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
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.
in 1795. Along
with a second
in 1798, it
served as a
in the young
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
|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
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
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
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,
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.
was roughly 25
percent of the
II. Here, M3
at the Detroit
in World War II.
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.
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
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.