Of the defunct gun manufacturers that collectors inevitably stumble across, one of the least understood is the Rollin White Arms Company.
Norm Flayderman wrote that “the Rollin White Arms Company was formed by Rollin White in 1861 to manufacture revolvers to meet the demand which Smith & Wesson could not fill during the Civil War. Their entire production was marketed by Smith & Wesson through their normal dealers. The firm name was changed to Lowell Arms Company in 1864 (Rollin White’s association with it was terminated) following a change in management.” The evidence I’ve uncovered about the Rollin White Arms Company suggests that the story was a bit more complex than this.
The earliest mention I can find of the Rollin White Arms Company was the articles of incorporation for the company, which were engrossed on the 9th of February, 1864. Articles of incorporation were still filed with the legislature at this time, and the bill (like every other) had to undergo several readings before being engrossed into law.
The company’s president was Rufus Lewis, who was born in New Hampshire in 1833 and moved to Massachusetts sometime in the late 1850’s. A dry goods dealer and local politician, there is no record of how he came to be the president of the Rollin White Arms Company, but he was listed as the company’s president when it was incorporated in 1864; a role he kept for two years until being replaced by Julius Auboyneau Palmer in 1866. The 1870 federal census lists Rufus Lewis as an “Invalid,” and it’s possible that ill-health prevented him from continuing in this role. He died of cerebral meningitis in 1887 in Laconia, New Hampshire, only a few miles from his birthplace.
Joining Rufus Lewis in the Rollin White Arms Company’s beginnings were John Tripp and David Rogers. Another unlikely principal of a gun company, Tripp was a Lowell roll-coverer that, apparently, had an interest in guns. After Tripp’s two year stint with the Rollin White Arms Company, he returned to his old vocation in roll-covering with little fanfare.
David Rogers remains even more elusive, with no David Rogers appearing in Lowell during this time. There was a David Rogers in Springfield that worked in the Springfield Armory, another in Barnstable that was a mariner, and another in Conway that worked as a notary public and state agent. It’s possible that the actual David was living out of state, which makes the mystery of his involvement in the Rollin White Arms Company more of a mystery.
With these inauspicious beginnings, there’s the question of whether Rollin White was even involved. A newspaper editorial published shortly after the company was incorporated inquired about this, musing:
One bill has passed through both branches which has troubled some of the officers, and will cause no less perplexity to the public, the bill to incorporate the Rollin White Arms company. The perplexity has been on the point whether it is a white arms company, and if so, what are the peculiarities of “white arms,” or whether it is Rollin White who has the invention and introduces it by a corporation. It is undoubtedly the latter, and Rollin White would do well to have the name changed. By attention to this explanation, much perplexity will be saved hereafter.
Regardless of who was involved, the Rollin White Arms Company was now a going concern. In the next blog post, we explore the company’s early operations and guns.