James H. Burton at Harpers Ferry

James H. Burton at age 37 in 1860. (James Henry Burton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)
James H. Burton at age 37 in 1860. (James Henry Burton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

In April 1844, James H. Burton took employment as a “Machinist & Toolmaker” at the U.S. Rifle Factory on Lower Hall Island. Burton, just 20 years old, was a gifted machinist and ardent proponent of mechanized production. Maj. John Symington, who took command of the Harpers Ferry Armory in November 1844, wrote that:

Burton’s ingenuity in devising, draughting and perfecting tools and machines [is] so marked, as to cause me at once to select him as a fit person to fill the position of Master Armorer on the occurrence of a vacancy to that office… Maj. John Symington

Burton’s promotion to Acting Master Armorer came in November 1849. Using furnished patterns and drawings, and his own notes and sketches, Burton and his colleagues were able to construct almost half of the new machines for the Musket Factory and Rifle Factory in the Armory’s own machine shops.

During the next four years, Burton also experimented with improved designs for the Minié bullet, introduced in 1848 by Captain Claude Etienne Minié of the French Army. Burton carefully documented his work in a set a detailed drawings. These drawings show that he was experimenting with several different Minié bullet designs. In 1855, Burton’s modified design for the Minié bullet was adopted by the U.S. Army.

Burton’s drawings were uncovered in a basement crawl space during a home restoration project in Winchester, Virginia, in 1986. The Burton Drawings at Harpers Ferry, as the collection is now known, tell us a great deal about the evolution of machinery and firearm technology during the decade leading up to the Civil War.