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Assembly lines didn't exist in the 1600s and 1700s. Gunsmiths were skilled craftsmen who made weapons one at a time. While gun prices seem cheap by today's standards, they represented a much larger investment at the time. Historians have debated the colonial gunsmith's income and whether it would be possible for an American to make a living as a gunsmith.
Colonial gunsmiths were independent businessmen who earned money per gun, rather than a regular salary. Exact prices varied depending on location, the customers and whether the weapon was a flintlock pistol or a longbore rifle. A pair of pistols in mid-1700s Virginia, for example, could cost £3 15s or so. One rifle sale to an Indian tribe a century earlier earned the seller 20 beaver pelts. Gunsmiths also made money by repairing damaged guns -- a more affordable choice for most gun owners than buying a new one.
Translating gun sales from the 1600s and 1700s into a modern equivalent is a challenge. Hard cash was scarce in colonial times, so colonists did a lot of business by barter. When they did pay cash it could just as easily be a French sous or Spanish coins as British pounds. The £3 pound pair of pistols would have cost around $340 in 21st century money; because the colonial era had no income tax, we have few records that would show gunsmiths' total annual income.
Historian Michael Bellesiles argues that guns were a luxury item in colonial America: They were expensive enough that few colonists could afford one, and gunsmiths could barely make a living. Legal scholars James Lindgren and Justin Lee Heather, on the other hand, make the counterargument that the evidence shows gun ownership was widespread: While not something a poor man could afford, middle and upper class colonists included many gun owners.
One historian estimates that perhaps 1 percent of the colonists were primarily professional gunsmiths, but smiths who specialized in other fields of metalwork may have had the skills to carry out gun-making or repair as well. Likewise, many expert gunsmiths probably accepted nongun jobs to make ends meet, making an income estimate even harder. One gunsmith, for example also worked as an inventory clerk, an executor and drafted legal documents on the side.
- Colonial Williamsburg; How Much Is That in Today's Money?; Ed Crews; Summer 2002
- "Arms Makers of Colonial America"; James B. Whisker; May 1993
- Northwestern University; "Counting Guns in Early America"; James T. Lindgren et al; 2001
- "Shotgun News"; Counting Gunsmiths in Early Aermica; Clayton Cramer; May 2005
Over the course of his career, Fraser Sherman has reported on local governments, written about how to start a business and profiled professionals in a variety of career fields.. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com