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The History of Ordnance in America

On 14 May, one of the Army’s oldest branches celebrates 200 years of service to the Nation.

The Ordnance branch is one of the oldest branches of the Army, established 200 years ago. However, the duties and responsibilities of the Ordnance profession date back to 1629, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony appointed Samuel Sharpe as the first Master Gunner of Ordnance.

Just 16 years later, in 1645, Massachusetts Bay had a permanent Surveyor of Ordnance. His responsibilities were to deliver powder and ammunition to selected towns, recover weapons from militia members, receive payment from those who lost weapons, and provide periodic reports to government officials to guide the purchase of firearms, powder, and shot. Although each
colony developed a militia system in which members were required to provide their own weapons and an initial amount of gunpowder and shot, colonial Ordnance officials furnished the depth of logistics support needed for any type of sustained operations.

Schooling for Ordnance officers and enlisted personnel was consolidated in 1940 in The Ordnance School at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland (shown in 1941). Aberdeen was the center of the Ordnance branch for 68 years, until 2008.

The Revolutionary War established the general outlines of the future U.S. Army Ordnance Department. General George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, appointed Ezekiel Cheever, a civilian, to provide ordnance support to his army in the field in July 1775. By mid-1779, all the field armies had Ordnance personnel moving with them. These men, civilians and Soldiers, served as conductors of a traveling forge for maintenance, an ammunition wagon, and an arms chest. Each conductor led a section of five to six armorers who repaired small arms.

The Continental Congress’ Board for War and Ordnance created the Commissary General for Military Stores to establish and operate Ordnance facilities in an effort to alleviate the infant nation's dependence on foreign arms purchases. Colonel Benjamin Flower led the commissary from his appointment in January 1777 until his death in May 1781. Ordnance facilities were established at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, for the production of arms, powder, and

After the war, the sustainment elements were disbanded and the authority for procurement and provision of all things military was transferred to the Office of the Purveyor of Public Supplies, which was located in the Treasury Department.

The Early Republic
In the first half of the 19th century, the Ordnance Department played a crucial role in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and helped to establish the American System of Manufacturing. One of the most significant achievements was the establishment of Federal armories at Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1795 and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1798. Under congressional
legislation of 1794, each armory was staffed by a civilian superintendant and a master armorer.

The Federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, was established in 1795. Along
with a second armory established at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia),
in 1798, it served as a center of technological innovation in the young United States.

The two armories served as a nucleus for technological innovation in the young republic. Inventors such as Eli Whitney and Simeon North developed the methods and means for mass production through the use of interchangeable parts and refined technology in milling machinery.

By the dawn of the War of 1812, the Secretary of War recognized the need for a distinct branch to manage the procurement, research, and maintenance of ordnance materiel. Decius Wadsworth, previously superintendant of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, was appointed a colonel and given the title Commissary General of Ordnance (later changed to Chief of Ordnance). His ambition during the war years and afterward was to simplify and streamline Ordnance
materiel management. His staff worked to reduce the variety of small arms and artillery pieces to a few efficient models.

He also aimed to develop a cadre of highly trained Ordnance officers who could dedicate their inventive ingenuity to their profession. This effort created a tradition of technological innovation in the Ordnance Department and resulted in a generation of such "soldier-technologists" as Alfred Mordecai, George Bomford, Thomas J. Rodman, and John H. Hall. Indeed, assignment to the Ordnance branch was one of the most sought-after assignments for young officers graduating
from West Point.

In 1832, Congress authorized the rank of Ordnance sergeant. This rank filled the Army's need to have highly-trained and experienced Ordnance Soldiers at the increasing number of frontier posts and coastal defensive forts. To apply, a Soldier had to have at least 8 years of service, 4 of which had to be as a noncommissioned officer, and pass a series of examinations, including tests in mathematics and writing. The responsibilities of Ordnance sergeants included the maintenance of arms and ammunition at Army installations and the provision of those supplies to armies in the field. This rank continued until it was abolished in the Army Reorganization Act of 1920. Ten of the 15 Medal of Honor awardees in the history of the Ordnance Corps served as Ordnance sergeants during their enlistments.

