“Dear Jonathan: This place is incredible! Not like home, lots of room to roam around in. No wonder every body’s calling this Eden on Earth! We built our home, Mauve isn’t that happy with it, can’t understand why we can’t have a brick house with a family room, you know how women are. There’s lots of game to hunt, they got something here called deer, little different than home. They’re easy shots, you’d love it. Samuel is almost 12. A great birthday present would be a new rifle – hint, hint!”
Your Pal, James A. Winthrop III
“One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Gun. Such a simple word, isn’t it? But this word – gun – sparks a conversation when two or more Americans are in the room. The word originates from “gonnilde” in the early 1300s, perhaps from a woman’s name, “Gunilda, ” a Latin derivitage that means war or battle. Just thought you’d like to know.
I have a life-long history with guns, truth be told. My father, who was born in 1900, collected them all of this life, some going back to the early 1800s. At one time, he had thousands of them, most worked, some didn’t. For a few years he owned the Chuck Wagon cafe in the ’40s and ’50s, which is pictured to the right, in Grand Junction CO. One of the dining rooms was called the “Gun Room” where he displayed on the walls some of his collection. Certainly wouldn’t be politically correct these days, not to mention – what kind of permit would you need for that?
I received my first gun at the age of 9, a .22 Remington that I still own. I was even a Junior NRA member (do they even have that program any more? They should). That first gun is special, you just don’t up and sell it on a whim. However, even though I have given guns as a gifts to a husband or two, this is the only gun that I myself own. I don’t hunt, but I’m a pretty good shot.
Mostly, its the history and artistry about guns that I admire and appreciate. That was instilled in me at a young age. Everywhere we travelled, my father was on the lookout for a gun museum. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them in the U.S. I’ve visited a few of them.
The museum conglomerate in Cody, Wyoming, is of course the best of the best. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center contains the Winchester Collection,* an amazing place that you can get lost in for days, which I have on a few occasions. My father liked to spend a lot of time in this area, northern Wyoming and Southern Montana, especially the Little Bighorn Battlefield – more about this in another chapter. But when I was 10 or 11, I remember visiting a ramshackle gun museum, perhaps in an old railroad car in or near Cody. I’ve always wondered if this was the predecessor in some way to Cody’s BBHC firearms museum.
An interesting display is at the American Indian Museum in D.C. Not particularly a large number of items, but it held some of the very earliest pieces, some of them barely intact but still showing how large and heavy these early rifles were.
Early guns in the 15th and 16th centuries were not the elegant, streamlined version of today. In fact handguns hadn’t even been invented at this point. The earliest variety of “rifle” used by the Spaniards were Arquebuses/matchlocks/flintlocks – these three terms generally used to describe the same kind of weapon. Used mostly by Europe’s military, they were long-barreled, heavy and clumsy. Slow to load, they sometimes didn’t discharged as planned, and of course they were only single-shot. (The Great Guns, Peterson and Elman, 1971, The Ridge Press). Strategy was key and the volley was invented to maximize these early rifles’ power and potential. Soldiers stood in rows, one behind the other, the first row firing, then dropping to the knee to reload while the second row fired, and so on.
In Europe, these rifles were fancied up with gold and silver inlays for the use of the aristocracy – hunting and such. Remember, the common folks couldn’t hunt on the royal estates, which took up most of the open land – if they did it was called poaching and if they were caught, it was called treason, with the occasional hanging to go along with the it. So common folks had no need for rifles and they couldn’t afford them anyway.
What is truly remarkable is the attention historians haven’t given to the attitude about these rifles in the colonies. Why did the Brits allow so many rifles to be shipped to the colonies? Was this an “Ooops” by the British government? Good for us, not so good for them.
In these new lands, there were no royal estates (great!) so hunting was wide open and of course necessary for the success of the early colonies. Gardens, orchards and fields take a while to grow – and there would have been many set-backs due to weather and lack of knowledge about what would grown where. In early 1600s Virginia, one winter was given a graphic name name: The Starving Time. But meat on the hoof or wing was plentiful. PBS had a segment a few years ago that stated American colonists were much better-fed than their European relatives by the mid-1600s, mostly for the reasons that the colonists hunted protein-rich game, while in the Old World, such protein for the regular folks was pretty much not available – ever. An excellent perspective on New World and Old World foods, and the impact of the Columbian Exchange is The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Quan.
Another factor may have been somewhat pragmatic: the Colonies were, after all, business ventures. At least that’s how they started. Compacts and charters are nothing more than contracts to lawyers, doesn’t matter what century you’re talking about. So, it might be reasoned, the word revolution just didn’t fit into that legal context, even though the idea of revolution was not unheard of in the 17th century. The Scots especially had always been a thorn in England and there were always a pesky duke or two challenging the royal throne. (Don’t forget the Gunpowder Rebellion in 1605). Within the British experience, however, common folks just didn’t have the means for a full-scale revolt, even though they may have had lots of reasons. And besides, contracts are broken by lawyers, not guns. Generally.
Let’s not forget the slaves – by 1700 in Virginia alone there were 6,000 slaves (A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn), and keeping them in order required fire-power, especially since that population would grow ten-fold to 170,000 in that state alone by 1763.
Oh, wait, there’s more! Indian populations were becoming increasingly hostile as the decades rolled into the 1700s, fueling the need for that “well-armed militia,” who may have been well-armed with those single-loaders, but not organized at all until there was a need – specifically, subjugating, wiping out, decimating, and other wise killing as many Indians as possible. (An excellent book is Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building by Richard Drinnon, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
Armed, as it were with these three Considerations, let’s go shopping for some facts.
According to American Rifleman: “North American settlers during the 17th and 18th centuries were first supplied with long, heavy military and civilian shoulder arms that were obsolete but available and inexpensive in Britain…English Colonists could order firearms of their own choice from private gun making centers such as London, Birmingham, and Liege (Belgium). This flexibility, spurred by demands from their lucrative fur trade … led to lighter and less unwieldy hunting guns by 1730.”
The American Long Rifle, or Kentucky Rifle, was a true colonial weapon, made in America by 1740. It had an unusually long barrel, purportedly improving range and accuracy (The Great Guns, Peterson and Elman, 1971, The Ridge Press).
While rifles of any ilk were not mass-produced (i.e., there were no actual factories), there were skilled tradesmen who became gunsmiths in the colonies. Gunsmithing is not a terrible technical feat, but it does require raw materials, time, skill and attention to detail – there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of gunsmiths plying their trade in today’s America, repairing and experimenting.
One of the earliest rifle-shooting competitions in the colonies took place in 1775, when Daniel Morgan (Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman, by Don Higgenbotham) recruited Virginia sharpshooters, ostensibly taking names and numbers for the upcoming Revolutionary War. Morgan’s Sharpshooters became very famous and were in high demand during the war.
The subject of guns is highly controversial and I certainly don’t want to imply or suggest that every colonial home had a gun or three. But those early guns, as unwieldy and imperfect as they were, formed a necessary part of life in early America. It’s also important to note that the progenitor of the handgun – the Scottish pistol – didn’t make its way into the colonies’ historical legacy until the mid-1700s (The Great Guns, Peterson and Elman, 1971, The Ridge Press).