The 1905 International and Universal Exhibition in Liege was once again a great success for the Liege Armoury and yet, let us admit it frankly, the Belgian arms section was not what we had dreamed of, in no way representing the importance of this grandiose manufacture which occupies so many thousands of arms in the province of Liege.
We would have liked the Liege firms, which have a well-established reputation in Belgium and throughout the world, to participate in our World's Fair, which would undoubtedly have taken place if, as the Liege arms industry requested, the ideas advocated three years before the Exhibition by Liege arms personalities, during a conference given to the Union des Fabricants by the Director of the Liège Proof House, ideas supported by a very large number of arms manufacturers, had been implemented.
The Liege manufacturers wanted to see everything relating to the arms industry, whether foreign or Liege-based, grouped together in the same Palace, to be known as the "Palais de l'Armurerie", and, in addition to this vast exhibition, everything relating to hunting could also have been highlighted.
The importance that all countries attribute to the gun industry explains why an exception was made for it, and no one will dispute the success that would have been achieved by an exhibition of this kind, well understood, well studied, where everyone would have done their bit to achieve the result desired by everyone.
Unfortunately, the idea could not be realised because the Commissioners General of the foreign powers wanted, as always happens in all World's Fairs, to keep in their respective sections all the products manufactured in their countries.
We may be considered "very bold" to criticise what has always been done, but we believe that we must act as we do, because we consider that if the classification by country may be favourable to some personalities, it is not so for the manufacturers who exhibit, As for the members of the juries who walk through all the halls to find certain exhibitors and who, after a useless and tiring walk, no longer have the elements of comparison indispensable for establishing a serious judgement.
In any case, in spite of incessant efforts, the Liège gun industry was only able to obtain a solution at the very last moment, when it was already too late to allow the great majority of our manufacturers to create first-rate weapons, worthy of appearing in an exhibition held on Liège gunmaking soil.
Hence, the regrettable abstention of many Belgian firms.
Instead of having 5 to 6,000 square metres for the arms section, class 51, group IX, had to make do with 1,750 square metres and it was impossible from then on to show, in particular, the very interesting manufacture of damascus barrels, the manufacture of arms parts by elite workers who had undertaken to work at the Exhibition itself, in return for certain conditions which were perhaps onerous for our manufacturers,
but which had been accepted by them nevertheless.
The Belgian arms pavilion was very beautiful, however. Its well-understood ornamentation is a credit to the architect Jean Paquot, and the Liège harquebusiers who created it by making heavy sacrifices, have well deserved the Liège arms industry.
This pavilion was visited by a considerable crowd and the exhibitors had no reason to complain about the results obtained. If they were hard at work for a long time, they were rewarded by the important sales they made, by the orders placed with them and which will benefit our excellent specialist workers.
If 1905 was a great, great success for the Exhibition and for the city of Liège, if the Belgian armoury stand attracted a prodigious number of foreigners, the manufacture of arms in Wallonia was also able to record an unprecedented success. 1905 will be for it what this year is for the Liège World's Fair; orders are pouring in and we can say that at the Firearms Proof House, established in Liège, we have never had to test such considerable quantities of weapons of all kinds, luxury weapons, ordinary weapons, revolvers, weapons of war and export weapons.
It is also worth mentioning the participation of the Firearms Proof House and the Liege School of Armoury and Small Mechanics.
It should also be remembered that a number of manufacturers, having considered that there was not enough time for them to organise a particular exhibition, did not hesitate to subscribe large sums so that a special committee could make the history of the Liege arms industry and show foreigners the different phases through which arms manufacture had passed in the Liege region.
It is thanks to them, to the Musée d'Armes, which is a municipal institution subsidised by the Liège Firearms Proof House, that we have been able to admire a collection of revolvers and pistols that is the envy of all museums.
The Musée d'Armes and a number of private individuals sent in beautiful antique weapons, forming a collection that is highly regarded by collectors.
In this article, it is not our intention to speak of such or such houses which made superb exhibitions and presented to the jury of the class 51 of the weapons really remarkable and by their manufacture and their finish.
If we did not do so, there is no doubt that our way of doing things would be criticised, perhaps with good reason, by the firms which would not be mentioned and which are undoubtedly as interesting as those which would have been the object, on our part, of very deserved praise.
