Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston; drawing by David Levine

1.

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.

Advertisement

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 Minié 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.”

Advertisement

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.

The American love affair with guns, what Bellesiles calls the “national gun culture,” began in the 1820s as a “subculture” among gentlemen who could afford expensive rifles and who sought to emulate the English gentry. Hunting in England had always been reserved for the gentry and aristocracy. Now Americans aspiring to social distinction formed hunting clubs and began to speak of guns with affection, as works of art, and with pride, as emblems of masculinity and of social rank. “Pot hunters” who shot for the table were despised. As tension between North and South developed in the 1830s and continued to mount, hunting clubs were joined by volunteer military clubs, building on the tradition of the moribund universal militia.

At the same time violence became ever more common and guns ever more often its instruments. Slavery had always rested on violence against slaves, but now its defenders directed violence against anyone who threatened the peculiar institution. Mobs, gathered for whatever purpose, could turn from fists and clubs to guns and sometimes did. Guns shed the blood in “bleeding Kansas.” The gun replaced the knife as the principal weapon in murders. By 1850, Bellesiles says, “carrying a gun had become a firm part of male identity for a significant number of Americans.” The Civil War made it so for a much larger number, as returning veterans carried their guns with them. The facts had finally caught up with the myth.

2.

Bellesiles has given us the facts. He arrays them relentlessly against the myth in what sometimes reads a little too much like a lawyer’s brief. Although he marshals figures to show again and again the dearth of guns for the militia and their incompetence in using them, he neglects to give us the numbers for their spectacular stand at Bunker Hill, where they inflicted 1,054 casualties on British regulars while suffering only 411 themselves.2 In demonstrating the ineffectiveness of musket shots he cites an estimate of 460 shots fired by the British in the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 for each casualty inflicted. But in calculating the effectiveness of the militia at Lexington and Concord, he writes: “A total of 3,763 Americans are known to have participated in this long day of battle. Not all of them held guns, and not all fired, but among them they hit 273 British.” He then excuses this poor showing with the comment, “Expert marksmanship requires training, good equipment, and a regular supply of ammunition for practice. These farmers rarely practiced, generally had no ammunition, and owned old muskets, not rifles, if they owned a gun at all.” On his own showing, the undergunned and untrained farmers did better than the British regulars at Vitoria.

Nevertheless, Bellesiles’s brief is convincing. He requires us to reconsider, indeed to reverse, the common view of the role of firearms in early America. He is content to show that the view is wrong, which is no small achievement. But he leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the significance of his findings. What he does not attempt to explain is why the supposition he refutes has prevailed so widely and so long, not just today but almost from the beginning.

We all know that people believe what they want to believe. And we know why the National Rifle Association wants to believe that early Americans were as well equipped with arms as their overequipped descendants. But why did people at the time want to believe it? And why did they amend the Constitution to protect as a right something that had formerly been made a duty by laws that were never enforced? Why did they justify the amendment with a preamble attributing to the militia a power and a function it had never served as “necessary to the security of a free State”?

The only security the militia had ever offered in either England or America was in suppressing the discontent of people who had reason to think the state was not free. The only consistently active militia in America had been the patrols that kept slaves in their place in the southern colonies and states. Militia had also come alive to put down the Regulators in North Carolina in 1771 and Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787. But the idea that they could be relied on for security against a foreign enemy had served only to complicate the task Americans assigned to Washington in the Revolutionary War. Washington recognized from the outset that in the long run militia could never overcome a regular army, and the run was only made longer by American infatuation with the idea that they could. The Second Amendment and the popular demands for it implied that the people already had the arms they must be allowed to keep. The Pennsylvania and New Hampshire ratifying conventions, for example, would have worded the amendment to forbid Congress from disarming the people. The question remains, why? How did the illusion begin and why did it continue, as it does full-blown in the recent cinematic fantasy The Patriot?

Obviously, there can be no simple answer. The question is a part of the larger one of American identity, which Americans—or at least Anglo-European Americans—have been puzzling over since they first arrived here. One may now suggest a new perspective on the role that guns have played and have not played in the construction of that identity. It is a truism that people frequently identify themselves by differentiation from what they are not. The first English settlers shared in the standard English identification of themselves as, among other things, not French. One expression of that difference was a belief that ordinary Englishmen made better soldiers than French peasants and that their superiority derived from the security of their lands from arbitrary taxation. The belief originated at a time when English yeomen were armed, not only with property, but with longbows. They carried them for the king in time of war as good subjects in duty bound, and famously overcame the French with them at Agincourt. The belief in their prowess and its causes survived the change from bows to muskets, despite the fact that English laws already forbade ordinary men to acquire guns, and despite the fact that soldiers were now professionals recruited from the penniless and requiring extended special training.

