History of the Ordnance Department to 1941

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had responsibility for procurement of munitions and assigned the inspection, storing, and distribution of ordnance to particular officers in the Continental Army. The colonies did not produce much ordnance, so the Continental Congress had to rely on purchases from France, on American privateers who pirated supplies on the high seas, and on the militia and Continental Army, which captured British stores. Other than the position of the Keeper of Military Stores, the new nation maintained no ordnance function after the British surrender in 1782 until 1794 when Congress authorized the President to establish two federal arms factories: the Springfield Armory, which began producing muskets in 1795, and Harpers Ferry Armory, which began the next year. To supply the U.S. Army and the militia with guns, the government also contracted with private contractors, the most notable of whom was Eli Whitney, who convinced the army that he could manufacture muskets using interchangeable parts, a concept he and others in the U.S. had learned from French practice. Although Whitney was never able to perfect his concept in practice, the Ordnance Department, established as a permanent part of the U.S. Army in 1812, embraced his concept, and it eventually revolutionized armory practice as well as the way the army maintained soldiers's weapons in the field. Whitney's concept also carried into the private sector, where manufacturers of items like sewing machines and the McCormick reaper perfected a method that Europeans called the "American system" of manufacture. U.S. Ordnance policy thereby contributed significantly to the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.

The Ordnance Department of the U.S. Army had several responsibilities during the nineteenth century. One was the design and adoption of new weapons. In this regard, U.S. Army conservatism tended to delay the acceptance of new weapons systems, such as the breech-loading rifle, which the army did not adopt until after the Civil War. Another responsibility was the inspection of arms and other ordnance produced by contractors for the military. A third was to supply army units in the field with the ordnance they needed. In part because of the United States' location on the North American continent, the capabilities of the Ordnance Department were not severely tested until World War I, when the U.S. Army had to pit its weapons against the Europeans.

When the European war erupted in 1914, most Americans did not believe the United States would become involved. The Chief of Ordnance was concerned that should the U.S. be drawn into the war the government arsenals were ill-equipped to produce conventional ordnance on the scale that would be necessary. Furthermore, American arsenals had little capacity at all to make the tanks, large artillery, and other new kinds of ordnance that were appearing on the battlefield. Congress refused, however, to contract with private manufacturers unless they could beat the costs at the government arsenals, something that rarely happened. The only reason that American manufacturers were prepared to aid in the American war effort, when the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, was that they had taken orders from European governments for ordnance, and those contracts yielded only limited preparedness. Moreover, the Ordnance Department did not have enough trained officers to implement a program for the supply of America's war effort. Thus, with the exception of rifles and rifle ammunition, the American Expeditionary Force depended mainly on British and French suppliers for its ordnance needs. Toward the end of the war, though, the Ordnance Department was able to greatly improve its procurement of ordnance from private manufacturers. This improvement came as a result of two new approaches: the decentralization of authority to eleven district offices around the country, and putting civilians in charge of those district offices.

Col Guy E. Tripp was in charge of organizing the new system of ordnance districts. Before the war, he had been chairman of the board of directors at Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company. Tripp chose local industrialists to head the districts. Although the legal work and final approval had to take place in Washington, DC, the U.S. Army gave the district chiefs authority to conduct the preliminary negotiations that would lead to contracts with manufacturing firms in their districts. The district chiefs also supervised the work done under contract and then inspected the ordnance delivered. Because the district chiefs were acquainted, if not personally then at least in terms of professional culture, with the managers of the firms with which the Ordnance Department was doing business, the chiefs were able to foster a sense of cooperation with industry. Shortly after the Ordnance Department had put the system of districts in place, military production began to increase markedly. Although the district chiefs were not solely responsible for that performance, the Ordnance Department was impressed enough with the success of the plan that it created two more ordnance districts before the war ended. Following the end of the war, the ordnance districts brought their activities to a close and ceased to exist in 1919. Over the next few years, as the army reviewed its war-time programs, it realized that the system of ordnance districts had been one of the more effective developments of the war. The Ordnance Department re-established the districts in 1922.