We shall remain in generalities, we shall speak above all of the evolution which is taking place in the manufacture of weapons, we shall say a few words about what was done in the past and what is done today, about the progress made over a number of years.
Then and now.
In the past, the mechanical means were almost totally lacking to the arms manufacturer; he had to produce everything by himself; from a block of steel, he formed a rocker, and how much time did not have to be devoted to this work to obtain a part that the stampers produce today so quickly! And how much did the arms manufacturer pay for the parts of, for example, a shotgun!
Not only were the parts very expensive, but only a certain number of them were available.
At the time to which we refer, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to accept orders for weapons today, as there would have been a lack of workers.
In the past, that is to say twenty years ago, arms manufacturers had to pay 90 francs for a built-in scale, and for the Anson... 150 francs.
The rocker used to take 14 to 15 days for the built-in rockers; for the Anson 20 to 25 days.
Nowadays, you can get ordinary built-in scales for 21, 22 or 23 francs and ordinary Anson scales at prices varying from 37 to 40 francs.
Why these differences in price; would the manufacture of the current weapons leave something to be desired?
Would this depreciation of labour be caused by the employment of workers less careful in their work, and then the confidence in the solidity of the weapons of today, should cause fears? The differences in prices which we have just mentioned are due to the use of machines, to the use of sophisticated tools which allow the handing over of roughened parts to specialist workmen.
Sometimes the machine can produce parts so well made that they only need to be finished, completed by the elite workers, who manage to produce, for example, the ordinary embedded rocker in three and a half days on average, a job which required, as we have already said, 14 to 15 days!
Is the weapon less well made?
Is it less resistant?
It would be a mistake to think so, the machine has only eliminated the laborious work of the worker, the work that we can call "unintelligent" that was entrusted to the apprentices.
The elite worker, the specialist, only had to use his qualities, all his special knowledge, to finish the parts.
The worker's salary did not decrease appreciably, he was placed in other working conditions, the workforce in the armoury, as in any industry, was improved, but this was not, in our opinion, to the detriment of the working class.
Mr. Gustave Francotte, Minister of Industry and Labour, is the inspiration for a new organisation, the Office des classes moyennes, which will be created shortly.
This Office will have to research and coordinate the conditions under which small trades are practised and to recommend ways of helping them.
The Middle Classes Board is bound to produce excellent results, if it is practically organised, and it is to be expected that it will do so.
Mr. Stevens, the Director of Vocational Education at the Ministry of Industry and Labour, an essentially competent man who knows small industry and its needs, is Mr. Gustave Francotte's collaborator and is in a position to bring this fine idea to fruition.
Everywhere, in gunsmithing as in other industries, mechanical means are essential and it is important, as we have written many times, that everyone understands this.
Liège's gunsmiths did not remain for long without being convinced of the usefulness of the machine and many small bosses equipped themselves at first cautiously, then soon more greatly, to produce quickly.
This was even the main reason for the success of the Liege armoury, because these small industrialists, these small bourgeois workers, did not forget that if the machine was a useful instrument, manual work was not of lesser value, and we always saw, alongside the machine tools, elite workers who jealously preserved the special knowledge that their fathers had taught them.
Liege still has thousands of elite gunmakers, and many of them entrust their children to the Liege School of Gunmaking and Small Mechanics, precisely because they know that there will always be a need for specialists alongside the machine, that handwork will remain indispensable, since it is through the diversity of the weapons sent by our manufacturers to all the markets of the world that the fine Liege industry will retain the reputation it has so rightly acquired abroad.
And, since we are talking about the Armoury School, let us recall its magnificent exhibition and let us be happy to note, by examining the pieces of arms exhibited, that our good workers are not ready to disappear, that every year, this school, subsidised by the Government, the Province, the City of Liège and the arms manufacturers, will always put at the disposal of our manufacturers young people capable of producing
The public authorities saw the need for this essentially practical professional school, they did not hesitate to vote subsidies, and they must now realise how well they did.
The School of Armoury and Small Mechanics has not only understood the need to train workers capable of finishing a weapon by hand, but also of using machines.
Will machine work not make hand work disappear?
The question has been asked on several occasions whether machine work will not succeed in almost completely eliminating home work.
There is no doubt that this will never happen for the following reason.
