GunsmithMaster Gunsmith George Suiter talks about the art of making guns in the town of Williamsburg. January 16, 2006
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking George Suiter, who at Colonial Williamsburg is the gunsmith.
What did a gunsmith in the mid-18th century do?
George Suiter: Well, in America he’s doing lots of repair work on existing guns and probably other objects, too, and also is custom-making guns.
Lloyd: Well, all guns in that day were custom-made, weren’t they? There’s no such thing as machine parts…
George: Uh…they’re not machine parts, but there’s a tremendous amount of labor in England, and they’re mass producing guns in the 1740s.
Lloyd: Oh really, I didn’t know that.
George: Yeah, gun-making in a city like London was divided into 21 separate trades, so they are producing thousands of guns every year. They go all over the world, including here to America.
Lloyd: Well, while they are producing thousands of guns every year with these 21 individual stations, what does one gunsmith produce, or were you one gunsmith?
George: Yeah, in a small shop in America, we don’t have the population to afford that kind of specialization, so in a little shop like ours, one man would have to have the ability to do every aspect of the trade.
Lloyd: So you would have to be 21 people?
George: More or less…you have to have a broad range of skills and abilities to do everything from forging and casting to woodwork and carving and engraving, so you’re probably not going to be as good at all of them as the 21 specialists, who only do the one part, but you can make a passable gun.
Lloyd: Did you specialize in any kind of gun…did you make shotguns for the wealthy…?
George: Well, the wealthy, of course, are dealing mostly with their agents in London. We’re making guns for the local guy. Now, he could buy one of those cheap English import shotguns right off the rack in most stores. And, the only reason he would come to me is either to have a gun repaired or to a have a gun made that he couldn’t find in the store. In America, the market for rifles is relatively small, so the British arms industry really doesn’t get involved in making lots of rifles for export. So, if you’re headed to the frontier to hunt buffalo or elk, you would come here and have a rifle custom made for you.
Lloyd: How long would that take?
George: Well of course no one ever writes that stuff down in the 18th century for us.
George: Our best guess in the shop today is in the neighborhood of 400 man hours. Now, I’m sure we’re a lot slower than an 18th-century tradesman would have been. We don’t get the practice. We don’t begin a trade at 13 or 14; we don’t work daylight to dark six days a week, and of course they didn’t talk to 300,000 people a year either, so we’re never going to be as fast as an 18th-century tradesman would have been.
Lloyd: You are talking to all these people while you are trying to do your job…mostly what do they want to know?
George: Mostly, how much does it cost? And, of course, today we charge a modern labor charge for 400 hours of obsolete labor. Once they get past that, they want to know how to do certain aspects of the job, and how did they do that with those old crude tools back then?
Lloyd: Have you learned to use all the old crude tools?
George: I have, and I found out they’re not crude. I found out that once you know how to use them, they can be very efficient.
Lloyd: How long did it take you to learn?
George: I guess I spent an apprenticeship somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven years.
Lloyd: Same thing as an indentured servant would have done…
George: Pretty much, yeah…
Lloyd: This is kind of personal…I hope you don’t mind, what made you want to be a gunsmith?
George: My standard answer is, “poor planning.”
Lloyd: (Laughs) Now, what really made you…
George: I’ve always loved making things. I’ve always liked history. I’ve collected old tools forever, and like I say, I want to learn how those old tools were used, not just set them on a shelf to be decorative objects, I want to see what they can really do, and so that has kind of driven me to learn all the old techniques.
Lloyd: You’ve got your own collection of old tools.
George: I do.
Lloyd: Okay, then being a gunsmith in Williamsburg makes perfectly good sense.
Lloyd: How many people do you have in the shop?
George: Normally about four.
Lloyd: And, how many people do you talk to a year?
George: Our estimate is somewhere between 250 and 300,000 people a year.
Lloyd: Do all of you take turns talking?
George: Sure, oh yeah, everybody gets their fair share of talking, and their fair share of work.
Lloyd: …and fair share of abuse.
George: Right. (Laughs)
Lloyd: When people ask what it costs, you put it into modern terms – or do you do pounds/shillings/pence?