Brig. Gen. Clarence C. Williams was the Chief of Ordnance from May 1918 until 1930. In the aftermath of the war, he and other national leaders recognized that the nation had been poorly prepared, so he was determined to improve the organization of the Ordnance Department. Other segments of society sought to insulate the United States from future foreign entanglements, leading in the short term to Congress refusing to join the League of Nations and over the ensuing twenty years to minimally invest in new military equipment. In the period between 1919 and 1939, under the system of organization created by Williams, the Ordnance Department had three divisions: Administration, Manufacturing (or Industrial Service), and Field Service. The Manufacturing Division was in charge of design, development, testing, production, procurement, and inspection of all ordnance acquired by the army, whether made by the arsenals or produced under contract by private industry. When re-established in 1922, the ordnance districts fell under the direction of the Manufacturing Division. Field Service had charge of the storage, maintenance, and distribution of ordnance owned by the army. There was also a Technical Staff, comprised of officers and civilians who kept abreast of both domestic and foreign ordnance developments and who advised all the divisions. The technical staff worked most closely with the Manufacturing Division, especially in the testing of new equipment at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Planners elsewhere in the government determined that surplus ordnance produced during and after the war as well as enemy equipment captured during the war should be stored to maintain a level of preparedness not previously sought.

Budgets for the Ordnance Department between the wars are a gauge of the agency's levels of activity. In 1920, 1921, and 1922, Congress appropriated $21 million, $23 million, and $13 million, respectively, for the Ordnance Department. Annual appropriations then dropped to about $7 million for the years 1923-1927. For the next eight years, appropriations held fairly steady at about $12 million per year before rising to $17 million and $18 million in 1936 and 1937, respectively. Appropriations rarely rose above 4 percent of total War Department appropriations for the years 1920-1935. Another gauge of Ordnance Department activity between the wars is employment. In 1921, as post-war activities were still drawing to a close, the department had about 4,000 military workers and over 14,000 civilian employees. The following year, those figures declined to about 3,000 military and 8,000 civilian, respectively. From 1923 until the mid-1930s, the number of military workers at the Ordnance Department held steady at about 2,500, while the number of civilian workers dropped below 5,000 in the mid-1920s and then gradually rose to about 10,000 in the mid-1930s. A third measure of Ordnance Department activity is the extent to which it met its ten-year plan, launched in 1925, to equip the U.S. Army with new weapons. The army had set itself fairly modest goals, such as re-equipping itself with artillery. By 1933, however, it was only halfway to its goal for the 75-mm howitzer and the 3- inch antiaircraft gun and a third of the way there for three other kinds of artillery. For five other kinds of artillery, the army had yet to receive any weapons or, in some cases, even to receive appropriations to have the weapons made.

As noted above, appropriations for ordnance began to increase somewhat after 1935. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was growing concerned by hostile conditions brewing abroad, and he began to forcefully urge Congress to appropriate sufficient funds to allow the U.S. Army to correct the ordnance deficiencies it had identified. Congress authorized $24 million for fiscal year 1938, since the situation in Europe appeared to grow even more grave. FDR sent Congress a special message in January 1938 itemizing additional weapons and other ordnance the nation's military needed to prepare for possible war, and he also asked the army to prepare a mobilization plan, accompanied by an estimate of what it would cost to implement. Congress appropriated $112 million for fiscal year 1939, which the army was able to begin spending in July 1938. The funding allowed so great an increase in Ordnance Department activity that Assistant Chief of Ordnance, Brig. Gen. Earl McFarland recalled in 1950 that the war had actually begun for the Ordnance Department in 1938. Based on the army's estimates, Roosevelt requested and received from Congress in 1939 an appropriation of $477 million for fiscal year 1940, most of which was allotted to the U.S. Army Air Corps to help the aircraft industry expand its industrial plant. Albert Kahn designed several of the new airplane factories.

