George Bomford

Colonel Goerge BomfordGeorge Bomford was born in New York City, but whether in 1780 or 1782 is not certain. There is considerable disagreement concerning the facts of his birth and early life. He was the son of an Army officer, but whether that officer was American or British is unclear. He completed his studies at the Military Academy in July 1805. He began his military career as an engineer officer in New York and in the Chesapeake Bay region. Returning to New York in 1810, he spent several years overseeing the completion of Castle William on Manhattan Island. This installation served as a model for similar forts constructed before the Civil War. During his second tour in New York, Bomford developed a new weapon which he called a Columbiad. Until Bomford’s gun was adopted, the American weapons arsenal had consisted either of cannon which fired solid shot horizontally or howitzers and mortars which propelled shells on a very high trajectory. Bomford’s Columbiad, thought by many historians to the first important development in American ordnance, had some of the characteristics of both earlier weapons, with a range that fell somewhere in between. Only one of these weapons, presently at West Point is known to be extant today, and not much is known concerning its capabilities.

In 1812, Bomford was assigned to the newly formed Ordnance Department, commanded by Colonel Wadsworth. Soon promoted to major, Bomford had charge of gun carriage construction, small arms repair, and the fabrication of ammunition at the Ordnance depot in Albany, New York, for most of the War of 1812. He was also involved in the testing of weapons, including the Army’s first breech loader.

With the end of the war in 1815, the Ordnance Department was reorganized. Wadsworth became Chief of Ordnance, and Bomford, promoted to lieutenant colonel, became his deputy. In addition to its previous responsibilities for procurement, maintenance, and supply of ordnance stores, devising ordnance regulations, and overseeing private contractors, the Ordnance Department assumed control of the various Army armories, arsenals, and depots. Wadsworth directed Bomford to give increasing attention to the management of the armories.

This was a particularly vexing problem in the case of the Harpers Ferry Arsenal because of continuing problems with the entrenched civilian plant manager there, many of whom permitted lax working and production standards. Bomford drew the assignment of trying to improve the effectiveness of the new factory system and improve production, an effort which turned into a struggle with workers determined to maintain the traditional emphasis on individual craftsmen. This problem continued down to the closing of the Arsenal in 1861. Bomford gave strong support to John H. Hall, whose ideas concerning interchangeable parts set the stage for later mass production techniques. Hall was made superintendant of the Harpers Ferry operation, and despite some friction over contract procedures, achieved some progress installing increasingly sophisticated machinery. The rifles and other small arms produced at Harpers Ferry became increasingly uniform under Hall’s direction.

In the interests of economy and efficiency, Congress abolished the Ordnance Department in 1821, merging it with the Artillery. Wadsworth retired, and Bomford was made lieutenant colonel of artillery on ordnance duty. For the next eleven years, most officers performing ordnance duty were artillerymen on temporary detail. This proved unsatisfactory in practice, since most were returned to their regular duties as soon as they became proficient at their ordnance duties. Bomford spearheaded efforts to persuade the Congress to reverse the 1821 decision, and finally succeeded in 1832.

When the Ordnance Corps was reestablished, Bomford was made its Chief with the rank of colonel due to the great number of accumulated ordnance projects which demanded attention, Bomford was obliged to concentrate his efforts in a few areas. He worked on the continuing problem of armory management, but primarily concerned himself with artillery matters. Though he had hoped to introduce a new system of standardization into the field artillery, he ultimately failed. The main problem was that it proved impossible to secure sufficient numbers and varieties of European ordnance for comparative purposes. Bomford had greater success in updating his old columbiad concept and in making improvements in the nation's coastal defenses. His "new columbiad" of 1844 was constructed like a howitzer, but had a longer barrel. Able to propel both solid shot and explosive shells to a distance of about 2.85 miles, the new weapon rendered all existing coastal artillery obsolete.

Bomford did much to develop the ideas of inventors and designers of heavy ordnance. Though some of the theoretical work he did subsequently proved to be in error, he laid the groundwork for the efforts of later inventors and designers of cannon, including Thomas J. Rodman. He continued to foster efforts made by John H. Hall and others to make further progress in the area of the interchangeability of parts. Hall died in 1841, however, and this technological advance was not fully achieved during Bomford's lifetime.

In 1842, Bomford took on additional responsibilities as Inspector of Arsenals, Ordnance, Arms, and Munitions of War. He also spent a considerable amount of his time experimenting with various types of heavy ordnance. This left the normal administrative functions of the department in the hands of his able Assistant Chief, Lieutenant Colonel George Talcott. Bomford's last years were overshadowed by business reverses. He died in Boston while visiting a cannon foundry there on 25 March 1848.