Mexican War
The Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 provided the first real test of the Ordnance Department's
system of armories and arsenals. In 1841, there were 2 armories and 20 arsenals. These
facilities met the needs of the Army for equipment and supplies to support the multiple
campaigns of the Mexican War without difficulty. In view of this success, the system did not
undergo any major reorganization following the war.

In addition to its support role in the war, the Ordnance Department established the Rocket
and Howitzer Battery, the only unit in ordnance history raised specifically for combat duty.
The battery's 105 officers and enlisted men were the only ones with the experience to operate
the new M1841 12-pound howitzer and the latest Hale war rocket; these weapons were still
in the testing phase and had not been distributed to the Artillery branch for field use. The battery
suffered 6 killed and 22 wounded during the war.

At the close of the Mexican War, the Ordnance Department numbered 1 colonel, 1 lieutenant
colonel, 4 majors, 12 captains, 15 first lieutenants, and 10 second lieutenants, along with
several hundred enlisted personnel and approximately 1,000 civilians at the armories and arsenals.

Civil War
During the Civil War, the Ordnance Department was called on to arm and equip an army of
unprecedented size. It furnished 90 million pounds of lead, 13 million pounds of artillery projectiles,
and 26 million pounds of powder for a Union Army of 1 million Soldiers. To achieve these impressive results, the Ordnance Department's civilian staff increased from 1,000 to 9,000 by the war's end.

Women were sought after to work in the ammunition plants because of the contemporary perception that a woman's nimble and petite fingers worked better than a man's at assembling paper rifle cartridges. Consequently, when there was an explosion (such as at the Allegheny Arsenal in Pennsylvania in 1862 and at the Washington, D.C., Arsenal in 1864), the number of female fatalities
was very high. In the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, 78 civilian workers were killed and 71 of them were women.

Despite the massive expansion of the Army, the official staffing of the Ordnance Department remained small. At the peak of the war, the department numbered 64 officers and 600 enlisted men. Ordnance officers were assigned to divisions and above. For lower echelons, Ordnance responsibilities were tasked out to Soldiers who had previous training in smithing or some
other Ordnance-related skill. These Soldiers remained with their units, but they were provided a set of tools from the Ordnance Department. As a result, thousands of Soldiers were detailed to perform Ordnance duties during the war.

The 15-inch Rodman gun shown here was the Army's major coastal fortification
artillery piece during and after the Civil War. Rodman guns of this and other sizes were produced using innovative manufacturing methods developed by Army officer Thomas J. Rodman.

A few Ordnance officers accepted line commands, such as Major General Oliver O. Howard, who won the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, in 1862, and Major General Jesse Reno, who was killed at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, in September 1862. Most officers, however, remained in the Ordnance Department and rose in rank to serve as Ordnance officers for their commands, including the Army of the Potomac and other field armies.

As was common in other branches of the Army, a considerable number of Ordnance officers resigned
their commissions at the start of the war and joined the Confederate Army. (Interestingly, most enlisted Soldiers remained with the Union Army.) Captain Josiah Gorgas resigned his commission and received a major's commission in the Confederate Army on 8 April 1861. He was given charge of the new Confederate Ordnance Department based in Richmond, Virginia, and would rise to the rank of brigadier general by the end of the war. He is recognized as one of the most able administrators
in the Confederate Government because of his ability to marshal an impressive amount of materiel and distribute it to the Confederate Army.

It is interesting to note that it was widely anticipated that Alfred Mordecai, who was regarded as the most brilliant officer in the Ordnance Department, would quickly rise up the ranks of the Union Army. However, his family was devoted to the Confederacy, and he could not accept the possibility that he would be used against them. After his request for transfer to California was denied, he resigned his commission. The Confederacy offered him a position, but he denied that as well and spent the war years teaching mathematics at a private college in the North.

