Michael A. Bellesiles is a professor of history and violence studies at Emory University, and the author of Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (1993). In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Bellesiles has written a work which not only illuminates the past through its reassessment of early America’s relationship with guns but also has the capability to contribute to the current debate regarding the availability of guns and the resulting violence in the United States.
One of the enduring American myths which supposedly differentiated Americans from Europeans was the former’s acquaintance with and reliance upon guns. American success, American identity, and America itself were tied up with the belief that from the earliest settlements, the colonists had a plentitude of guns, were expert in their use, and used them regularly in hunting wild animals for food and in defending their homes and families against the Native American “savages.” The victory over Mother England in 1776, the myth asserts, was due to the bravery of the ordinary American who left hearth and family, farm and workshop, to win freedom and liberty from the class-bound British. The potency of this myth has allowed such advocates as the National Rifle Association (NRA) to demand the right of any American to own and use any weapon, relying upon the Second Amendment as the ark of the constitutional covenant, and has justified Hollywood’s version of the triumph of the common citizen in the Revolutionary struggle through such films as The Patriot (2000). According to Bellesiles, it is a powerful myth, but it is just a myth. History, he claims, has a different tale to tell.
Bellesiles has marshaled considerable evidence in support of his thesis that, until the eve of the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans had no guns, the guns that were available were often not in operational condition, and most guns when fired never hit their target, be it man or beast. Not only was gun ownership rare, it was the American governments—colonial, state, and national—which encouraged Americans to acquire guns and become expert in their use. Also, he notes, it was not until America moved to the city that firearms become more common, and it was not until the United States began to industrialize in the mid-nineteenth century that reliable weapons were manufactured. Government involvement was crucial. Private enterprise was unable to arm America without government support and encouragement, both financial and technological. His argument is not new, but until the publication of Arming America, the thesis had been restricted to a few specialists in military history. In contrast, Bellesiles’s current study was reviewed widely and not just in specialized journals available only to professional historians.
The story of the arming of America begins in Europe, where guns were reluctantly incorporated into warfare, a novelty which was unpredictable in battle and possibly threatening to the ruling classes. Smooth-bore muskets, with matchlock firing mechanisms, were expensive, heavy, bulky, and inaccurate in battle, having an effective range of no more than forty feet or so. The traditional archer could fire faster, farther, and with greater accuracy. Even after the adoption of the flintlock, which remained the standard well into the nineteenth century, the guns were often uncertain, being useless in rain and misfiring approximately one-quarter of the time. There were no standards in manufacturing, and repair possibilities were haphazard at best. In seventeenth century England guns were rare, controlled by the government, and only slowly became a status symbol of the upper classes. Usual weapons of violence were pikes, pitchforks, swords, and the like, but not guns.
In the conquest of the Western Hemisphere, European victories over the native inhabitants were the result of disease and centralized political control rather than firearms. Colonial wars saw more people killed by swords, axes, and fire than guns, as firearms were unpredictable and inaccurate: Muskets were not “aimed” but “leveled” against a foe. The rifle was more accurate, but the famous Kentucky long rifle required three minutes for reloading and the bullet could easily get stuck in the barrel, rending the weapon unworkable. Muskets remained the preferred weapon of war well into the nineteenth century, with combatants firing a single volley which was then followed by an infantry charge with bayonets or even axes.
Although firearms were relatively inconsequential in explaining the conquest of the Americas, the native peoples quickly acquired guns. Bellesiles states that by the mid-eighteenth century, firearms played a far more significant role in the Native American warrior cultures than in the agricultural society of European Americans. Yet even among the natives it was the prestige of the gun which counted, not its...
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