The American Way with Guns
Our national story is firearms all the way down
Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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.
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.
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