Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

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by Michael A. Bellesiles

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How and when did Americans develop their obsession with guns? Is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are "mythology," says Michael A. Bellesiles.

Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception—

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How and when did Americans develop their obsession with guns? Is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are "mythology," says Michael A. Bellesiles.

Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception—even on the frontier—until the age of industrialization. In Colonial America the average citizen had virtually no access to or training in the use of firearms, and the few guns that did exist were kept under strict control. No guns were made in America until after the Revolution, and there were few gunsmiths to keep them in repair.

Bellesiles shows that the U.S. government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens, but it met only public indifference and resistance until the 1850s, when technological advances—such as repeating revolvers with self-contained bullets—contributed to a surge in gun manufacturing. Finally, we see how the soaring gun production engendered by the Civil War, and the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons at the end of the conflict, transformed the gun from a seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity—opposing ideas that are still at the center of the fight for and against gun control today.

Michael A. Bellesiles's research set off a chain of passionate reaction after its publication in the Journal of American History in 1996, and Arming America is certain to be one of the most controversial and widely read books on the subject.

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Our Review
In the current debate over the role of guns in American life, there is one historical notion in particular that invigorates those who believe that an America stocked to the rafters with privately held firearms is the best and truest America.

I refer to the truism that our national identity has always been inextricably tied to our unparalleled intimacy with guns, that the pioneers who settled this country did so with musket ever at hand to provide food and self-defense; our Revolution was won by valorous citizen-soldiers taking up their trusty flintlocks in defense of hearth and home; and the Constitution's framers, mindful of this heritage, instituted an absolute freedom of individual gun ownership as a forever necessary safeguard against tyranny.

In Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, Emory University historian Michael A. Bellesiles leaps to the forefront of a recent move by scholars toward reexamining this mythology of the gun. To every article of the legend, Bellesiles mounts a relentless and eye-opening barrage of counterevidence, gathered over ten years of research in probate records, censuses, government and military documents, and other primary sources.

Examining the growth of our national gun culture from colonial times to Reconstruction, Bellesiles finds that its progress was a slow and tortured one. From the first settlements up until the Civil War, ordinary Americans were not heavily armed and were generally neglectful of the guns they did own. Guns of the time were expensive, clumsy, unreliable, and hard to maintain. Opposing other historians' claims for nearly universal gun ownership among the settlers, Bellesiles finds that apparently "at no time prior to 1850 did more than a tenth of the people own guns."

During the Revolutionary War, the civilian militias were, again contrary to myth, ineffective on the whole as a fighting force. One basic reason: The great majority of their members had never bothered to arm themselves or attain proficiency in shooting. After the war was won by professionals, the government labored for the next 70 years to arm a surprisingly resistant citizenry.

The Civil War finally brought reality into line with the myth. Technological improvements, massive government investment, and the training in gun use of virtually every able American male brought firearms into the mainstream at last -- with a chilling rise in civilian violence as its legacy.

The shattering implications of Bellesiles' argument for scholars, policy-makers, and ruminators upon the national character are clearly evident, but he leaves them unstated. We are left to draw our own conclusions, but this formidably researched, vigorously written book earns the power to ground our currently high-flown gun debate in solid historical earth.

--Edward Hutchinson

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Chapter One

The European

Gun Heritage

Those blessed ages were fortunate which wanted the dreadful fury of the devilish and murdering pieces of ordnance, to whose inventor I am verily persuaded that they render in hell an eternal guerdon [reward] for his diabolical invention, by which he hath given power to an infamous, base, vile, and dastardly arm to bereave the most valorous knight.

—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

The Gun in

Early Modern Europe

Handheld firearms developed slowly and in the face of great suspicion and even hostility in Europe. Airguns—tubes that fired darts by the use of compressed air—first appeared in India around the beginning of the Christian era and were in use in thirteenth-century Persia, finding their way to Europe by the late fifteenth century. Of far greater long-term significance was the Byzantine development of copper tubes for launching Greek fire in the ninth century. The idea that gunpowder could be used to propel a projectile of some kind "seems to have dawned almost simultaneously upon Europeans and Chinese artificers." The earliest drawings of such weapons are from 1326 in Europe and 1332 in China; both show a "vase-shaped vessel, armed with an oversized arrow that projects from its mouth."

Europeans certainly experimented far more with the technology of firearms than did any other culture. But most of the truly remarkable technological advancements were seen as little more than curiosities. The Italian Giovanni da Fontana experimented with rockets in the early fifteenth century, without notable impact. The rifle itself was first used in Germany at the veryend of the fifteenth century, but its expense and difficulty of use kept it from general acceptance until the nineteenth century. Similarly, in 1650 Otto von Guericke's Madeburger Windbusche, an intriguing construction of vacuum chambers that could fire a shot with astounding speed, attracted great interest. But it was an inventive cul-de-sac that produced no further developments.

