Setting

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

In 1768, Cornish McManus is becoming a master builder of rifles in a town near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His care in his work is not appreciated by his master John Wainwright, who manufactures rifles quickly. He lives in an era in which many Americans use firearms to stay alive, as hunting is a way of life. Rifles are especially valued because they are more accurate than other guns. "Since missing can mean starving or even death," having an accurate weapon is important, and McManus's skills are valuable. When he opens his own gun shop, he becomes very busy with making and repairing guns.
While McManus is building his business, tensions between the American colonies and England are increasing due to the English raising taxes on American goods. During this time he finds among the rough stocks of wood cut for him by a carpenter a particularly beautiful, well-balanced one that inspires him to make a special rifle. After many months of work, the rifle becomes a thing of beauty. Not really wanting to part with it, he eventually sells it to John Byam, a frontiersman unacquainted with the outbreak of violence between England and the colonies.

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When Byam sees a good and decent farmer hanged by British soldiers, he becomes a partisan, using his beautiful rifle to deadly effect against British officers. The Revolutionary War would last many years, but Byam falls prey to dysentery in the trenches of the colonial army. The gun is taken away, left in the rafters of an old house and forgotten.

The next major setting is Midwestern America in 1993. The rifle was eventually found, sold, and resold until it ended up in the hands of Tim Harrow, who transports it to Missouri and trades it for repairs to his motor home. The rifle is then placed over the fireplace mantel—along with a painting of Elvis on a horse.

In Colorado, Richard Mesington is running somewhat wild while his parents try to pull together their lives. He has a pet dog with whom he spends much of his time exploring. When his father gets a new job in Missouri, he moves with his family to a new home next to the house where the rifle is kept. There, Richard seems to have an average life, even though he is introverted. On one side of his home is the home of a man who flew fighters in World War II; Richard makes model airplanes, and he learns from the man about what one of the real airplanes was like. All in all, there is nothing special about the place except that it is home and the people of the community take a friendly interest in the welfare of one another.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370

The Rifle is written in three movements and an anti-climax. There is nothing particularly classical about how the movements are structured. The first two introduce sets of events that are very distinct from one another. One depicts the life of a weapon, explaining how it came to be and how people could admire, even "worship" it. The other tells of a boy removed by more than two hundred years and thousands of miles from where the rifle was made and where the people who used it lived. The two are contrasts: Richard lives in an age when rifles are not necessary to survival. He is growing up, becoming a unique personality, with experiences helping to shape him. On the other hand, once made, the rifle is a static thing. It does not grow as Richard does; it does not become a truer shot for its experience. Further, one lives while the other takes lives. Paulsen's fiction is full of concern for young adults killed before they are grown; often, these are young men killed in war. In The Rifle, there is no war, no reason for there to be a gun. This is where the third movement "The Joining" comes in. There is nothing to connect Richard to the rifle. He wages no war, commits no crimes, but lives the shy life of a fourteen-year-old boy just beginning to open up, to share with others, as he does with the World War II veteran. In the third movement, events narrow down, as if in a funnel. Rifle and boy draw closer, then a ball joins them. He never sees the rifle; the rifle, had it eyes, could not have seen him. That the events seem capricious and pointless is, in fact, the point. No one chooses to kill Richard; the rifle does simply because it is loaded and does what loaded rifles do.

The anticlimax, titled "The Rifle," is interesting in the context of the meaninglessness of Richard's death. Two families suffer; one falls to pieces. A man, a stranger to the others, picks up the rifle. The ominous ending is not just for rhetorical effect— although it succeeds at that—but to remind that the rifle can still kill.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Paulsen deserves credit for delivering to his young audience a novel that takes their minds seriously. Every sentence of The Rifle speaks of his respect for his audience's ability to think. The central issue of The Rifle is one that stirs hot, often angry, sometimes violent debate among Americans. The issue may be summed up by the old cliche "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Paulsen disagrees with this, and The Rifle is his explanation of how he views weapons.

He is uncomplimentary in his portrait of those who belief the cliche. For instance, Tim Harrow is an idiot savant, selfish, a liar, and without comprehension of the principles he believes he has:

In his [Harrow's] life, in all his life—or virtually all the lives of all the thousands and even millions of men who were weapons enthusiasts, who believed in the right to keep and bear arms, who swore that they would be unsafe without a weapon, in all his life he would never need a gun nor use a gun to defend himself or his property.

The fault in such people as Harrow in The Rifle is that they do not know what they are talking about. They do not understand the purposes of weapons and how they may be put to use.

Paulsen also touches on a hot issue that has become a symbol that shows up in literature and on television, the disaster in Waco, Texas, when some federal agents were killed and eventually religious cultists and their children were killed. On his radio, Harrow hears that "a large religious encampment in Texas had been raided and burned and all the people killed in the action," and he later notes that it happened in Waco. The introduction of this inflammatory incident in The Rifle is somewhat ambiguous, but it may imply that people were killed over weapons for which they had no legitimate use.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Buchholz, Rachel. "My Life's Work: Author." Boys' Life 85, 12 (December 1995): 28-30. Mentions how Paulsen uses his personal experiences in his fiction.

Deveraux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen: A Taste for Adventure and an Obsessive Work Ethic Are This Versatile Writer's Hallmarks." Publishers Weekly 241, 13 (March 28, 1994): 70-71. Mentions Paulsen's participation in the Iditarod.

Diehl, Digby. "Author, Author!" Modern Maturity 38, 4 (July-August 1995): 12. A profile of Paulsen.

Edwards, Carol A. School Library Journal 41, 10 (October 1995): 1. The Rifle is a praiseworthy effort.

Gale, David. "The Maximum Expression of Being Human." School Library Journal 43, 6 (June 1997): 24-29. Commentary with an interview on Paulsen's career. Lempke, Susan Dove. Booklist 92, 2 (September 15, 1995): 153-154. Admires The Rifle.

Paulsen, Gary. "The Booklist Interview: Gary Paulsen." Booklist (January 1,1999): 864. In an interview by Stephanie Zvirin, Paulsen mentions the importance of reading when he was young. "I was an 'at risk' kid, as they are called now, and a poor student," says Paulsen. About Soldier's Heart, he says, "It's truth I'm after. No part of the Civil War was nice."

——. Eastern Sun, Winter Moon: An Autobiographical Odyssey. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. An account of Paulsen's life during World War II and in the Philippines. Its style is as blunt as that of Soldier's Heart. There is an analysis of Eastern Sun, Winter Moon in volume 8 of Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults.

——. My Life in Dog Years. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers (Random House), 1998. This collection of Paulsen's experiences with dogs contains a few parallels to the experiences of Richard Mesington in The Rifle.

——. "Write What You Are." Writer's Digest 74, 7 (July 1994): 42-45. In this interview by Cheryl Bartky, Paulsen talks about experiences that are sources for his books.

Publishers Weekly 242, 33 (August 14, 1995): 85-86. The Rifle makes a good point.

Roback, Diane. "Paulsen Inks Long-Term Deal with HB." Publishers Weekly 240, 6 (February 8, 1993): 10. About Paulsen's relationship with Harcourt Brace.

Weidt, Maryann N. "The Fortunes of Poverty." Writer's Digest 72, 1 (January 1992): 8. According to Paulsen, the best writing advice is "Learn to live with poverty."

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