19th Century Gunsmiths


The occupation ‘gunsmith’ did not exist in England until the reign of King Henry VIII, after the notorious monarch invited well-established gunsmiths from Europe to work and live in England. Novice gunsmiths would then learn their trade by being apprenticed to master gunsmiths.

In the 18th Century handguns were the cheapest and easiest type of gun to construct, and could be made in large quantities in the biggest English gunsmiths. English handguns were often exported to America.

Guns such as muskets and rifles were not so easy to make, however. In America these would have been created specifically to a customer’s requirements, and each might take up to 400 hours to design.

By the end of the 18th Century a new European design for muskets with interchangeable parts enabled the first mass-order from America. From this point the manufacturing of guns changed, and a distinction between ‘gunsmith’ and ‘gunmaker’ became clear.

Gunmakers designed and produced weapons, and gunsmiths fixed or serviced them.

1821 saw the introduction of the first ‘percussion gun’ by Westley Richards – a weapon that fired by igniting a small amount of gunpowder. Westley Richards was one of many gunmakers who lived in the Birmingham ‘Gun Quarter’ in the early 1800s.

The Birmingham Gun Quarter was the largest in England. In 1815 there were 125 recorded companies in the area, and between them they produced nearly two million rifles, muskets, carbines, and pistols for the British Government in the Napoleonic war years of 1803-1815.

The Gun Quarter smiths also produced further six million barrels and locks, which were sent to London, and one million other items sent abroad to the East India Company.

By 1868 the Birmingham gun industry has drastically expanded, and the city was home to 578 companies working within the field. The city’s industry likely helped produce weapons and components for soldiers fighting in the First Opium War between the United Kingdom and China, 1839-1842.

In the latter half of the 19th Century gunmakers were kept busy by the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Russian Empire’s battles with the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), and assorted battles involving France, Britain, and Sardinia.

The Second Opium War, 1856-1860, boosted business, and British gunmakers also exported weapons to America during the American Civil War of 1861-1865.

In 1851, when the famous ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ was held, seven of the world’s leading gunmaking companies of the time were in attendance : Greener, Egg, Manton, Boss, Lang, Forsyth, and Westley Richards.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bonhams/Bournemouth News/REX/Shutterstock (5407543e)
A cased pair of 22-Bore Flintlock Duelling Pistols by H.W. Mortimer & Co., London, gun-makers to His Majesty, Circa 1800, estimate £8,000 from the Hooton Pagnell Hall collection
Auction of items following clear out of stately home, South Yorkshire, Britain – 20 Nov 2015
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A cased pair of 22-Bore Flintlock Duelling Pistols by H.W. Mortimer & Co., London, gun-makers to His Majesty, Circa 1800