Published January, 2001, in Playboy Magazine, page 69.
Arming America: when did we become a gun culture?BY James R. Petersen
We all have an image of the early American: frontier settler armed with a flintlock, taking on savages to create the New World. In his book A Way Through the Wilderness: The Natchez Trace and the Civilization of the Southern Frontier, historian William Davis wrote, "Every cabin had at least one rifle and perhaps an old pistol or two. They put meat on the table, defended the home against intruders and provided some entertainment to the men. A man was not a man without knowledge of firearms and some skill in their use." We have a similar image of the rebellious American as a member of a well-armed populace, ready to repel tyrants. In the days before the Revolution, Americans such as Richard Henry Lee boasted that Virginia could alone furnish 6000 "Rifle Men" who could regularly hit an orange at 200 yards. Unlike most nations of the world, the message said, we are armed and dangerous.
The founding fathers enshrined this defiance in the Second Amendment, dictating that "a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Unfortunately neither image is supported by historical evidence. This past fall Michael Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University, published the groundbreaking book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.
Bellesiles' research calls into question the National Rifle Association's argument that guns are part of our heritage, that the founding fathers wanted a musket in every home, that the Second Amendment created a personal right to bear arms.
He went looking for evidence of gun use in early America and found that "when the brave patriot reached above the mantel, he pulled down a rusting, decaying, unusable musket, not a rifle, or he found no gun there at all."
An ardent trapshooter, Bellesiles is no stranger to guns as sport, but his preferred method of self-defense is martial arts. When he first described his findings in The Journal of American History in 1966, he became the target of gun nuts, one of whom set fire to his front door. We found him to be entertaining (he told us the first rule of aikido was "run"), but also were seduced by the array of evidence he has gathered to support his viewpoint.
PLAYBOY: The latest pop culture image of the Revolution is Mel Gibson in The Patriot. He scoops a handful of muskets from under a bed, tucks a tomahawk into his belt and, with the help of two young boys, ambushes a column of British regulars, dispatching a dozen or so. What's wrong with this picture?
BELLESILES: Almost everything. That someone would keep a musket under his bed is remarkable. That the gun would be ready to go is almost unheard of. That would mean he had taken care of them regularly, cleaned them, kept them prepared, the flints ready, the powder dry, the shot right there at hand. And, to be as accurate as they were in the movie, the guns would have to be rifles, even though they look like muskets.
PLAYBOY: You claim the reason the American Revolution lasted eight years was that we had no weapons. Where did we get them, if not from under the bed?
BELLESILES: In the two years before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the militia of New England frantically prepared for what they knew was going to be a military conflict. They began stockpiling gunpowder and purchasing firearms from Europe--ironically, even from England--stockpiling them in the traditional centers for maintenance of weapons, which would be town halls. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts had 21,549 guns for a province of 250,000 people. Only the New England colonies were doing this; the rest were hopeful that peace could be maintained.
PLAYBOY: So the state was responsible for maintaining arms. Did this make us vulnerable to attack?
BELLESILES: The British moved to seize these stockpiles. When they marched into Lexington, the majority of the militia was unarmed. They did not own firearms, and the stockpiles had not been distributed. The militia had spent the evening hanging out in the pub, which was typical. There's every indication that John Parker, commander of the militia, was going to make the gesture of standing in the green, showing his opposition to a government action. But then, that famous shot was fired. The British were trained troops, were well armed and were able to mow down the militia. Most who weren't shot fled as quickly as they could without firing a shot in return. Indeed, of the 110 militia, only seven Americans pulled their triggers. There was only one injury among the British, an officer shot in the foot, perhaps by one of his own men.
When the British marched on Concord they faced a different situation. The militia was well armed from that stockpile of what were called state guns. After the initial confrontation at North Bridge, the conflict turned into a daylong running battle. The British were attacked with a variety of weapons. Colonials, for example, brought along their axes and pikes. The myth has the militia firing from behind trees and walls with great effect. At one point a group ambushed the retreating Major Pitcairn, firing from a distance of 10 yards. All missed. The major's horse bolted from fright, leaving him on the ground.
PLAYBOY: What was the marksmanship tally?
BELLESILES: The record is clear. A total of 3763 Americans, fighting all day, hit 273 British. Those who follow the exact details of Revolutionary battles--and this was studied immediately after the Revolution by the British, by Napoleon, by the great Continental armies--know exactly how many rounds are necessary to effectively damage the enemy. One general estimated that one half of one percent of all balls fired actually hit their target. The classic statement was that in order to kill a man with musket fire, it was necessary to fire seven times his weight in lead. And that's not too far off. It took between 50 and 50 pounds of lead per battlefield casualty. People would fire and fire and not hit much of anything. Even trained troops tended to fire too early and too high.