In preparing for possible war and the necessary mobilization of the nation's industrial infrastructure, one of the Ordnance Department's most important tasks was to plan how it would procure needed arms, ammunition, and equipment. The department based its procurement plan on data supplied by the arsenals and the ordnance districts (now thirteen in number). Even though the ordnance districts each had only three or four people on staff during most of the inter-war period, one of the most important tasks was to survey the capabilities of firms in each district in terms of physical plant, labor, and engineering and managerial expertise. The districts had to assess the suitability of firms' resources to meet various ordnance manufacturing needs, and the districts had to update their surveys periodically. Some districts were better at keeping their surveys up-to-date, with the New York district having one of the best records. Among the data the districts collected were informal agreements from manufacturers, in the form of schedules, stating how much orders for specific quantities of military weapons or equipment would cost. By 1937, the districts had negotiated with more than 645 industrial plants to generate 2,500 such schedules. The 1939 appropriation gave the Ordnance Department the funds to allow the ordnance districts to greatly increase their staffs, which jumped from a handful of employees to dozens to as many as fifty-one in the case of the Philadelphia district. The districts immediately set to work up-dating their surveys. The surveys, coupled with expanded staffing, allowed the districts to achieve impressive results with the greatly increased number of procurement contracts they let in 1939 and 1940.

Another governmental entity, the Army and Navy Munitions Board, also worked with the National Machine Tool Builders Association to monitor the nation's capacity to produce machine tools. The nation's manufacturers of machine tools usually operated at below capacity. That capacity was large enough to supply industrial needs during small peacetime booms, but it could not meet the anticipated demand of full industrial mobilization for war. For example, a 1937 estimate showed that with mobilization the U.S. Army would require more than 20,000 additional lathes, 16,000 of which would be needed by the Ordnance Department. With increased staffs after 1939, the ordnance districts began to report shortages of machine tools at the plants producing weapons, ammunition, and equipment under the new contracts of 1939 and 1940. The nationwide shortage of machine tools was the major bottleneck preventing contract schedules being met under the expanded program of ordnance production in 1939 and 1940, and the problem continued for some time after the U.S. entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Another program that helped the nation's industrial firms prepare to mobilize for war was the Educational Orders Act of 1938, in which Congress appropriated $2 million in additional funding for the Ordnance Department to place small orders with companies, principally to give them experience in manufacturing munitions. The act authorized the Secretary of War to solicit bids from firms for educational orders and to award orders to firms not on the competitiveness of their bids but rather on their capability, in the secretary's judgement, to undertake large wartime contracts. The Ordnance Department awarded the first four educational orders in 1939 to Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven for Ml rifles, to R. Hoe & Company of New York for recoil mechanisms for 3-inch antiaircraft guns, to S.A. Woods of Boston for machining 75-mm artillery shell casings, and to American Forge Company of Chicago for casting 75-mm artillery shell casings. In 1939, Congress authorized an additional $32.5 million for educational orders. In 1939 and 1940, the Ordnance Department placed seventy-six more educational orders, most of them for ammunition. After February 1940, the department also started awarding contracts for production studies. These were smaller contracts that gave firms the opportunity to study what was involved in producing ordnance for the military.

Hitler's Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and two days later England and France declared war on Germany. On 8 September, President Roosevelt declared a state of limited emergency, authorizing the U.S. Army to build itself up to full strength. About the same time, the Ordnance Department put in place a $6 billion plan to meet its procurement responsibilities under the Protective Mobilization Plan for the army. As the Ordnance Department continued placing orders with private firms for materiel, those and many other American firms began doing a brisk business with the French and British armies, which desperately needed weapons and equipment. Indeed, in 1939 and 1940, American companies produced more weapons, ammunition, airplanes, and other military equipment for foreign armies than they did for the U.S. Army. Concerned that such a large volume of sales might endanger U.S. neutrality. Congress passed legislation in November 1939 requiring that all sales be for cash. In spring 1940, Nazi Germany conquered Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and in May, Hitler's army invaded France. Although the American public and Congress still hoped to avoid war. Congress recognized the growing threat and appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for ordnance procurements. With the increased appropriations, the Ordnance Department also developed procedures to hasten negotiation and execution of contracts with private firms. France surrendered in July 1940, and the following June Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Each worsening situation in Europe led to greater appropriations and calls for more speed in mobilizing the U.S. Army and in mobilizing industry to meet the military's needs.

