Learning to Love the Gun

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Michael A. Bellesiles. Alfred A. Knopf, 603 pages, $30.00.

It is as if Michael A. Bellesiles has overturned a table on which rested everything we thought we knew about guns in early America. The image of the rifle hanging over every American mantel, of settlers depending upon their guns to hunt and feed themselves and protect their communities against Indian attack, of frontier Americans becoming skilled marksmen on farms and in the backwoods, of the colonial militiamen rushing from their homes with muskets in hand to face the Redcoats, of the American founders believing in an individual's right to keep and bear arms, of a Wild West inhabited by gun-toting cowboys--all of this turns out to be myth.

Bellesiles, a history professor at Emory University, explores the development of an American gun culture by following the hardware. He relentlessly focuses on the guns themselves: how many there were, who made them, who had them, where they were kept, how they were used. Two broad themes emerge. First, rather than being symbols of rugged individualism or liberty, guns in early America were considered community property and were subject to strict governmental regulation--stricter than anything even imagined today. Second, rather than being ubiquitous in the American frontier, there were few guns in America until after the Mexican War in 1846.

No one knows who invented the gun--that is, the device that uses gunpowder to propel a projectile. Guns first appear in a European drawing in 1326 and in a Chinese drawing six years later. The Europeans pursued firearm development aggressively. Henry VII, who assumed the English crown in 1485, was the first monarch to regulate firearms. He outlawed the wheel lock because he feared it had the potential to make the poor powerful. His successors and Parliament followed suit. In 1541 Parliament enacted legislation allowing only nobles and wealthy property owners to have guns.

By the end of the sixteenth century, guns were replacing longbows and crossbows in the English army. Here we encounter a paradox: The English army turned to guns while bows were still the superior weapon. An archer could shoot 12 arrows in the time it took a rifleman to load a musket. Guns were wildly inaccurate beyond 10 yards, while the longbow had an effective range of up to 300 yards. Nevertheless, in 1595 the Privy Council discontinued archers in English forces.

What explains this? Bellesiles believes the government preferred firearms because they gave it greater control. Forces--particularly the civilian militia--armed with bows could turn against the government. It was not hard to replace bows, make arrows, or train archers. Firearms were an entirely different matter. By maintaining strict control over the production and possession of guns and gunpowder, the government could effectively control weaponry and the capacity to wage war. Militiamen were not permitted to keep guns at home; guns were stored in government magazines. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the government proclaimed that all guns in England were state property subject to regulation and could be seized at any time. Gunmakers were required to notify the government of every firearm sold and the name of the purchaser.

This was the heritage that settlers brought with them to the New World. From 1610 onward, Virginia's policy was that all guns belonged to the colony's arsenal. Throughout the colonies, gun possession was not a right but a duty imposed on certain citizens--generally white, Protestant, male property owners. In Maryland anyone declining militia service forfeited his guns to the colony. Connecticut made all guns state property and enacted a law requiring towns to supply guns to all Protestant males over the age of 16 (a mandate the towns generally ignored because guns were too expensive). New York, New Hampshire, and South Carolina required that guns be stored in specified locations. Virginia law, inspired first by fear of Indian attack and later by fear of slave insurrections, required freemen to carry their guns with them to church on Sunday. These and other regulations applied to all guns, regardless of whether they were privately purchased or supplied by the government.

There was, in fact, much regulation but few firearms. During the colonial period, the price of a flintlock rifle was the equivalent of two months' wages for the average freeman. Few people considered this a smart investment. Unlike today's durable guns, eighteenth-century firearms--when properly cared for by professionals--had a life expectancy of about five years. But guns, made from iron, quickly rusted without constant cleaning, whether used or not, and few Americans knew how to care for them. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, George Washington lamented not only how few Americans had guns, but how little they knew about them. Most had never fired a gun; and those who came to fight the British with a family gun often produced a weapon that no longer worked. Even guns stored in armories had often been allowed to fall into disrepair.

But Americans had little reason to spend money and time on guns. Ninety-five percent of colonists were farmers. They got meat from domesticated animals and hides from professional hunters, who found trapping more efficient than hunting. Farmers, too, used traps rather than guns to protect crops from varmints.

Bellesiles's research sheds new light on exactly how many American colonists owned firearms. The author examined 1,200 probate records from the frontier areas of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the period 1765 to 1790. These records are considered highly reliable; it was the practice to list everything, right down to broken cups and bent spoons. Less than 15 percent of the records showed firearm ownership. Moreover, 53 percent of the guns are described as broken or otherwise nonfunctional.

