Period Apprenticeships

Christian Oerter Letter
18th-C Apprenticeships
Curly Wood
Fantasy Rifle?
Scratch Built???
Iron & Steel
Muzzle Blasts
Hunting Stories
What's a Virginia Rifle?
Why Straight Rifling
Here’s my historical perspective on 18th century apprenticeships. (Written in 2003 and based on twenty years of explaining period apprenticeships in the CWF Gun Shop.)
Apprenticeship contracts were rarely recorded in public records unless the apprentice was an orphan or there was a disagreement later on. With no formal guilds in place, the length of an apprenticeship in America varied considerably. This is especially true of those of orphans because the Church and courts used apprenticing out as a way provide foster care. An orphan might be apprenticed at 4 months old!

One thing that is fairly standard is the apprenticeship ended on the boy’s 21st birthday. That is when he legally became an adult-- known in the period as "reaching his majority." (Apprenticeships for girls ended on their 18th birthday.) You should not be surprised to see an odd seeming apprenticeship like six years, three months, and ten days. That will bring the boy to his 21st. birthday.

The terms of an apprenticeship have some fairly standard language outlining the responsibility of both the master and the apprentice. The master usually provided food, clothing, and taught the apprentice “the entire arts and mysteries of the trade.” He also taught or “caused to be taught” the apprentice to read, write and “cipher to the rule of three.” The latter means solving an equation for one unknown which was necessary to keep account books and assign values to the various coins in circulation.

In return the apprentice promised to learn the trade, keep the master’s secrets, protect his master’s property, not to marry, not to frequent taverns, fornicate, or gamble, etc.

The printing office in Williamsburg sold apprenticeship contracts with all the boiler plate language preprinted. The same forms could be used for any trade by filling in names, dates, etc. I suspect that many apprenticeship were simply hand written or done with a handshake between parent and master. A child could not legally apprentice himself and if he needed to take a complaint about his master (abuse, failure to provide food, etc.) to court he would need an adult’s aid.

At the end of the apprenticeship the most common form of freedom dues seems to be a new suit of clothes. Some contracts also mention a set of tools but that is more likely for a trade with only a few tools. You can be fairly sure that an apprentice gunsmith didn’t get a complete set of tools to start up his own shop (no anvil, rifling machine, etc.). I have seen an occasional mention of patterns being included and the presence of evidence in castings of filled screw holes in the pattern piece has lead some to conclude that occasionally the apprentice gunsmith took his set of patterns in the form of a finished rifle. That makes sense in a number of ways but documentation for the practice is THIN. Once an apprenticeship was over, the 21 year old would be required to have a gun of some sort for his militia duty.

Now to the little bit we know about how an apprentice learned. The apprenticeship was often 6 or 7 years but the average work day was daylight to dark and six days a week. Averaging shorter winter days and longer summer days Thomas Jefferson came up with an average work week for tradesmen of 72 hours. Seven years at 72 hours a week is a heck of a lot of time. Also the apprenticeship spanned those years when learning physical skills, especially those involving repetitive acts and “motor memory” is easiest.

For an apprenticeship to be worthwhile the master had to get enough labor from the child to offset his costs and teaching time. While doing grunt work like sorting materials and sweeping up was certainly part of an apprentice’s work, teaching fundamental skills, like polishing, early in the apprenticeship makes the apprentice’s labor much more valuable to the master. On the other hand learning barrel welding would need to wait until the boy was strong enough for that hard physical work.

Was an apprentice taught to copy his master’s work? Not exactly. An apprentice’s work was his master’s work. He had to turn out parts and, eventually, finished rifles that met the master’s standards of design, style and quality. When studying an original rifle there is no way to know how much of the production work is that of the master. A master might have been most productive if he limited his work to training and supervising the apprentices, carving and engraving. A very different picture from our 21st-century one man shops.

When we factor in the work of a journeyman or two in the shop the picture can be even more confusing. In a big shop the master may have had little to do with the actual work of making a rifle. As the supervisor of a Rev War factory in Fredericksburg, VA, Fredrick Kleete is described as working at a raised bench in the center of the shop where he could keep an eye on all the workers. The surviving wall rifles made there show many of the details found on his later work so it is clear he was controlling architecture, casting patterns, etc. but not doing the work himself.