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 widely 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 behenfited 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 (, 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 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 and 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 dozen), 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; Espacenet will give details of post-1890 grants, but 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 one. 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.

So watch this space!

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