19th Century ‘Milspec’ Was Anything But

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19th century milspec mil spec military weapons

By the middle of the 19th century, arms production in the United States was changing. The concept of interchangeable parts had become the primary goal at the Federal armories. If this was to be achieved, then a set of agreed upon design parameters had to be established.

Unfortunately, production standards varied widely in previous decades. For example, the weight of musket barrels made in 1827 could vary up to nine ounces for an object that weighed 4 pounds, 8 ounces on average. That 25% variable meant that barrels considered to be satisfactory could weigh as little as 3 pounds, 15 ounces or as much as 5 pounds, 1 ounce. Try telling the soldier in the field with the heavier barrel that a few ounces are of no concern!

19th century milspec mil spec military weapons
Springfield Armory, 1850s

To make matters worse, the variance noted above was exhibited at the same government facility! Want to interchange the parts of guns made in Massachusetts with those made in Virginia? Dream on! It’s easy to see why government-wide standards were a necessity when you realize that it wasn’t just the barrels that were subject to sub-par production – it was virtually every part of every single arm.

That all changed by the 1850s. Workers had come to accept that the government was cracking down on production standards. An 11% variance in barrel weights would not fly any longer.

19th century milspec mil spec military weapons
Harpers Ferry, 1850s

By the middle of the 1850s, both main armories – Harpers Ferry and Springfield – were churning out guns at a rapid pace. More importantly, they were making guns with interchangeable parts. Reports submitted to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis for 1854 revealed the following production statistics:

Springfield Armory
Muskets: 11,000
Musketoons: 2,000
The muskets cost the government $10.61 each.

Harpers Ferry Armory
Muskets: 9,000
Rifles: 2,761
The rifles cost the government $11.98 each.

In previous decades, the individual cost was most certainly more if you factor in arms consumption and repairs. Not being able to readily grab a replacement part from a bin meant that it cost more time and money to get a damaged gun back in the fight.

19th century milspec mil spec military weapons
Flintlock and percussion arms at Springfield

In just a few short years, producing enough arms of uniform quality would become far more important than anyone could have ever expected. During the Civil War, both sides faced equipment shortages at one time or another. Those issues would have been far greater had it not been for uniform production standards and interchangeable parts.

Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC. Click here for a free 3-page download with tips about caring for your antique and collectible firearms.

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  1. I really like these historical articles. And the transition from handcrafted to mas produced is a fascinating story. But isn’t 3 pounds, 15 to 5 pounds, 1 (+/- 9oz) more like an 18 oz total variation; and 25% of nominal?

  2. The south faced shortages from the first day to the last of the war. How anyone with any sense, education, experience could have looked at a North vs. South conflict and thought the South could win is beyond me.

    The South had to rely on capturing cannon as they could not produce enough for basic needs. And the ammunition for cannons they did produce was sub par at best.

    • The same way no one expected the Colonies to beat the British Empire. Or Vietnam to beat us. Or Afghanistan to beat or outlast everyone. If you refuse to lose eventually you win! The South should never have surrendered.

      • The British and French stopped excepting order from the Confederacy because their Money was nearly worthless and the Confederacy couldn’t produce enough Cotton to make up for the Devaluing Confederate Dollar. And with virtually no Heavy Industry that the Union possessed in abundance, the South still would have lost…

        • The North won the war, the South won the Reconstruction. When Hayes removed the federal troops after his brokered backroom election victory in 1876, the South went back to it’s pre-rebellion status for the most part.

        • Some of you need better then an 8th grade understanding of the civil war. It’s all too common to read here “uh dur south couldn’t win South not have factory herp derp.”

          Go read about the politics surrounding the war. Read about the anti war movement. Read about Lincoln’s detractors in his own administration and party. Read about McCellan the hero Gettysburg, who ran against Lincoln on an anti war ticket in 1864. Had things gone slightly different the south very well could’ve won.

        • Again with the VN and A-Stan comparisons. The South did not have land borders with friendly nations. They were effectively blockaded from the start.

          As for a guerilla war? The North only had to arm all the freed slaves and kept them supplied and looked the other way.

          As for the South could have won. So could Germany in both world wars. So could the Persians at Platea. So could Spartucas. Etc. So on and so forth.

          They lost. Period. Just like hillary.

        • The problem is you see the north as a solid unwavering unified entity. Far from it. The praise Lincoln deserves for keeping the Union together means exactly that, he kept the Union together against the confederacy and in the war. The military capability of the north is pointless if they didn’t have the will to use it. Take a modern hypothetical war between the US and Mexico right now. Theoretically we’d stomp Mexico into the ground. But that doesn’t mean it would automatically happen that way. Imagine the difference of us going to war now with Mexico with Trump and president, now imagine the sane war with Obama as president. Same military, same capabilities, different leader equals totally different outcome.

