Ask Ian: Tractors to Typewriters, Non-Gun Companies Making Guns?

From Brian on Patreon:
“Would you give your thoughts and comments on non-gun companies making guns? For example Baldwin Locomotive/Eddystone 1917s, IH Garands, GM M-16s, most M-1 carbines, maybe even TRW M-14s. How did the experiment work out?”

I would say that the experiment worked very well. Springfield Armory was tasked with developing production tooling for various US military production items, with the express purpose of aiding private industry in tolling up for mass production. This was an essential element in the US being able to exploit its industrial dominance during World War Two, with dozens of non-gun companies able to come online making munitions quickly and with relatively few problems. Nothing is going to go perfectly, but the track record of American non-gun companies during the war was no worse than the firms like Winchester, Colt, and H&R.

By the way, if you ARE interested in modern defense production logistics, I would highly recommend the channel Perun:


  1. During those non gun company builds we eere in s world war and the companies that were tasked at manufacturing these weapons already were producing products that could be easily able to convert their manpower/ employees to produce weapons for war. It would have take to long to set up other facilities to mass produce the weapons mentioned here.

  2. There are also many cases of established firearms manufacturers abandoning that trade to focus entirely on other things. Birmingham Small Arms is probably the most notable example – I’d wager that most people today know BSA as a motorcycle manufacturer first and a gunmaker second. They ditched the firearms business after World War II because they failed to secure several major contracts with the British Army, and thereafter only made motorcycles until they went bust in 1973.

    SIG in Switzerland sold their firearms division in 2000 and became a packaging company, which they remain to this day.

    A bit more of an obscure example is the short-lived SOLA company in Luxembourg, which manufactured a range of SMGs, including the “SOLA Super”, in the 1950s. After being investigated for their connection to arms trafficking, they attempted unsuccessfully to reestablish themselves as a plastics manufacturer. Turns out they couldn’t turn a profit if they weren’t illegally smuggling guns to North Africa.

    • “(…)BSA(…)ditched the firearms business after World War II because they failed to secure several major contracts with the British Army, and thereafter only made motorcycles until they went bust in 1973.”
      This reminded me about Hotchkiss, they made automobiles until 1955, in which year did they cease fire-arms production?

    • BSA was still making sporting rifles and shotguns up to the late 60s or early 70s, perhaps even up to the 80s with the CF2 centrefire rifles.

      I actually chatted with BSA’s sales manager for guns, in about 1980, I was asking about the possibility of the small martini actions being produced again.

      BSA were quite advanced on the manufacturing technology

      I’ve got a book on investment casting from the late 1960s, which shows a lot of photos of BSA rifle and shotgun parts being cast.

      • Yes, you’re absolutely right, I forgot about BSA’s line of sporting guns that they continued to make after World War II. But certainly the motorcycles are what people ultimately ended up remembering them for.

    • BTW of SIG, their first product were not guns, but railroad cars.
      Metal packaging industry had a nice input into gun manufacture – Lines Bros of England were the only maker of Mk III Sten, while German company of Johaness Grossfuss were making sheet metal beer crates – and then developed and manufactured the MG 42.
      Automotive industry was also making guns, and it was not only the Inland Div. of GM – Albion in UK made .380 No.2 Mk I** revolvers. German Simson was an automotive (motorcycles) manufacturer when they were saddled by the Allied Control Commission with Reichswehr weapons manufacturing license. With very bad results for the future of the company, which was “de-Judified” in 1936 and renamed the Gustloff-Werke.
      Swedish company Husqvarna started as a Vabensfabrik AB (Weapons Factory Stock Company), hence their abbreviation HVA which translated into the name of the Danish postwar SMG Hovea M/49, but they quit guns in 1950s, starting garden appliances, chainsaws and motorcycles, just like BSA. Taking of motorcycle manufacturers – Czech company Janacek was making 7.9 mm Schwarzlose M7/12/24 for the Czech Army, but after the State choose to order new machineguns at ZB Brno, they paired with German automotive company Wanderer (one of the four circles of the Auto-Union logo, now known as Audi), and created a motorcycle brand of JAWA (JAnacek-WAnderer). The Ceska Zbrojovka of Strakonice went the same way after the WW2, when CZ Uhersky Brod took over their production – they started to manufacture the CZ brand motorcycles.
      Mauser once made automobiles, FN had a relatively strong bicycle business going on (and that how their manager met John M. Browning – he was in US fishing for bicycle patents), and later motorcycles, car, lorries and even buses – up until 1960s.
      Here, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, no weapon factory was called such – they were all “Metal Wares Factories” or other such, and were manufacturing many appliances for the civilian market. It was not necessary a Soviet-era idea – Polish pre-war State Armaments Works concern was operating the Fabryka Broni in Radom and Fabryka Karabinów in Warsaw (Weapons Factory and Rifle Factory) which were manufacturing also bicycles (FB) and typewriters (FK). After WW2 only Radom stayed in business, and was making typewriters, sewing machines etc. The ammunition factories were making auto caravans (Niewiadow, a missile and rocket factory), gas kitchens and land mowers (Mesko ammunition factory).
      But that was also not a brand new idea – Singer was making sewing machines and 1911s (for a short while – the US Switch & Signals took over, a railroad equipment company), while Remington was aside from guns one of the leading typewriter manufacturer. Polish proverb says that the “cat could not survive on one mousehole alone” – and so it is for an arms manufacturer. You can’t have wars every week, so in order to survive you have to diversify.

