The Rollin White Arms Company

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.

With or without Rollin White’s involvement, the Rollin White Arms Company was now a going concern.

4 Comments

  1. Reply
    Daniel Watters 10/23/2018

    The 1953 edition of “American Gun Makers” makes the claim that Lowell Arms was using Rollin White’s name without his permission.

    “LOWELL ARMS CO.—Lowell, Mass., about 1864-68. Makers of 7-shot rim-fire revolvers. The firm’s name had been Rollin White Arms Co., assumed without permission of Mr. White. On Rollin White’s protest against the use of his name, it was changed to the Lowell Arms Co.”

    “WHITE, ROLLIN ARMS CO.—Lowell, Mass. Established about 1864, to manufacture cartridge revolvers which infringed on the Rollin White patents controlled by Smith & Wesson, and 8,642 revolvers were turned over to Smith & Wesson for sale. The firm assumed the name of Rollin White without authority or permission from Mr. White. On Rollin White’s protest on the use of his name, the firm’s name was changed to Lowell Arms Co.”

    • Reply
      Michael Helms 10/23/2018

      Thanks for your comment, Daniel. And you’re right that the company may very well have been using his name without his permission. Here’s the problem: I’ve never found any period source of information that gives some conclusive explanation about Rollin White’s involvement (or lack thereof), or whether it was at his insistence that the name of the company be changed. It’s possible that Flayderman, or Gluckman, or any of these other authors had some other source of information, or if they were just speculating.

      It’s also possible that, as the expiration of the Rollin White patent neared in 1868, that they decided that Rollin White’s name didn’t have quite the caché they were looking for. Less likely, I admit, especially given that the name changed to Lowell Arms Company in 1866.

  2. Reply
    Daniel E. Watters 10/23/2018

    The 1953 book “Smith & Wesson: The Story of the Revolver” also mentions that Rollin White’s name was used without his permission.

    “In Lowell, Massachusetts a firm assumed the name of Rollin White Arms Company without his authorization whereupon he caused them to change their name to Lowell Arms Company.”

    • Reply
      Michael Helms 10/24/2018

      Yes, I’ve also seen that. The problem is, none of this information is cited … so I don’t know if each was just repeating the other’s story, or if they have some source for this that I haven’t found. The fact that Rollin White wasn’t one of the officers of the company (either in its “Rollin White Arms Company” or in its “Lowell Arms Company” inculcations) leans strongly towards this, but it still leaves the question open about what relationship there was (if any). And the timing is very curious … in 1864 White would have been finishing up with the Ethan Allen lawsuit, and he would understandably have been sensitive about his name being used. Would it really have taken him two years to respond? Interesting questions …

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