        • The only way the South could win is if the North gave it up. Lee had to win many battles to get there, while the North just had to beat him once to make who would win clear. And even if Lee had won at Gettysburg, Grant took Vicksburg and full control of the Mississippi River on almost the same day.

          On top of that, the entire rifle production of the South, some 30,000, was 2 months of production in the North. And the North had 4 men for every man in the South, plus 1-2 more from all the immigrants being taken into the army. Lee at Gettysburg had 80,000 men, the most he ever had and after that his army did nothing but shrink. They were out of men.

          Had the war gone on 1-2 more years for some reason, the Northern infantry would have been armed with Sharpes rifles, a 700% increase in firepower. The South was never going to win.

        • Ok, so I mixed up Meade and McClellan, big deal. Anyway, Kelly, yes that’s true, but at the sane time it is irrelevant if the will to fight isn’t there. Modern wars the US has fought ARE indeed compatible. The US completely outmatches it’s modern opponents but can’t seem to get a solid win in, due to a question of will, stomach, and having to “do what it takes to win”. The north was very much in a similar predicament. Lincoln went through several secretaries of war looking for someone who could actually win battles. Because the south kept kicking the shit out of the Union for much of the war. Lincoln hired and fired people at a rate that makes Trump look like an amateur at the practice. And to allot of people that looks like panic or incompetence. It’s neither. It’s rationality at its finest.

          Look what I mean by better then an 8th grade understanding is to know the war on a deeper level then some quick facts a text book gives you. Lincoln won re-election easily, in 64, but that doesn’t mean he was destined to win it. Lincoln himself thought he was going to lose, and was right about that, for the first several months of this campaign season, as the rebels continued to rack up a string of victories. However, closer to the actual election, the union army made some seriously important victories due to improved leadership, saving Lincoln in the election, and at that point starting to seal the south’s fate. My overran point is military superiority means jack shit if your leadership is to incompetent to know how to use it.

      • Unless a country is willing to do what it takes, technical superiority isn’t sufficient to guarantee a win. The Union was willing during the Civil War after Grant replaced McClellan. The British weren’t during the Revolution. The US wasn’t in Vietnam and hasn’t been in Afghanistan.

      • The South has to be beaten into giving up their slaves apparently, seeing how they cared so much of the issue they rebelled and fired the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter….

        • http://www.thiscruelwar.com/subject-to-death/

          This lays out the struggle of the black man very well, including how they were outright nurdered in uniform because they couldn’t except the colored troops as “human” let alone soldiers.
          This occurred after the battles of Marks mill and Poison spring, just to name a few.

          Don’t you worry, when the rebs lost at Jenkin’s ferry, the colored troops returned the favor and killed almost a 1000 confederates. 😉

        • The “Underlying Theme” in the documents you link to is the Northern states and their leadership brazenly undermining the Constitution that all the states had agreed to follow. That’s why the South left and formed the Confederacy. Slavery was only a part of that reasoning. I have contributed to the freeing of slaves in this day and age through Operation Underground Railroad. Slavery is an abomination! Yet the U.S. was the only western nation to fight a civil war to supposedly end slavery. The costs of that war are still causing strife today. If we had let the South go they probably would have returned at some point after ending slavery peacefully. I encourage you to read “The Real Lincoln” by Thomas DiLorenzo. Thanks for the link.

      • Colonies vs British Empire: Atlantic Ocean.

        Vietnam vs French, vs US: Pacific Ocean.

        Afghanistan vs Russia: Well, incompetence squared.
        Afghanistan vs Everybody Else: mountains and oceans.

        And in all those cases, decentralized peasants in their home turf vs industrialized nations whose armies would really rather have been back home.

        North vs South: next door neighbors. And to put a fine point on it, slavery is a terribly inefficient economic system which really only works for tedious boring untechnical activities, like farming. It can never be used industrially, and all decent farmers who own their own land can outproduce slaves every day of the week.

      • British vs colonies: loser had to project power across the ocean, and was distracted by other conflicts

        US vs Vietnam: the loser had to project power across the ocean, and was distracted by Cold War and domestic politics

        US vs CSA: winner was next door neighbors with loser, and was solely focused on maintaining the union

        Your analogy does not stand.

      • “if you refuse to lose, you win”.

        well, maybe sometimes if you are facing an opponent that isn’t that powerful or isn’t truly invested in defeating you.

