The Magazine

The American Way with Guns

Our national story is firearms all the way down

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Among the guns I own, my favorite is a Pennsylvania long rifle made for me by an old friend. It is a flintlock, shoots a .50 caliber ball, and uses black powder. The wood is rich, sinuous, curly maple. The trigger guard and butt plate are brass. It is a beautiful piece, and only the most ardent anti-gun zealot could resist its palpable appeal. First you admire it, then you want to hold it, and next you feel the urge to put it up to your shoulder and fire it.

A gun.

Corbis

And it shoots. Oh, Lord, does it shoot. I’m competent with it but the man who made it can really shoot, and he is good out to 300 yards with that rifle. I’m comfortable out to 100.

As seductive as that gun is to shoot, its legend is even more appealing. “That’s a purely American gun,” the man told me when he gave it to me. “We beat the British with guns like that. Shot their dolled-up officers at 200 yards. They thought it was unsporting.”

The rifled musket was, indeed, a game-changer in the American Revolution, even if it was not quite as decisive as some have made it out to be. American gunsmiths were not the first to cut grooves into the barrel of a musket, thus putting spin to the lead ball it shot. The spin imparted stability to the ball in flight and improved accuracy over the smoothbore by orders of magnitude. German gunsmiths were the first to employ the technique. German immigrants brought it with them to the New World and made the refinements and improvements that became the Pennsylvania (or Kentucky) long rifle and so famously knocked General Simon Fraser out of the saddle at Saratoga and, a few years later, dropped rank after rank of British troops carrying smoothbores that left them outranged and vulnerable to Andrew Jackson’s men at New Orleans. As usual, the British were brave but slow to learn.

The long rifle was the essential American tool on the frontier of that time. But it was, of course, just a tool. What made it decisive and mythic was the skill of the users. There is a ritual you follow when loading and shooting a long rifle. You measure the powder, carefully and exactly, and pour it down the muzzle. You tap the rifle with the heel of your hand, just above the trigger, to make sure the powder is seated evenly. Then you wrap a ball in a cloth patch which is placed over the muzzle, drive the ball into the barrel with a short starter, and push it all the way home with the ramrod. You cock the hammer, open the frizzen, put a little powder in the pan, close the frizzen, go to full cock. Finally, aim, pull the trigger, and hope that you’ve got a nice edge on your flint so that you get a spark and ignition.

It is easy to go wrong; to spill powder or measure it incorrectly; to get the thing out of sequence and ram the ball home before pouring the powder. It takes steady hands, and one can imagine that it took exceedingly steady nerves on the battlefield. But a good man could get off three shots in a minute. And after two or three minutes, the barrel would be fouled and he would have to clean it.

So while the long rifle delivered—on the hunt and on the battlefield—it made its own demands. A man had to measure up. He had to master the skills and he had to know how to shoot, which meant more than just knowing how to load, aim, and pull the trigger. He had to know yardage and windage. Had to know how a ball shot from his rifle would fly, all the way out to 300 yards. Like Daniel Boone, who drilled a British officer in the head with a shot that was later walked off at 250 yards.

Hard to imagine anyone thinking of Boone as a “gun nut.” Whatever feelings he had for the long rifle he carried, they were not of a disturbed and pornographic nature. Quentin Tarantino’s emotional relationship with guns is more unhealthy than Boone’s was.

 

Those who speak contemptuously of a “gun culture,” who imagine a fondness for guns to be some defective strand of genetic code to be rooted out of the national character, don’t know what they are up against. Guns are essential to the American story—good guns and the people who knew how to make them and how to use them.

Not many years after the American Revolution, firearms, like most things, began to be produced in mass, on assembly lines. The manufacturing of guns, as much as any product, drove the American Industrial Revolution, especially in the Connecticut River Valley.

It was here that Eli Whitney refined and realized his breakthrough idea of manufacturing interchangeable parts. This meant that a gun would no longer be the work of an individual or small shop and every gun would no longer be a one-off.

