Remember When: Norwich served as the mecca of gunmaking
I remember when I saw a picture of my grandfather at my grandmother’s home on Broad Street when I was young. I knew who he was but I wanted to know where she met him since he was born in Stonington.
My grandmother’s light blue eyes twinkled, giving her such a warm remembering smile. She lived in Staunton, Virginia, when she saw this handsome man come into the store she worked at. He was the foreman of the Norwich Lock Shop which had moved there from Norwich.
They fell in love and were married there in the 1890s and moved to Norwich where he got a job in the Davenport gun factory as the barrel master. From there he went to Hopkins & Allen Firearms Company on Franklin Street and finally to Crescent Arms.
Norwich had a magnificent history of gun manufacturing. Some individual one- and two-men shops made guns, but this article only deals with some of the major companies. There were as many as 109 gun makers in Norwich in its heyday. Depending on which source you locate, you may find at least 35 major manufacturers of pistols and long guns.
Cobb, Henry and Nathan made model 1795 muskets in 1798. Elijah Backus had a cannon factory within the Backus Iron Works which were used in the Revolutionary War. John Leffingwell and Nathan Cobb repaired muskets during that war. One of the earliest Norwich manufacturers of pistols was the company of Allen & Thurber, 1842-1847 (one source gives the dates of 1835-1847).
The base of a very skilled machinist workforce existed before the Civil War due to the growth of the cotton and woolen mills and the machine shops for the Providence & Worcester Railroad located on North Main Steet.
Between 1861 and 1865, Norwich became a huge producer of muskets, rifles and bayonets for the Union. Through the urging of cotton mill owners who had little raw material to spin and weave, they had the Almy brothers along with J.D. Mowry, who was an agent for the Norwich Arms Company, secure an order of 30,000 Springfield muskets (Dec. 26, 1861), 20,000 muskets (Nov. 27, 1863), and 10,000 muskets (April 6, 1864) from the federal government. Machinery for gun making was at first placed within excess space in Horace Walker’s machine shop located on Jewett City Road (North Main Street). Originally, the Eagle Manufacturing Company was located on Franklin Street and later moved to South Golden Street’s car shop of the Providence & Worcester Railroad in Greeneville (presently the main office of Norwich Public Utilities).
Machinery was set up in their new factory location. Eagle Manufacturing Company reorganized as the Norwich Arms Company in 1863.
Having machine shops with skilled workers supplying finished parts locally allowed Norwich to be in a prime position for this venture. Relying on the friendship of Senator Lafayette Foster, the company secured these contracts for the Model 61 Springfield muskets, rifles and bayonets.
But when the Civil War came to a close, the government cancelled the last part of the contracts and the manufacturing equipment was sold off to various gun shops.
In 1846, Oliver Allen developed an improved harpoon gun for the whaling industry. In 1849 he sold the patent to Christopher C. Brand and then left Norwich for the gold fields of California and settled in Petaluma.
Brand began producing whaling guns for the whaling industry in 1848. He continued this manufacturing, adding newly refined harpoon guns. He also built single-shot rifles and carbines until 1883.
In 1870, Mr. Brand’s carbines were in a trial for military use by the federal government.
The Manhattan Firearms Manufacturing Company existed in Norwich from 1855 until 1868 when the production line moved to New Jersey. This company was incorporated in New York City with production of the various pistol types produced in Norwich. Colt’s patent was due to expire in 1857, and they hired Thomas K. Bacon to be in charge of manufacturing. After Manhattan Firearms Manufacturing Company left Norwich, it became known as the American Standard Tool Company of Newark, New Jersey.
Bacon had been a former machinist for Allen and Thurber. With the experience of working at Manhattan Firearms, he formed Bacon Manufacturing Company in 1858, which produced a single-shot percussion pistol designed by Bacon and Joseph Gruber.
In 1863 Charles Converse, the largest shareholder in Bacon’s company, forced him out of the company. This endeavor closed in 1868 with its equipment and left-over parts bought by a new concern called Hopkins & Allen Manufacturing Company.
Another person of interest in the production of guns in Norwich was Freeman Hood, who controlled the Norwich Arms Company and Norwich Lock Company. Hood Arms Company (1874-1878) had its manufacturing site on Chestnut Street.
He also had interests in Continental Arms Company and Bacon Manufacturing Company. Continental Arms Company (1866-1870) sold its machinery and manufactured pistol stock to Hood in 1870. Hood Arms Company ceased operations in 1878.
Norwich Falls Pistol Company (1881-1887) produced pistols for Maltby and Curtis Company, an outdoors supply company, under various names. This pistol shop was owned by Otis Smith.
In 1890, W.H. Davenport left Providence, R.I. and came to Norwich and set up his shotgun-rifle company at the old Norwich Belt Manufacturing Company. He chose this area because the Greeneville factory was on the P&W Railroad line, ideal for receiving raw material and shipping finished product. The company ended production in 1900.
George W. Cilley, an ex-associate of Hopkins and Allen Company, having bought out the remains of Bacon Fire Arms Company, formed Crescent Arms Company and established its factory at a former Bacon factory on Pond Street and then moved the manufacturing to a larger facility on Falls Avenue at Hollyhock Island in 1892. Records show that it merged with N.R. Davis Firearms Company in 1929, and became known as Crescent-Davis Arms Company.
Norwich is known for the pistol maker Smith and Wesson. In 1853, near the Norwich harbor waterfront, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson began their business. Along with Cortlandt Palmer, they incorporated their company based upon their joint patent of a breech loading gun in 1854.
They had worked together at Robbins and Lawrence Gun Factory previously. In 1856, Smith & Wesson began the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company with some of its stock going to Oliver F. Winchester, a shirt manufacturer. Unfortunately, Volcanic Repeating Arms Company went bankrupt and it was acquired by O.F. Winchester. This company then moved its operation to New Haven, and the concern became known as the New Haven Arms Company. In 1867, it was renamed Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
In 1868, Charles A. Converse, Charles W. Allen, Horace Briggs, Samuel S. Hopkins and Charles Hopkins formed Hopkins & Allen Manufacturing Company, an outgrowth of both Bacon Manufacturing Company and Continental Arms Company. Bacon and Continental both ceased operations when Hopkins & Allen (1868) began in Allen’s furniture manufacturing plant on Franklin Street. The company went bankrupt in 1898 but reorganized as Hopkins & Allen Manufacturing Company.
There was a devastating fire in 1900 which destroyed the factory. They rebuilt the following year on the same plot of land. H&A was ranked the third largest producers of guns behind Colt and Winchester. During some slow time in gun production, the company made thousands of bicycles as part of a new craze taking over the country. In 1914 the company was taken over by Marlin-Rockwell.
Later, the 132 Franklin St. plant became J.B. Martin Company when it moved its velvet production from Taft Station into the empty space seeking a larger facility.
In 1896, James D. Robinson, Frederic W. and Herbert B. Carly, and William Hieca, began the Thames Chain and Stamping Company and on Sept. 21, 1900, they changed the name to The Thames Arms Company. The original gun production began at White’s Court but due to needed space it finally moved to South Golden Street in the building which held the Page Steam Heating Company.
They produced and sold exact copies of Hopkins and Allen revolvers. The company ended production on all pistols in 1910.
It is rumored that in 1882 the production of pistols made in Norwich reached between 45 and 50,000 units per month. Norwich produced more pistols annually during that time frame than all the other manufacturers in the United States combined.
Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public School teacher and a lifelong resident of Norwich.