Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Seigler - "THE BEST GUN IN THE WORLD: George Woodward Morse and the South Carolina State Military Works"

[The Best Gun in the World: George Woodward Morse and the South Carolina State Military Works by Robert S. Seigler (University of South Carolina Press, 2017). 7x10 hardcover, illustrations, tables, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:233/287. ISBN:978-1-61117-792-3. $49.99]

As title and subtitle suggest, Robert Seigler's The Best Gun in the World: George Woodward Morse and the South Carolina State Military Works is very much dual-focused. It is both a life study of New Hampshire-born firearms inventor George Morse and history of the facility that ultimately ended up producing his influential breach-loading carbine and fixed ammunition designs.

After providing a brief account of Morse's early life, creative associations, and other antebellum activities, Seigler's book examines in great detail the late-1850s development of Morse's constantly evolving ideas and patents aimed at solving several centuries-old problems associated with breech-loading firearms. Morse's gun designs abandoned going down the road of further tightening/sealing of the breech mechanism and instead used the ammunition to do the job. Within a loose breech, his waterproof brass cartridge with a flared rear edge would expand and seal the gases inside the chamber. In addition to Morse's innovative sliding breech block (see cover art at upper left), the inventor's fixed ammunition cartridge possessed a novel pre-primed center fire ignition system that would be the forerunner of modern small arms ammunition. The book makes a strong case that this technological advance in ammunition was Morse's most significant contribution to firearms development worldwide.

While test firings of an early Morse design impressed many observers (civilian and military), they didn't lead to a coveted U.S. Army production contract. When the Civil War broke out, the non-ideological Morse (he was northern-born but the source of his wealth was a large plantation in Louisiana) took his inventions south and offered them to the Confederacy. As outlined in the book, Morse's arguments in his own defense (among them the need to secure his southern properties and investments, which would be unprotected if he stayed loyal to the U.S. government) will likely ring hollow in the minds of most modern readers, and the fact that he produced arms for the Confederacy would do him no favors when trying to win his many postwar U.S. patent lawsuits.

When the U.S. armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry was abandoned after Virginia seceded, Morse attempted to secure some of the irreplaceable ordnance machinery there that survived Union demolition, and the book follows the path of precious tools and machines from Virginia to Tennessee, Georgia, and finally to South Carolina. Employed at several stops along the way, Morse was finally able to contract with the government of South Carolina to produce his brass-frame carbine design at the South Carolina State Military Works in upcountry Greenville.

Between September 1863 and the end of the war, the State Works produced perhaps as many as 1040 Morse carbines (with the highest known serial number 1032). Although there were a few technical concerns (none insurmountable), the carbine was inexpensive, accurate, lightweight, didn't foul quickly, and could still fire after immersion in water, a good fit for an all-weather cavalry shoulder arm. Most were issued to mounted state troops, who apparently thought highly of them in the main, and Seigler's study exploits the scant information available regarding their use in the field to document which units received the arms and where they might have used them.

Chronicling at length a number of lawsuits against private arms manufacturers and the U.S. government, the book also recounts Morse's many failed postwar attempts to obtain recognition and remuneration for his inventions. Morse achieved some small wins, but these were overshadowed by much greater defeats. The book advances the argument that Morse would have been much better served to patent both breech mechanism and cartridge together instead of separately, though it's not made clear precisely how and why. Whatever the truth about that, one certainly can't help but agree with Seigler that it was likely Morse's production of weapons used to shoot at U.S. soldiers during the war that figured most in the rejection of his federal patent lawsuits.

As stated before, the book also serves as a comprehensive history of the South Carolina State Military Works. Former governor William H. Gist and noted Charleston carpenter-builder David Lopez are appropriately credited with the facility's development. Originally conceived as an artillery foundry, the resources needed to realize that lofty goal proved impossible to obtain. Instead, the State Works did a great deal of repair and conversion work while primarily producing machine tools, general military items, and Morse's carbine.

The construction, management, production, and work force (white and black) histories of the State Works are all extensively recorded in the text. While appreciating the chronic underfunding, uncontrolled inflation, skilled labor shortages, and material scarcities that plagued southern manufacturing in general, Seigler also perceptively notes the drawbacks specific to the Greenville site. While comparative isolation certainly helped with security, it made finding and housing workers more difficult and increased transportation costs substantially. Employing much more expensive steam power versus hydro power also sent costs soaring, so much so that the state unsuccessfully tried to sell the always financially-challenged State Works in 1863.

The Best Gun in the World succeeds in raising the profile of an important but neglected figure in world firearms history. Richly illustrated with photographs and meticulously rendered drawings of all kinds, the volume also thoroughly documents the features and technical details of Morse's many inventions and explains how they influenced later designs. Finally, the book is a significant contribution to the literature of southern wartime industry.

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