James Burton and Firearms Design and Development

Nice article on James Burton, who, as it says, was one of the most important and influential men in firearms design and development, especially regarding manufacture. An American, he also figures prominently in the Civil War.

In April 1844, Burton took a job as a machinist at the Harpers Ferry Armory. Coincidentally, the B&O Railroad ran through Harpers Ferry, so part of Burton’s ties to Maryland followed him to Virginia. Burton’s obvious skill led to a promotion within a year when he became the foreman of the Rifle Factory Machine Shop. Here, he met John H. Hall of Hall’s Rifle Works, who was responsible for bringing the concept of machined, interchangeable parts to Harpers Ferry. The two were likeminded, and Burton soaked up Hall’s passion for innovation. Within four years, he was again promoted, this time to Acting Master Armorer.

John Hall is another man who gets little credit, except perhaps for inventing the Hall breech-loading rifle, which although innovative was not a huge success. Yet methods Hall developed for manufacture, such as his semi-automated machinery driven by water power, were vital in the development of mass production not only of firearms but for virtually all products. Burton worked with Hall and absorbed his ideas.

Burton worked briefly in Massachusetts, then crossed the Atlantic to work at the Royal Small Arms Manufactury in Enfield, England. There he set up what was then called “the American System” of mass production of truly interchangeable arms, using machine tools from New England. When war, however, he returned home and threw in his lot with the Confederacy.

In June 1861, Burton became Superintendent of the Richmond Armory, where he oversaw the manufacture of arms on tooling and machinery confiscated by Confederates at Harpers Ferry. As it turns out, the machinery was absconded with under the direction of Burton himself.

As 1861 drew to a close, Superintendent Burton became Lieutenant Colonel Burton, and he took command of production at all of the Confederate armories. By summer 1862, Burton left Virginia and headed for Georgia, where he had been instructed to establish a new armory. With land prices on the rise, he chose Macon over Atlanta.

And lest I forget to mention it, he also refined the Minie ball so that it no longer required an iron culot to expand, but relied completely on gas pressure. This was a major step forward in both ease of manufacture and reliability. It would be more proper to call it the Burton ball.

As they say, read the whole thing…



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