Arming the Commonwealth

Time Period
1623 to 1763
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
Military History

From providing protection from enemy combatants to finding dinner for a family, weapons have played a significant role in Virginia history. A past exhibition, Arming the Commonwealth, made possible by the Cecil R. and Edna S. Hopkins Family Foundation, explored how the state became a hub for weapon manufacturing and how Virginians used them in their everyday lives. 

Following the American Revolution, Virginia was the only state to arm its militia fully with locally manufactured weapons. In its short operational history, the Virginia Manufactory of Arms produced more than 58,000 muskets and bayonets, 10,000 swords, 4,000 pistols, and 200 artillery pieces for the state militia. Later, the U.S. Congress, recognizing the problem with relying on foreign countries for weapons, designated two sites for armories. One was Springfield, Massachusetts; the other was Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). 


The Woodson Musket

The average citizen used weapons for hunting or for personal protection. One of the pieces that always draws in crowds, is the English Long Fowler, known at the VMHC as the “Woodson musket” (now display in the Taking Aim exhibition). It is 7 feet, 4 inches long and has a .80 caliber barrel. It may have been used to hunt stationary birds or in the military as a “wall gun.” 

One of the more common ways to settle disputes was through individual combat or duels. The first recorded duel occurred on April 14, 1624, between George Harrison and Capt. Richard Stephens.  Although legislation was passed against dueling with the Anti-Dueling Act of 1810, the practice continued into the 1880s. 

In Arming the Commonwealththere were weapons and accessories made and used in Virginia by Virginians. The craftsmanship of these pieces, while archaic to the modern eye, was exceptional for the time.  

This blog was written by Ariel Robinson while serving as a visitor services associate at the VMHC. 

Matched Pistols

Matched pistols, Richard Constable, about 1850, VHS accession number: 2004.58.2.A–T (Gift of Robert M. Hughes III). This set of pistols was used in the 1869 duel between Capt. William E. Cameron and Robert W. Hughes, Esq. The pair originally met near Richmond on June 10, but they were arrested. Their release prevented them from participating in a duel in Virginia for six months. So on June 12, they crossed into North Carolina. On the first fire, Cameron was wounded in the chest, but survived.

Powder Horn

Powder horn, about 1830–1850, VHS accession number: 2000.138.21 (Purchased with funds provided by Nicholas Taubman, Alan M. Voorhees, L. Dudley Walker, and Anne R. Worrell). Riflemen were required to carry a shot-bag containing bullets and a powder horn filled with a quarter pound of gunpowder.