The machine can only produce absolutely similar parts.
If, as in America, our manufacturers could impose a type of weapon ne varietur on their customers, the fears expressed would have some basis.
But the Liege industry shines precisely because of the diversity of its products.
Each year, weapons of a different model are created, and it can even be said that the main concern of our manufacturers is to be able to entrust their travellers the following year with collections of weapons that offer essential differences from those of previous years.
Their fear is that their models will be copied, thus creating useful competition that will keep important orders for Liège, because no other arms manufacturing centre can achieve the result we have just mentioned.
The ever-increasing success of the Liege industry depends on the ability of our gunsmiths to vary the types of weapons ad infinitum and to offer their customers guns that meet the more or less legitimate requirements of hunters.
It is only by "working at home" that they will succeed in preserving the reputation of the Liège gunsmith's shop, which is so well established in all countries of the world.
It is all very well for machines to simplify manual work, but they will never replace it.
It is a mistake to believe that the ideal is to obtain shotguns whose parts are interchangeable.
Are there any interchangeable guns? Is this practically possible even in weapons of war? Yes, for some guns, but at what cost would this be achieved? Is it not admitted by the most competent authorities that, even for this category of weapons, interchangeability is not complete, and that it is always necessary to take into account a finishing by the expert workman.
All the more reason why this should be the case for mechanically made shotguns, since the finishing work must always be obtained by hand.
Should firearms testing be optional or mandatory?
This question has been discussed on several occasions in several countries by personalities of the firearms world.
Some advocated absolute freedom of proof, others, and these were by far the most numerous in our country, considered that the proof of firearms should be compulsory and that, moreover, it was indispensable that it should be very severe.
In Belgium, the Government has always been of the opinion that compulsory testing was necessary, but this was not the case in France, Spain, America, or even in England, where the regulations are not similar to ours.
The Belgian arms manufacturers understood that the Government was right, that it was the means of maintaining the reputation of the Liège arms far away and always the administrative Commission of the Proof House sought the measures to be taken to make more effective the legal tests.
If the Liège arms industry has grown in importance from year to year, it owes this largely to the Liège Proof House, which has eliminated weapons deemed dangerous and prevented competitors, sometimes unscrupulous, who were not able to distinguish whether a weapon was well or badly made, from accepting orders at low prices, which would have been likely to diminish the confidence that foreigners placed in Belgian products.
It is true that the Liège Proof House is the source of many misfortunes for gunsmiths, but they are largely compensated by the certainty that the weapons delivered to their customers are well made and will only bring them praise from the people who use them.
The damascus and steel of which the barrels are made sometimes have defects which are not visible to the eye and which the proof shows immediately.
The responsibility of the arms manufacturers would be enormous in Belgium if the arms were not tested in a serious way; it is enough to remind us that considerable quantities of arms are manufactured in Liege each year, arms which are sent to all parts of the world.
Without compulsory testing, no safety is possible for hunters and shooters.
Without compulsory proofing, there would be a more or less rapid loss of this beautiful clientele which makes the fortune of the city of Liege and ensures the predominance of our gun shop over all other similar industries.
It is not disputable that it is through well studied, well understood and well done tests that it is possible to put a brake on the manufacture of products that could be the object of serious criticism.
The question of testing firearms is certainly one of the most important that can be addressed.
It affects public safety.
It is also likely to safeguard the considerable interests of gunsmiths, which can frequently be compromised by the carelessness or inexperience of people who use firearms.
The weapon, the cause of an accident, having been tested, bearing the legal hallmarks, breaking in the hands of the shooter, there is no doubt that the responsibility of the arms manufacturer cannot be questioned, because he has taken the necessary precautions to be certain that it possesses all the conditions of resistance and solidity.
For liability to exist, he would have to rework the weapon after the legal tests, which is strictly forbidden by the law of 24 May 1888.
We have already said in this book that the machine allows arms manufacturers to deliver quickly and at low cost.
It is necessary, in all cases, that the speed brought in the manufacture and the low price at which one can deliver are not causes which can decrease the resistance of the firearms; it is for this major reason that it is useful that their resistance is established by official tests which cannot give place to any suspicion.
It is essential that 25-franc and 3,000-franc guns undergo identical resistance tests.