PLAYBOY: The phrase "can't hit the broadside of a barn" comes to mind.
BELLESILES: It is accurate. A favorite part of my research was reading the militia records. They had a wonderful sense of humor. Whenever they decided to have a shooting match, which was not often, they would know exactly the size of the target, how far away they were and the percentage of shots that hit the target. And generally a shooting match occurred between 20 feet and 50 feet. Even at the 20-foot range it was lucky if a third of the shots hit any part of the target, which was six feet high and four feet wide, the standard target. Yes, the side of a barn is about accurate.
PLAYBOY: If The Patriot is a myth, what about Deerslayer? How did we beat the Indians?
BELLESILES: One of the things we forget about the 17th century and 18th century is that America was one of the most forested places on earth. The trees were dense. It was almost unthinkable that you could get a clear shot at an opponent. The other thing we tend to forget about Colonial combat is the degree to which it was hand-to-hand close order. It was the way the Indians fought. They tried to get as close to the enemy as possible. But the settlers did not fight the Indians very often. They handed that task whenever possible to highly trained individuals, the frontier rangers. They fought like the Indians. They fought with axes, they fought with knives and they fought with bayonets. The bayonet was one of the most effective weapons of the 18th century. Behind artillery, it was one of the most deadly.
PLAYBOY: The picture you paint in the book is much darker. You quote one historian who says we "waged war against Indian cornfields." The strategy was starvation and slaughter.
BELLESILES: The strategy from 1609 on was always to go after the civilian base of the Indian population, to demoralize them by destroying not just their food supplies but whenever possible their families as well. Slaughtering the children. It shouldn't take a lot of imagination to understand how that would devastate an opponent.
PLAYBOY: How did we manage to put food on the table?
BELLESILES: Farming. Imagine. The way we still do. There's an amazing belief that everyone who believed in early America went out in the morning, shot a deer and dragged it back home, as though the deer were out there every morning eating lettuce. Unlike the Indians, we had domestic animals. Hunters were professionals. Ethan Allen, on the frontier of Vermont, was a professional hunter. He would go out and set traps. He would collect what he got from his traps. He used his gun rarely because it was expensive, inaccurate and inefficient. And the traps didn't damage the fur.
PLAYBOY: You suspected the image we have of a musket over every fireplace. When did you first begin to notice the missing guns?
BELLESILES: My field is legal history. I am interested in how the law affects economic relations. I was studying probate records, the most complete records, the most complete record of property ownership in early America. They contain lists of absolutely everything that a person owned--scraps of metal, broken glasses, bent spoons, broken plows. Everything was recorded because it was important to these families how the inheritance was going to be divided, especially given how little property there was. While studying these probate records, I realized I was not seeing guns. They were supposed to be in every single home. when I looked at the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and northern New England, I found guns in only 10 percent of the probate records, and half of those guns were not in working order. Since then, I've read 11,150 probate records, samples over a 100-year period, and I have found guns in 13 percent of the probate records. Prior to 1850, the gun is just not there.
What else did you look at?
BELLESILES: States kept inventories of weapons. That also was shocking to me, a gun owner, I'd always thought the guns weren't registered. We don't want the government to know who has guns and where. So I was surprised to find all the governments regularly took a census of firearms. They sent the constables door-to-door to ask, "What guns do you have? What condition are they in?" They felt is was essential to know who had guns, and how usable they were. There was no opposition. I wanted just one sentence, someone who thought it was wrong. But no one in any legislative record complained about the gun census.
PLAYBOY: How many guns did the states find in the census?
BELLESILES: It depends on the state. In the Colonial period, there were only enough guns for about one and a half to two percent of the populace. But individual surveys are revealing: At the end of the 17th century, Maryland legislatures tabulated the weaponry they had on hand. They found 20 muskets, 38 carbines, 16 bayonets, 16 swords, 56 fuses, 16 horse pistols and 78 barrels of powder accumulated over the previous 25 years but never used. Not a formidable array of weapons. By 1768, the inventory had grown, listing 200 muskets, 86 carbines and six pistols in usable condition. Another 400 muskets were "very rusty" or "without locks and not worth repairing." The Colonial legislature collected all these arms and put them in storage for safekeeping.
PLAYBOY: Who was allowed to own guns?
BELLESILES: Only white male Protestant property owners. Not indentured servants. Not slaves. Not Indians. Not Catholics. All the legislatures of the colonies passed laws controlling access to firearms, as well as the use of firearms. They reserved the right to seize weapons in times of emergencies, to hand them out to those better able to use them. Colonies forbade the use of firearms in connection with drinking or "entertainments." The frivolous shooting of a musket during a time of emergency was punishable by death. There were laws about how large the weapons could be, the size of the shot, the quality of powder. All of this was regulated, and continued to be after the Second Amendment was passed. I assumed that all gun laws would vanish, but they accelerated.
