An early Kansas gunsmith used these tools to craft firearms for his neighbors in Leavenworth.
Firearms were extremely important in early Kansas. They were essential for hunting wildlife in days before processed food and supermarkets. They also were used for defense. The years leading up to and during the Civil War were violent times in Kansas Territory, and no family felt safe without a gun above its hearth.
One important early Kansas gun maker was John Biringer. Born in Frankfort, Germany, in 1830, Biringer emigrated to the United States in 1847 following a gunsmithing apprenticeship. His first job was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked for gun maker George Tryon. In 1854 he married Frederika Messig and had two children before moving the family to Kansas four years later.
By all accounts, Biringer believed moving to Kansas Territory would improve his prospects as a businessman even though the atmosphere in the years of Bleeding Kansas was tense at best, violent at worst. He settled in Leavenworth, opening his first shop at 109 Delaware Street.
After his Delaware Street shop was destroyed by fire, Biringer moved to a new location on Third Street. From this store he began to manufacture and repair guns in addition to selling ready-made weapons. Family lore states that Biringer made many of the tools he used to manufacture firearms. Some of these tools are pictured here.
The top photo depicts a bow drill made by Biringer. This very old style of drill consists of a bow-string strung around a bobbin-shaped stock with a drill bit protruding from one end. Moving the bow string back and forth causes the bobbin, and thus the bit, to rotate and therefore drill through material. The wooden breast-plate in the bottom of the photo is curved to fit the breast of a man; this enables the pressure essential for drilling through harder materials like iron. Also included in this illustration is a wooden template for fashioning gun stocks.
The crucible and ladle (at center left) were used for melting metal and pouring it into molds to create such pieces as the gun trigger guard in the bottom of this photo.
According to his descendants, Biringer himself fashioned his guns' octagonal barrels and walnut stocks using tools like these. Springs were made by annealing, shaping, and tempering pieces of steel. Tumblers and hammers were purchased in the rough and filed and fitted by hand. It apparently took about a week to make a gun, which sold for between $15 and $20.
Biringer continued to manufacture firearms during the Civil War (1861-1865). His heirs claim that Biringer guns were used by Kansas militiamen who marched out of Leavenworth to repel General Price and his Confederate troops in October 1864, and that Biringer, carrying one of his own guns, was with them. In addition to firearms manufactured by Biringer, the shop's ledgers record sales of Colt and Remington pieces. Biringer sold firearms and ammunition from his Leavenworth store throughout the war to a number of local residents as well as Kansans serving in volunteer regiments. Unfortunately, Biringer's Third Street store burned down in 1864. He then built a substantial two-story brick building at 601 Shawnee Street in Leavenworth and continued to make guns until sometime in the 1880s.
John and Frederika Biringer had a total of 12 children. Their son Frank continued to operate the family business after his father's retirement in 1916, and expanded it to include motorcycle and bicycle sales and service. John Biringer died in 1920 at the age of 89. In 1942, John Biringer Miller (grandson of John Biringer and nephew of Frank) purchased the business. Miller sold the business outside the family in 1968, but it continues to operate under the Biringer name in Leavenworth.
Except for the Biringer-made rifle pictured at bottom left (which was purchased), objects on this page were donated to the Kansas Museum of History by descendants of John Biringer. The collection includes over 60 pieces.
Entry: Gunsmithing Tools
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2001
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.