By Mr. Rhys Fullerlove (AMC)February 24, 2010
An important part of the Rock Island Arsenal's history returned home last month. An original 1903 Springfield Riffle that was produced at RIA in 1904 was transferred from TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, Rock Island to Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center to be displayed during the grand opening of the Soldier Weapons Readiness Center.
The Soldier Weapons Readiness Center at RIA is a small arms focus factory designed to develop rapid solutions for our Armed Forces. Last month, the SWRC produced 1000 mortar firing pins in 30 days from time of the order to delivery.
The SWRC is the next evolution in small arms work at the Arsenal. RIA has a long history that exceeds 140 years of supporting Soldiers with Small Arms and repair parts.
THE CIVIL WAR
The Civil War demonstrated the need for armories and arsenals in the Middle West to help supply to the troops operating in the Mississippi Valley. Congress, by means of an act approved July 11, 1862, established a national arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois "for the deposit and repair of arms and other munitions of war."
Maj. C. P. Kingsbury, Ordnance Department, was assigned the duty of constructing the arsenal when he took command on August 13, 1863. The Rock Island Arsenal's original intent however wouldn't be achieved during the Civil War. During the summer and fall of 1863, a military prison with barracks capable of holding 13,000 prisoners of war was built on Rock Island for confinement of Confederate Soldiers captured by Union forces.
POST CIVIL WAR
In August 1865, Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Rodman, the "Father of Rock Island Arsenal," assumed command. He decided to relocate the site of the arsenal to the center of the island and developed a plan to construct a group of ten stone shops. When he died in June 1871, two shop buildings and the commanding officer's quarters were nearly finished.
Rodman was followed by Cpt. D. W. Flagler, who believed in the plans of his predecessors and carried them to completion. After the stone shops were built, they saw very little work. The Army chief of ordnance ordered RIA to manufacture cavalry and infantry equipment. Arsenal workers begin cleaning and repairing breech-loading rifles.
In 1898 Col. S. E. Blunt, the commanding officer, reported that only fourteen percent of the available floor space was being used in manufacturing operations which were limited to field artillery carriages, personal and horse equipment. This limited activity would soon change as tensions between the United States and Spain grew.
THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR
The Spanish-American War in 1898 served the Arsenal its first real test. Total employment drastically increased from 375 to 2,900. Demands were met by increasing the production of the arsenal with the installation of new machines and facilities, by utilizing other arsenals and depots to complete and assemble components fabricated at Rock Island, and by calling on contractors to supply large quantities of equipment. During this time the arsenal manufactured carriages for the 7-inch siege howitzer and for the 3.2-inch breech-loading rifle, as well as limbers and caissons for the 3.2-inch breech-loading rifle.
The Spanish-American War marked the beginning of a new era for Rock Island Arsenal. As a result of the war experience, a complete rearrangement of all machinery was affected, which materially increased the productive capacity at RIA.
Shortly after when the model 1903 Springfield rifle came into production, the chief of ordnance came to Rock Ssland Arsenal with a requirement for us to manufacture that rifle here. RIA did that with gusto, and from the period of 1905-1908 they manufactured about 300,000 of these rifles.
YEARS PRIOR TO WORLD WAR I
During this period the need for further manufacturing of small arms was required. Lessons learned from the Spanish-American War made it advisable to install rifle manufacturing facilities at Rock Island Arsenal, and in 1899 an appropriation for that purpose was provided by Congress.
The plant, when completed and placed in operation several years later, had the ability to produce 125 rifles per 8-hour day. For many years, funds were not available to operate the plant to its rated capability, but its potential productivity was considerably increased by the addition of new machines and equipment from time to time.
A stockpile of rifles soon accumulated between the Springfield Armory and the Rock Island. This reserve was considered adequate by Congress and appropriations were reduced to such an extent that the armory shops at Rock Island had to be closed in 1913. The Arsenal would briefly resume manufacturing rifles in 1915 to aid Gen. John Pershing during the Punitive Expedition into Mexico.
As war broke out in Europe, a heightened state of alert caused the re-opening of the armory shops for the manufacture of service rifles in the autumn of 1916. During this immediate prewar period all departments of the Arsenal worked at top speed to produce the material on orders. New machinery and improved weapons were necessary to meet the methods of warfare developed during three years of fighting in Europe.