Spanish-American War
Between the Civil War and World War I, the Ordnance Department did not expand to any great extent. Modest improvements in the organization of the department and scientific research continued, but a lack of preparedness grew. A full-fledged proving ground was dedicated at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 1874, and a Federal cannon foundry was established at Watervliet Arsenal, New York, in 1887. With the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Ordnance Department
did not have the time to catch up to the swiftness of mobilization and had to "muscle through" its support issues.

A Federal cannon foundry was established at Watervliet Arsenal, New York, in 1887. This photo shows workers in 1895.

The department faced a problem similar to what it had faced in 1861: how to arm and equip all the Soldiers during such a sudden increase in size (approximately a tenfold increase). Regular Army troops were equipped with smokeless, bolt-action Krag-Jorgensen rifles, but most volunteer units had the single-shot, breechloading, black powder M1873 Springfield. In a report following the war, the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General Daniel W. Flagler urged that funds be allocated to establish an adequate stock of war reserve munitions, but his recommendations went unheeded. As a consequence, the United States would have even greater challenges mobilizing for the far greater scale of World War I.

World War I
Even though World War I had been raging in Europe for nearly 3 years, the Ordnance Department had to play catchup when the United States entered the conflict in April 1917. With only 97 officers and 1,241 enlisted Soldiers, the department had a myriad of problems to overcome: no system below the Office of the Chief of Ordnance to coordinate with industry, no plan for mobilizing industry, an inadequate proving ground, no system of echeloned maintenance, a lack of sufficient schooling for enlisted Soldiers, and only 6 armories and manufacturing arsenals at Watervliet; Springfield and Watertown, Massachusetts; Picatinny, New Jersey; Frankford, Pennsylvania; and Rock Island, Illinois.

As the war progressed, the department overcame the lag, matured as an organization, and adapted to modern warfare. By the end of the war, the Ordnance Department numbered 5,954 officers and 62,047 enlisted Soldiers, with 22,700 of those officers and Soldiers serving in the American Expeditionary Forces in France. The Ordnance Department established 13 Ordnance districts across the country that had the authority to deal directly with industry and award contracts. By the end of the war, almost 8,000 plants were working on Ordnance contracts.

To offset industry's reluctance to build new plants, the U.S. Government established a system of constructing the factories but contracting out their operation. By the war's end, 326 Government facilities were operating under the auspices of contractors. This practice would be employed even more successfully during World War II. A new proving ground was established at Aberdeen,
Maryland. Its construction began in November 1917, and by September 1918, 304 officers, 5,000 enlisted personnel, and 6,000 civilians were conducting tests on a wide range of munitions.

With the experience it gained from the Punitive Expedition in Mexico in 1916, the Ordnance Department established an embryonic system of echeloned maintenance. For major repairs, it set up a system of ordnance repair base shops in France. For maintenance support to the field, the Ordnance Department fielded the mobile ordnance repair shops and heavy artillery mobile ordnance
repair shops. These units moved with the division and provided a wide array of support to the line.

During World War I, the Ordnance Department fielded mobile Ordnance repair shops (like the 42d Infantry Division Mobile Ordnance Repair Shop shown here) and heavy artillery mobile Ordnance repair shops. These units moved with the division and provided a wide array of support to the line.

To train the new Ordnance Soldiers, the Ordnance Department established schools at a large number of locations, including universities, civilian factories, armories, arsenals, and field depots. Eventually, much of the training was consolidated at the Ordnance Training Camp at Camp Hancock, Georgia. By war's end, more than 55,000 officers and Soldiers had been trained at one of these locations, including the 6 Ordnance schools in France.

