How British Gun Manufacturers Changed the Industrial World Lock, Stock and Barrel

In ‘Empire of Guns,’ historian Priya Satia explores the microcosm of firearm manufacturing through an unlikely subject—a Quaker family

grinding of gun barrels
A gun manufacturer in Birmingham in the 19th century. INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

For nearly 150 years, beginning in 1688 with the launch of the Nine Years’ War and stretching through the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Great Britain engaged in a state of near-constant warfare. Sparring alternatively with France, Spain, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire during this time, the Crown required hundreds of thousands of soldiers, uniforms, and firearms.

That last technology is the subject of Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, a new book by Stanford University historian Priya Satia. While she initially planned on researching the arms trade in the British Empire, the story of one particular gun maker caught her attention. Samuel Galton, Jr. lived in the manufacturing city of Birmingham and belonged to an organization of learned men called the Lunar Society. He amassed an enormous fortune through gun sales—and was a Quaker, a branch of Christianity known for practicing pacifism.

Satia couldn’t understand the apparent contradiction between Quaker tenets and the gun-making Galtons, who strived in the industry for decades without incurring the church’s disapproval. When the church did object at the local level in Birmingham, in 1795, Galton argued that two were compatible, that living at the heart of manufacturing made his involvement with the violence of war unavoidable. Galton’s arguments wouldn’t prove strong enough for the church; eventually he was disowned by the religious group. As Satia dug deeper into Galton's history, her book became a much larger story of how warfare and firearm production was a hidden force in the Industrial Revolution, reshaping the British economy, the Empire, and the world.

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution

We have long understood the Industrial Revolution as a triumphant story of innovation and technology. "Empire of Guns," a rich and ambitious new book by award-winning historian Priya Satia, upends this conventional wisdom by placing war and Britain's prosperous gun trade at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and the state's imperial expansion.

To understand the role of guns in economic development, and how their use and culture has evolved, talked to Satia about what her research uncovered.

Why did you decide to focus on the Galtons of all the gun makers in Britain at the time?

They were the biggest and most important gun makers in the country, and there was a really substantial archive about the Galtons. I think that’s not an accident. When Samuel Galton got into trouble with the Quaker church for being a gun maker, he printed a defense giving all his reasons why he was at ease in his mind. This family of Quakers was able to live with easy consciences, which made me wonder, “Are my assumptions about Quakers right? Are my assumptions about guns right?” For that to make sense either I’m misunderstanding Quakers, or misunderstanding guns, or misunderstanding manufacturing.

[Galton] says there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing; anything else he could do would inevitably contribute to war. That opened up a whole new way of looking at the Industrial Revolution. I started to wonder, “What if we’ve all missed the big story about the Industrial Revolution? That so much of it was driven by war, to the extent that it would be hard to be a person of industry without being involved in war?” I persuaded myself that Galton was right. Sitting where he was in Birmingham, it would’ve been hard to be an industrialist and not be contributing some way to war.

The Galtons also had a bank that was founded on their gun wealth that was later folded into what is now HSBC. The other big Quaker banks connected to Galton’s work were Lloyd’s and Barclay's. This wealth from gun-making is still with us today.

What role did the state play in promoting and perpetuating the manufacture of guns?

At the beginning of [the late 17th century], British gun makers could make roughly tens of thousands of guns per year. By the end of the period, 1815, they could make millions per year. That was not the result of introducing a whole lot of machinery and factory-style production techniques. The explanation lies in what the state and institutions of the state were doing.

For instance, the state would tinker with the design of the firearm they wanted. Instead of choosing the absolute best firearm, it would compromise and settle on the design that would be more easily mass-produced. Or it would ask the gun makers to experiment in the way they organize themselves so they could produce guns more efficiently. Or if there was a bottle neck in the production of a particular part, the state would provide funds to train more people to make that part and eliminate that bottleneck.

Is this where the invention of the assembly line comes from, rather than the American ingenuity of Henry Ford and the Model T?

The assembly line thing is considered a real American innovation and in fact it did start with American firearms manufacturing. The British didn’t quite have an assembly line but they did have intensive division of labor. It’s like a factory in an entire section of a town, all these little alleys with workshops and the gun being passed from workshop to workshop, and in each workshop another part is completed.

Does that mean the Industrial Revolution was built on guns?

I don’t want to make the argument that the Industrial Revolution was built on firearms, I want to say that firearms are a great window onto understanding how the state drove the Industrial Revolution more broadly.

What happens in firearms has ripple effects on other metallurgical industries and war-related industries. It makes you look at that whole range of things the British government would’ve needed to fight war: canons, barracks, cloth for uniforms, the buckles. There was so much they needed to fight war. Firearms are just the tip of an iceberg. It’s amazing because there are so many books on the wars, and so many books on the Industrial Revolution, and each act like the other [field] doesn’t exist.