      • And talking of the tractors – Czech Zetor company was a postwar development of the Zbrojovka Brno, where ZB 26, ZB 53, ZB 60, or Bren and Besa in both calibers (7.9 and 15 mm) originated.

      • Quite a lineup of “versatile appliance” makers. For one, Husquarna is back to motorcycles production and doing pretty well; they are coupled with KTM of Austria.

      • The list is endless really because so many metalworking and automotive companies throughout the 20th century were contracted to manufacture parts for guns. I would add the Danish company Junker & Ruh to that list, who made sewing machines before the war before they were contracted by the SS to manufacture the Bergmann MP 35/I submachine gun.

        I believe George Patchett, the designer of the Sterling gun, actually got introduced to firearms design while working at Janacek in the 1930s (he was a motorcycle engineer originally). When the war broke out and he fled back to Britain, he managed to bring a bunch of Janacek prototype guns back with him, which are still in the UK to this day – I saw two of their experimental self-loading rifles a while back.

  3. In the sixties I shot an M1 Garand in a rifle club in Wyoming. It was WWII surplus, made by Singer Sewing Machine Company. At least that’s what my aged memory tells me. It worked just fine. I could shoot six inch groups off a bench at 200 yards with the aperture sight.

    • If it was Singer, it was an M1 carbine. M1 rifles were made by Springfield, Winchester, Harrington and Richardson and International Harvester

    • I’ve never heard of Singer manufacturing M1’s, But they did manufacture M1911A1’s. In the world of collecting M1911’s the Singers are considered very valuable. They are valuable because of quality and rarity. They only made a few thousand pistols before the war department switched their production to the Norden bomb sight because the quality was too high.

  4. Based on my own experience I can confirm that to initiate a production of new firearm in facility, albeit set up for it, is an uneasy affair. It is connected with so-called “learning curve” which entails in a significant amount of waste and frustration.

    How typewriter company made carbines is beyond my imagination. Just consider type of material, type of part production (machining instead of stamping), different treatments and finishes. A monumental task to be sure.

    But also consider that this kind of efforts were not just on NA continent. The same was going on in Soviet Union and in areas under German Reich control. They were perhaps by far not as developed industrially and the US or Canada.

    • “(…)same was going on in Soviet Union(…)”
      PPS was not produced in plants belonging to НКВ (People’s Commissariat of Armaments) due to political reasons. It was produced in plants belonging to НКСС (… of Machine-building) and НКСП (… of Ship-building) and НКПС (… of Routes de facto Railways), for more details see

    • Shooting a firearm is one thing, but would you be comfortable flying a Goodyear Corsair, GM Avenger or a Ford B-24 Liberator.
      My understanding is the Liberator was one of the highest production US warplanes, but Ford quality control was lacking and the basic design wasn’t as well regarded as the B-17.
      B-17=colt or S&W
      The US Navy version of the Liberator was the Privateer, had extensive design changes and was apparently well-regarded.

