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 Association1 ). 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 by manually touching a lighted fuse to a small “touch hole” in the breech. By the middle of the seventeenth century, after a variety of experiments, gunmakers came up with the flintlock, in which the pull of a trigger caused a flint to strike a spark in a pan of powder adjoining the touch hole. This was the most advanced long arm for soldiers until the flint was replaced by the percussion cap in the 1840s. Muskets became less cumbersome and a little more reliable over the years, but they never attained the accuracy or the range of the longbow.
Muskets doubtless played a role in the European conquest of America, but it was a minor one. Both in the initial encounters and in later warfare with Indian tribes in the interior, it was axes, swords, and knives fashioned from European steel that gave the settlers their technological advantage. With the development of the flintlock, muskets came into play but principally in the hands of the Indians themselves, enlisted in their own destruction by the settlers as allies in warfare, one tribe against another or against the French. Although Indians continued to use their bows, which had a shorter range than the longbow, they were evidently as enchanted by guns as the English were. With their woodland skills in stalking they could use muskets more effectively than the English. “By the mid-eighteenth century,” Bellesiles says, “the Eastern Woodlands Indians possessed more firearms per capita than any other society in the world.”
The same was not true of the English. And here we reach another mystery: more than one knowledgeable observer thought not only that the settlers were all armed but that they were crack shots with guns that were incapable of accuracy. William Blathwayt, the auditor-general of the colonies, who was as well informed about them as anyone in England, stated in 1691 that “there is no Custom more generally to be observed among the Young Virginians than that they all Learn to keep and use a gun with a Marvelous dexterity as soon as ever they have strength enough to lift it to their heads.” A few years later Robert Beverly, a Virginian, wrote that “the People there are very Skilful in the use of Fire-Arms, being all their Lives accustom’d to shoot in the Woods.” Most of the colonies required every freeman to own a gun and to serve in the militia with it. Bellesiles cites these laws and the belief they supported then and now of widespread ownership and use of guns in America. He then mounts a barrage of evidence to show that guns, except for trade with the Indians, were much too scarce in America before the 1840s for many people to have had one. He does not contend that Americans did not have guns, but that they did not have many and did not make much use of them.
The evidence is overwhelming. First of all are probate records. Presumably guns were most needed on the frontier, but only 14 percent of inventories from the frontier regions of northern New England and western Pennsylvania, from 1765 to 1790, included firearms, half of them listed as not in working order. Probate records show no marked increase until the 1840s and 1850s. Militia musters confirm the scarcity and the lack of familiarity with guns. At the siege of Louisburg in 1745, the only major military undertaking by any of the colonies on their own, the American commander found that his New Hampshire troops all had to be taught how to fire a gun. When the French and Indian War of 1754-1763 began, records of the Massachusetts militia musters show that only between 15 and 25 percent of the men in different companies had firearms. In Virginia 25 percent was the average.
The situation was no different in the independent nation. In 1838 the secretary of war, Joel Poinsett, complained that a majority of the militia he saw mustered were “armed with walking canes, fowling pieces, or unserviceable muskets.” The militia, who theoretically and legally included all ablebodied men, were not only unarmed but could not be trusted to care for any weapons supplied them (muskets, made of iron, not steel, were quickly disabled by rust). The colonies and later the states therefore had to maintain arsenals or storehouses where guns could be kept for use in time of need. When that time came in wars with the Indians and the French, governments learned to enlist and train special forces for the duration and to supply them with the necessary arms. But they seldom had enough to go around.
If Americans had been widely equipped with guns, they would have required a substantial number of gunsmiths to make guns and service them. Until the 1840s guns were made, one at a time, by hand. Demand for them in America was simply too small to support any substantial number of smiths devoted exclusively to the task. Almost all American guns were therefore imported from England, but merchants’ account books seldom mention them. There were a few American gunsmiths, frequently serving also as blacksmiths and only rarely located in frontier regions. They made gun barrels but imported the locks (firing mechanisms) from England and generally confined themselves to repairing and cleaning the assembled weapons. After the Revolution the United States government stepped in with the creation of armories at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which developed manufacture by interchangeable parts in 1842 (an invention earlier but fraudulently claimed by Eli Whitney). Thereafter private and public production could expand to meet, however belatedly, the demand for guns created by the Mexican War and the Civil War.
Those guns, whether produced in public armories or by private gunsmiths, were still smoothbore, muzzle-loading muskets. Rifling had been invented in Germany in the fifteenth century, and gunsmiths in Pennsylvania turned out enough guns with rifling to supply a company or two in the Revolutionary War. But both sides discounted their military value because they took much longer to load than muskets (driving an oversized lead ball down the muzzle with a ramrod and a mallet). That disadvantage ended with the invention of the MiniĂŠ bullet in 1849 and the development of breech-loading rifles in the 1850s and 1860s. Until then a few hunters who could afford the price might carry privately made muzzleloading rifles; but in warfare the standard practice for infantry was to fire a single volley from muskets at short range, without attempting to aim, and then charge with swords or knives or hatchets and, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, with bayonets.
The fact that muskets were effective only at close range did not bother armies because after the abandonment of the longbow they fought at close range, and mainly with cold steel. It did not bother ordinary Americans because they did not have much use for firearms anyhow. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries most Americans were farmers. Muskets would have been small protection against marauding Indians, and hunting was too chancy and too costly a way to put meat on the table. As Bellesiles puts it, “Most Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries got almost all their meat from domesticated animals, and it was rather unusual to use a musket to slaughter a cow or pig.” Even the famous mountain men of the West preferred traps to guns. Migrants on the Oregon Trail were warned that relying on hunting for food “would, in nine cases out of ten, result in immediate or ultimate starvation.”
Before the 1840s Americans were less disorderly than is generally supposed, but when they did resort to violence against one another, they seldom made use of firearms. Before the 1850s riots were not accompanied by gunfire. Vigilante groups “tended to beat and hang; they rarely shot,” and their victims rarely defended themselves with arms, probably because they did not have them. Pistols, like muskets, were single-shot and smoothbore; duels usually ended with honor defended and neither party injured. Murders were committed with knives, not guns.
Michael A. Bellesiles, "The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865," Journal of American History, September 1996.↩
Michael A. Bellesiles, “The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760-1865,” Journal of American History, September 1996.↩