When Eliphalet Remington I moved his family westward from Connecticut to upstate New York in 1800, it was a mere twenty-four years after the Declaration of Independence and just seventeen years past the final recognition of that independence by the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain in 1783. Although the terms of that treaty had added territories that now stretched westward to the Mississippi River, the United States was still a fledgling nation, uncertain of its future and unaware of its potential.
Equally uncertain was the future of another fledgling, young Eliphalet Remington II, who was just seven years old at the time of the move. But the next sixteen years were to open huge doors of opportunity and establish the future of both the boy and the nation with almost predictable inevitability.
The stunning and unexpected Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 suddenly doubled the size of the young nation. From the coast-hugging thirteen original colonies of the rebellion, our borders now extended across the Great Plains all the way to the majestic Rocky Mountains. A hint of the vast, rich potential of the new territory was revealed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. The great Westward Movement was about to begin.
By 1816 the War of 1812 with Great Britain that saw the first and only land-based invasion of the United States had been concluded without permanent damage to the nation. Six more states had been added to the union. And the junior Eliphalet Remington had now become a mature young man of twenty-three.
Thus, while exploration and discovery would continue in the West for many years, taming of already-settled land continued to be a major activity in the East. And those who stayed put still relied on three essential tools—the ax, the plow, and the firearm. It was not that far back since these early settlers had not only carved their own land from the wilderness, but won their independence from an oppressive, overseas power.
In the beginning, the firearm had been their main means of obtaining food and of self protection against the Native American residents whose land they were usurping. Those who fought under General Herkimer in the Revolutionary War battles of upstate New York had probably carried their own flintlock rifles and muskets. They remembered. A good, serviceable firearm was not an option. It was an accepted necessity. And, considering the serious purpose of their guns, men took considerable pride in their marksmanship.
This was the tradition that existed when Eliphalet Remington II married and began to set up his own household. Not possessing his own, personal firearm, it was both logical and sensible for him to go about obtaining one. With his already extensive tool-making experience in his father’s forge, the tale of how he obtained one also seems logical. What we do know with historical accuracy is that making gun barrels suddenly became an additional business venture of the Remington forge.
In those days most domestically made firearms were produced by a large number of individual, European-trained gunsmiths scattered around the Northeast. Few, if any, of them made all the parts of complete guns. In most cases these local craftsmen created the locks and perhaps the stocks, and assembled them with barrels obtained elsewhere. As the Remington reputation for making good, high-quality barrel blanks grew, this part of the forge business, totally under the direction of young Eliphalet, continued to expand. It wasn’t a large business, even by the standards of the time. But the seeds had germinated for something that was to become much larger.
Even in these early days of the business, there were already examples of a progressive and innovative approach to manufacturing methods that would endure through the 20th century and frequently provide the future Remington Arms Co. with major competitive advantages in terms of both product quality and production efficiency.
The first inkling of this traditionally progressive Remington attitude surfaced in 1828 when Lite (as young Eliphalet was called) constructed a new forge at Ilion on the banks of the recently completed Erie Canal. Forsaking permanently the slow, laborious hand-welding process, he installed multiple forge hammers to shape his barrels and utilized water power to run the hammers and other equipment as well. Though still somewhat primitive, the age of automation had begun.
At about the same time, experiments began at the Ilion forge on the use of cast or crucible steel for the production of rifle barrels. By the time Remington secured its first major military contract in 1845 to build 5,000 Model 1841 rifles for the Army Ordnance Department, 1,000 of these rifles were ultimately supplied with cast steel barrels.
To this point, the Remington firearms business had remained essentially that of being a barrelmaker. But with the acquisition of the Model 1841 rifle contract, three significant milestones occurred that began the long, continuing era of Remington as a complete gunmaker. The first was the acquisition of new and sophisticated power-driven machinery for the production of locks and stocks as well as barrels.
The second was the arrival at Ilion of William Jenks and Fordyce Beals, two gifted inventors who began a continuing and productive Remington association with a succession of brilliant gun designers. And the third, on the approach of events that would lead to the Civil War, was the acquisition of the company’s first military contract, establishing a roller coaster pattern of feast or famine production volume that would continue for the next half century.
A Vast Industry Begins
The story has been told that in 1816, Eliphalet II asked his father for money for a rifle and was refused. Thereupon—so runs the tale—the young man went out to the smithy and forged and welded a rifle barrel. Putting it on his shoulder, he walked to Utica to have a gunsmith ream and rifle the barrel. The gunsmith is reported to have praised Eliphalet’s work. Young Eliphalet hiked home, finished the rifle—and he was in the gun business!