There were more guns in the South, not surprisingly, because they played a role in slave control. But guns were also present in more urban than frontier homes. Providence, Rhode Island, had the highest known rate of gun ownership. Guns, as it turns out, were not tools but status symbols. Wealthy Americans trying to emulate English gentry purchased firearms from famous French or English gunsmiths. As a gift for his stepson, George Washington ordered a fowling piece with a walnut stock, a silver sight, and silver mountings, together with a special carrying case, from the London gunsmith John Brazier, for which he paid a sum equal to the average artisan's wages over two years.

Compare Bellesiles's discovery that only 7 percent of homes had working guns at the founding of the Republic with today's reality: Guns are present in about 40 percent of U.S. homes. This research is startling--not only for Charlton Heston and his National Rifle Association minions who want to cling to the belief that guns are an American heritage--but for historians who have long assumed that, as one put it, colonial America was "the most heavily armed society in the world." Bellesiles quotes several such histories, finds that the writers offer no supporting evidence, and then furnishes mountains of evidence to the contrary. He examines not only probate records but records reflecting the numbers of gun manufacturers, gunsmiths, domestic gun production, gun imports, gunpowder production, gun censuses, and requisition efforts from the French and Indian Wars through the Civil War. The data are remarkably consistent. Bellesiles shows that few Americans had guns until after the Mexican War.

The image of an armed civilian militia also implodes under the weight of the evidence. Despite repeated efforts to reform them, the militias consistently proved themselves useless for anything other than slave control. Even before the Revolutionary War, several states gave up trying to maintain militias. Notwithstanding the image of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, the militias were a disaster during the war. Most individuals knew neither how to shoot nor how to fight. "I solemnly declare I never was witness to a single instance that can countenance an opinion of Militia or raw troops being fit for the real business of fighting," declared Washington. So often did militiamen run in the face of danger that it became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units between and in front of Continental troops, who were ordered to shoot the first militiamen to bolt. By 1779 Congress acceded to Washington's requests and stopped trying to use militias.

After the war, the militias were so ridiculous, and militiamen such abysmal shots, that states made it unlawful to mock them during musters. In his first presidential address, Thomas Jefferson said that "a well-disciplined militia [is] our best reliance in peace, and for the first moments of war, till regulars relieve them." By his second term, he too had given up, declaring that the nation "would have to settle for a standing army." In 1814 a British force of 4,370 sacked Washington although, in theory, 50,000 American militiamen were within a day's march. Few of them came. A small Virginia force showed up with a limited number of guns and no flints (without which flintlocks cannot fire). Between 1844 and 1850, 10 mostly northern states officially ended their militia systems. Bellesiles writes that "if not for the terror of slave rebellions, the militia would have vanished from sight in South Carolina and every other southern state."

America certainly has a gun culture today. Bellesiles finds its origins in two early-nineteenth-century subcultures--one of southern plantation owners, the other of wealthy urban merchants--who took up hunting as a gentleman's sport, complete with luxurious hunting lodges and slaves carrying elaborate provisions for plantation owners. Publications such as American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine--sort of a forerunner of the NRA's American Hunter and American Rifleman--sprang up. Then, much as these groups sought to emulate British aristocracy, middle-class Americans sought to emulate them, and hunting clubs and pistol galleries became the vogue.

But the real credit goes to Samuel Colt, the industrial revolution, and clever marketing. Colt got his start selling revolvers to Zachary Taylor's army during the Mexican War. After the war, Colt began producing elegant revolvers for gentleman hunters and then hit upon a better idea. After securing a contract with the Texas Rangers, he began featuring Ranger testimonials in newspaper advertisements. Colt's "six-shooter is the arm which has rendered the name of Texas Ranger a check and terror to bands of our frontier Indians," a Ranger proclaimed in some of the ads. Colt associated his gun with the romance of the West in other ways as well, even using portraits of himself hunting buffalo with his revolver. Meanwhile, the development of interchangeable parts and the self-contained metal cartridge (invented by Colt but first produced by Smith and Wesson) were making guns practical for nonprofessionals.

By 1859 a third of probate records--and 40 percent in the South--listed guns. "Gunmakers convinced an ever-widening audience that they needed guns in order to be real Americans," writes Bellesiles. "By the middle of the decade, the subculture of firearms enthusiasts had become mainstream, with middle-class men joining prestigious militia units and hunting clubs, and with pistols becoming a popular murder weapon."

America, of course, has never been the same. ยค