breeding ground for gun innovation and technological advancements. Bold new ideas flourished—ideas so powerful, so ahead of their time, so well executed that they form the basis of the sophisticated and effective arsenal in use by today’s Soldier. 

Here, GX has assembled a roster of five U.S. weapons innovators who had the most significant impact on firearms used by the National Guard. Without the luxury of computers and modern-day tooling, they forever changed the face of warfare and (at least in one case, unintentionally) altered the course of history. Meet the forward-thinking elite whose creativity and ingenuity gave rise to weapons every bit as revolutionary as they were consequential. 


SAMUEL COLT

Born/died: 1814–1862
Birthplace: Hartford, CT
Occupation: Inventor, industrialist
Arms maker: Colt's Patent Fire-arms Manufacturing Company

Always interested in how things worked, a young Samuel Colt was expelled from boarding school after one of his pyrotechnic “experiments” set a campus building ablaze. At 16, working as a seaman, he marveled at how the ship’s wheel turned, locked in line with a series of spokes via a clutch system. This would form the basis of Colt’s breakthrough idea—applying the same mechanics to a handgun, he developed a firearm with a revolving cylinder and locking hammer. In 1836, he formed the Patent Arms Manufactur-ing Company. But Colt’s revolver originally met with little success, and he dismantled his plant six years later. Colt didn’t return to making weapons until the Mexican-American War (1846–48), when President Zachary Taylor ordered 1,000 Colt revolvers for U.S. Soldiers at the behest of Captain Sam Walker, whose Texas Rangers were enamored with the gun. With no factory or machinery to fulfill the request, Colt re-created his designs from memory and rapidly stood up Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company. Over the next quarter-century, he sold more than 400,000 revolvers, acclaimed for their power, durability and reliability. When he died in 1862, Colt’s estate was said to be worth $15 million—that’s more than $350 million by today’s standards.

Innovative impact: Two of Colt’s cutting-edge manufacturing methods revolutionized weapon-making: the use of interchangeable parts and assembly line production. Those methods made Colt’s patented revolvers more widely available, affordable and easier to fix than other firearms, which in turn made them extremely popular. His best-known revolver, the .45 cal Peacemaker, became a cultural icon.

Did you know? As a child, Colt used tools and materials from his father’s textile plant, along with an encyclopedia, to build a homemade galvanic cell, which converted chemical energy to electrical energy. On Independence Day in 1829, he connected the cell to underwater explosives and blew up a floating raft, amazing—and drenching—waterside holiday revelers. 

"The good people in this world are very far from being satisfied with each other, and my arms are the best peacemaker.” — Samuel Colt


RICHARD GATLING

Born/died: 1818–1903
Birthplace: Maney's Neck, NC
Occupation: Doctor, inventor
Arms maker: Gatling Gun Company

Richard Gatling was a man of varied interests. Starting his career as a farmer, he had a zest for inventing that led him to develop a seed planter that revolutionized U.S. agriculture. Later, a battle with smallpox inspired him to obtain a medical degree. During the Civil War, Dr. Gatling was horrified to learn that disease killed more Soldiers than combat. In a strange attempt to mitigate those losses, he developed a gun based on his seed planter design. “It occurred to me,” Gatling wrote in 1877, “that if I could invent a [gun] which could, by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would … supersede the necessity of large armies, and, consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.” His plan backfired. Instead of saving lives, the Gatling gun—the world’s first successful machine gun—resulted in even higher casualties. 

Innovative impact: Gatling unwittingly opened the door to modern gunnery. His spring-loaded, hand-cranked machine gun was the first weapon to offer a continuous rate of fire without having to open the breech to reload. Easy to use on the battlefield and capable of killing enemies en masse, the Gatling gun kicked off a global escalation in arms that would ultimately lead to the carnage of future world wars.

Did you know? Gatling chose a Cincinnati foundry to assemble the first run of his game-changing weapon, despite repeated threats from nearby Confederate sympathizers who believed the facility’s owner should not build firearms for the Union. In December 1862, the rebels reportedly set fire to the foundry, destroying the six original Gatling guns. 