To demonstrate the advantages of standardization and to secure government contracts, Whitney traveled to Washington, carrying the parts for 10 separate muskets. He put the parts into piles before the secretary of war and proceeded to assemble 10 muskets from parts randomly selected from the piles.

The secretary was impressed.

After Whitney’s breakthrough, other makers began producing guns, parts for guns, and ammunition in the Connecticut River Valley; so many that it became known, in time, as “Gun Valley.” The list makes for a kind of roll call of the great makers of American guns: Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Sharps. In the second half of the 19th century, some 300 firms were building firearms or their parts in the Connecticut River Valley.

It is fair to say that it was here that Americans showed the world how to make things—good quality things in great numbers at prices that made them affordable. A plant in, of all places, Windsor, Vermont, was turning out muskets by the hundred during the war with Mexico. The plant upped production during the Civil War and supplied the government with thousands of muskets at a price of less than 20 dollars each.

Eli Whitney’s company, the first of the Connecticut Valley manufacturers, survived his death in 1825 and was eventually acquired by one of the iconic names in the history of American arms: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven. The Winchester brand is remembered for many things, not the least of which is the “gun that won the West,” a lever-action rifle known as the Model 1873, which was shortened to Model 73. Buffalo Bill carried one and called it “the Boss.”

There is a lot of romance around the 73. The lever action was something that enabled Hollywood actors to do some fancy business, working it one-handed or rapid fire and making a big impression on the kids who wanted BB guns that looked like the rifles they saw the cowboys use in the movies. The Daisy Outdoor Products company obliged them by producing something called the “Red Ryder carbine,” after a Saturday matinee cowboy character.

The Winchester 73 was an essential element in the life of the American West and, less remembered and certainly less romanticized, also in the lives of those who built it in the factories back East. They worked long hours, six days a week, in conditions that would be considered beyond harsh today. They turned out those rifles by the thousand and they made about $600 a year in factories that became the envy of the world.

If the Model 73 was the iconic cowboy rifle, then the Colt Peacemaker was the coeval handgun. The famous six-shooter was also introduced in 1873 and became a part of the furniture of movie and television westerns and was replicated in millions of cap pistols. It has become the Platonic ideal of the revolver and is still being made and shot by aficionados and buffs and reenactors.

The name “Colt” became more or less synonymous with the word “revolver” and fittingly so. Samuel Colt of Hartford, Connecticut, came up with the idea of the revolver while barely a teenager and at sea, where he had gone after being expelled from school in Amherst. He returned from his time before the mast with a wooden model of the gun.

Many years and one bankruptcy later, he signed a contract with the Army. The nation was at war with Mexico, and General Zachary Taylor wanted his men armed with revolvers. Colt had made and a sold a few before his business failed, and he’d had the foresight to hang on to his patents but not much else. Still, he had brass and he met the contract. Soon, he had built a thriving factory in Hartford and was so successful and famous that he was invited to address a committee of Parliament in London, where they weren’t doing as well at making guns as people like Colt, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sam Colt told Parliament that he would be ashamed to produce anything like what the British were turning out, and that he was not especially impressed with the supposedly superior skills of British craftsmen.

“I began here by employing the highest-priced men that I could find to do difficult things, but I had to remove the whole of these high-priced men. Then I tried the cheapest I could find, and the more ignorant a man was, the more brains he had for my purpose; and the result was this: I had men now in my employ that I started with at two shillings a day, and in one short year I cannot spare them at eight shillings a day.”

His audience had the good judgment to take the impertinent American seriously. Parliament sent a committee to visit his plant and then replicate it as the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield.

Colt died in 1862, at the age of 47, leaving behind a thriving business in Connecticut and an immortal firearm.

 

I

n common with the names Colt and Winchester is a third, Browning, which is also indispensable to an appreciation of America’s history with guns. Browning designed them. Colt and Winchester made them. And Americans loved them.

