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Friday, July 24, 2015

Arsenal of Innovation - Part II

Our previous article on the Rock Island Arsenal covered a portion of the goods produced by the industrious island.  I began writing it as a small summary piece, but it quickly blossomed as the full scope of the arsenal's production came to light.  What I started became the first installment and only covered up through the 19th century.  Thankfully, there's still a lot of fun stuff to cover as we look at the goods produced in the 20th century and beyond.

Documented Historic Brigadier General Issued Rock Island Arsenal M15 General Officer's Pistol with Paperwork, Display Case, General Officer's Belt, Holsters and Spare Magazine,
SOLD: $9,200

We ended the first article in 1885 when the arsenal had started up their jewelry department.  This turns out to be a remarkably appropriate place to break as it nearly marks the end of tenure for Lieutenant Colonel Daniel W. Flagler on the island.  To briefly recap, General Rodman, the "Father of the Arsenal," had planned the arsenal and begun to shape it when he passed away, in part to his long hours and tremendous work ethic, and the job passed to Flagler,  who completed Rodman's vision admirably.  Flagler's term ended on April of 1886 and the remarkable building and expansion that had taken place at the arsenal slowed to all but a halt with a few notable exceptions: a new concrete dam was built in 1896 and the conversion from Teledynamic power to hydroelectricity began in 1899.

With production for the Spanish-American War going full speed at that time, it's a wonder that the conversion was made at all, and it might not have been for several more years had the existing power house with its wooden frame not caught fire.  Knowing that teledynamic power had its limitations and "bugs" (jammed cables, broken cables, slacken cables, etc), the Army made the easy choice to move forward with the new power source.

Fine Pre-World War I U.S. Rock Island Arsenal Model 1903 Bolt Action Rifle with Sling
SOLD: $3,162

1898 - 1903, Spanish-American War Production

Humor me with a brief timeline.

March 9, 1898: Urgent telegram sent to Rock Island Arsenal from Chief of Ordnance that read, "work (should) be pushed (at RIA) on all existing orders as rapidly as possible, and extra shifts of workmen (should) be employed." 

March 26, 1898: RIA receives orders to produce 25,000 complete infantry kits.  Within a fort night, the commander at the arsenal was sent a message to, "press work on all field gun and siege gun carriages as rapidly as possible, employing extra shifts of men as far as economical."

April 21, 1898:  Rock Island Arsenal is ordered to increase infantry kits to 75,000 and begin manufacture of 10,000 units of horse equipment.

April 25, 1898:  U.S. declares war on Spain, but makes it retroactive to April 22.

You can imagine the rapid growth required to meet such a gargantuan increase in demand.  Departments began working day and night, new orders were coming in almost weekly, and eventually much work was contracted out to private companies.  Infantry kits, horse kits, carriages, and more were all produced at the Rock Island Arsenal.  Even as early as July of that year, there were 46 private contractors completing orders for RIA and 131 more producing the material needed to complete the orders such as cotton webbing, duck material, tin plate, brass wire and brass sheet, rope, leather, steel, iron, wood, and canvas.  Originally having only around 500 employees of men and boys, many of whom were temporary, employment boomed on the island and by its peak in August, RIA employed 2,900 and was turning out 6,000 infantry kits, completed 7,000 bayonet scabbards, and repaired 600 rifles per day.  One line from "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island, Part II," (which this article depends on heavily for its thorough research) says it best, "The RIA literally equipped the American soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War."

Perhaps even more impressive is the Arsenal had not even come close to tapping its potential.  Of the ten stone shops constructed on the island, only one and a half housed machines for manufacture.  It wouldn't be until the Great War that the full power of the Rock Island Arsenal would be unleashed.

Utensils and meat can produced by RIA.

From 1902 to 1910, RIA was the sole manufacturer of the Army's utensils.
Shown bottom right are a set of M1910 utensils

This canteen resembles the Sovereign's Orb of the United Kingdom.

1899, Small Arms Production

Rock Island Arsenal had been refurbishing arms for the U.S. Army since 1865, mostly Springfield Trapdoor rifles.  