Interwar Years
The story of the Ordnance Department between World War I and World War II is filled with both good news and bad news. Decreased budgets following World War I limited the amount of money it spent on research; maintaining war reserves was considered a higher priority. In spite of this, several legendary weapons were developed, including the M1 Garand rifle and the 105-millimeter howitzer. Tank development, however, lagged significantly.

The development of the Ordnance school system was a success story during the interwar years. Schooling for Ordnance officers and enlisted personnel was streamlined during this period and consolidated by 1940 at Aberdeen Proving Ground in The Ordnance School, a single location where all ordnance education would occur. This location would be center of the soul of the Ordnance branch for the next 68 years.

The Ordnance branch gained its third core competency, bomb disposal (now called explosive ordnance disposal), which was added to its previous missions of ammunition handling and maintenance. The photo shows the new Bomb Disposal School at Aberdeen Proving Ground during World War II.

World War II
The Ordnance Department swelled exponentially in World War II and applied the lessons it had learned in World War I. The department was responsible for roughly half of all Army procurement during World War II, $34 billion dollars. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Arsenal of Democracy" depended on the Ordnance Department to become a reality.

In January 1944, the Ordnance Department accounted for 7 manufacturing arsenals, 7 proving grounds, 45 depots, and 77 Government-owned, contractor-operated plants and works. Of the 77, all but one focused on ammunition and explosives. This exception was the Detroit Tank Arsenal in Michigan. It was built in 8 months while engineers simultaneously designed a new medium tank, the M3. By the end of the war, the Detroit Tank Arsenal had built over 22,000 tanks, roughly 25 percent
of the country's tank production during the war. The arsenal continued to operate as the Detroit Army Tank Plant until 2001.

The Ordnance Department's strength during World War II increased from 334 to 24,000 officers, from
4,000 to 325,000 enlisted Soldiers, and from 27,088 to 262,000 civilians, all in an Army of approximately 8 million. Women Ordnance Workers (WOWs) accounted for approximately 85,000 of the civilian employees. Ordnance Soldiers and civilians worked across the globe, in places as diverse as Iceland, Iran, the Pacific Islands, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Aberdeen Proving Ground expanded exponentially and was the headquarters of The Ordnance School, the Ordnance Replacement Training Center, the new Bomb Disposal School, and the Ordnance Unit Training Center.

The number of civilians in the Ordnance Department grew during World War II from 27,088 to 262,000. Women Ordnance Workers (WOWs) like these accounted for approximately 85,000 of the civilian workforce.

The Ordnance mission in the field operated on a scale never experienced previously by the Ordnance Department. The Ordnance branch gained its third core competency, bomb disposal (renamed explosive ordnance disposal [EOD] after World War II), which was added to its previous missions of ammunition handling and maintenance. By war’s end, there were more than 2,200 ordnance units of approximately 40 types, ranging in size from squads to regiments.

The Ordnance Department applied the maintenance lessons it learned in World War I and devised a five-echelon maintenance system ranging from base shop maintenance to organizational maintenance, all in an effort to return materiel to operational status as near to the front line as possible. To complicate the maintenance mission, in 1942 responsibility for motor transportation was shifted from the Quartermaster branch to the Ordnance Department. The complexity of maintenance for such a wide variety of vehicles spawned several innovations that continue to the present, including a system of preventive maintenance and the publication of Army Motors (renamed PS magazine in 1951). Maintenance remained one of the largest challenges in World War II.

The Detroit Tank Arsenal in Michigan built more than 22,000 tanks, which was roughly 25 percent of the Nation's tank production during World War II. Here, M3
medium tanks are finished at the Detroit Army Tank Arsenal.


An African-American ammunition handling company conducts an inventory in World War II.

Korean War
During the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, the Ordnance Department reestablished many functions and
methods deactivated after the end of World War II. The Ordnance Corps (renamed as such in 1950) reestablished the schools previously located at Aberdeen Proving Ground to meet the increased demand to train officers and enlisted Soldiers. It reestablished its technical intelligence teams, which had collected German equipment for exploitation during World War II. In Korea, the Ordnance Corps exploited captured Russian and Chinese equipment. This captured World War II and Korean War materiel would serve as the foundation of artifacts displayed at the Ordnance Museum.

