Spiller & Burr Home Page

In 1861, with very few resources, the Confederacy attempted to arm itself. Several armories and factories were created in the South to help meet these needs. Colonel Burton's Spiller & Burr Revolver is based exclusively on primary sources, and provides a detailed history about one of those manufacturing firms during the Civil War. The book describes how the factory's history applies to Southern industrialism in the mid-nineteenth century. Revolving around the creation, operation, and demise of a pistol factory, this book illustrates the struggles of the factory and thus the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Created at the suggestion of the Confederate government, the factory rose in Richmond, Virginia, from the conglomeration of two wealthy Virginia gentlemen, Edward N. Spiller and David J. Burr; one small arms expert, James H. Burton; and high hopes and dreams. Shortly after getting started, the factory that created the pistol known as the Spiller & Burr moved from the Confederate capital to Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta, the company encountered difficulty producing the revolvers in quantity due to a shortage of labor and problems raw materials. Before General Sherman arrived in Atlanta, the factory was sold to the Confederate government and moved to the Confederate States Armory in Macon, Georgia, but Sherman's march through Georgia imposed even more problems. The factory ceased production at war's end with slightly more than 1,500 revolvers fabricated, fulfilling only one tenth the number called for in the original contract.

This factory tried to overcome the South's industrial deficiencies, and almost succeeded. To survive, a factory needs workers, materials, machines, and money. The factory had some difficulties in procuring the necessary materials, but mainly suffered from the threat of invasion and the lack of an adequate workforce. It had many of the ingredients necessary for success but suffered from the untimely misfortunes of war. Ironically, the war provided both the impetus for its creation, yet eventually led to its demise. But Southern factories created during the Civil War, like this one, had an impact. The South was affected by this new industrialism, both during and after the war.

A Brief History of the Revolver

Established by Lt. Col. James H. Burton (see page 4) at the request of the Confederate Chief of Ordnance, the private manufacturing firm of Spiller & Burr set out to manufacture 15,000 revolvers over two and one half years for the Confederate cavalry. All three of the principals involved, James H. Burton, Edward N. Spiller, and David J. Burr, stood to profit enourmously if successful in their venture into arms manufacturing that would "be purely southern in its character." Each man would have profits in excess of $116,000 with very little starting capital needed and just two and a half years of time invested. The contract between Spiller & Burr and the Confederate States of America stipulated that the firm would be paid between $25 and $30 (1861 CSA dollars). The contract called for a .36 calibre Navy revolver, Colt's model. Colt's Navy revolver had been adopted by the Confederate government as a standard revolver, but James Burton felt another type of revolver was superior to Colt's.

Burton selected the Whitney revolver, Second Model, First Type as a model arm for Spiller & Burr. Burton based his decision on the merits of the arm's performance, stability, design, and ease of construction. The arm was a descendant of Eli Whitney, Jr.'s .36 caliber, single action, percussion revolver, which was patented in 1854 as U.S. Patent No. 11,447. This model was in production at the Whitneyville factory outside of New Haven, Connecticut in 1861.

The Whitney revolvers (see photo at right) were probably the first solid frame pistols to go into full production. The gun had a 7-5/8 inch, blued steel, octagonal barrel that was screwed into the frame. A portion of the thread of the barrel was exposed at the breech as a result of an opening in the frame. A brass pin was attached as a sight. The barrel was rifled with seven lands and grooves. The loading lever was held adjacent to the barrel with a spring and ball type catch. The rammer entered the frame, which had been angle cut to allow insertion of powder and ball. The grip straps were integral with the frame and held black walnut grips. An oval capping groove was cut out of the right recoil shield. A rearsight groove was cut in the top strap. A thumb bolt was located on the left side, which when turned properly would allow the removal of the cylinder axis-pin. The hammer, cylinder axis-pin, and trigger were all rotated on axes created by individual frame screws. The cylinder axis-pin, which was inserted into both ends of the frame, held the 1-3/4 inch long, six shot, steel cylinder suspended in its proper position. The nipples, or cones, were set at a slight angle to the chambers. The oval trigger guard was made of brass. The pistol's length from the end of the backstarp to the muzzle was slightly more than thirteen inches, and each weighed about 2-1/2 pounds.

Burton adapted this pattern in its entirety except for a few minor substitutions. Due to material shortages, the Southern Whitney differed in two ways. Brass was to be substituted for iron in the fabrication of the lock frame, and iron was to be substituted for steel in the fabrication of the cylinder. Strength was added to the iron cylinders by heating and then twisting the round bars of iron. This process prevented any single chamber from being in parallel alignment with any fault lines in the bar iron. Even though brass was the metal used for the lock frame, the Southern Whitney was to be electroplated in silver. This electroplating made the Confederate copy look very similar to the original Whitney Navy revolver. Also, Burton proposed to round off the muzzle of the barrel instead of manufacturing sharp edges like the model. An example of a first model Spiller and Burr (see photo at right) shows a striking resemblance to the Whitney model, as illustrated above.


Subsequent Pages

Page 2, "Revolvers," has numerous photographs of the revolvers manufactured by both Spiller & Burr and the C.S. Armory at Macon, Georgia.

Page 3, "The Men," provides some details about the men involved in the manufacturing process. The page also has period illustartions of most of those men.

Page 4, "Buildings and Places," shows some of the structures where the manufacturing of the revolvers took place. The page also has a few illustrations of the only Armory built by the Confederate government.

Page 5, "Revolving Page," is just that. It is a page that will be updated and changed on a regular basis. Currently, the page provides some history on the C.S. Armory at Columbia, S.C. and the C.S. Armory at Richmond.

Check back as these pages are a work in progress and updates will be made regularly.

Some Reviewers' Comments

"[A] book that belongs in the library of every Civil War or small arms historian or researcher, handgun collector, or Civil War fan. It is well written, documented, and illustarted. It is the 'bible' on the Spiller & Burr revolver." - Gun Week

"Norman skillfully weaves the various threads of the war, the unique personalities of Edward Spiller, David Burr, and James Burton, the chronological history of the factory's establishment and relocation, and the weapon itself into a compelling narrative. . . . Matthew Norman has made a wonderful contribution to the Civil War collector's research library." - North South Trader's Civil War

"The book is a cogent analysis of an early American industry just as the machine age is really getting rolling. It contains a goodly amount of interesting technical material, as well as penetrating evaluation of the business and economic problems faced by up-start industries at the time. . . . The book is well written and well presented. I highly recommend it." - Chronicle of Early American Industries

"[T]his study exemplifies historical research at its best. . . . In conclusion, this is a superb research work and one that should be part of any arms or industrial historian's library." - Man at Arms

"[A] very informative book on the manufacture of percussion revolvers at the time and on arms manufacture within the Confederacy. A valuable book for anyone interested in either subject." - Classic Arms & Militaria

"Dr. Norman takes on on quite a tour of the men, the machines, and the times. . . . Although a highly focused dissertation about one single make of gun of which very few were actually produced, this book portrays the arms production problems of the South's war economy in a clear and fascinating way for novices and advanced collectors alike. It is a readable and useful addition to any library of American gun literature." - Virginia Militaria Collector's Association Newsletter

"[T]his work is an important contribution to the historical research of industrialization in the South and provides insight into understanding the difficulties that southern entrepreneurs encountered in developing their businesses both during the Civil War and after." - Journal of Southwest Georgia History


The Men

Buildings and Places

Revolving Page

Copyright 1996 - 2009. Do NOT copy without express written permission.