Those concerned with military armaments had no idea that firearms represented the future. Technological innovations in weaponry followed a number of different trajectories, any one of which seemed to show promise at the time. After all, bladed weapons improved in quality markedly in the medieval period while the more traditional arrow weaponry demonstrated enormous potential; thirteenth-century Chinese crossbows were lethal up to four hundred yards and thus more dangerous than eighteenth-century muskets. Though less accurate than its Chinese counterpart, the European crossbow proved effective in warfare. In 1139 the second Lateran Council banned the crossbow as "a weapon hateful to God" and "too lethal for Christians to use against one another," yet it remained a mainstay of many European military forces. Catapult technology also improved considerably during the medieval period and remained superior to cannon until the mid-fifteenth century.

At the same time, many problems with firearms remained unsolved. For instance, if gunpowder was shaken during transit, the heavier saltpeter sank to the bottom while the carbon remained on top and the sulfur settled in the middle. If gunpowder became too compacted, the lack of air space between the particles limited its explosive power. So common were these problems that the practice of placing padding over the gunpowder in the barrel emerged. The padding contained the gas released by the burning powder, allowing the buildup of pressure. The German "corning" method—wetting the powder, baking it, and then sifting it into granules—allowed for a more even distribution of the three components, which lessened but did not eliminate the problems of transport. But corning, though developed in the fifteenth century, did not become common until 1700, and it remained a dangerous procedure.

In fact many scholars have been struck by the peculiar fascination that drove many Europeans to persist in tinkering with a weapon that showed little real promise until the eighteenth century, and then mainly because of the advent of the bayonet. William McNeill has even speculated that "sexual symbolism . . . goes far to explain the European artisans' and rulers' irrational investment in early firearms." An English scholar has stated that "it is difficult to understand the increasing popularity abroad of the miserably ineffective hand-gun," except as a part of a desperate search for "a rival to the English longbow." Less controversial is the notion that the militaristic habits of the urban Europeans who manufactured and purchased the new guns account for this obsession. It is worth noting that, from its earliest stage, the fascination with the gun has been an urban phenomenon.

Nonetheless, not everyone welcomed the new technology with enthusiasm. In the 1570s, Michel de Montaigne noted the psychological value of firearms, but found little else to celebrate about that weapon. "As for the pistol," he wrote, "except for the shock to the ear, with which everyone has become familiar, I think it is a weapon of very little effect, and hope that some day we shall abandon the use of it." The horse seemed to Montaigne a far superior tool in warfare. Writing in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes stated that firearms cheapened life and honor: "it grieves me to have ever undertaken this exercise of a knight-errant in this our detestable age; for although no danger can afright me, yet . . . I live in jealousy to think how powder and lead might deprive me of the power to make myself famous and renowned by the strength of my arm and the edge of my sword." Many shared this view that the new firearms were just not fair, though more common was a skepticism of their efficacy. The French Marshal Blaise de Monluc complained that "poltroons that had not dared look those men in the face at hand, which at distance they had laid dead with their confounded bullets." Many engravers pictured the makers of firearms and gunpowder working with the devil lurking just behind their shoulder. Erasmus called guns "the engines of hell," and exclaimed, "Who can believe that guns were the invention of man?" Milton was less subtle in having Satan invent the gun in revenge for his fall. Others reacted more strenuously. The first use of handheld guns in battle came in 1439 when a party of Bolognese opened fire on their Venetian opponents, killing a few Venetians. However, the Venetians emerged victorious, and immediately massacred all those found with this "cruel and cowardly innovation" in their possession. Francesco Sforza did the same after the Battle of Lonigo a few years later.

Among the landed gentry of Europe, the belief that firearms were not fit for a gentleman persisted into the seventeenth century. Many aristocrats and professional soldiers felt that guns undermined martial skill and manliness. Combat, this view held, should be a test of strength, courage, and ability. In contrast, they feared that anyone could be trained in the use of a gun, lending itself to dangerous leveling ideas, with the possibility that common people might someday level those weapons at their social betters.