The public attaches, that is certain, a legitimate importance to the beauty, to the finish of the work, but it still requires and especially that the tests are serious and of a nature to prevent the breakage of the weapons which are in its hands when it does not commit imprudence, which unfortunately still occurs too often.
This is what the Government and the Administrative Commission of the Liege Proof House have always sought and obtained.
It should be noted that the more serious the tests are, the more important the manufacture of weapons becomes.
It is enough to read the figures of weapons tested in Liege (see diagram in the attached table to be convinced).
These figures become especially important when compared with those indicating the arms production of other countries.
The lasting wealth of an industry lies in the quality of the products it puts into circulation.
Some industrialists often see, and this is a mistake, only the profit of the year in which they are and do not think about the profit of the years to come, they only see the present without worrying about the future!
They forget that, by delivering inferior products, their reputation, however well established, will one day be compromised and that, as a result, the trade will move on and never return.
From the point of view of arms, this is a serious question that needs to be examined closely.
May Liège always retain the great reputation it has acquired throughout the world.
Let the customers in America, Brazil and other countries know that Liege is not losing its value and let them remain convinced that, even if some people wanted to produce guns of dangerous quality, the Firearms Proof House would make it impossible for them to do so.
The Firearms Proof House established in Liege is the only one able, for the time being, to maintain the well-deserved reputation of the weapons manufactured in Liege.
For this, this establishment must be a model of its kind, always moving with the progress.
The administrative Commission of the Proof House, in concert with the Government, must be especially concerned to seek all the improvements and guarantees which it is possible to bring to the tests and the inspection of the guns and to see what happens in the similar establishments of foreign Governments.
When a measure is necessary to ensure the superiority of the Liège armoury, these two authorities must take it, as they have always done, and without any hesitation.
In a very interesting article published in the Sporting Goods Review, No. 7 of June 15, 1893, by Mr. W. G. Greener, this writer calls the attention of the competent authorities to the necessity of modifying the statutes of the Birmingham Proof House.
Mr. Greener understands so well the considerable influence which the Birmingham Firearms Proof House can exert on the manufacture of arms in England, that he would like: "that the Birmingham Proof House should be to the manufacture of firearms what the Observatory at Kew is to clockmakers and to science.
He asked that the study of powders and explosives be carried out there.
The Birmingham Proof House," added Mr. O. Greener, "is ranked lower than the Office Assay, and it would be indispensable to see it ranked higher than the Kew Observatory!
These and other considerations show that in England, the practical country par excellence, the gunmakers consider it absolutely necessary to have a most serious Proof House, not only to safeguard public safety, but because such an establishment would establish beyond doubt the strength of the arms which the manufacturers deliver to the trade.
One cannot praise too highly the independence of character of Mr. Greener, who has put the general interest of English manufacture above all else.
Speaking of the English Proof Houses, Mr. Greener did not consider it necessary to deal with the London Proof House, which was only a "private establishment" not even publishing reports and having very little contact with the English public.
To show the importance of the Liège arms industry, it will suffice to show, by means of a diagram, the figures for proofs from 1820 to 1906 inclusive.
These figures speak for themselves.
As the 1905 Universal and International Exhibition was held in Liege, in a land of arms manufacturing par excellence, foreigners hoped that the English, Germans and Austrians would participate in large numbers in the competition, and that they would be keen to show the importance of arms manufacturing in these countries.
This did not happen and the disillusionment of the visitors was obvious.
The impression was bad in the world of Sport, it seemed quite natural to him that the English gunsmiths in particular, who for a long time had always claimed to make "the rain and the sun shine" in the manufacture of weapons, would want to show their choice products, weapons of the very first order, in a special compartment.
Nothing has been done in this respect, and yet we remember a time when the English arms flag flew proudly over weapons that attracted attention!
Everything has changed since those days!
An industry that refrains from participating in an important exhibition proclaims by this very fact its decline.
The French Republic understood this, so we saw Saint-Etienne and Paris form a community of arms manufacturers from these cities.
The French arms compartment was interesting to visit; the manufacture is in progress, more carefully.
The arms manufacturers of Saint-Etienne had made a real effort to promote French arms.
So as not to make anyone jealous, we will not stop in front of any of the stands.
Let us point out, to finish, the figures of tests in Saint-Etienne.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905