        Didn’t work out for Hitler on the Eastern Front. Didn’t work out for the Japanese on some of those small pacific islands where they all got killed nearly to the last man.

        The South would have most likely been ground into ashes if they kept fighting. Could they have won? Sure, if everything went their way and nothing went the way for the North. Unlikely, though.

        The North had more manpower and more industrial capacity, and the myth that the South were universally better generals and soldiers isn’t really true – the South had it’s fair share of incompetence and poor performance at every level, which it couldn’t easily make up due to overall lack of resources. For example, in the Western theater the smaller Union forces had lots of success against larger Confederate forces. For another example, the Union Navy was able to generally successfully blockade the South.

    • Though I remember only a portion of them, here are three of the major advantages the South had at the beginning of the war. This is from Page Smith, my favorite general American historian. We know these make a difference in any conflict.
      1) Better generals and leadership overall.
      2) More broadly unifying cause and popular cohesion behind their way of life.
      3) A hierarchical society already suited to a military structure and following military directives.
      If you’ve never heard of Smith, check out his eight volume American history series. Instead of a smattering of post-literate shattered bits from light popular histories, news, opinion, twits, and comments you’ll get the real deal of what this country is about. Of course after 7,000 pages, you’ll feel you’ve lived a chunk of it.

    • This online revisionist history of the civil war needs to end. Everyone knows the South was at a disadvantage, but the south could’ve won the war- and damn near did at more then one point in the war. The confederate troops were better trained and better lead, killed union soldiers at a higher rate, and had overall far better hit rates then the Union soldiers. Well over 300,000 northern men were killed in the war. It was a war or attrition and in fact a very unpopular war in the north. Lincoln is often referred to as best president but many people who say that don’t know why. It IS NOT because of the emancipation proclamation, or managing of the war. It was the fact he kept the union in the fight, when it didn’t want to. The South in fact very easily could’ve won the war, had Lincoln not been president. Do some research not just on the war, but the politics surrounding the war. There was a huge anti war movement, and please do look up the election of 1864. The south even could’ve won AFTER Gettysburg.

      • the South “could” have won, but it was always very long odds.

        Not only did the North’s industrial capacity vastly exceed the South’s, the North had more men to lose. Plus, the total casualties on the Confederate side were slightly higher than those on the Union side.

        It’s odd when revisionists say that the Confederacy had better generals and better soldiers, because in the West the Union often routed the Confederacy. Some of the Confederates were better, but as a general rule there probably wasn’t any overall superiority on the part of the South.

    • They didn’t need to. The south never planned on taking DC or such nonsense. The south’s goal was always to hold on long enough that politicians in the North stopped wanting to toss northern blood at the south and accepted the south’s independence. Even Lincoln knew that: It’s why he ordered generals to make the war into a short meatgrinder instead of a long but steady and low casualty affair victory

  3. The “Baltimore Standard of 1904”! Where Fire Hoses from one Fire Department won’t fit the Water Hydrant Fittings of the City of Baltimore. Forced the issue of a Standard Form of Measurements, i.e. “An inch, is a inch, is a inch”…

  4. People bemoan the lack of precision during previous eras, but engineers (and gunsmiths) were limited by the technology available to them. Remember, we went from a thousand years of horse drawn carriages to interplanetary probes in only three generations. I think the advances we have given the world in our short history are pretty damned impressive.

    • Aye. Engineers were told to conform, and they did. Prior to that, it wasn’t in the list of requirements.

    • We had some precision in the bygone era, but it was limited to certain inventors. eg, the first micrometer was invented by the late 1700’s by the Scottish steam engine pioneer, James Watt. In the early 1800’s, Henry Maudslay invented a table-top micrometer that was accurate down to a ten-thousandth of an inch.

      Later in the 19th century, Joseph Whitworth, the famous British machinist, produced micrometers that could repeatably measure down to about a millionth of an inch.

      But these typically were not for retail sale. They were kept in their shops, and treated with care and concern.

      There weren’t many precision measurement tools widely available in American industry until Brown & Sharpe really started selling precision measurement tools after the Civil War. When they started selling precision measurement tools, they offered a mic that would look quite familiar to machinists/gunsmiths today: it had 40 TPI on the screw, a U-shaped series of jaws, etc.

      The rest, as they say, it history.

      • James Whitworth of Great Britain mathematically came up with the 1/10,000th of an Inch in 1857 and Sir James Whitworth came up with the 1/1,000,000th of an Inch in 1871. There was No Need for something that small during the US Civil War…

  5. “The rifles cost the government $11.98 each.”