But there was another reason why professionals hated guns: they were deadly. Many battles in the late Middle Ages ended with few casualties, the game being won by one party outmaneuvering the other, ending in a surrender of one group of professionals to another. Machiavelli, citing a pair of early fifteenth-century battles that took three lives between them, observed that "the mercenaries devoted all their professional skill to eliminating hardship and anxiety for themselves and their own troops; they did not kill one another in battle, but rather took each other prisoner." But firearms threw a strange randomness into the equation. As Don Quixote said, "without knowing how or from whence, . . . there arrives a wandering bullet (shot off, perhaps, by him that was afraid, and fled at the very blaze of powder, as he discharged the accursed engine), and cuts off and finisheth in a moment the thoughts of him who merited to enjoy it many ages." There was no telling who might be killed by a shot from these wild new weapons that could pierce armor at forty yards. Certainly the person aimed at was in no more danger than someone standing ten yards away, so inaccurate were these early guns.

Firearms transformed warfare throughout the world, but not immediately. Even in Europe, the center of firearms development and production, soldiers carried a wide variety of weapons through the end of the eighteenth century. European artisans and scientists continued to experiment, fine-tuning the nature of the first guns, but failing to make the dramatic technological leaps that would come only in the nineteenth century. Likewise, military leaders experimented with the use of firearms in warfare, discovering the advantages of massed musket fire in the seventeenth century. Where the English longbow had established distance combat and given military status to the common yeoman, the gun returned combat to relatively close quarters and placed a command of weaponry back in the hands of professionals. It turned out that the gun was not quite so simple to use, requiring much time, money, training, and care.

Firearms also introduced a greater degree of uncertainty to the battlefield. Even veteran troops could panic before a massed volley of musketry, and both victories and defeats became far more conclusive than in the past. The more farsighted military thinkers saw that firearms raised the stakes of combat while placing a premium on training, planning, and leadership. Using guns necessitated more preparation and organization than had previously been the case, and common soldiers had to pay far more attention to their officers. The battlefield would no longer be a collection of single combats; firearms required far more coordination and granted a capable commander far more control than any feudal chieftain had ever exercised. Here was a challenge and opportunity for the more clever military leaders who worked to transform warfare into an "art." And yet most commanders remained suspicious of the reliability and usefulness of firearms, usually seeing them as a supplement to traditional methods of warfare.

Governments, too, remained deeply suspicious of firearms. Above all they feared the use of this new technology by individuals. There was no doubt that a single company of regulars could overwhelm and defeat any band of discontented subjects armed with a few guns; but no monarch wanted to test the validity of this theory. Ruling elites saw no reason to accept any level of unnecessary social disorder because of the availability of this new weaponry. Every state in Europe therefore placed strict restrictions on the use and availability of firearms. In England this legislation started as early as the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), who feared the wheelock—the first gun to ignite the powder by producing a spark, in this case by a wheel striking a piece of iron—as giving far too much equality to the poor. As a consequence, Henry VII and Henry VIII both outlawed wheelocks. Henry VIII attempted to limit the use of other firearms to the elite, chartering the Fraternity of St. George in London to develop the "Science and Feate of Shootynge" longbows, crossbows, and firearms. This fraternity, which became the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of London, was the first group to be granted royal permission to shoot firearms. In 1541, Parliament limited the ownership of handguns to nobility and freeholders who earned more than ?100 a year from their property; a threshold fifty times higher than the forty-shilling freehold needed to vote in county elections. Henry VIII continued to rely on archers to defend his ships at sea, buying tens of thousands of yew bows for that purpose. The bows found on the fighting deck of the Mary Rose, the recently excavated flagship of Henry VIII's fleet, indicate "that archers were preparing to defend the ship when she sank."

The one advantage that any state found in the new firearm technology was that it was so easy to regulate. The longbow was generally held to be the equal of a matchlock or snaphance (which used a spark rather than a match to ignite the powder), and could easily be cut, fitted, and equipped with a large supply of arrows in a single day almost anywhere in England. But guns required metal, furnaces, a wide assortment of tools, and specially trained craftsmen. Guns required powder and metal for shot and needed constant maintenance and regular repairs; to use them well required training and practice. In short, it was an expensive and time-consuming enterprise. And best of all, the shops producing all these items and responsible for repair were supervised by the government. Consequently, most European states, England included, found it an easy matter to keep firearms the private preserve of the military and the elite.

And still England hesitated to adopt this new technology beyond the level of a novelty. A basic ambivalence underlay the attitudes of most European governments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Military leaders remained divided on the usefulness of firearms in warfare, many feeling that they posed as much danger to those holding them as to those at whom they were aimed, if only for the false confidence they imparted. Yet public officials remained certain that they were dangerous in the hands of commoners. Crowds armed with even a few guns might think themselves the equal to trained troops and risk battles that they would have avoided if both sides held only pikes and swords, because regulars were understood to be superior in the use of both. As a result, governments proceeded slowly in the integration of firearms into their military forces, and maintained a watchful eye on the distribution of guns to civilians—if they allowed it at all.

