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Gun-Banners BeLIEve


by Frank Miniter

There is an insidious lie at the basis of the latest attempt to ban popular semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 (what the anti-gun-freedom crowd wrongly calls “assault rifles”). It’s a lie so simple, yet sinister, that people seduced by it think government should take away basic human freedoms.

The lie is that, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is fond of saying, “military-style weapons” don’t belong in the hands of U.S. citizens.

This lie preys on ignorance. Those who don’t know the truth about American history can be conned by this lie. Those who aren’t aware of the link between private and military arms that has always existed in America can be tricked by this lie.

To defeat this lie about semi-automatic rifles, we have to educate those who don’t know our history of freedom. To help, here’s a primer on America’s history of private and public gun making, as well as the views of firearm historians and first-person experiences from soldiers.

A Short History of American Gun Making
To fully understand the harm this one big lie can do to individual liberty, let’s begin with the “shot heard ‘round the world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson coined this phrase decades after the American Revolution in a poem he wrote in 1837 called “Concord Hymn.” Emerson wrote: “Here once the embattled farmers stood /And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.”

School kids learn that on the night of April 18, 1775, hundreds of British troops marched from Boston to nearby towns to seize arms caches. They learn that Paul Revere and others sounded the alarm, and that Colonial militiamen mobilized to confront the Redcoat column. They are taught that an initial confrontation on the Lexington town green started the fight that led to a British retreat from a large force of Americans at Concord.

However, one small though important fact few learn about this battle is that the colonists actually had more advanced arms than the British troops.

Phil Schreier, senior curator of the National Firearms Museum, explains: “Some of the Americans had rifles, whereas the British had Brown Besses—smoothbore muskets. Also, many of the Americans used their rifles to hunt. They could hit a man-sized target at 200, and perhaps 300, yards. The British Brown Bess, by contrast, was accurate to perhaps 50 yards, probably less.”

Though barrel rifling is thought to have been invented in Augsburg, Germany, at the end of the fifteenth century, American gun makers improved on previous designs with the American Longrifle (what later became known as the “Kentucky rifle.”). The American Longrifle was longer and used a smaller caliber than other muzzleloaders at the time. As this firearm’s name indicates, it had a “rifled” barrel.

The British preferred the smoothbore Brown Bess because it lobbed a big bullet and was faster to load than a muzzleloader with a rifled barrel. The Redcoats were geared for close-quarter engagements between masses of troops. The Americans at Concord didn’t fight that way. They used their rifles to fire before the Redcoats could get close enough to take advantage of their less-accurate muskets.

There were downsides to Kentucky rifles. They were comparatively expensive and their production rate was slow, as small-arms makers produced them one at a time. As a result, although Gen. George Washington made significant use of American snipers, most American Revolutionaries were later armed with smoothbore muskets.

Nevertheless, small-arms makers who had served the private market made it possible for the war to begin on good footing for the colonists. This helped to get the public behind the revolution. Thus began the relationship between American citizens, the firearms they owned and carried, and the U.S. military.

After the American Revolution, George Washington established the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass., to produce and develop arms for the military. The armory began making flintlocks in 1795. These firearms were basically copies of the French “Charleville” flintlock musket. But from then until its closing in 1968, James Woolsey, superintendent of the Springfield Armory, says: “The armory worked to match and surpass advances in weapons by foreign and private manufacturers. In fact, civilian gun designers influenced and collaborated with the U.S. military to design new and better firearms. The civilian gun market and the government have always been in step with each other.”

Woolsey used Samuel Colt as an example. In 1836, Colt perfected and patented a revolving handgun by bringing together features from previous guns and fashioning them into a mechanically reliable revolver. Colt also advanced manufacturing processes by making guns with interchangeable parts (made by machine and assembled by hand). An order of 1,000 revolvers from the Texas Rangers in 1847 later solidified Colt’s business. His factory in Hartford, Conn., would later build handguns that were used on both sides in the American Civil War and in many conflicts in the American West.

Meanwhile, other innovators were also at work. In 1852 Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson formed a company to produce a lever-action handgun nicknamed the “Volcanic Pistol.” After it failed, the two men came out with a revolver in 1856—the Smith & Wesson Model 1. This was the first revolver that fired a fully self-contained cartridge.

At about this time, in 1857, Oliver Winchester hired a gunsmith named B. Tyler Henry. By 1860, Henry had created a breech-loading, lever-action rifle. Citizens and the U.S. military quickly embraced this rifle. In 1866, Winchester improved on the Henry with the Winchester Model 1866.

A few years later, the two most iconic guns of the Old West were produced: the Winchester model 1873 (see Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic “Winchester 73”) and the Colt Model 1873, otherwise known as “The Peacemaker.” None of these firearms, though they were major advances in technology, were thought to be exclusive to law enforcement or the military.

Innovators like Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, John Browning, John Thompson and many more kept working to please the public, who wanted firearms for self-defense, hunting and sporting uses. They also made firearms for the U.S. military. The American consumer market propelled firearm development. Manufacturing innovations by gun makers even helped the U.S. step into the Industrial Age.

We owe much to the gun and to gun designers. It’s hard to name a firearm type used yesterday or today that wasn’t used by both civilians and the military. Some military snipers use Remington’s Model 700, a rifle very popular with hunters. Pump-action shotguns from the Winchester Model 12 to Mossberg’s 500 are, or have been, used by both private citizens and the military.

Actually, the rest of this article could be filled with a list of examples of guns used by both citizens and the military. Suffice to say, today’s semi-automatic rifle is merely the latest example of private citizens using and helping to develop a firearm type that also happens to be used by the military.

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