Tyler’s first major industry produced Mississippi rifles

Published on Sunday, 5 January 2014 23:51 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

As the Civil War raged east of the Mississippi, a local gun maker found opportunity to expand amid Confederate supply shortages.

J.C. Short was a well-established gun maker and smith in downtown Tyler by 1860. He advertised a rifle sighted to kill a deer at 400 yards that year. By midsummer 1861, he advertised that his “fine Kentucky rifles were warranted to kill abolitionists at 400 yards.”

Fears of Union armies, abolitionists and slave insurrections were prevalent.

Rifle and munitions shortages among Texas forces led state agents scouring Louisiana, Mexico — even Cuba — for makers capable of producing mass amounts of firearms and cartridges to arm soldiers.

In early 1862, officials with the Texas Military Board approached Short’s small armory about the possibility of expanding into a privately owned arms factory. They requested information regarding how many rifles he could produce, how quickly they could be manufactured, their price, and availability of materials for mass production were available in Tyler.

Short was overwhelmed by the board’s request. But financial backers, W.S.N. Biscoe and George Yarbrough sensed opportunity and convinced Short it was possible. Yarbrough provided $80,000 in capital, while Biscoe provided manpower. Short, Biscoe and Co. was born in August 1862 and proposed a $150,000 contract with the state of Texas to manufacture 5,000 .577-caliber walnut-stocked, double-sided Mississippi rifles.

The firm began acquiring and moving machinery, stockpiling materials and hiring workers for what was to become Tyler’s first major industry. A 125-acre site within the present-day Azalea District was planned with a two-story, brick building.

“It was a plowshares-into-swords moment,” local attorney and historian Randy Gilbert said. “There was no industry, but in four years, Tyler had a functioning industry that was not there in 1860.”

The county seat was established in 1854, and Tyler wasn’t much more than a country village 70 miles from the nearest railroad, Gilbert said. So building an industrial park, moving machines for production and shipping products to and from the plant was done by wagon, he said.

Difficulties meant Short, Biscoe and Co. would see their venture absorbed by the Confederate States of America, which purchased the munitions plant for $100,000 in 1863. Short and Biscoe stayed on as many workers were transferred to Texas from other munitions plants under threat of Union advances.

It became one of the most productive ordinance plants west of the Mississippi River, Gilbert said, equipping two-thirds of the Confederate forces from that side of the river.

The armory produced an average of four to seven rifles a day.

By the end of the war, the plant had produced enough supplies, including more than 2,200 rifles, more than 5,000 infantry cartridges, almost 10,000 cavalry cartridge boxes and 11,000 waist-belts and more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition and also cannon balls. The armory converted almost 5,000 flintlock rifles to percussion rifles.

The works could have produced many more rifles but never operated at full capacity because of supply shortages of various raw materials including steel.

The war was good for the Tyler economy, Gilbert said. More than 500 workers were employed at the munitions plant.

The rifles and other wares from the munitions plant are collectors’ items today. Danny Sessums, a longtime history professor and museum director, said rifles produced by Short, Biscoe and Co. are a rarity and that he’s only seen one in the last 20-plus years. It was auctioned for more than $50,000, he said.

“Anything from Texas adds a premium to collectors,” he said. “The survival rate and low production rate makes them a rare breed.”