The Great Debate

In the 1590s, on the eve of English settlement in North America, a vigorous pamphlet debate raged over whether longbows should be replaced with firearms. Sparked by the conviction that England was falling behind its continental competitors, this debate involved most of the nation's leading military figures and transformed the English army.

Most scholars agree that the longbow was in fact far superior to the firearms of the sixteenth century, as well as those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As one expert of the Napoleonic Wars pointed out, longbows were superior even to the muskets of that era, with a far greater range and accuracy, and five times the rate of fire. One obvious reason why so many English officers preferred to keep the longbow was financial. Arrows were not only inexpensive, but they could be used repeatedly in practice, while the powder required for guns literally went up in smoke. The interest in firearms may appear at first glance more mysterious. As the prominent military historian Charles Oman wrote, "Indeed, it is not easy to make out the reasons why [the musket] superseded the bow in the end of the reign of Elizabeth." There is little agreement as to why less efficient firearms replaced longbows; perhaps the very attractiveness of a new technology was sufficient justification.

Copyright 2001 by Michael A. Bellesiles

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Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was originally awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2001 but was then rescinded due to scholarly misconduct by the author. He was forced to resign his professorship at Emory University after critics revealed that he had blatantly lied about the sources used. He claimed to have consulted many records that were destroyed in the San Francisco fire as well as wills from persons who were known to have died intestate (without leaving a will). The author told thousands of lies in order to pass on his personal political agenda. This book is worth less than the paper it took to print it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was shocked by this book. Personally, I check the sources of every book that I read, and I discovered that this books sources were not accurate. In repeated discussions with the author, he has changed his story about where he obtained his sources multiple times, starting with his quick about-face concerning records destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that he said he used. Barley a week goes by that another award is not revoked from his book. If you don't believe me, buy ARMING AMERICA, and MORE GUNS, LESS CRIME. Track down the sources for yourself and see who's telling the truth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every prospective reader should know two facts about the author Michael Bellesiles. First, he is no longer a Professor of history at Emory University because Emory forced him to resign. He was forced to resign because of the false, misleading and biased scholarship on which this book is based. Second, although this book originally won the top history book award, the Bancroft, from Columbia University, on December 13, 2002, the Trustees of Columbia revoked the Bancroft and asked for the prize money back. The Anonymous November 25, 2002, review titled "The Fraud is turning out to be truth!" is a simple and transparent lie. The book has only anonymous defenders now.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellently presented, well researched! Since it ran contrary to the establish NRA official line, it was hit with unprecedented attack by the NRA and it's pro-gun supporters. To this day, they show up at his lectures and try to pick arguments over extremely minor points. However, Prof Bellesiles' tenacity has been steadily showing his critics to be the ones engaging in fraud and deception (i.e. John Lott's book claiming to show conceal carry laws reduce crime, when in fact state and federal statistics clearly show such laws range from no effect to increasing crime rates). I highly recommend this book for an excellent historical background on todays debates.
Guest More than 1 year ago
?In this controversial and highly politically charged work, Bellesiles attempts to undermine several myths associated with gun use in North America during the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods. Bellesiles attempts to argue that a gun culture did not emerge in the United States, excepting within Amerindian culture, until the American Civil War. Unfortunately, Bellesiles¿ work is plagued with contradictions and obvious political bias which undermines many of his observations and conclusions. For example, after arguing for several pages that 17th century guns were almost entirely ineffective in combat and that axes and bows many times proved more effective than guns, Bellesiles identifies the Amerindians¿ running out of gunpowder as the first of three factors that brought about Metacom's defeat during King Philip's War (pg. 120). However, possibly the most damaging evidence against Bellesiles¿ thesis concerning the development of a gun culture is that, as Bellesiles points out on pages 170 and 182, the myth about Americans' ability to handle firearms and near universal gun ownership among Americans emerged following the Seven Years' War and was firmly in place by the American Revolution; the myth of an armed citizenry is as old as, in fact older than, the nation itself. With this being the case, the myth of gun ownership and gun aptitude in America was in place just as an American identity was about to take shape. Also, even if Bellesiles¿ assertion that America¿s gun culture is rooted in the 1840's and 1850's, firmly being in place by the American Civil War, it does not mean that a gun culture was not a part of an American identity early on in America¿s history; in fact, if Joyce Appleby¿s conclusions in her work Inheriting the Revolution about the creation of an American identity are correct, the creation of a gun culture around the 1840's makes guns a central part of the American identity that Appleby's first generation Americans were creating. In short, just as an American identity was taking shape, a gun subculture was beginning to emerge in the United States, thus calling into question Bellisiles' conclusions about the relationship between guns and American culture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
How about a -minus star. This author may well lose his job because his book appears to be based on non-existant research or 'my dog ate it'. A anti-gun 'historian' from vermont defended this book saying that even Geo Washington and Alex. Hamilton disdained the proficiency of the militia. Say what? Their views of the militia had absolutely nothing to do with ownership of guns in the U.S. My personal research reveals substantial ownership of guns during the Rev period and it indicates to me the author's personal bias against guns and not a scholorly study. I welcome a serious study of ownership of firearms in the Colonial era, but this isn't it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
.. I found Michael Bellesiles' book 'Arming America' both excellent & fascinating. It reinforces my previous beliefs which I have held since grammar school, that the gun culture is based on a 'Second Amendment Mythology' which aggrandizes & glorifies guns in, unfortunately, typical American fashion. .. Yes, there were some minor discrepancies in Michael's research which he has explained satisfactorily, but these are common in many historical efforts, & in this case are only exploited unfairly & unethically by the nra/gun lobby. ..Michael's book is easy to read, and for me, one which was hard to put down from cover to cover - well done Mr B. .. In closing, let me add my own reinforcement to exploding the myth ... I substitute 2nd A phraseology - 'A well baked bread, being necessary for the health/security of a free state; the right of the people to keep & bear flour shall not be infringed' - there is nothing in the above phrase which endorses the usage of flour for anything but baking bread. .. similarly, there is nothing in the 2nd Amendment which endorses the usage of guns by the people, other than in a militia ... which has evolved into the current national guard system.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has been exposed as a fraud. Much of the research, though extensive, has been very carefully twisted and misrepresented. In some cases, the referenced data has been made up, such as the records destroyed in the early 1900's. I find it particulary interesting that this book came out in September 2000, just two months before the election. Don't waste your time with this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has been proven over and over to be a work of the authors biased fantasy. He can produce no documentation to prove his points and in one case has been caught quoting facts from documents that were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake in 1904. Read John Lotts book 'More guns,less crime' if you want honest unbiased research.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Belleselles has presented some intriguing and well researched information into the early gun culture in the United States. Its a fact that George Washington, among others, had no particular use for the militia. Also, Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist papers, says that relying on the miltia would have cost the US the war. The most impressive piece of research is the probate records. Taken together, they present some strong evidence that gun ownership in america was lower than previously thought pre-Civil war (although the book overstates its case)
Guest More than 1 year ago
On the positive side, Michael Bellesiles writes well and did a lot of research.

