Friday, February 1, 2008

The Birth of the American Military-Industrial Complex - in 1847

The Birth of the Military-Industrial Complex

Ned Barnett
(c) 2008

As he was preparing to retire from public life, President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned America against the growing power and influence of the “Military-Industrial Complex.” As the General of the Army who defeated Hitler and oversaw the creation of NATO, then as the President who faced down the newly nuclear-armed Soviets for eight long years, Ike knew something about the Military-Industrial Complex.

However, most of his audience – the American people – assumed that this Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) was something new, and dangerous. After all, that’s what the 50s were about – things that were new, and dangerous. H-Bombs. Sputnik. Polaris submarines. Jet bombers and ICBMs. All new, all dangerous.

In fact, the MIC began more than 100 years before Eisenhower was elected President, and indirectly, we owe this all to a man more famous for inventing the cotton gin, Eli Whitney – and more directly, to a former Texas Ranger.

As a young man, Whitney came up with the idea of manufacturing interchangeable parts, and applied that to the production of muskets for the U.S. Army. Before Whitney’s innovation, muskets were hand-made. When a part broke, a skilled gunsmith had to make and carefully fit a replacement part. Whitney changed all that – and started the idea of a production line, which was perfected a century later by Henry Ford.

Whitney died in 1820, but he left a legacy of innovation and a family interest in the manufacture of precision firearms. In this way, he laid the groundwork for the salvation of a bankrupt inventor, and the creation of what we now know as the Military Industrial Complex.

In the early 1830s, inventor Samuel Colt perfected the first practical revolver – a five-shot weapon named the Paterson, after the town in New Jersey where Colt made these handguns. They first became popular in the mid-1830s when US officers fighting in the Seminole War in Florida bought them to replace cumbersome Army-issued single-shot pistols that were little different from what George Washington had used 60 years before.

It wasn’t long after the Seminole war before the Colt Paterson was adopted by the Texas Rangers – not officially, but again, individual Rangers gladly bought them out of pocket. They knew it was worth a man’s life to have firepower close at hand, and a brace of Colt’s revolvers could replace ten single-shot pistols. In 1844, in what became the legendary Hays Fight, a skirmish that included Seminole War veteran Samuel H. Walker, 15 Texas Rangers defeated an 80-warrior Comanche War Party in a stand-up fight – in Walker’s words, “… killing & wounding about half of them. With improvements, I think the Colt revolvers can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the world.”

When the Mexican War broke out two years later, Walker was mustered into the Army as a Captain, and set out to recruit a unit of Dragoons – men who rode into combat on horseback. However – unlike the cavalry, who fought on horseback – Dragoons dismounted to fight. Having carried his personal Paterson Colt into war in Florida and into countless skirmishes in Texas, Captain Walker wanted his men to be armed with this new innovation. Walker scoured the countryside for privately owned Paterson Colts – there were few to be had – and he also contacted their inventor, Sam Colt, asking for more. But in 1842, Sam Colt had gone belly-up – he’d never stopped designing improvements for his Paterson Colt, but he was in no position to manufacture them.

A little thing like bankruptcy wasn’t about to stop Walker, however, and Colt was more than happy to encourage him. Still, there was this little problem of no money – and no factory.

Enter Eli Whitney, Jr., son of the inventor of the cotton gin and the first man to mass-produce firearms. For “a consideration,” Whitney agreed to front Colt the money to get him back into business, and to provide him a corner of Whitney’s production line in Whitneyville, Connecticut. That line was busy making muskets for the Army – there was, after all, a war on – but the factory was not too busy to also manufacture Colt’s revolvers. So the famous “Whitneyville-Walker Colt – officially the US Model 1847 – was born. This was the first repeating handgun purchased by Army Ordnance, and it was revolutionary. In the years to come, Colt kept instituting improvements, until – by 1860 – his Army revolver had become the standard U.S. Army sidearm, one widely used by both sides in the US Civil War.

This massive handgun – the largest ever made for the US Army – tipped the scales at 4 pounds, 9 ounces. It was a five-shot weapon that fired a .44 caliber lead ball, propelled by 220 grains of black powder – a mule-kick that even “Dirty Harry” would love. A contemporary Army report on a test of the Colt revolver said that the Mode 1847 was “as effective as a common rifle at one hundred yards, and superior to a musket even at two hundred.” This was at a time when the standard military musket was never fired at ranges beyond 60 yards, and then only in volleys, since muskets lacked rifling and could not be aimed – at any range.

The government ordered 1,000 of Colt’s Model 1847 at $25 a revolver, plus another $3 for matching powder flasks. Colt actually made 1,100 of these handguns, using the other 100 as VIP gifts. These were presented to the President, senior members of Congress, the Secretary of War and other influential men of the times. Colt knew how to keep the orders coming – and except for laxer laws about gifts to officials, he did nothing different than today’s K-Street bandits do every day of the week for their MIC clients.

Here’s how these remarkably innovative Model 1847s worked in combat. A unit of Dragoons – roughly 100 men – would ride on horseback up to within roughly 100 yards of a Mexican Army unit, then dismount. That 100-yard distance was the effective aimed-fire range of the Whitneyville-Walker Colt. The force they’d attack would be generally from five to ten times as large as the Dragoon unit – roughly 500 to 1,000 well-trained and courageous Mexican soldiers. These enemies were a formidable force, since at that time, the Mexican Army was world-class in every respect. It was a classic “Napoleonic” army of hard-marching, hard-fighting professional soldiers, trained up in the traditional European “continental” system of fighting. However, the Mexican Army had one critical drawback – one shared with all armies of the time. They used a smooth-bore musket with an effective range of just 60 yards – and at that range, these muskets couldn’t be aimed, but only volley-fired.

However, the Colt could accurately fire aimed shots out to 100 yards. Approaching the enemy, the dismounted Dragoons would take careful aim and fire five quick shots per revolver, then mount up and withdraw – and reload. Since Dragoons often carried two revolvers per man, this meant they could loose 10 aimed shots in a matter of seconds. But because the Mexicans were out of range for their own weapons, those brave soldiers could either “take it” or they could fix bayonets and charge, hoping to cross 40 yards of ground, form up and volley-fire before the Americans pulled back. They were brave, and usually charged – however, in full gear, they could never charge fast enough to catch the Americans.

To reload the Whitneyville-Walker Colt, the entire cylinder could be easily removed from the gun’s frame. This meant – if the Dragoons had several pre-loaded cylinders per revolver – that the entire unit could reload their two-per-man weapons in about a minute, then ride back into battle. Again, they’d stop 100 yards out from the winded and increasingly demoralized Mexican soldiers, fire their quick five or 10 rounds of aimed fire, then again withdraw to reload their cylinders. As long as their powder and cast-lead bullets held out, those Dragoons could keep this up indefinitely – without risk of injury to themselves – but with deadly impact on the Mexican soldiers.

That is why Captain Walker so desperately wanted those Colt revolvers for his Dragoons. These five-shot revolvers were the first example of firepower being used as a “force multiplier” – a common concept today, but one totally unknown before 1846.

There’s a sad footnote to this story: Captain Sam Walker died in combat before the revolver that bore his name could be delivered to his unit. Yet Captain Walker lived long enough to create a dual legacy – he re-launched Colt Patent Firearms Company, which still makes precision firearms for the US Army today, and he served as midwife to the birth of the Military-Industrial Complex.