Do you expect this will disrupt people’s ideas of how the Industrial Revolution happened?

There’s a lot of investment that this idea that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain because of some particular cultural uniqueness in Britain. People are attached to that idea, and don’t want to be about war. I’m anticipating that might be some pushback because of that.

It’s really amazing how people take it for granted that in the 20th century, the two World Wars were really important in driving economic progress all over the world. We got out of the Great Depression through rearmament, we all know this. But somehow the idea that war would have driven the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th century is harder to digest.

For almost the entire 125-year period you’re looking at, from 1665 to 1815, Britain has only a few periods of peace. But even then, the production of firearms remains high. What other businesses were buying the firearms?

Sometimes there will be an interlude of a couple of years of peace. The Crown is not at war, but in India, the East India Company is engaged in some kind of conflict in that moment, so it’s not like there really is peace in the expanding British imperial polity. A lot of those conflicts abroad are being fought by partners of the Crown, companies like the East India Company or the Hudson Bay Company. They’re these monopoly-chartered trading companies that have Crown-granted, exclusive rights to trade in certain areas. They’re not really private companies, but they’re not completely integrated into the state either.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British government says we should just copy the East India Company and dump our standard military arm and adopt the East India Company arm for all of our troops. That gun is a lot easier to mass produce. We’ll also just buy arms from the East India Company itself. So the East India Company becomes a procurement agency for the British government.

What role did firearms play in the slave trade?

Firearms are a really important part of the British trade on the West African coast, which is centered until 1807 on the slave trade. Guns are one of the key commodities that British are trading for slaves. One reason there’s a lot of demand is because the guns don’t last very long, only about a year.

When people ask, “Is that wise, won’t we be arming our enemies against us?” The [response] is, “If we don’t sell them our guns, the French or someone else will sell them their guns. We’ll forfeit the profit of the sales and the diplomatic advantage.” If you sell arms to a tribe or something like that you purchase a little bit of their allegiance too. It’s not just a commercial sale, it’s also a diplomatic interaction.

How large was Britain’s role in the production of firearms worldwide?

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was the single biggest provider of arms on the globe, but there were competitors. By the end of the 19th century, the Belgians were outselling the British in African markets. Then the Americans also become really important suppliers especially after the Civil War.

How does the use of guns change over time?

For much of the 18th century, guns are definitely understood as weapons and used that way in battle and civilian life, but there’s a limited type of encounter in which the gun would be the favored weapon. Within Britain itself, you don’t see them being used in crimes of passion. You don’t see rioters who are protesting grain prices using them. They’re for property crime and the defense of property, and that’s true up to the end of that century.

Then, in the course of those long wars with France at the end of the 18th century, culturally something changes. For the first time, you start to see firearms be used in new kinds of violence that’s not about property, often perpetrated by soldiers or ex-soldiers. It’s new but temporary, because it goes away after the wars when, once again, really tight controls are placed on who can own guns.

Why did the British government regulate access to arms between periods of war?

During a time of war, Britain has to arm its soldiers, but the government is always really concerned to collect the arms back and not let ex-soldiers keep them, because it knows the soldiers who are suddenly jobless are going to end up as highwaymen

How has the use of guns changed in the 21st century?

Now we do use them in crimes of passion a lot. We also use them in casual crimes of violence, these mass shootings are definitely a kind of almost casual violence. They’re not about a personal animosity; it’s general terror. That’s because the gun itself has evolved so much. The AR-15 is nothing like the 18th-century musket. They’re the same thing only in name. It’s like saying the smartphone and Alexander Bell’s phone are the same.

Why does knowing this history matter, if the technology and our use for it have changed so much since then?

When you look at the Second Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution], written in 1791 in which we’re talking about muzzle-loading muskets, it’s a stretch to assume that what they mean by arms is an AR-15. The technology itself has really changed and so in different contexts it seems reasonable to have different rule.

I think we’re being forced to use this history to inform our current gun control debates, because of the way that people in the United States insist that any debate about guns is a debate about the Second Amendment. But for that, it could just be a debate about public safety issue around a technology, like cars. Then you could just treat it as a public safety issue relating to a technology. Because there is this sense of it being rooted in constitutional history, it forces us to look back and argue about what guns were then.

Has this research changed what you hope to see from the government, generally speaking?

What we learn from this is that the state is a really important actor in the economy. Maybe more importantly is that I would like all of us to be much more aware of how blurry the line between private and public sector is. We have become accustomed to thinking of these as really distinct things and what this story shows is that they were always entangled.

There was recently a story about Google and their concern about the work they’ve been doing for the Pentagon on artificial intelligence. How does it look if its artificial intelligence technology is being used for drone strikes?

We need to start talking about alternative missions of how the state can partner with the private sector, if the state’s role in the economy can be peaceable, rather than pretending it has no role in the economy at all.

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