        • The main B-24 Liberator line was moved to Ford’s famous “L-shaped” plant at Willow Run PA starting with B-24H production. Most B-24Hs and all B-24Js were built there, which freed up the CA plant to produce the PB4Y-2 Privateer for the U.S. Navy.

          Unlike the USAAF, the USN aircraft designation system told who built what. The last letter in the three-letter group (with or without a number between it and the second) designated the manufacturer. As here;

          TBF-1; Torpedo Bomber,type 1 (Avenger) built by Grumman (F)
          TBM-1; Same aircraft built by General Motors (M)
          F4U-3; Fighter, 4th type, 3rd subvariant (Corsair) built by Vought (U)
          FG-1; Same aircraft built by Goodyear (G)
          F4F-4; Fighter, 4th type, 4th subvariant (Wildcat) built by Grumman (F)
          FM-1; Same aircraft, built by General Motors (M)

          The Navy system was dumped with the 1962 introduction of the “universal” system, courtesy of SecDef (and former Ford CEO) Robert McNamara. Under it, the Douglas F3D-2 SkyKnight night and all weather fighter (Fighter, 3rd type, 2nd subvariant, D for Douglas) became the F-10D. And the F8U-3 Crusader (Fighter, 8th type, 3rd subvariant, U for Vought) became the F-8E.

          In each case, to this day, nobody is exactly sure why.

          The Navy system actually told you pretty much everything you needed to know about the aircraft at a glance; type, number of that type it was in that manufacturer’s series, manufacturer, and subvariant within that model. By comparison, the USAAF/USAF system doesn’t tell you much beyond basic type and if it’s a variant.

          BTW, to the Navy, the B-24 was the PB2Y. The PBY was the Catalina flying boat. The USAAF called the PBY-5A (5th subvariant, Amphibian) the OA-10.

          Nobody has ever explained that one, either.



        • The F2G was the Super Corsair, which had the R4360 engine. Only 12 of those were built. The Goodyear-built version of the Vought F4U Corsair, with the R2800 engine, was called FG-1.

  5. I looked for several years to find my ideal war year 1911, an original and correct ’44 Union Switch with provenance. I love the examples of other industrial companies jumping into service to provide arms during the era.

  6. And amazing feats as an auto company turning out ‘ready ta roll’ B-24 Bombers at the rate of One Every Hour… no way the Krauts could shoot um down faster’n we could shove um out the door…

    And not jes the main companies involved, but all the small sub-contractors who, in some cases did the bulk of the production…

    As Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor would reportedly write in his diary… “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”… The Admiral actually writing those words is debatable, however, there’s no doubt that the attack did awaken a sleeping giant, and such a quote woulda been appropriate especially given his knowledge of America’s capabilities… may not ah said it, but you can bet he was thinking it…

    As for companies, specifically IHC & H&R for M1 Garand production during Korean Conflict period it was done to spread out arms production facilities to protect from attack as much as Springfield not being able to make the quotas…


    • “(…)One Every Hour(…)”
      This reminded me one 1942 cartoon

      “(…)B-24 Bombers(…)”
      Historical tidbit: William S. Knudsen was upgraded immediately to 3-star general as former manager of Ford Motor Company so he could use his experience to increase production of aeroplanes
      As he had not any military rank beforehand this is probable quickest advancement during World War II.

      “(…)Admiral Yamamoto(…)words is debatable(…)”
      According to in September 1940 he informed Tokyo high command that …in the first six months to a year of war against the United States and England, I will run wild, and I will show you an uninterrupted succession of victories; but I must tell you that, should the war be prolonged for two or three years, I have no confidence in our ultimate victory.

      • The absurdity of Yamamoto’s situation was, the US wasn’t hiding the size of the navy it was going to build regardless of what Japan did. Congress went and told everyone in 1940 that it was going to build a new fleet that would dwarf anything Yamamoto could destroy in 1941-2. Yet his masters had decreed that Americans were cowards and would respond to said destruction by suing for peace. Maybe those leaders had actually seen the 1940 Fleet Program and convinced themselves they could terrorize America out of completing it, against the logic of both bureaucratic inertia and popular anger. Otherwise I can’t explain it.