“The Gatling gun … is a cluster of six to 10 savage tubes that carry great conical pellets of lead, with unerring accuracy, a distance of 2½ miles. It feeds itself with cartridges, and you can work it with a crank like a hand organ; you can fire it faster than four men can count. When fired rapidly, the reports blend together like the clattering of a watchman’s rattle. It can be discharged 400 times a minute! I like it very much.” ― Mark Twain


JOHN MOSES BROWNING

Born/died: 1855–1926
Birthplace: Ogden, UT
Occupation: Gunsmith
Arms maker: Browning Arms Company

The son of a gunsmith, John Browning quit school before the seventh grade to help in the family shop. With a talent for innovation, Browning would amass 128 gun patents, covering 80 different weapons, during his lifetime. He created his first gun at 13, which was eventually bought by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. During his 20-year partnership with Winchester, Browning designed a series of rifles and shotguns, most notably models 1887 and 1894. The latter would become one of the best-selling hunting rifles in history, with over 7 million sold. After breaking with Winchester, Browning went on to create a mind-boggling number of weapons, including the M1911 pistol, the U.S. military’s standard sidearm from 1911 until 1985 and arguably the most impressive pistol ever built; the 1917/19 machine guns, which were used in WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War; the M1918 BAR, the standard light machine gun of WWII; and the .50 cal M2 “Ma Deuce” machine gun, which continues to be used by military forces around the globe after nearly a century. 

Innovative impact: Browning’s most significant contributions came in the arena of auto-loading firearms, particularly his telescoping bolt design. The configuration, which shifts a portion of a weapon’s mass in front of the breech, allows for more compactness and an easier aim. Design elements of the M1911 can be found in nearly every modern semi-automatic pistol. When developing the Glock 17, Gaston Glock said he borrowed his weapon’s basic mechanics from Browning’s designs.

Did you know? Browning never used blueprints. Amazingly, he designed firearms in his head, then built prototypes after mentally working out the kinks. Once a model was complete, he turned it over to his staff, which would then create blueprints and engineer the weapon.

“To say he was the Edison of the modern firearms industry does not quite cover the case, for he was even greater than that.” — CPT Paul A. Curtis, author of Guns and Gunning


JOHN GARAND

Born/died: 1888–1974
Birthplace: St. Remi, Quebec, Canada
Occupation: Designer, engineer
Arms maker: Springfield Armory

John Garand’s early jobs—at a textile mill, a tool-making shop and a shooting gallery—sparked his interests in both machinery and target shooting. Eventually, Garand would blend his two hobbies and start designing guns. After winning a bid, he was hired by the U.S. government in 1917 to develop a light machine gun of his own creation. Two years later, he began working as an engineer at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, where he was tasked with designing a gas-actuated, self-loading rifle for the Army. After the prototype was perfected over 15 years, the .30 cal M1 Garand not only met all of the Army’s necessary specs, but it also became the first standard-issue semi-automatic military rifle (replacing the bolt-action M1903 Springfield in 1936). Over 4 million M1s were manufactured during WWII, and the rifle was used by every U.S. military branch. 

Innovative impact: Garand developed one of the most reliable and beloved U.S. infantry rifles in the modern era. Praised by Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as the key to the Allies' victory in WWII, the M1 is used to this day by rifle teams and marksmen.

Did you know? Garand found ice skating to be a relaxing distraction from his work at Springfield Armory. In the winter, he would lay a protective sheet on his parlor floor and flood his house with water to make an indoor skating rink.

“In my opinion, the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.” — GEN George S. Patton


EUGENE STONER

Born/died: 1922–1997
Birthplace: Gosport, IN
Occupation: Designer, engineer
Arms maker: Armalite, Colt's Manufacturing Company, Cadillac Gage

Eugene Stoner’s WWII experience—as a Marine Corps ordnance specialist in the Pacific theater—led him to a postwar job as a design engineer for an aircraft equipment company. In 1954, he joined the small-arms engineer team at Armalite, which was charged with developing a new and improved infantry rifle made of aluminum and fiberglass. That weapon, the AR-10, would ultimately lose out to the M14, but Stoner refused to quit and immediately set to work modifying the weapon. The new AR-15, which fired a smaller cartridge and featured a relocated handle, was field-tested in Vietnam. In 1963, the Army redesignated the promising rifle as the M16 and ordered 85,000 units. Frequent jams earned the gun a cold reception, but after a few improvements—namely the addition of a forward assist—the M16 replaced the M14 as the primary rifle of U.S. infantrymen. 

Innovative impact: Stoner believed that, when it comes to weapons, smaller is better. His use of composite materials dramatically reduced the AR-15’s weight. Holding the same amount of ammunition, the AR-15, with its plastic stock and aluminum body, weighed nearly half as much as the M14 model being used at the time. Plus, its compact, lightweight cartridge allowed Soldiers to carry more ammo and thus take out more enemies.

Did you know? Stoner’s creation of the M16 closely paralleled Mikhail Kalashnikov’s development of the Soviet AK-47. Although neither designer had formal training, each would build one of the world’s best rapid-fire assault weapons. Over the span of their careers, Stoner and Kalashnikov met at conferences and even became friends.

“Brave American Soldiers and the M16 rifle won a victory here.” — LTG (Ret.) Harold G. Moore, author of We Were Soldiers Once … and Young 

 

Think there’s another innovator who should have made our short list? Tell us about them at editor@GXonline.com