Black Walnut: A National Defense Asset

While the Navy’s long term cultivation of oak groves and other vital woods were a strategic no-brainer in the 18th and 19th century (and they still have Navy foresters today!) it may be a little surprising to think that the Army also had an important interest in keeping stockpiles of fine lumber on hand during much of the same period.

Via the Springfield Armory National Historic Site:

The Black Walnut Tree, many of which can presently be found on the grounds, were used to make gun stocks. So why was Black Walnut used instead of other wood? Black Walnut is a hard, dense wood that is resilient. This wood, when seasoned (slowly dried), doesn’t shrink much and it isn’t prone to splitting which is key when making a gunstock.

Once a tree had been felled, the wood needed to be properly seasoned which took anywhere from 2-8 years depending on the moisture content of the wood. Because of this length of time, thousands of blanks needed to be properly stored for drying. 

Under Major James Ripley, Building 19 was constructed to store these blanks for drying.

Black walnut drying for gun stocks, Springfield Armory NHS Archives

During the Civil War, to quicken the process, a steam heated dry kiln was installed.

The Armory bought blanks from Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Massachusetts among others. They specifically requested wood that was fine, not knotted, or sappy to ensure the best quality for the U.S. Military Arms. While other trees were used to make gunstocks through private arms makers, Black Walnut was the primary wood used at the Armory, for small arms production, during its operating years.

By the 1820s, the armory used a Blanchard Lathe, which could carve out a rough gun stock from a blank in about nine minutes.

The last U.S. martial rifle to use a wood stock was the M14, which ceased production in 1964. Springfield Armory closed in 1968.

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