The American Revolution was already well under way when the delegates to the Continental Congress officially declared independence on July 4, 1776. Months before in the spring of ’76, a shortage of arms was apparent. This was caused by a variety of factors including lack of maintenance, a shortage of field armorers to make repairs, and the propensity of short-term militia soldiers taking arms that they had been issued in one form or another home with them when their service was up.
General Washington tried to procure more arms by borrowing them from the states and by purchasing them from individuals. Spain and France also sent arms to support the cause, but there was still a shortage.
Because of the lack of arms, soldiers in the Continental Army used whatever muskets, rifles, pistols, pikes, bayonets, etc that they could get. This meant that there was no standardization in the ranks. Even more problematic, it made it difficult for the Congress and the Army to identify which arms belonged to the new government and which ones were brought into the field by the soldiers themselves.
To remedy this issue, the Board of War (which included future 2nd President of the United States, John Adams, and Benjamin Harrison V, father and great-grandfather of the 9th and 23rd Presidents of the United States, respectively) made a recommendation on February 14, 1777, to mark all arms owned by the government with “U STATES.” Ten days later, the Continental Congress resolved that all arms and accouterments be marked “UNITED STATES.”
By mid-April 1777, all parties involved in the issuing, storing, and maintaining of government-owned arms had been informed of the new regulation. And just like that, the new nation of the United States had laid claim to its first official military weapons and equipment, despite having no official armories and no standardized arms, accouterments, or accessories.
(Examples of such marked pieces can be seen on public display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA, where I took the photos of the items that appear in this article.)