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  • The Best Gun in the World: George Woodward Morse and the South Carolina State Military Works by Robert S. Seigler
  • Merritt Roe Smith
The Best Gun in the World: George Woodward Morse and the South Carolina State Military Works. By Robert S. Seigler. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. viii, 279. $49.99, ISBN 978-1-61117-792-3.)

I suspect that relatively few, if any, readers of this journal have ever heard of George Woodward Morse (1812–1888). Yet, according to Robert S. Seigler, Morse played a key role in hastening the transition from traditional muzzle-loading firearms to faster firing breechloaders during the Civil War. Morse's technical contribution consisted mainly of two related inventions: a breech-loading firearm that many experts considered "the best in the world" and, even more important, the introduction of a metallic self-contained center-fire cartridge that effectively sealed the gun's breech (p. 2). Seigler convincingly argues that Morse's breech-loading system was a "world-changing" invention that set the stage for the advent of modern firearms (p. 225).

Seigler provides a detailed account of the cultural contexts of technological innovation in this handsomely produced volume, starting with Morse's New England background and training as a highly skilled machinist, his invention of the breech-loading system that bore his name, and his key patents of the late 1850s that set the stage for ongoing efforts to market his inventions both in the United States and abroad. The great strength of the book is the exacting detail Seigler provides on the various arms and cartridges Morse produced between the mid-1850s and the end of the Civil War. Seigler even goes so far as to provide an appendix that lists all known Morse firearms and where they are currently located. Clearly his work is a labor of love that will be appreciated by interested readers.

A critical juncture occurred in Morse's life when he moved to Louisiana by 1840, where he joined his older brother (a lawyer-politician), married a well-off Louisiana widow, served as Louisiana's state engineer, and became a plantation owner with numerous slaves. These connections ultimately influenced his decision to side with the South when the Civil War came. After serving briefly as the superintendent of the Tennessee State Armory in Nashville, he moved his arms-making operation to the South Carolina State Military Works in Greenville, where he oversaw the production of 1,032 brass-frame carbines between 1862 and 1865. Seigler erroneously states that this level of output constituted mass production. In fact, only the U.S. national armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, and possibly the Colt works in nearby Hartford, Connecticut, possessed the capability of meeting Fordist standards of mass production during the Civil War.

Seigler provides a revealing portrait of the State Works' racially mixed labor force, which he estimates at 240 workers, possibly more—a sizable operation. The degree of versatility and skill that existed at the armory is well illustrated by the fact that it not only made firearms but also constructed a variety of machine tools, hand tools, ironwork, wagon work, railway equipment, and a fire engine. Given such diverse wartime demands on the facility, it is no wonder Morse's production of rifles proved relatively limited. Indeed, it appears that labor resources were not the primary limiting factor at Greenville, because Seigler indicates that transportation costs and limited access to raw materials slowed production. [End Page 169]

Morse's loyalty to the Confederacy proved costly. After the war he initiated numerous lawsuits against those who, he believed, had infringed on his patent rights. But, in the end, his efforts failed when, in 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed his company's final appeal, declaring, "'When he [Morse] went out of the Union, designing and scheming against its life, he abandoned all claims to its patents and their values'" (p. 217).

Anyone interested in Civil War small arms and their relationship to modern weaponry will want to read this book. In addition to being deeply researched, it identifies a notable missing link in the shift from older long arms of the prewar years...


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