PLAYBOY: What did a gun cost in the 18th century.
BELLESILES: A functional gun would cost five to six pounds, which is equivalent to a year's wages for an unskilled laborer, about half a year's wages for a skilled artisan. It would be like me buying a Lamborghini.
PLAYBOY: How many gunsmiths were there?
BELLESILES: First off, there weren't that many gunsmiths in America. Primarily they made other things, such as axes and scythes. When it came to guns, they mostly repaired them. The few who did make guns were assembling parts that came from Europe. There was no one in America, prior to the 1790s, who could make a gunlock, the part that actually fires the gun. There was only one mill that made gunpowder--and it went out of business in 1750.
PLAYBOY: So how did we arm ourselves?
BELLESILES: We bought almost 100,000 firearms from the French and Dutch. After the Revolution, the government made guns a priority. One of the first acts of the new government was the creation of two armories at Harper's Ferry and Springfield, which started to produce arms at a rate of about 2000 a year.
PLAYBOY: The Second Amendment tied the right to bear arms to the concept of a well-regulated militia. The notion persisted that individual citizens would rise to protect the nation. Did this happen?
BELLESILES: There is no greater proof that the gun culture did not exist than the attack on Washington by 4300 mixed British troops in 1814. There were 50,000 militia within a day's march of the capitol. It was a complete disaster. The majority of the militia didn't show up. And most of those who did were unarmed. Those who were armed generally fled when fired upon by the British. Those few thousand British marched largely unopposed into the capitol and burned it.
PLAYBOY: The current gun debate is mired in homicide rates. If there were no gun culture in the Colonial era, how did we die?
BELLESILES: Scholars of violence who have looked at homicide found that there was little interpersonal violence in America prior to the 1840s. There was violence, but it was directed. It was state sanctioned. It was violence against slaves. It was violence against Indians. But it was not violence between individuals. These were peaceful communities. When I was doing my research, I found county court records that did not show a homicide in a 50-year period. The most violent counties averaged one homicide every four years. What was the weapon of choice? Generally, a bladed weapon, either an ax or a knife. I expected that to change in the 19th century, but prior to 1840, there just weren't that many murders. Maybe 80 percent of the cases involved bladed weapons. In contrast, today there are 24,000 homicides a year in America, in 70 percent of the cases the weapon used is a gun. Back then, the gun was unusual. If there's no gun in the house, because it's difficult to acquire, you're not going to use one.
PLAYBOY: Back then it took four minutes to load.
BELLESILES: And it was four feet long, even without the bayonet. Long and heavy. It's macabre, but in the cases where a gun was used, it was used as a club, to beat someone to death.
PLAYBOY: When did guns start to become attractive?
BELLESILES: In the 1930s America developed a hunting subculture. These were gentlemen, overwhelmingly members of the Eastern elite, both North and South, who luxuriated in the details of hunting. What they most cared about was the luxury of it all, of having the servants, the good food, the right clothes, the right gun. And the right gun, as every magazine and every advisor states, was an English gun. They were the best made, the most beautiful and the most accurate. This subculture lasted until the Civil War. I think it was instrumental in spreading the admiration for the firearms. There was emulation from below, the middle class wanted to be perceived as gentlemen, and one way of doing that was to join a hunting club. They couldn't afford the best English guns, so they bought Philadelphia guns. In magazines, the descriptions went from "he carried a gun" to specific, loving detail of every facet of the gun.
PLAYBOY: Gun porn?
BELLESILES: It's a form of pornography, the loving detail of the firearm, of the way you hold it, the way you use it. There were sensual descriptions of well-oiled stocks, long, gleaming barrels, delicate locks. The gun was cradled, caressed, hugged. The choice of words is often telling, but I'll leave that to someone else.
PLAYBOY: How about Samuel Colt?
BELLESILES: My man. I really admire Samuel Colt. The man attained perfect amorality. He was one of the greatest technical and marketing geniuses of American history. He perfected the revolver. He perfected its mass production and its sale. He crafted a message that appealed to tens of thousands of American men that you were more masculine if you owned a pistol, that you were more patriotic. And this is a message with which we still live.
PLAYBOY: Describe his ads.
BELLESILES: They generally portrayed a hostile world in which you as the gun owner stood alone and heroic in the defense of all that was good and true. His ads exploited every image of the West and every image of America's heroic past that he could come up with. It was a stroke of genius on his part to commission artist George Catlin to draw pictures of himself hunting buffalo with Colt .45s, of Catlin showing an amazed group of Mandan Indians a Colt .45, of stagecoaches being robbed and the criminals being shot dead by the heroic owner of a Colt .45. Colt engraved his guns with scenes of a man protecting his wife and child from Indians. His other great innovation was directions. He was the first gunmaker to realize that most Americans did not know how to use a gun, so he printed directions right on the cleaning rag. The first direction was: Clean your weapon.
