Connecticut Arms-Makers in the War of 1812


Except for building a few gunboats, Connecticut shipyards did not participate in the construction of the US Navy. Nevertheless, Connecticut manufacturers became leaders in supplying the new nation’s military.

The ironworks at Salisbury, in the northwest corner of the state, had begun producing munitions during the American Revolution. Cannons cast there were used widely during the war, and decades later they were scattered among defenses around the nation for federal and state use. In southeastern Connecticut, Stonington housed two 18-pounders cast at Salisbury in 1781. The ironworks no longer produced cannons after the Revolution, but it continued to cast iron cannonballs.

With the likelihood of war with France increasing, in 1798 Congress authorized funds to purchase arms from private manufacturers. Several Connecticut men obtained contracts and became the leading producers of American military weapons.


Eli Whitney, painted by Samuel F. B. Morse, 1822. Yale University Art Gallery


After spending time in Georgia, where he invented the cotton gin, Yale graduate Eli Whitney settled in New Haven. Losing money in lawsuits to defend his patent on the cotton gin, Whitney hoped to recoup his fortune by obtaining a government contract to manufacture more than 10,000 muskets for delivery in 1800. The muskets were based on a pattern supplied by the US arsenal at Springfield (one of two government arms factories), which was modeled on the French “Charleville” muskets widely used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Whitney received a large advance in 1798 and built an armory in New Haven, but manufacturing problems—he had no experience in gunsmithing—delayed delivery of the first 500 muskets until 1801. Whitney delivered the last batch in 1809. With much smaller government contracts, Abijah Peck of Hartford and Amos Stillman of Farmington delivered their muskets on time. Whitney also produced 2,000 muskets for the New York militia and 2,000 more for the Connecticut militia, delivered between 1804 and 1810. He received another federal contract for 15,000 muskets in 1812.1

Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut, was a successful farmer who had manufactured little but farm implements before he obtained a contract in 1799 to produce 500 horse pistols for the army. North accepted the contract in partnership with his brother-in-law Elisha Cheney, a clockmaker, although Cheney does not appear to have been involved in the production work. The contract required that North pattern his efficient brass and iron flintlock on a 1777 French model. A second contract for 1,500 horse pistols was followed in 1808 with a contract for 2,000 boarding pistols for the navy. In 1810 the navy ordered another 1,000 boarding pistols, and in 1811 the army ordered another 2,000 pistols.

Although Eli Whitney has long been credited as the first to create interchangeable parts while manufacturing his muskets, it was many years before he successfully mastered the method he espoused. More than Whitney, it was Simeon North who refined and applied efficient methods of production that led to interchangeability. In 1813 he would accept a contract for 20,000 pistols that called for almost perfect interchangeability of parts. To produce these arms on a truly industrial scale, he would move his factory to Middletown.2

Already in Middletown was Nathan Starr, a sythe-maker who had served as an armorer during the Revolutionary War. Starr received a contract for 2,000 cavalry sabers, scabbards, and belts in 1798, which made him the nation’s first sword manufacturer since the Revolution. He also produced several thousand naval cutlasses in 1799 and 1808, between additional federal and state contracts for sabers. He and his son remained the leading manufacturers of American swords until 1830.3

When America went to war, the products of Connecticut arms-makers were heavily represented on land and on sea. And the methods they developed to produce these weapons would contribute to the growth of industrialization in America.

By Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT



1. Among the many sources on Eli Whitney, a useful overview of Whitney’s operation, plus Simeon North’s pistols, is Carolyn Cooper and Merrill Lindsay, Eli Whitney and the Whitney Armory (Whitneyville: Eli Whitney Museum, 1980).

2. David R. Meyer, Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 84-89; Cooper and Lindsay, Eli Whitney and the Whitney Armory, 69-74.

3. Harold L. Peterson, The American Sword, 1775-1945 (New Hope, Pennsylvania: Robert Halter, 1954), 23-24, 27, 29-30, 49-51.