Yet there are major problems with the book. Arming America is the subject of an article by Kimberly Strassel in the Wall Street Journal at Strassel points out that Bellesiles' data has been checked by other pro-gun control scholars. They found that there are 3 times more guns than he says there are in the only data sources he cites. Gun ownership is 50% or more in every published study of guns in probate records--except Bellesiles, who finds only 15%.

Scholars who are going through the book's claims are finding that every major surprising argument is mostly unsupported by the sources that he cites. The gunsmiths counts are way off. On close examination, the data on militia arms counts and gun censuses is also falling apart. So far not one scholar has come forward and said that he or she checked Bellesiles' data and found it correct. Several scholars have checked his data and found it false.

Everyone is waiting for him to answer his critics but he has not done so yet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bellesiles omits so much historical evidence to 'prove' his 'points' about gun ownership early on in our country's history. One example is that there is not much written anywhere about people owning guns, so therefore not many people owned them (according to the author). Now, I haven't seen much of anything anywhere written about outhouses, so therefore, there weren't many of them (using the author's logic). Sound correct? This so-called historian needs to read more about history, instead of making up his own politically correct version of it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately, Bellesiles effort fails to consider all the evidence.

Exanple: Bellesiles tries to estimate the prevalence of firearms in colonial America by examining old probate records. However, firearms were rarely included in the probate records, even if the deceased had owned a sizable collection. The estate of Thomas Jefferson is typical. Jefferson was a an avid hunter, shooter and gun collector, but not one of his firearms appeared on the probate record of his estate.

Furthermore, Bellesiles appears to quote George Washington out of context. Bellesiles quotes Washington complaining about the readiness of one company of colonial militia (about 1756) to indicate all the colonials did not possess firearms. However, the true context of Washington's comments are that he thought that one company of militia was atypical, and not up to the standards of the greater portion of the militia.