        Once we had those ships, we were going to use them. We lost most of what we had in the carrier battles and the Guadalcanal disasters of 1942. It was as if an entirely new navy – with radar, working torpedoes and better planes – showed up in 1943 and in a matter of months overwhelmed the Imperial fleet.

        • Feddon, the man who was the movrr and shaker in Bristol aero engines…

          Got fired by the Bristol board directors in the middle of the second world war

          He was given several jobs by the government, one, was to report on allied aircraft manufacturing.

          He was very careful about who was allowed to type which parts of the report and code numbered each page of each report, so that if a copy was leaked, he’d know who leaked it.

          After the war, he visited his old contacts in the German aero engine manufacturers

          One told him that they had been open minded or even optimistic about how the war was going, but when they received a copy of his report, they knew that the war could not be won, and their motivation at work dropped off.

          Feddon was furious that his report had been leaked

          The leak was almost certainly an act of psychological warfare, and it’s effect was the opposite of the leaking of the morganthau plan

  7. When I retired from the Army, I went to work for IBM in Finance in Poughkeepsie, New York. The plant’s original products were M1 carbines and M1918A2 BAR’s. IBM’s major products at the time was electro-mechanical tabulating machines and card sorters, which made it well experienced in precision manufacturing. After WW2, the plant became the center of IBM’s computer manufacturing.

    • Fun fact;

      International Business Machines was founded in 1896 under the name Tabulating Machines Inc. One of the two men who started it was Herman Hollerith, who designed and built the world’s first electrically-operated “punch-card” tabulating system for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890. (Punch cards had been used in automatic looms for almost a century by that time.)

      It became Business Machines Inc. in 1912, because by then they also made adding machines and typewriters. “International” was added in 1921, shortly before the death of Hollerith’s partner, who designed much of the machinery used to manufacture their products.

      The partner?

      Christopher Miner Spencer (1833-1922), of Spencer repeating rifle fame during the American Civil War. At his death, Spencer held over 200 patents in his own name, mostly in fields other than firearms, including internal combustion engines and electrical generation.

      At age 80, he got his pilot’s license. His instructor? Orville Wright.

      A true polymath, and maybe America’s last genuine “savant”.



  8. Actual manufacture of weapons isn’t all that hard; almost anyone who does serial manufacture of complex mechanical devices can do it.

    Where the rub is when you expect people who don’t know squat about the esoterics of weapons design to somehow magically produce decent, functional weapons out of the clear ether. That’s how things like the SA-80 happen… Which isn’t, perhaps, the best example because it was supposedly the experienced people at Royal Ordnance who did that, but in actual fact, they’d pretty much shed all their small arms experts and experienced people in the process of designing the SA-80. Which in and of itself is a salutary lesson on the issue…

    Production is one thing. Design, entirely another.

    • “Actual manufacture of weapons isn’t all that hard; almost anyone who does serial manufacture of complex mechanical devices can do it.”
      Alternatively you might design weapon for being easy to made, for which prime example is FP-45 Liberator which was procured by Guide Lamp (named so as they produced headlights for automobiles).

  9. Before motorsickles, BSA was known for its bicycles. I think this tale comes from an Ian Hogg book. Supposedly when Isaac Newton Lewis went looking for a manufacturer for his machine gun, he secured an agreement with BSA. When BSA approached the War Office with an offer to build Lewis Guns early in the war, they were rebuffed. “Don’t be silly, you make bicycles” BSA replied that the while hey traded under the “BSA” brand name, the name of the firm was Birmingham Small Arms. They got the contract.

  10. I think I would have to differ about the whole Springfield Arsenal “thing” Ian states.

    By the time it was shut down, Springfield Arsenal was not what it once was. They were key and essential to the entire 7.62 NATO fiasco, along with the M14. They were also responsible for the M60, the M73, the M219, the M85, and a whole litany of technical horror that left the American military in possession of the worst set of machine guns in the entire world. Then, there was the entire SPIW debacle that wasted millions of dollars chasing an entirely delusional small arms concept that’s never, ever worked out in practice (Korea’s K-11, anyone? XM-25 and its OICW predecessor?), and then the way they handled the fielding of the M16.

