Colonial gunsmithing required the skills of a blacksmith, whitesmith, founder, and woodworker to do fine finishing work on iron and steel, to carve decorative designs, to hammer and cast brass and silver into complex shapes, and to engrave hard and soft metals. These skills were usually learned in an apprenticeship lasting five to seven years. A male youth began his apprenticeship between the ages of 12 and 14 years and completed it by the time he was 21.
Because imported firearms were cheaper than those made in Williamsburg (typical of many goods in colonial America), the gunsmith mainly repaired arms and other objects. Gunsmiths often repaired axes and other items made by blacksmiths, cast shoe buckles and other items like bells, and sometimes repaired silver objects.
Rifles were the only Virginia arms produced in quantity. Rifle production was concentrated on the frontier to the west of Williamsburg. Using the same kinds of tools and traditional methods employed by 18th-century gunsmiths, Colonial Williamsburg's tradesmen need about 300-400 hours to make a rifle. Historians think that 18th-century gunsmiths worked faster, because they had been trained in the business since youth and did not stop frequently to explain their work to visitors, as our gunsmiths do.
Williamsburg's blacksmiths fashioned useful items from iron and steel for the city's households and their fellow tradesmen.
With forge and anvil,hammer and tongs, they worked up agricultural tools for the farmer and tires for the wheelwright, and they repaired many of the iron objects used by Williamsburg residents. Their skills with vise and file served customers as diverse as the miller, saddler, coachmaker, and planter. For the householder they cast, bent, welded, and riveted fireplace backs, andirons, pothooks, locks, utensils, and decorative wrought iron.
A blacksmith's forge, like the seven at theJames Anderson Blacksmith Shop, was a raised brick hearth outfitted with bellows to feed its soft-coal fire and a hood to carry away the smoke. The forge heated bars of iron yellow-hot; with his journeymen and apprentices, the smith then used sledges weighing as much as 12 pounds to hammer the bars into shape.
From steel he made tempered cutting edges for axes and smooth faces for special hammers.