That English yeomen were no longer armed did not prevent Sir Walter Raleigh from arguing, early in the seventeenth century, that “the strength of England doth consist of the People and Yeomanry, the Peasants of France have no courage or arms.” Raleigh explained the difference by what was becoming a matter of principle as one of the rights of Englishmen: freedom from taxation without consent. It was already argued in Parliament in 1610 that without this freedom the people would “grow both poor and base-minded like to the peasants in other countries, which be no soldiers nor will be ever made any, whereas every Englishman is as fit for a soldier as the gentlemen elsewhere.” Francis Bacon, the great advocate of empirical evidence, held it impossible “that a people overlaid with taxes should ever become valiant and martial,” but taxes “levied by consent of the estate do abate men’s courage less.” Hence again the advantage of England over France “in regard the middle people of England make good soldiers, which the peasants of France do not.” And Bacon warned against letting the aristocracy multiply at the expense of the middle people.

The construction of English iden-tity out of freedom from arbitrary taxation, in association with the ownership of land and arms, continued in the seventeenth century with the overthrow of monarchs who challenged it. James Harrington, who was to become a favorite of Revolutionary Americans, gave the usual explanation of English superiority to France: “The true cause whence England hath been an overmatch in arms for France lay in the communication or distribution of property unto the lower sort.” He too would have limited the growth of the aristocracy. And he went on to affirm the invincibility of any army composed of a country’s solid property-owners (like Cromwell’s) against one built by a king out of a degraded population “wherefore an example of such an one [an army of independent landowners] overcome by the arms of a monarch, is not to be found in the world….”

When James II was ousted in the Revolution of 1688, it did not matter that it was done by William of Orange at the head of an army of Dutch professionals. William was obliged to accept a Parliamentary Declaration of Rights forbidding him a standing army and guaranteeing the right of the people to bear arms. Arms were in fact no more widely borne in England than in her colonies. Indeed, laws limiting hunting to the well-to-do ensured that most of the population would be unarmed. And England’s eighteenth-century militia was no more effective and no better armed than those in the colonies. But English identity still required a superiority to France in the security of property and the military valor that supposedly accompanied it. Wooden shoes became a symbol of French poverty and popery, and “no wooden shoes” the most common patriotic slogan in English political contests.

Americans, in their resistance to taxation by a Parliament in which they were not represented, demonstrated their attachment to the identity which the English had earlier established. American Revolutionaries continually maintained that they were a saving remnant, fighting for the lost rights of Englishmen. They were encouraged in their resistance by eighteenth-century English political thinkers, in the tradition of Harrington, who sustained the myth of the armed yeoman in a republican ideology of opposition to standing armies, to restrictions on gun ownership, and to the corrupt oligarchy of placeholders that had squeezed out the middle people. Creating a separate American identity, whatever it later became, was at first a matter of sustaining in America what a corrupt government had destroyed in England. Americans, or at least free white Americans, were still mainly middle people owning their own land, and like seventeenth-century Englishmen, they equated their status with the possession of guns they did not have. To win independence, Washington had to build an army of professionals, crucially assisted by an army and navy formed from the despised French peasants. But in the customary defiance of facts, Americans maintained their identification as an armed citizenry fighting the mercenaries of a monarch.

Benjamin Franklin, recognized then and now as the embodiment of what made Americans American, exercised his pragmatic realism by promoting the manufacture of guns and ammunition and, until a sufficient amount could be made, the use of bows and arrows. “These,” he said, “were good Weapons, not wisely laid aside,” and cited their role in England’s victories over France in the fourteenth century. At the same time he placed his confidence in Americans as the kind of people the English had then been. Franklin, who had consorted in London with English republicans at their “Club of Honest Whigs,” was ready before most of his countrymen to cut loose from the existing English government. He had witnessed its corruption at first hand in his ten years of dealings with it as agent for the American colonies. To those who held back from independence, he repeated the same aphorisms with which Bacon and Harrington had flattered the English in the preceding century. Americans, he wrote in 1775, would “find by Experience how inefficient [and] merely mercenary the regular Troops are, when oppos’d to Freeholders and Freemen, fighting for their Liberties and Properties. A Country of such People was never yet conquer’d (unless through their own Divisions) by any absolute Monarch with his Mercenaries.” A year later Franklin presided over a convention to draft a constitution for Pennsylvania that affirmed the right to bear arms and narrowly missed including a Harringtonian provision for the wide distribution of property.

After the war was won by professionals, Americans celebrated the victory by attributing it to their own virtue as freeholders and freemen, fighting for hearth and home with their trusty flintlocks.3 American identity apparently required the preservation of the myth. Ironically, the myth became reality only when Americans fought each other in what was then the bloodiest war in history. From that war grew a new identity, in which firearms have played a deadlier role than they could when their presence was more imaginary. Bellesiles has deprived modern gun owners of the portion of our past that has lent the most respectability to their claims of historic validity. The true believers among them will doubtless reject or ignore the embarrassing evidence: true believers are seldom troubled by facts. The Second Amendment protects the right of Americans to bear arms. The absolutist dogmas that have grown up around the amendment serve only to obscure the task of interpretation by imposing a bogus historicity on the realities of gun ownership and use in early America. Bellesiles will have done us all a service if his book reduces the credibility of the fanatics who endow the Founding Fathers with posthumous membership in what has become a cult of the gun.

This Issue

October 19, 2000