    No, Springfield Arsenal was not what it was, by the time it was shut down. Personally, looking at the track record they ran up post-WWII and reflecting on the fact that Garand was a dishonored prophet in his own land, well… Yeah. They should have been shut down earlier, in my humble opinion. Frankly, if I’d have been the officer they first handed the M60 off to, with all of its innumerable flaws in design? I’d have done then and there, firing everyone involved and shutting the place down.

    Springfield Arsenal once did good work. By the time you hit the post-WWII era, however? Arrogant, incompetent bureaucrats more concerned with protecting their careers and pet projects, not arming the American military with even vaguely functional weapons.

    Don’t forget… It was Springfield that said the M14 could be produced on M1 machinery, something that led to the Army finally bringing in the military’s number-one troubleshooter when it came to manufacture: TRW. Who promptly built an entirely new production line, and finally got the serial production of the M14 going. Just in time to lose their shirts because the Army decided the M14 wasn’t “it”, and going to the M16…

    • Not to mention the plethora of companies already building ARs and / or fully, handyman-level-interchangeable parts without “benefit” of federal bureaucratic coordination.

    • It seems the rot had set in as early as Springfield Armory’s work analyzing captured German weapons and failing to understand their point. They built a copy of the MG42 in .30-06 but failed to adjust the receiver for the slightly longer round. And of course tried to slow the rate of fire way down, resulting in a mess.

      So was the problem already in place before, say, 1944? Was Springfield already captured by blind adherence to doctrine?

      • I’m not convinced it was actually the SPRINGFIELD problem, but the ARMY problem, because it was the Ordnance Dept that shaped the activities of the SA, and ordered all of the horrors you were discussing, gentlemen. And many more that never seen the light of day, fortunately.

        • I’d say it was interlocking; the civilian management at Springfield and the military “professionals” who oversaw the whole thing. There is also the Congressional oversight aspect–None of the problems with Springfield happened in a vacuum, other than that of anyone really paying attention to what was going on there.

  11. Engines must be made with great precision! However small machine shops as were used to make some of the Johnson rifle and LMGs during WW2 were often not very precise!!

    • How “precise” the machining on an engine needs to be sort of depends on what kind of engine and what the operating stress parameters are.

      Early steam engines, like the one developed by Thomas Newcomen, had tolerances loose enough to scare the Hell out of any sane engineer on the Santa Fe railroad two centuries later.

      When James Watt was developing his improvement on the Newcomen engine (with the separate condenser cylinder), he turned to the ordnance industry for the technology to bore his cylinders, rather than make them from rolled and riveted sheet iron as Newcomen did.

      He was pleased that the bored-out iron casting’s bore did not vary more than “the thickness of an old shilling”.

      No, I don’t know how much that is in micrometers. And Watt didn’t either.

      He just knew that it was “close enough”.



      • I’m not sure about newcommen engines having riveted cylinders

        Even within the first twenty to be erected, at least one had a cast brass cylinder

        Brass cylinders for Newcommen engines became a speciality of Newcastle’s engine builders.

        Watt, did indeed require greater precision for his cylinders, not least because his engine was double acting, therefore the leather washer and water in the top of the cylinder, could no longer be used

        • Newcomen’s engine needed a water seal on top of the piston because it condensed the steam with a jet of cold water with every stroke. This created a partial vacuum above the piston that “pulled” the piston upward, creating the “power stroke”.

          Watt reversed the process. He added the second condensor cylinder to bleed off the steam through a one-way valve after it had reached full head and “pushed” the piston down very hard to create the power stroke.

          He then jacketed the piston cylinder in a water jacket that was kept just below boiling at all times so it stayed hot.

          This meant that the piston cylinder was not having to be cooled down with every stroke, and the expansion of the steam from the boiler was doing the work, rather than a suddenly-induced partial vacuum. The exact opposite of the Newcomen cycle, and capable of much greater power.

          The whole thing is explained in detail in Chapter 6 of Connections by James Burke (1978) complete with diagrams.



  12. From a Canadian perspective John Inglis Company got their start building equipment for grist mills, then steam turbines for the Royal Canadian Navy. During World War 2, Inglis shifted production to Bren guns, Browning 9mm pistols and Polsten 20mm cannons (simplified Oerlicons).
    Meanwhile Montreal Locomotive Works were building Valentine tanks, Ram tanks, M4 Grizzly tanks and Sexton SP guns.

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