During the war, Rock Island Arsenal manufactured a multitude of products including many types of munitions, such as field guns carriages as well as .30-caliber rifles. Even more resounding was a group of skilled shop employees from the Arsenal who enlisted and went to France to help set up the first ordnance depot in that country.
After World War I the number of employees decreased from 4,750 in 1920 to 2,400 in 1921. There was concern that the arsenal would lose some key personnel to private industry-a situation similar to what Col G. W. Burr described in a report written immediately after the outbreak of World War I in 1917.
Speaking about the Arsenal he said, "There was no officer skilled in small arms work available for the supervision of this plant. There was in this vicinity no force of small arms specialists available for employment in the plant. With the shutting down of the small arms plant three years ago and the demand in commercial life for men skilled in that line of work (factories were working on contracts from European nations at war) practically every former employee who had any knowledge whatever of small arms work had secured employment with commercial firms engaged in that line of work."
THE YEARS BETWEEN THE WORLD CONFLICTS
In 1939, the War Department designated Rock Island as the experts of specific items that included tanks, artillery and machine guns, while assuming technical responsibility for the supervision of any educational orders placed on these items. Contractors sent technical representatives to the Arsenal to study methods of manufacture.
As another great war threatened, the Arsenal commenced an extensive artillery overhaul and modification program. All machine guns in storage that were not of the latest type and design were withdrawn and modified to make current. They were given a complete overhauling at the same time and put in serviceable condition. Even though work was steady at the Arsenal, no one could envision the huge expansion that the Second World War would bring.
WORLD WAR II
The Second World War marked a period of war production unsurpassed in the history of the Rock Island Arsenal. During the four years of emergency, immense quantities of all types of artillery and small arms equipment, loading machines for the Navy and enormous quantities of spare parts for all types of military equipment were produced by the Manufacturing Department.
The massive task of arming can be seen in a sampling of production figures: 7,000 artillery carriages, 25,000 gun mounts, 85,000 machine guns, and 715,000 machine gun barrels. A considerable number of these and other items were overhauled and modified. During 1944, the Rock Island Ordnance Depot received and shipped 8,286,220,000 pounds of material.
1942 marked a busy year for the 80-year-old Arsenal as well. Construction began on a new assembly shop, which is now known at Building 208. The new forge shop is completed and offices reside in the new administrative center Building 390. Additionally, RIA manufactured its first rocket launcher and began employing women in its shops. The arsenal also earned the coveted Army/Navy "E" award. The award, also known as the Army-Navy Production Award, was an honor presented to a company during World War II for excellence in production of war equipment. In 1945, the manufacture of .30-caliber machine guns, a major wartime project for RIA is discontinued. The Arsenal returned to a five-day, 40-hour work week as World War II ended. Many arsenal shops discontinued production.
POST WORLD WAR II
In 1946, an extensive program of rehabilitation was carried on throughout the various shops of the Manufacturing Department. By the end of 1946, there were approximately 5,000 modern machine tools available in the various shops of the manufacturing department for the production of a great variety of artillery, automotive and small arms material, also various types of airborne equipment. New production during this period consisted chiefly of the manufacturing of spare parts for the many types of equipment in use.
THE KOREAN WAR
In June 1950, aggression in Korea shocked the United States into action, and a hasty period of build-up ensued. Rock Island Arsenal again shouldered its responsibility. The "king-size" 3.5-inch rocket launcher, or bazooka, knocked out many North Korean tanks in the early stages of the war. They were dispatched to the front in record time by air from Rock Island Arsenal.
In July 1957, the RIA long time mission, responsibility for industrial engineering, manufacturing, and maintenance engineering for certain categories of small arms were transferred to Springfield Armory.
In 1986, Rock Island was asked to respond to an emergency request to produce 31,500 bolts for the M16A2 rifle. Five years later in 1991, RIA produced the M16A2 and other small arms part as a part of kit a kit shipped to Desert Storm.
The 21st Century kicked off with the production of more than 3,600 small arms field service gages. In 2007 RIA-JMTC signed a 2-year Memorandum of Agreement with TACOM Life Cycle Management Command and Defense Logistics Agency for the establishment of a dedicated Army manufacturing capability for select small arms and mortar parts.
THE CURRENT STATE
During Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the need for a rapid small arms repair parts became prevalent. 2010 marks the opening of the Soldier Weapons Readiness Center, a small arms focus factory. This will reveal new capabilities for RIA, and increase the agility and readiness it takes to respond to urgent Warfighter needs.
EDITORS NOTE: This story was written using transcripts and information from the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.