Captain John H. Hall

Captain John H. Hall

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John Harris Hall was the inventor of the M1819 Hall
M1819 Hall rifle
The M1819 Hall rifle was a single-shot breech loading rifle designed by John Harris Hall, patented on May 21, 1811, and adopted by the U.S. Army in 1819. It used a pivoting chamber breech design and was made with either flint-lock or percussion cap ignition systems. The main years of production...

 breech-loading rifle
Breech-loading weapon
A breech-loading weapon is a firearm in which the cartridge or shell is inserted or loaded into a chamber integral to the rear portion of a barrel....

, and a mass production
Mass production
Mass production is the production of large amounts of standardized products, including and especially on assembly lines...


Early life

Hall was born in 1781 in Portland, Maine
Portland, Maine
Portland is the largest city in Maine and is the county seat of Cumberland County. The 2010 city population was 66,194, growing 3 percent since the census of 2000...

. He worked in his father's tannery
Tanning is the making of leather from the skins of animals which does not easily decompose. Traditionally, tanning used tannin, an acidic chemical compound from which the tanning process draws its name . Coloring may occur during tanning...

 until setting up his own woodworking
Woodworking is the process of building, making or carving something using wood.-History:Along with stone, mud, and animal parts, wood was one of the first materials worked by early humans. Microwear analysis of the Mousterian stone tools used by the Neanderthals show that many were used to work wood...

 and boat building
Boat building
Boat building, one of the oldest branches of engineering, is concerned with constructing the hulls of boats and, for sailboats, the masts, spars and rigging.-Parts:* Bow - the front and generally sharp end of the hull...

 shop in 1810 where he tinkered with gun
A gun is a muzzle or breech-loaded projectile-firing weapon. There are various definitions depending on the nation and branch of service. A "gun" may be distinguished from other firearms in being a crew-served weapon such as a howitzer or mortar, as opposed to a small arm like a rifle or pistol,...

s in his spare time. He had taken an interest in firearms during militia service and focused on increasing the rapidity of loading.


On May 21, 1811, Hall patented a single shot, breech-loading rifle in collusion with Washington, D.C. architect, Dr. William Thornton
William Thornton
Dr. William Thornton was a British-American physician, inventor, painter and architect who designed the United States Capitol, an authentic polymath...

. He began manufacturing his new rifles at the rate of 50 per year until the Ordnance Corps (United States Army) ordered 200 rifles in December 1814. He regretfully turned down the contract because he was unable to meet the Army delivery deadline of 1815. Hall recognized individually fitted parts as the factor slowing rifle production, and adapted his breech-loading design to the “uniformity principle,” widely known as interchangeable parts
Interchangeable parts
Interchangeable parts are parts that are, for practical purposes, identical. They are made to specifications that ensure that they are so nearly identical that they will fit into any device of the same type. One such part can freely replace another, without any custom fitting...

. Hall proposed the concept of interchangeable parts to the Army in June, 1816, and earned a contract for 1,000 of the "Model of 1819" Hall rifles from the War Department with interchangeable parts being the chief condition. To fulfill it, Hall spent more than five years (and $150,000 of government funds) at Harpers Ferry Arsenal, where he occupied an old sawmill on a small island in the Shenandoah River
Shenandoah River
The Shenandoah River is a tributary of the Potomac River, long with two forks approximately long each, in the U.S. states of Virginia and West Virginia...

 called Virginius Island
Virginius Island
Virginius Island is an island on the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The island is formed by the Shenandoah Canal, constructed by the Patowmack Company between 1806 and 1807, which separates it from the town of Harpers Ferry...


Hall's methods were novel for the time period. Hall transferred water power through a system of leather belts and pulleys to power his machines with unusual pace, greater than 3,000 revolutions per minute with efficiency, while most artisans used hand cutters and files. Like his contemporary Simeon North
Simeon North
Simeon North was a Middletown, Connecticut, gun manufacturer, who developed one of America's first milling machines in 1818 and played an important role in the development of interchangeable parts manufacturing.North was born in Berlin, Connecticut, into a prosperous family able to provide all...

, Hall began using this mill power to run machine tools and achieve the dimensions necessary for interchangeable parts. He employed metal-cutting machines attached with cutters and saws in the place of the standard heavy labor, made from cast-iron frames to ensure structural integrity and minimize vibrations from the mill’s belts. These machine-cut surfaces would then be hand filed to ensure fit and interchangeability, verified by a gauging system Hall had designed.

M1819 Hall rifles

Hall's contract for 1,000 rifles was completed in 1825. When a three-man committee deployed by the US Ordnance Department to verify Hall’s process in fulfilling his rifle contract visited Harpers Ferry, they were floored by his results, and especially the machines. They lauded Hall’s “system, in the manufacture of small arms, [as] entirely novel,” and one which could yield “the most beneficial results to the Country, especially, if carried into effect on a large scale”.

A trial was devised to test the rate of fire of Hall's breech-loading rifles in comparison to muzzle loading rifles and Army-issue muzzle loading muskets. A company of 38 men were given 10 minutes to load and fire at targets 100 yards distant. The company scored 164 hits (33% of the 464 shots fired) with conventional muzzle-loading rifles, and 208 hits (25% of the 845 shots fired) with the faster loading, but less accurate, army-issue smooth-bore muskets, in comparison to 430 hits (36% of the 1198 shots fired) with Hall's rifles.

Hall's rifle works design worked so well as to undergo minimal change through the end of the Model 1819’s run in 1853. By 1842, 23,500 rifles and 13,682 Hall-North carbines had been produced, most at Harper's ferry, earning Hall nearly $40,000 in royalty and patent-licensing fees. Despite a significant increase in rate of fire over muzzle-loading rifles and muskets, Hall's rifle design suffered from a gas leak around the interface of the removable chamber and the bore, resulting in the necessity of a heavier powder charge that still produced much less muzzle velocity than its muzzle-loading competition. No serious efforts were made to develop a seal to reduce the loss of gas from the breech. The penetrating ability of its .52-caliber ball for the rifle was only one-third of that of the muzzle-loaders, and the muzzle velocity of the carbine was 25 percent lower than that of the Jenks carbine despite having similar barrel lengths and identical 70-grain powder charges.


Hall's cutting machines were designed for simplicity, to the point that “activity [was] more necessary than judgment” and young boys or “common hands” could successfully run them. They both “functioned without any manual guidance but evidently ceased operation once the workpiece had been finished,” allowing the worker to operate several at once. Hall himself even claimed “one boy by the aid of these machines can perform more work than ten men with files, in the same time, and with greater accuracy”.

Hall's innovations in construction, tools, controls, stops, and gauges all were advances in milling iron and machine tools. Together with Simeon North and other Armorers, Hall contributed to the adoption of interchangeable parts and the American System
American System
The term American System can mean one of the following:* American system of manufacturing, for a system of manufacturing developed in America.* American System , for the program of Henry Clay and the Whig Party....

 as a whole.

Hall worked at Harper's Ferry until 1840; and died February 26, 1841, in Moberly, Missouri
Moberly, Missouri
Moberly is a city in Randolph County, Missouri, United States. According to the 2008 census bureau estimate, the population was 14,227. The city was incorporated 1868. The Moberly Micropolitan Statistical Area consists of Randolph County....

. The men who had learned Hall's methods of interchangeable parts while working at Harper's Ferry went on to apply those methods to production of shoes, watches, clocks, bicycles, clothing, rubber goods, and, later, automobiles. Hall's methods transformed the United States from an economy of workshop craftsmen to a nation of industrialized mass production.

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