From the end of the American Revolution to the most recent wars, U.S. soldiers have carried a bit of Connecticut with them into combat.
In his talk “From Bunker Hill to Baghdad,” Wilton firefighter Karl Dolnier explained how for more than a century, the Nutmeg State manufactured most of the nations firearms. An impressive show and tell accompanied Dolnier’s talk inside the barn at the Wilton Historical Society. He owns an extensive firearms collection, which includes smooth bore flintlock muskets to a Tommy gun.
During the Revolution, Continental soldiers – Wilton militia among them - relied on the flintlock musket. However, the elegant weapon has no sight. As such the command was simply “Make Ready. Fire.”
“They weren’t really aiming at an individual. They’d line up in tight formations in close ranks and shoot,” Dolnier said.
Soldiers typically fired two to three shots a minute as the army advanced before they were close enough to use bayonets. They sacrificed accuracy for rate of fire, Dolnier said.
In the years after the War of 1812 until the Civil War the biggest changes was the percussion cap and the Smith and Wesson invention; the self-contained cartridge. Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson founded their Norwich, Conn.-based company in 1852.
Innovations in firearm technology sometimes outpaced tactics, as in the Civil War. Troops now carried rifles with sights. That enabled them to fire accurately from 200 to 300 yards. However, because the troops still fought in close formation mass casualties were the norm, Dolnier said.
“But by the end of the Civil War the handwriting was on the wall and muzzle loading, single shot was dead,” Dolnier said.
A rapid fire of technological changes followed the war, including the 1874 Trapdoor breech-loading rifle. General George Custer and the US Seventh Cavalry carried that weapon into combat at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Most of these rifles were manufactured by Sam Colt at the Colt Factory in Hartford or invented by John Moses Browning, “the American Einstein of firearms designers,” Dolnier said.
In fact, this year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR. The rifle weighs between 18 and 20 pounds and was used by WW1 soldiers and more infamously by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The Texas Rangers who killed Bonnie and Clyde also used a BAR.
Colt, renowned for his marketing skills, used to give heads of states, generals, and other leaders presentation revolvers, matched pairs.
“Judging from the number of them that come to market he must have been giving them out like popcorn,” Dolnier said.
In 1903 the Springfield bolt-action service rifle made its debut. It used a stripper clip, or a speed loader that held together several cartridges. The stripper clip was based on the German Mauser. In fact, the US paid Mauser royalties for the clip.
American troops used the Springfield in WW1, however Mauser no longer received royalties the clip.
And then came Tommy. The Thompson sub-machine gun was the 1919 brainchild of WW1 General John T. Thompson who wanted “a broom to sweep the trenches with,” Dolnier said.
While the US Army didn’t favor the weapon at first, the U.S. Post Office and John Dillinger made much use of the firearm. And, until the 1934 National Firearms Act one could buy it over the counter for $200 at a local sporting goods store.
During WW1 many troops used the trench, or combat shotgun, manufactured by New Haven-based Winchester Repeating Arms Company. A bayonet could be added to the weapon and it was effective in close range combat.
“The U.S. is the only country that considers the shotgun as a weapon. Others considered it a foraging weapon,” Dolnier said. “The Germans considered them to be very inhumane and executed anyone found to be carrying one. This from the boys who brought you poison gas warfare.”