Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture
by Michael A. Bellesiles
Knopf, 603 pp., $30.00
There is something about guns that inhibits understanding. It is not just that they can put an end to argument. They somehow generate beliefs that are obviously contrary to observable fact. It is a fact that Americans today own more guns per capita than people in other countries. But it is widely imagined, contrary to fact, that they have done so from the beginning, that the people who settled this country did it with a gun ever in hand, to hunt game for food and to protect themselves against the people they dispossessed. In the words of one historian, quoted by Michael Bellesiles in Arming America, “by the eighteenth century, colonial Americans were the most heavily armed people in the world.” Until recently other historians, myself included, would probably have agreed; and so, surprisingly, would many of the eighteenth-century Americans supposedly so well equipped with guns. It is the purpose of Bellesiles’s book to show that the facts are otherwise, that cherished suppositions about guns in early America are demonstrably wrong and were wrong as they came from the mouths of people at the time who should have known better.
It will probably not surprise him to find his book denounced, as it doubtless will be (an earlier article by Bellesiles in a professional journal raised a storm on the website of the National Rifle Association ). Bellesiles may have overstated his case a little, but only a little. He has the facts. They are not altogether new. Military historians, ethnohistorians, and historians of the American West have been emphasizing them in recent years. But no one else has put them together in so compelling a refutation of the mythology of the gun or in so revealing a reconstruction of the role the gun has actually played in American history.
The story and the puzzling defiance of fact begin in sixteenth-century England with the substitution of the musket for the longbow as the standard weapon of the infantry in warfare. The people who supported the change acknowledged that muskets were militarily useful only at a range of up to eight or ten yards; the longbow was effective at two or three hundred. The musket could not be aimed except in a general direction; a bow in the hands of a skilled archer could regularly hit and kill an enemy completely beyond musket range. The musket, always a muzzleloader, took minutes to reload; an archer could aim and fire up to a dozen arrows in a minute. Muskets required continual cleaning and repair; bows were quickly made and easily maintained. In 1595, by order of the Privy Council, the English armed services abandoned the longbow and fought with muskets for the next two centuries and more. Nobody is sure why.
Muzzleloading muskets were the firearm that the first settlers carried to America and virtually the only firearm available anywhere until the decade before the Civil War. The first muskets were matchlocks, heavy, clumsy weapons in which the charge was ignited …