John Browning was the Thomas Edison of American arms. He was a man of tireless imagination who held 128 patents when he died in 1926 at the age of 71. Browning became fascinated by guns and their operation when he was very young; he could take them apart, repair, and rebuild them when he was still just a boy. One of his early efforts came into the hands of a senior vice president at Winchester who was so impressed that he traveled from Connecticut to Ogden, Utah, to meet with Browning. The visit spawned a collaboration that yielded some 40 Winchester guns. In one famous episode, Winchester challenged Browning to come up with a replacement for the aging Model 73 in less than 30 days. If he succeeded, he would be paid $20,000. If not, the company got whatever his work had produced and paid him nothing. Browning made the deadline, easily, with the Model 92, which was the rifle that was, in fact, favored by a lot of movie cowboys, to include John Wayne.

But the most famous of the many legendary Browning creations is a Colt: the .45 caliber pistol known as the 1911, which became a ubiquitous element in the American military from the time it was introduced until it was replaced, by a Beretta 9 millimeter for reasons that still seem flimsy, in 1985.

The 1911 is solid, tough, dependable, easy to take apart and clean, and beautiful in an exceedingly unlovely way. It is as American as Coca-Cola. The legend of the 1911 is vast. The gun was even said to have been used by an American aviator whose plane had been shot up in a dogfight. He was hanging in his parachute and his Japanese enemy was coming back to strafe him. So he took out his pistol and shot down the Zero. Hard story to check, but the fact it was ever told says a lot about that pistol.

Browning’s name is not attached to his masterwork. But there are Browning automatic shotguns, and millions of old soldiers and Marines remember the Browning Automatic Rifle—the BAR. When asked to develop this weapon, on a crash basis during World War I, Browning took the job for a nominal fee. His partners objected, saying he should have charged many times what the government had offered. Browning, who was in his sixties at the time, said, “Yes, and if we were 15 or 20 years younger, we’d be over there in the mud.”

Among Browning’s many innovations is the slide-action shotgun, which he created for Winchester as the Model 97. You do not have to know much about firearms to know what a “pump gun” is. Movie people love it for the ominous snick snick sound the action makes. In countless scenes, the bad (or good) guy works that action just before he blows someone away or, possibly, just to let someone know he is there and prepared to shoot. (I always wonder why the shooter doesn’t already have one in the chamber, but that’s just me.) That snick snick is like the buzz a rattle-snake makes when it is about to strike. John Browning could have made himself even richer if he had been able to patent that sound.

The original pump gun evolved into the Model 12. Winchester made over two million of them. I own two.

It isn’t a beautiful gun in the way that the Pennsylvania long rifle is. But it breathes quality and dependability, which is what it was always famous for. Model 12 owners have long bragged about the thousands of rounds their guns have fired without malfunctioning. You can take it apart easily enough, and if you keep it clean it will not let you down. And there is, admittedly, something deeply satisfying about that snick snick sound it makes when you operate the slide, though you don’t really notice it when you are in a duck blind.

There isn’t anything especially sinister about the gun. It is wood and steel. It was made in Connecticut, more than 50 years ago, by people who were skilled with machine tools. That was a time when, if you put the words “Connecticut” and “guns” together, it did not evoke horror but industry and prosperity.

I like the gun because it is simple and reliable and, above all, like that Pennsylvania long rifle given to me by my friend, it is undeniably American. And since two million like it were made and sold, lots of people must have been as satisfied by them as I have been.

A few years ago, a friend who was visiting saw that gun in the rack and said he remembered owning one like it when he was a kid, growing up on the Eastern shore of Maryland. “I wanted that gun more than anything in the world. I saved every dime I made doing odd jobs and working in the summer until I finally had enough to cover the price. My dad had taught me the shooting and the safety, and now I had my own gun and, you know, on the opening day of duck season, I went to the marsh and when it was time to go to school, I took the gun with me. I left it in my locker, all day, and took it home with me after school. Lots of the boys I went to school with did the same thing. Can you imagine?”

No. And that’s a shame.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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