The story starts, of course, with the Civil War. For the next half century, the war contributed arms, mercenaries, and tactics to every little brush fire and battle anywhere in the world. If chaos theory says a butterfly flapping it’s wings in China can affect the rainfall in Spain, then it is only natural that the American Civil War was a tsunami that changed warfare forever.
Of the tens of thousands of weapons to find their way around the world, however, one was a little different. Late in the war, Remington designed a single-shot, breech-loading rifle that was simple, cheap, and reliable: the Remington Split-Breech carbine. While you have probably never heard of this weapon, in a few decades, it would evolve into the most commonly used single-shot military rifle in the world, the Remington Rolling Block, a rifle that was still being carried by soldiers through the end of the first world war.
But in 1864, when the rifle was first designed, there was real doubt that it would ever be made. Remington was very busy manufacturing weapons already, and could not possibly take the time to retool its machinery to manufacture a new and untested rifle. One enterprising official at the factory, Samuel Norris, ignored common sense and sought a way to make a profit with the new design.
When the Civil War began, the United States was desperately short of weapons, so the government ramped up orders with every firearms manufacturer and sent a purchasing officer, a newly appointed Brigadier General Marcellus Hartley, to Europe to not only buy as many weapons as possible, but to prevent the South from doing the same thing. This was early in the industrial revolution, and firearm design was rapidly changing. As part of the rearming program, the US Army let it be known that it was willing to purchase a thousand copies of any new firearm.
Assured of a sale of at least a thousand rifles, Norris began looking for a way to manufacture them. Remington was too busy, but Norris found a small firearms company in Massachusetts with surplus production capacity. The Savage Revolving Arms Company was willing to manufacture the rifles for Remington, but only if the order could be increased to 5,000 rifles.
Norris must have been something of a gambler, for he took his single prototype rifle to the Army, received an order for a thousand rifles, then okayed production for five times that many. Norris probably figured that somebody, somewhere would need a few thousand rifles. (While you would think this is a safe bet—wars seem more common than peace—you would be astonished to learn how often firearm companies go bankrupt.)
Before the first rifles could be delivered, a couple of things changed. First, the Army decided to standardize the ammunition of its rifles to the .56-50 cartridge used by the Spencer Rifle, which was arguably the finest weapon of the Civil War. The Army, being the Army, then ordered an additional 15,000 rifles in the new caliber from Norris.
Second, the Civil War ended. Suddenly awash in more weapons than soldiers, the Army promptly cancelled all existing orders for new rifles—except those from Remington for the new rifles. No one knows exactly why, but I suspect that somewhere a politician was handed an envelope containing the new greenbacks.
Note. During the Civil War, the US government began printing paper money for the first time. (Technically, the paper money of the Continental Congress was not issued by the yet-to-exist United States.) Since the front of the bills was printed in black, and the opposite side was printed in green to discourage counterfeiting, they were popularly referred to as ‘greenbacks’.
Though the Army did not need the new weapons, they were promptly inspected, stamped ‘USA’, crated and immediately warehoused in a vast government facility. The warehouses of surplus armaments must have looked like something out of the first Indiana Jones movie—massive piles of wooden crates containing hundreds of thousands of rifles, muskets, and pistols along with crates of millions of rounds of ammunition.
The Spencer Firearm company promptly went bankrupt and was bought out by the newly- formed Winchester Repeating Arms Company that began working on an improved prototype which would quickly become famous. It is hard to imagine a Western movie without thinking of the Winchester rifle.
Our geography lesson brings us to Germany...Well, actually to Northern Prussia. Otto Von Bismarck had managed to band together the Northern Prussian states into a union, but he was struggling to add the Southern Prussian states. Frankly, uniting any two of those fiercely independent states was a minor miracle, and combining all of them together was a near impossibility. But, Bismarck was a student of history and realized that the only thing a good Prussian hated more than another Prussian was a Frenchman.
Back in 1701, all of Europe had plunged into war when France tried to upset the balance of power by placing a French prince on the throne of Spain. Would the same trick work again? Well, yes: Bismarck played France like a drum, using diplomatic pressure to put a German prince on the Spanish throne, thus maneuvering Napoleon III into provoking a fresh war. (I had to completely rewrite that sentence because no matter how many times I typed it, Spell Check insisted on changing ‘Germany maneuvered France’ into ‘Germany manured France’. Even Spell Check hates the French.)
The various Prussian states promptly united to meet the threat, thus starting the Franco-Prussian War. The German Confederation was a new country, freshly formed, with many problems, so in order to guarantee a French defeat, Napoleon III personally took charge of the French Army.
At the Battle of Sedan, on September 2, 1870, over 80,000 French soldiers were forced to surrender, yielding up a significant portion of the country’s weaponry. Napoleon abdicated, fleeing to England, leaving behind the hastily formed French Republic that was desperate to purchase weaponry.
At the end of the Civil War, General Hartley had returned to civilian life, starting several new businesses. One of which, the Union Metallic Cartridge Company had begun to produce the new style cartridges needed by the new style weapons. When France began negotiating to buy weapons, Hartley used his contacts to make a profit. First, he convinced the Army to sell him the crates of Remington Split-Breech Carbines that had been sitting in a warehouse for the last four years. Naturally, since the weapons were mysteriously labeled ‘Damaged’, Hartley bought them at a discount.
Before Hartley could make his deal with the French, a small opportunity came up on the Canadian Border. The Fenians, an offshoot of the Irish Republic, were raiding British forts and customs houses in Canada in an effort to force England out of Ireland. In order "to get their man", the Royal Canadian Mounted Police needed a modern firearm that could be easily reloaded while on a horse, so roughly a hundred of the Remington carbines were sold to Canada.
Hartley sent his agent, W. W. Reynolds, to Paris to negotiate the deal. Reynolds, of course, sold the pristine rifles at a hefty profit to the French. He also negotiated a large order for ammunition for the rifles, to be filled by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. Right about the same time, Winchester sold all the remaining Spencer rifles—along with all the remaining parts to repair them—to the French. This pretty well cleared up the American market for the new Winchester rifle.
Reynolds went to Paris and secured the order, amounting to over 5 million francs, along with the authorization to release payment from a British Bank. If you are not impressed, let me remind you that French Francs were made of gold. Altogether, that was about two and a half tons of gold. At today’s prices, that would be about $80 million (and that is not even adjusted for inflation). Four years earlier, the United States only paid $7.2 million for all of Alaska. Hell, for $80 million, we could have bought someplace warm.
Unfortunately, by the time Reynolds had secured his order and gathered the necessary documents, Paris was surrounded by the Prussian Army. This was not the end of the war, as French forces continued to mount a disorganized resistance, but it did mean that Reynolds was in real trouble—the kind of trouble that the Prussians would end with a firing squad.
There was, of course, only one practical solution. Reynolds quickly paid for the construction of two gas balloons. He gave the spare balloon to the French Minister of War, so he could organize French resistance to the Prussians. (Why not?—If the resistance succeeded, the French would need more weaponry and ammunition.)
Both men were successful in their escape, though for a while it looked bad when a capricious wind blew them over the Prussian lines. Luckily, the wind changed and both men evaded capture. With the profits, Hartley’s company eventually bought the remains of the Remington company.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Because Bismarck made a fool of Napoleon III, the French army fought the Germans with rifles marked ‘USA’, except for the ones the Canadians used to kill Irishmen, all of which were originally intended to kill Southerners.
By the way, one of the other companies that Hartley created after the Civil War was also successful. Since running two successful companies consumed too much time, Hartley sold it to a guy named Westinghouse, who promptly renamed it. Today, we call it CBS.