PLAYBOY: What did a Colt cost?
BELLESILES: That was his other breakthrough. By mass production he lowered the cost so that it was equal to just a month's salary in the 1850s. Even a worker could afford a Colt firearm. Generally, they cost about $20. After the Civil War the cost of handguns dropped even further, to about $5, the equivalent of a day's labor. ANybody could own one.
PLAYBOY: When did police officers start carrying guns?
BELLESILES: Police departments as we know them are a product of the late 1840s, although there was a heritage of the constable, the night watch. Members of the police departments began carrying firearms in 1857. It happened in New York, and at the time it was illegal. Carrying guns became standard for police only after the Civil War. The big influence was the 1863 draft riots in which the police were outgunned by the crowd. Of course, in the South, slave patrols--the militias of the South--began carrying guns routinely in the 1820s. Before then they preferred to carry large sticks and swords.
PLAYBOY: What role did the Civil War play in creating a gun culture?
BELLESILES: It succeeded in arming everyone.. The war was a phenomenal success for the gun industry. It achieved levels of mass production that turned out some 4 million guns in the four years of the war. During the Civil War the vast majority of men were trained to use firearms and they became convinced that guns were a legitimate way of resolving conflict. That is one of the leasons of war, that violence is a legitimate form of conflict resolution.
PLAYBOY: How did handguns change the homicide rate?
BELLESILES: Following the Civil War, which I believe is the benchmark, the homicide rate and the crime rate--all types of crimes--skyrocketed. During America's first great crime wave, the homicide rate trebled, five years after the Civil War. The gun became the weapon of choice. It was so much easier to use--no longer was strength, dexterity or skill required to kill someone.
PLAYBOY: As they say, God created man but Colt made him equal. What was the role of the Wild West show? Did it cement the gun culture?
BELLESILES: You chose the right verb. The Wild West shows cemented the gun culture, and they reinforced the notion that firearms were heroic and attractive. The Wild West shows were extremely popular; they continued in to the Twenties, into the age of movies. They attracted thousands of people and helped create a story of the West in which individuals armed with pistols were able to defeat savages.
PLAYBOY: Do we know how many people got gunned down in the West?
BELLESILES: We have Robert Dykstra, one of the great Western historians, to thank for the real numbers: One a year was the norm in a Wild West town. And when the Wild West period ended, it was about one a decade. The historian Joseph Rosa found one example of a walkdown--walking down the street for the great shootout. That incident--just one--was picked up by Owen Wister and turned up in The Virginian, which was published just after the turn of the century. Again, these were not violent places. Almost everyone who went west was a farmer or a worker. If there was a conflict, people hired professional gunmen.
PLAYBOY: So Shane got it right?
BELLESILES: The scene where Jack Palance shoots Stonewall is absolutely perfect. One shot. Close range. He's dead. It was a sucker shot. It was cruel and barbaric. That's how John Wesley Hardin did it, that's how Billy the Kid did it. The homicidal maniacs.
PLAYBOY: A case is working its way toward the Supreme Court that argues Americans have an inalienable right to self-defense.
BELLESILES: As I understand the law, you have a right to defend yourself. The law does not specify with what. Do I have the right to defend myself with some sort of acid that could be hurled into the face of another? Many types of acid are illegal for common possession. Do you have the right to defend yourself with a firearm? That's up to the legislature to determine. The Supreme Court has held thus, and it matches the experience of the early colonies.
PLAYBOY: The Pennsylvania constitution specified that citizens had the right to bear arms to defend themselves as well as the state. Does this shed any light on the issue?
BELLESILES: But at no point, even after the Second Amendment, did Pennsylvania see that clause as limiting the right of the state legislature to regulate firearms. During the Whiskey Rebellion, the government did not hesitate to disarm those who had refused to take an oath of allegiance.
PLAYBOY: Much of the buzz that is surrounding your book suggests that your photo will be sold as target for the NRA crowd. And yet, you obviously love guns.
BELLESILES: I do not love guns. I admire guns, and I'm fascinated by them. It's the real obsession that some people have for firearms that fascinates me. What is it that makes some of them so humorless, so earnest, so fanatical? Many have no sense of proportion. There are obviously many people like myself who own guns, who can still appreciate that their guns are tools not religious icons. As for the NRA, when anyone talks about the history of guns in America, they're going to have to give me evidence--facts, not folktales.
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Copyright © 2001 by Playboy.