Springfield Model 1862 rifled musket

Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor Carbine

However, the superior performance of the island during the emergency production increase of the Spanish-American War earned it a new mission: build a new rifle to replace the outdated Krag-Jørgensen.  Due to the Army's delays in the testing and selection process, that mission would wait until December of 1904 when the arsenal would finally begin producing the Springfield M1903 bolt action rifle.  However, production of the classic bolt-action on the island would be ceased in 1913 due to government budget cuts.  When the need for these rifles rose again in 1917, the arsenal no longer had the necessary number of skilled workers required who still remembered how to make the rifle, so manufacture of the M1906 took priority at RIA while the M1903 was largely contracted out to private makers.

They even chose to display a rare M1903 with a rod bayonet

1903 - Present, Artillery and Carriages

As mentioned earlier, the Spanish-American War pushed RIA head first into mobile field artillery.  They were producing field carriages, limbers, caissons, battery wagons, and, carriages for siege guns.  Basically, if a large piece of firepower needed to be moved, RIA likely had a hand in its transportation.  Even after the Spanish-American War ended, the arsenal couldn't take a break.  Changing technologies, mainly from horse drawn to self-propelled vehicles, meant that new carriage designs were needed, and now that the war had shown the arsenal the kind of demand that could quickly arise, efforts were also taken to upgrade machinery and enhance automation.

Rock Island Arsenal Field Piece Manufacture, public domain.  Available from the United States Library of Congress
As mentioned in the first RIA article, carriages have always been a big deal for the arsenal and remain so to this day.  While none of the actual carriages or artillery pieces were on display at the Putnam, they did have many models showcasing the island's many products, which will be shown later in this article.

One of the more impressive things ever produced at the arsenal is the Mark VIII Tank.  Even after the November 11 Armistice, RIA received an order for 100 of the behemoths. Then the peak of technology, they could hold eight men and it only took the arsenal 286 days to complete once all the parts had been standardized properly.  The image below is the result of several photos of a single large panorama in the exhibit which reads, "Shipment of 34 Mark VIII Tanks from Rock Island Arsenal to Camp Meade, MD, May 21, 1920."

As time went on they would go on to produce any number of carriages and mobile artillery pieces, constantly evolving with the technology and the changing conflicts.  Here are some examples that were on display, though they are far from exhaustive on the topic.

M2 Tanks in production in Shop M, Building 220.  Note the tiny 37mm barrels.

The device shown in the photo above is reminiscent of the water rockets one would "launch" as a child, but this one enjoys a slightly larger effect.  What you see is the "Davy Crockett," the smallest nuclear weapons system ever built.  Devised prior to the peak of the Cold War this recoilless rifle was essentially a nuclear bazooka (or "ba-nuka" as I like to say) made to halt the Russians in the event they invaded West Germany.  Its M388 round held a W-54 warhead and was 11 inches in diameter, weighing 51 lbs; designed to be carried by a single soldier and roughly three times more powerful than the explosion of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.  Range was a scant 2 - 2.5 miles, so firing into the wind was inadvisable at best.  Anything within a quarter mile of the explosion would almost certainly die, but the radioactivity created would also stay any advancing troops giving the U.S. and NATO forces a chance to act.  Fired in several tests, the 2,100 produced were never used in combat before being stockpiled and eventually decommissioned in 1971.  Only the non-nuclear components were manufactured at the RIA.  This "mini-nuke" was definitely King of the Wild Frontier.

Besides manufacture, RIA also has performed a lot of research and development for the Army, coming up with many innovative ideas along the way.  This "Soft Recoil 105mm Howitzer" was designed for fighting in Vietnam where the marshy ground could cause problems for traditional Howitzer carriages.  Photo is dated "30 June 65" in the bottom right corner.

Looking like a very angry tank, this concept of a self-propelled howitzer shows yet another way that RIA has kept up with technology and the ever-changing demands of the Army.  Photo is dated "15 Mar 66."

These are actual models of proposed weapons that were paired with conceptual drawings as a very real part of the weapons development process.  They may look like toys now, but they were once part of some deadly serious business.

More models designed at the arsenal.

1905, Arsenal Museum is Formed

This fact wasn't so much mentioned in the exhibit, but when you're surrounded with items from the Rock Island Arsenal Military Museum, it seems silly not to list it.  Founded appropriately on the 4th of July that year, it is the Army's second oldest museum, younger only than the one found at West Point Academy.  Please read more about their origin and ever increasing role to preserve the arsenal's history at their webpage.  The small arms collection there is nationally renowned.