    Is there a calculator that can convert that into today’s dollars?

    And a note on “Mil Spec” :

    All a “Mil Spec” is is a “Military specification”. EVERYTHING bought by the US Department of Defense has a military specification. EVERYTHING. From an NSA reconnaissance satellite in orbit, down to a bucket and a mop, everything has a “Mil Spec”. Don’t fall for believing a “Mil Spec” is something holy, except for that reconnaissance satellite in orbit…

    • “Mil spec” is also a minimum standard. It’s a benchmark for minimum quality, not THE benchmark. I prefer “far exceeds” mil spec.

      • Exactly.

        I laugh (often quietly, and behind people’s backs) when I hear them bragging on “X is mil-spec.”

        Mil-spec is just the minimum specification to which government contracts are held. It doesn’t mean “the best,” or even “common state of the art.” No, it just means that’s the spec to which the DOD held the suppliers on that/those contract(s).

    • $15 in 1850 dollars is about $450 in modern money.

      Amusingly enough, the unit cost for an M4 is $700, according to wikipedia. We get a lot more firepower for our (inflated) money these days.

        • *I* didn’t use anything. I asked, and you and rosignol replied.

          Ask rosignol what calculator was used…

        • Back then money was defined in gold. $20 = 1 oz. Today 1oz is $1250. So 11.92 corresponds to about $745. One can use other inflation calculators, wich will of course give wildly different results

  6. The first arms contract in which parts were truly interchangeable between manufacturers of parts was (to my estimation) the M1 Carbine. Even in the P1917, with only three companies, they still had issues. Everything before that was often a crapshoot between parts sources, and often fitting was required. Eli Whitney’s dream took a while to be realized.

    As for production rates and variances in the mid-19th century: Back then, barrels were profiled most of the time by striking them with a file. Much of the labor in this effort was by young boys, apprentices in the shop, and their skills varied widely.

    Can a barrel be made to spec, barrel after barrel, with nothing more than some hand files? Of course it can. It won’t be fast, and it won’t happen cheaply. I strike barrels all the time with files (esp. after raising dents in shotgun barrels and I need to take a thou or two off to smooth things out) and when people see me do this, they think it looks easy.

    Then I turn them loose with the same hand file on a piece of scrap. I stand back, silently allowing them to go to work. And they learn it isn’t as easy as it looks – and their results on a piece of scrap round stock (or, as an easier starting point, an octagon barrel) show big waves, bulges, ripples, etc.

    Striking barrels with a file is a very physical skill. I don’t mean that it requires brute strength (it certainly doesn’t), and it doesn’t require fantastic eye-hand coordination like a naturally graceful athlete does in dance, martial arts, etc.

    What it does require is being able to “see what you’re doing through your fingers.” You have to develop a physical sense, an appreciation of the tactile feedback you get through your hands and fingers – because the file is telling you what is happening on the cutting side of the file, and this helps guide your work path and progress. As you’re feeling this feedback come in, you need to be adjusting what you’re doing with the file, in “real time.”

    If you don’t pay attention to the sensations coming up through the tool, your production speed will be forever limited. Most tyro gunsmiths and gunmakers don’t pay attention to what the tool is telling them; they just push on ahead, ignoring those inputs and just looking to hit the numbers or the point when the boss gives up on patience and allows them to move on to the next job.

    There are handmade guns that hit numbers – but they’re not mass produced, and they’re not made on a skimpy budget. Look no further than the British “best guns” from England and Scotland for examples. You could look down those barrel sets with a trained eye and not see a lump, dip or ripple anywhere. You could measure them with a caliper – and they’re the same diameter at the same point on the barrel. Before the early 1980’s, they were almost all done (at least for the last couple thousandths of material removed) with a hand file. The gun makers who were doing these barrels had a quota of barrels to get done in a day – one former gun makers at a “best gun” company told me this quota was eight barrels (four sets) per day – struck and polished out.

    Want to be successful as a craftsman in wood and metal? Listen to what your tools are telling you. Luthiers, welders, cabinet makers, wood carvers, horologists (who do clock restoration), jewelers, and even surgeons have told me the same thing.

    • That’s where I fall flat in craftsmanship, the lack of patience and not listening to the feedback given to me by tools or people.

      And I’m paying for it. And folks, it’s *expensive*…

      • With advancing age should come advancing wisdom. These days I hire folks that know what they’re doing for my fix it needs.

        Besides, it helps the economy.

  7. I cannot recommend highly enough the Springfield Armory Museum.

    They have a section on manufacturing and a section that displays their collection, parts of which rotate.

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