In 2016, I wrote an article for the April/May edition of Classic Arms & Militaria investigating the more personal aspects of the life of Jacob Snider. This offered information that was not previously available, largely owing to the unexpected discovery of the papers held in the New York Public Library which had been gifted in 1934 by Mrs Irving McKesson (Snider’s great-grandniece). The material was sparse, but useful nonetheless. Its discovery suggested that there could be other ‘family archives’ still to be recovered for other inventors and patentees associated with the firearms industry.
The Snider article was followed by 'The Men Behind the Guns' (June/July issue), then by two dealing with James Paris Lee and those who had helped him, including family members. The Lee articles benefited greatly from the assistance of Brad Lee Morris, who was able to supply copious details of the life of his great-great-grandfather.
These articles opened so many avenues of research that, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of Rob McDonnell of the Warner Group (www.warnersgroup.co.uk), responsible for publishing Classic Arms & Militaria and The Armourer, the on-going 'Men Behind the Gun' series was created. This part of the Archiving Industry website, therefore, is dedicated to supporting the magazine articles in part by converting research that underpinned The Greenhill Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers into easily accessible web pages.
Many men have been lost to history while others, all too often lacking the spark of genius, have become household names. Fortunately, growing enthusiasm for genealogy and greatly improved access to records (thanks to the Internet) help to fill some of the gaps.
Twenty years ago, when I was trying to complete the Greenhill Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers (published in 2001), obtaining details was often difficult, invariably time-consuming, and potentially very costly. Now, of course, things have changed. Patent records in the U.S.A. and Germany are instantly accessible through the government websites www.uspto.gov and www.dpma.de respectively, as are those of Britain and many other countries through Espacenet.
But there are still frustrations: U.S. Patents are customarily acknowledged on firearms by date, which is practically impossible to search effectually. German patents can be searched by name if they date after 1920, but earlier specifications can usually only be found if the number is known. Patent numbers almost never appear on German firearms—just the acknowledgement 'D.R.P.', for Deutsches Reichs-Patent.
British Patents are sometimes identified by number (the Lewis Gun, for example, displays a group of them), but the year-date is an essential qualifier if application was made prior to 1st January 1916 and the on-line records currently go back only to the early 1890s. French patents can be accessed easily up to the 1850s, but though Espacenet will give details of post-1900 grants there is still an annoying gap.
So how do we trace the men behind the guns, particularly those that, once rejected by military trials or the commercial market, never reappeared? A good first step is to seek any appropriate firearms-related patents. The U.S. Patents will usually give the applicant’s full name, often including initials, and his domicile; British Patents almost always give a precise address and the applicant’s profession. These details can be run through a genealogical website such as Ancestry or Find My Past to see what can be retrieved.
The results are sometimes spectacular; at other times, exceptionally disappointing. But this is even more reason to carry on. Publication of the Snider article persuaded a reader of Classic Arms & Militaria to contact us with details of a previously unknown Snider rifle, and this soon led to the discovery of another gun.
Warners took the decision to amalgamate Classic Arms & Militaria and The Armourer, and the first issue of the new 'combined' magazine was published in April 2017. 'Men Behind the Gun' is continuing, now on a bi-monthly basis, but has been subtly adapted to appeal to what is effectively The Armourer's readership.
To date, these artices have appeared in print:
In Classic Arms & Militaria
April/May 2016. The Enigmatic Mr Snider
June/July 2016. A closer look at inventors.
August/September 2016. James Paris Lee: from small Scots town to world renown
October/November 2016. Lee's Lieutenants—the inventor’s collaborators
February/March 2017. Arms and the Man: heraldry and the gun
In The Armourer, incorporating Classic Arms & Militaria
April 2017. The Lee Straight-Pull rifle and USS Maine
May 2017. Arthur Savage and the Model 1899 rifle
June 1917. Benjamin Hotchkiss and his rifles
August 2017. Kropatschek, Lebel, Berthier and their rifles
September 2017. Adolf von Odkolek and the Hotchkiss machine-gun
November 2017. Hugo Borchardt and his firearms
December 2017. The Rifles of Nepal: Sharps, Snider, Francotte-Martini-Henry and Gehendra
February 2018. Soviet Snipers: Men and Women Behind the Guns
April 2018. Dreyse and the Needle Guns
June 2018. From Dreyse to Mauser
July 2018. Guns of the Little Bighorn (not strictly part of the MBG series, but similar in approach)
August 2018. Confederate Enfields and the Blockade
The Soviet PPSh-41 (not strictly and MBG)
October 2108. John Hall and his rifle
And see also, published here for the first time
William who...? The story of William Morgenstern and his guns
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