This portion of the RIA small arms collection was NOT on display at the Putnam

1918 - Present, John Deere

John Deere, headquartered in neighboring Moline, IL, has always been a valued contributor to the U.S. armed forces.  In WWI, over 1,000 of their employees served, and in WWII they added to the production effort, making military tractors, transmissions for tanks, ammunition, airplane parts, engine components, and even mobile laundry units.  Today, their contribution lies mostly in producing M-Gators, versions of their popular 6-wheeled "Gator" ATVs that have been converted to carrying the wounded.  The one shown in the exhibit is the first production model ever assembled, and of course, it was done at the nearby Rock Island Arsenal.

Current Production

The caption provided at the museum reads, "Today's Arsenal is characterized by public/private partnerships.  The Mandus Group, one of these partners, manufactures the Hawkeye Weapon System, a modular lightweight howitzer that can be mounted on a variety of vehicles, even a pick-up truck."

Unfortunately, I don't know if that means the item was designed or actually fabricated at RIA or Mandus.

The arsenal also takes on many projects revolving around HMMWVs (Humvees).  On display was an armored door they currently manufacture next to a non-armored door.  Shutting and knocking on these doors makes it instantly clear which door one would rather have in combat.

They also work with the National Guard to produce Humvee Ambulances to maximize storage capacity, increase interior door size, and also improve lighting and ventilation.  Signs in the museum indicate that these "new ambulances are being built in the exact same shop that put out the familiar Jeep ambulances of 50 years ago."

In addition to ambulances, RIA is also producing other specialized modifications for Humvees.  Soldiers aren't the only ones who might need attention in the field.  If a hydraulic system suffers a malfunction in the field, the Hydraulic System Test and Repair Unit (HSTRU) is certain to come in handy.  It's another co-venture with MandusGroup, who is also responsible for the image below.

Much in the same way that RIA built its own forges and made giant leaps ahead in self-sufficiency during the 1800s, the Arsenal is again embracing that same spirit in 3D printing. They are currently partnering with the Quad City Manufacturing Laboratory (QCML) to access cutting edge technology in order to more sucecssfully complete their mission.  Innovation comes much more quickly when parts for prototypes or repairs can be quickly printed on site... in metal.  General Rodman would have given up Quarters One for such advances.

This cube is a "demonstration component for a nuclear reactor" and is made from stainless steel
for a project with Lockheed-Martin.

This impeller is printed from titanium alloy.

I wish I could say, "that covers it," but these two articles on the Rock Island Arsenal in no way begin to cover the goods that have been produced on its 946 acres.  You'll notice that the products from the Great War and World War II were all but omitted.  Those goods tend to be a bit more well-known to collectors due to the massive scope of those conflicts.  The exhibit at the Putnam Museum chose instead to focus on goods that would be decidedly less familiar to enthusiasts of military history and the arsenal.  Besides, it's really hard to fit an M2 tank on the second story of a museum.

Thanks to both the Putnam Museum and the Rock Island Arsenal Museum for collaborating to put together such an informative, in-depth, and educational exhibit on this local and national treasure. There is no doubt RIA will continue its relevance, contributions and innovation in the centuries to come.

"M2A2 Terra Star 105mm Auxiliary Propelled Howitzer front quarter" by Jon.jeckell - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On display at the outdoor RIA artillery collection, this M2A2 Terra Star, is known
to be the only surviving prototype.

-Written by Joel Kolander


Lepore, Herbery P., "Rock Island Arsenal: An Arsenal for Democracy, 50th Anniversary of WWII"  Historical Office,

Slattery, Thomas J., "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal Island, Part Two" Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, 1989

Wallace, Lisa, "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island, Part Three" History Office, U.S. Army Sustainment Command

Display information at "An Arsenal of Innovation," Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA


  1. Excellent information/pics, enjoyed it very much!

  2. Hi!

    Do you have more information about Soft Recoil 105mm Howitzer for fighting in Vietnam?

    1. I do not, but the people at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum are extremely helpful and willing to email resources. I recommend contacting them at their General Inquiries line. 309-782-5021