Several other programs implemented by the United States government also acted to spur the mobilization of industry and to alter the stores of ordnance available to the U.S. Army. As the German army approached the English Channel and the British effected the evacuation of their troops at Dunkerque, most of the British equipment had to be left behind in France. President Roosevelt and his military advisers decided to designate old ammunition and obsolete equipment as surplus so that it could be given to Britain to replace some of its lost materiel. Within two months, the U.S. shipped vast quantities of guns and ammunition to Britain to aid in the island's defense. This action made shortages for the U.S. Army more acute, but the Ordnance Department addressed the problem by accelerating procurement. At the same time, American firms continued to make equipment for the British Army, which differed from what the U.S. Army used. By autumn 1940, Britain agreed to accept American designs for ordnance, thus streamlining American industries production of materiel for both armies. When Britain ran out of cash to purchase American ordnance. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, and the United States started financing British purchases. Even though most items now being produced were standardized, whether for the Allied war effort or for equipping and training U.S. troops, the two delivery streams complicated matters for the Ordnance Department, stimulating more steps to manage production more efficiently.

Throughout this period, one of the greatest impediments to American industry meeting the demand of the Ordnance Department and the British Purchasing Commission continued to be the shortage of machine tools, demand for which was about twice what American machine-tool makers could produce. Shortages in machine tools in turn led to delays in the delivery of ordnance, especially small arms ammunition. In an effort to respond to the shortage, the machine tool industry greatly expanded its capacity in the early 1940s, with half of the financing for expansion coming from the industry itself. In 1940, the industry produced less than $500,000,000 in machine tools; by 1942 it was able to produce more than $1 billion in machine tools. Ordnance also worked with industry to locate existing machine tools that were under-utilized and could be diverted in situ to war production. Ten of the thirteen Ordnance Districts established Machine-Tool Panels to locate such machine tools and redistribute (not physically but in terms of task assignments) them to work on Ordnance contracts, often by means of sub-contracts.

Overall organization of the Ordnance Department had not changed since 1920. It still featured four sections, the General Office, Technical Staff, Industrial Service (which supervised procurement and production), and Field Service (which supplied army units with what they needed). The Industrial Service was the largest of the sections, especially with industry mobilizing for war. In 1940, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Wesson was Chief of Ordnance. As the demands for industrial production grew. Wesson decided to de-emphasize research and development in favor of bolstering the management of production. He therefore broke the Industrial Service into three operating units, putting a colonel in charge of each. He named Col. Burton O. Lewis assistant chief for production and procurement, transferred Col. Gladeon M. Barnes from being chief of the Technical Staff to serve as assistant chief of the Industrial Section for engineering, and named Lt. Col. Levin H. Campbell, Jr. assistant chief for facilities. These three men each held the informal title of vice president within the Industrial Service, titles in keeping with Wesson's sense that Ordnance had come to resemble a giant corporation. The vice presidents supervised the expansion of their respective units from 1940 onward. The Ordnance Department maintained this structure through 1942 with only moderate change. The most important changes occurred in July 1941, when Wesson abolished the Technical Staff entirely, distributing its tasks and staff among the units of the Industrial Service. Technical Staff functions went primarily to Barnes' division, and his title changed to assistant chief for research and engineering. Wesson also added a division and a fourth vice president: Brig. Gen. Richard H. Somers became assistant chief for inspection, having charge of testing at Ordnance proving grounds and of all inspection work conducted by the Industrial Service.