Article by Ruth Mancina

The artifact we are featuring this month is an empty shell casing used in a machine gun. The tinned exterior and the lettering on its base indicate that it is from a test cartridge. Engraved on its side is “Shell from first machine gun made in Saginaw 3-25-41." It is this inscription that connects it with a milestone achievement in Saginaw’s history.

Saginaw Steering Gear had been working on a revolutionary system of mass-producing machine guns for the Detroit Ordnance District. Until this time, machine guns had been individually hand-crafted. Experts were skeptical and did not believe that machine guns could be assembled on an assembly line. Through innovation, stamina and skill, the people in Saginaw proved the skeptics wrong. They were able to deliver a completed gun more than seven months ahead of schedule.

The Saginaw News announced on March 24, 1941, that “Completion was Near” and that Governor Van Wagoner would join representatives from the Army ordnance department, city officials, and managers from General Motors for a ceremonial test-firing of the first completed unit. The paper noted that the gun had already been test fired.

The museum’s casing is from one of these early tests. “Although several GM units are engaged also in machine gun manufacture ... the Saginaw plant received the first order and can be considered a ’pioneer in the field,’” said Steering Gear General Manager Alva W. Phelps in the article. 

Donated by Gerald and Arloa Shreve, the casing belonged to Arloa’s father, Edwin Poellet, who worked for General Motors in the early 1940s. The casing and a machine gun made at the Saginaw plant are included in Geared for Production: The Story of Automobile Manufacturing in Saginaw, which opened on April 1.

The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History is located on Federal Avenue, between Jefferson and Warren, in downtown Saginaw. Hours: Tuesday - Saturday: 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Sunday: 1:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. Admission: $1.00 adults, $.50 children.

© Ruth Mancina, 2011