In Korea, the Ordnance Corps established a support infrastructure modeled on the one used in World War II, including echeloned maintenance operations, ammunition handling, and EOD operations. The Ordnance Corps improved this model through standardization to achieve tremendous success in reducing parts and processes, which had been one of the biggest challenges in World War II. Seven standardized engines and transmissions replaced the 18 engines and 19 transmissions used in the previous fleet of vehicles. Stock number reconciliation and an automated stock control system were introduced.

Reorganization and Vietnam
Following the massive reorganization of the Army in 1962 based on the Hoelscher Committee Report, the Ordnance Corps and the office of the Chief of Ordnance were disestablished. The Ordnance branch continued under the direction of the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics. The new Army Materiel Command assumed responsibility for many of the Ordnance Corps’ historical functions: research, development, procurement, production, storage, and technical intelligence. The Ordnance School was renamed the Ordnance Center and School and placed under the direction of the Continental Army Command. Combat development was delegated to a new Combat Development Command.

Despite these changes, ordnance officers and Soldiers continued their core missions of ammunition handling, maintenance, and EOD during the Vietnam War. Ordnance support fell under the control of the 1st Logistical Command, which divided Vietnam into four support commands. Ordnance units served vital roles under each of these support commands. New challenges, however, had to be confronted.

A forward ammunition supply point at Pleiku supports operations during the Vietnam War.

Because of the counterinsurgency nature of the war, EOD units were spread thin; there was no “front line” as had existed in World War II or Korea. The 1-year rotational policy produced personnel shortages in some key fields. In the initial years of the war, spare parts were often in short supply and equipment availability rates were low. However, despite these challenges, operational readiness rates increased and by 1969 exceeded those of previous wars.

Post-Vietnam Developments
In 1985, the Ordnance Corps became the first of the Army’s support elements to reestablish itself under the branch regimental concept. The Chief of Ordnance regained responsibility for decisions concerning personnel, force structure, doctrine, and training. This change gave ordnance officers, Soldiers, and civilians the opportunity to identify with their historical predecessors in their mission of ordnance support to the Army.

In the past 22 years, ordnance personnel have engaged in three sustained operations in the Middle East that tested their ability to adapt. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, ordnance personnel supported the largest armored assault in American history. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, beginning in 2001, and Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn, beginning in 2003 and ending in 2011, called on ordnance officers and Soldiers to help overcome long-term insurgency campaigns.

After nearly a century of operations at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Chief of Ordnance and the
Ordnance Corps moved to Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2008 as part of a 2005 Base Closure and Realignment
Commission (BRAC) decision. The new campus at Fort Lee is dedicated to train approximately 70 percent of all Ordnance personnel. The remaining personnel are trained at one of six other locations across the United States.

Today, the Ordnance Corps consists of approximately 2,700 officers, 3,000 warrant officers, and 100,000 enlisted Soldiers serving on active duty or with the Army National Guard or Army Reserve. As the Ordnance Corps celebrates its bicentennial in 2012, its men and women continue the proud heritage of service to the Nation that Ordnance Soldiers have demonstrated since colonial times. The legacy of Samuel Sharpe and Decius Wadsworth continues into the 21st century.

Karl Rubis is the Ordnance branch historian with the Army Ordnance Center and School at Fort Lee, Virginia. He holds a B.A. degree from Pepperdine University and an M.A. degree from the University of Kansas. He is a Ph.D. A.B.D. (all but dissertation) candidate at the University of Kansas.

The information in this article is compiled from “Serving the Line with Excellence” by Dr. Keir Sterling, lecture notes from the Ordnance Basic Officer Leader Course, and other sources located in the Ordnance historian’s office.

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