Arming Revolutionary Virginia: Rappahannock Forge and the Virginia Munitions Industry

Rappahannock Forge sword

Rappahannock Forge horseman’s sword in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

When the Revolutionary War began, Virginia – like the rest of the American colonies – lacked the capacity to produce weapons of war on any scale.  There were many Virginia gunsmiths who made both rifled and smoothbore guns for hunting, but this work was done by individuals in small shops scattered through the colony.  Virginia needed to equip its troops with thousands of standardized military muskets and vast quantities of ammunition, as well as bayonets, swords and even cannon.

Virginia sought to meet its needs both by buying arms in Europe and encouraging arms production at home.  In this last endeavor Virginia had certain advantages over most of the other colonies, because Virginia already had a well-developed iron industry.  However, prior to Revolution Virginia’s iron furnaces mainly produced ingots of cast iron for export rather than finished goods.  The colony’s iron manufacturers had to experiment and learn new skills before they could turn pig iron into weapons of war.  Several of Virginia’s iron makers did this successfully, and colonial era ironmasters like Isaac Zane of the famous Marlboro Iron Works went from casting iron ingots for export to casting full-size cannon to fight for American independence on land and sea.

The Virginia ironmaster who responded most successfully to the demands of war was James Hunter of Hunter’s Iron Works in Stafford County.  Even in late-colonial times Hunter had been able to produce a wider range of finished goods at his works than other Virginia iron furnaces did.  By 1776 Hunter was able to show Virginia legislators that he could produce complete  military muskets with bayonets.  During the course of the war Virginia officials contracted with him not just for muskets but for a wide range of other military equipment, including “pistols, carbines, horsemen’s caps, camp kettles, spades shovels, etc.” His ironworks was transformed into an industrial complex, which came to be known as Rappahannock Forge.

Later in the war Hunter’s enterprise faced many difficulties and reverses, from British attacks on the forge to a persistent shortage of skilled workmen.  In late 1782 the Rappahannock Forge effectively ceased military production. One of its last major orders came in 1781, when famous American cavalry leader Col. William Washington  asked Hunter to produce 1,000 horseman’s swords.  The swords weren’t finished until November 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, but they probably saw some action with Nathanael Greene’s army in the deep south before the war ended.

Virginia’s wartime armaments industry did not survive the war. The iron furnaces and other production facilities that had geared up to manufacture munitions in 1776 either went back to civilian production after 1782 or went out of business entirely.  However, wartime production demands did teach Virginia businessmen and industrialists valuable lessons about organizing manufacturing enterprises on a large scale.  These lessons probably served them well as they faced the economic  challenges of postwar America.

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