Friday, April 27, 2018

Firearm Factory of the Month: Roper Sporting Arms

This is the tale of a little known shotgun, produced by some important gun makers.
The story of the Roper Repeating Rifle Company and its successor Roper Sporting Arms Company starts with three men.

Sylvester Howard Roper was an inventor and manufacturer, like many inventors in New England in the 1800s he was always looking to make things that were in demand. 
You may have noticed the connection between firearms, bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution and this story is no different.
His Roper Steam Velocipede may have very well been the first motorcycle ever made, it earned him a spot in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. He also was credited with and given a patent for the invention of the interchangeable Shotgun Choke.
In 1866 he was working with Christopher Spencer on a repeating shotgun. It was decided that they should go into business together. Investors were sought and H.D. Fearing, L.M. Hills and H.F. Hills collectively invested $100,000 to start the business. 
H.F. Hills (son of L.M. Hills) worked in the family's Palm Leaf Hat business and was also the brother in law of Christopher Spencer. The Hills family offered to run the new enterprise out of one of the buildings at their hat factory in Amherst, Massachusetts. The new company would be called the Roper Repeating Rifle Company.

Christopher Miner Spencer was also an inventor, he was the creator of the famous Spencer Carbine, a steam powered horseless carriage and a fully automatic turret lathe. Following the Civil War sales of his famous repeating carbine came to a screeching halt. In 1866 he went to work on the repeating shotgun project with Sylvester Roper in Amherst.

His Spencer Rifle Company failed and was eventually sold to Oliver Winchester. 

The patent for their revolving shotgun was issued to the Roper on April 10th, 1866. The shot gun held 4 shells in a revolving cylinder that was advanced by cocking the hammer.

As stated before the gun was to be built in a "red building" that was connected to the L.M. Hills Palm Leaf factory. I have no idea which of these buildings is the "red one".

Our evidence comes from this excerpt from the book The History of the Town of Amherst by Edward Wilton Carpenter

The factory sat just south of Main Street along the railroad tracks. I was able to find this old map of Amherst showing the location, look at the rail road tracks where they make the bend, just below main street.

Another picture, this one taken from the lawn of Amherst College, facing North East

Here is the same location today, the factory is gone, there are a couple of red buildings close by, but I have no way to know if one of these housed the Roper Sporting Arms Company or if they were built later.

Enter the third person. Charles Ethan Billings was also an inventor and gunsmith. He served his apprenticeship in gunsmithing while at Robbins & Lawrence in Windsor Vermont. In 1856 at the age of 21 he went to work for Colt in Hartford, becoming their expert in forging, where he also learned the trade of tool and die making. 
In 1862 he went to work at Remington in Ilion, NY. He spent the remainder of the war saving Remington money by increasing plant efficiency. After the war he was superintendent at the Weed Bicycle Company in Hartford (who was building bicycles in the old Sharps Rifle Works building).
Around 1867 he went to work at the Roper Sporting Arms Company in Amherst.
In 1868 the company was failing, they had only managed to sell some 2000 shotguns.
Billings and Spencer bought the rights to the shotgun and moved the equipment to Hartford.
In 1869 the newly formed Roper Sporting Arms Company was in a factory with a Broad Street address.

That same year the two also founded the Billings and Spencer Co. to make machine tools, forging equipment, sewing machine parts and hand tools.

Their large factory sat in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood between Lawrence and Broad Streets on Russ Street

Only 600 of the Roper Sporting Arms Shotguns with the Hartford stamp were made.

By 1876 sales of the repeating shotgun no longer made it a viable product and Billings and Spencer concentrated on making hand tools and other forged products.

In 1882 Christopher Spencer left to start a new company, the Spencer Arms Company in Windsor, Connecticut. It is not known if he maintained interest in the Billings and Spencer Company, but the company continued to use his name into the 20th Century.

Here is the Billings and Spencer factory in 1910

And today

The old factory still stands and is now a multi-purpose building

Before and after

Alloy Artifacts
Connecticut Historical Society
Moose in the Machine
Amherst College Archives 
The Consecrated Eminence
Carpenter and Morehouse, (1896),The History of the Town of Amherst Massachusetts, Amherst, MA: Carpenter & Morehouse

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