George: Well, I go either way. I could tell you that a gun in the 18th century – say a typical rifle – sold for about four pounds Virginia money. That, of course, means nothing to most people today, but I tell them if they were an 18th-century man, they could buy an ordinary wool suit of clothes for that. They could put two new wheels on their oxcart, or they could buy a saddle, or a wig from the wigmaker. And that makes it a little more understandable.
Lloyd: Yeah, because four pounds English of Virginia money tells me absolutely nothing.
George: Right. Exactly. It doesn’t mean anything to most people. And, I often ask people to tell me what a dollar is worth, and of course then they start thinking, “Well, gee, I can buy a soft drink for a dollar.” And that’s all money is worth – what you can buy with it.
Lloyd: Did your job change in the 18th century when the Revolution started?
George: I think everybody’s job probably changed some. People would normally expect a shop like this to get busier, and what we find is that they have a hard time getting people to work in the shop. There are a few arms factories that spring up during the war, and they offer incentives for people to come and work. But even in those arms factories, they can’t get enough people to keep them fully staffed, so that makes a little shop like this probably less productive. They’re having a hard time finding people to work in them. And, of course a lot of tradesmen end up going into the military as well.
Lloyd: You get hit from both ends – you can’t get people to work, and the ones you can get to work leave to go to the army.
Lloyd: That would make it difficult. Do you think the gunsmith in those days…was most of his work making, or was most of his work repair, or do we know?
George: I don’t know that we know, and I think that probably depends on the individual gunsmith, but I think a great deal of work would be repair, and maybe not even just guns. Since you have the ability to work with wood and metal, there’s no reason I couldn’t fix a broken spinning wheel or a leaky teapot…I don’t think any tradesman is going to turn away a paying job as long as he’s got the time and the ability to do it.
Lloyd: If you are repairing a gun, or anything else for that matter, you have to hand-make the part – whatever the part is – so you get good at hand-making metal things and hand-making wooden things. That would be a demanding job.
George: Well most trades work with wood or metal, and they’ll make hundreds of objects out of one of those media. A gunsmith has to be able to make one object out of a lot of different materials.
Lloyd: Yeah, because if in London they’re turning them out at 21 different stations, you’re turning them out at 21 different stations.
George: Well, there’s no way we can compete with that cheaper labor and more labor in England, so I have to offer something that they can’t, and that’s namely a custom gun.
Lloyd: That brings me to another thing. Do you make a custom gun; do you fit it to the person?
George: Sure. Yeah, that’s really the appeal. I can measure your arms and your neck and take several other measurements and actually fit the gun to you, just like getting a suit of clothes made. And, if it fits you, you’re going to shoot it better.
Lloyd: So, you’re a gun tailor.
George: …basically, yeah…
Lloyd: That’d be pretty interesting…you’d send him off to get a suit of clothes and while he’s getting a suit of clothes you’d make a gun for him.
Lloyd: I guess you theoretically could. What…I know that caliber that we talk about did not exist then, I don’t think.
George: It does.
Lloyd: It does.
George: All caliber means is a hundredth of an inch, so when you came in to buy your gun, you could tell me you wanted a half-inch bore, or 50-caliber, would be the same thing. The more important measurement would be gauge, and that means if you get a round lead ball of bore diameter, a certain number of those balls will equal one pound of lead. And that really told you something more important than bore diameter. That told you how much lead and powder you are going to need to buy. So, instead of telling me you want a 50-caliber gun, you’d say I want a 38-bore gun. Or, if you wanted a 20-bore, we would call that 60-caliber today.
Lloyd: Okay, now I need to know how much lead and powder do I need if I have a 50-caliber…
George: Well, the militia law in America required that you have a gun, but four pounds of lead and one pound of powder on hand at all times. And, from looking at store records, we often see people buying a pound of powder and four pounds of lead, or shot.
Lloyd: Just to satisfy the militia need?
George: Right. And, they’re going to use that for hunting and replace it when they need to…
Lloyd: I like that. Get your own gun made.
Lloyd: That would be fun. Were they long-barrel?
George: Typically, American guns were, and that seems to be the fashion that was popular at that time. If you look at European guns, particularly rifles, the barrels are in the 30-inch-long range. Here in America, they are typically a foot longer than they needed to be, but that was the fashion.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.