The American Revolution and the Debate Over Gun Control

While doing research for a side project in which I have a great interest (American History), some general myths have been debunked (for me, at least) in the process.  One such myth is the notion of gun access and the American Revolution.  There is this (somewhat fictive) notion in some parts of the country, by certain individuals, that citizen soldiers–every one of them armed with his own gun–turned aside the British occupation and invasion of the colonies.  Some (like David Kopel) have argued that the British attempted to confiscate and limit gun access to the general public and this, somehow, facilitated the start of the American revolution.

The classic (that is to say, the modern, media-driven) impression of the militiaman is that of Mel Gibson, running out of his burning home carrying an assortment of six or more muskets and rifles.  But how accurate is this pro-gun argument?  What does history tell us?

patriotAdvRpt

There is no way that the NRA leadership did not squee during this scene.

The notion that an armed populace rising up against the British, angry at the seizure of weapons in Boston, is a simplistic one that does not take into account the variety of other factors leading up to the war.   Interestingly, those American militiamen and minutemen who fought at the first battles of the war–Lexington and Concord–seem to have been armed by the community (generally there were magazine stores, buildings filled with barrels of gun powder, and weapons stores where muskets would be kept somewhere in outlying areas) and also, in some ways, by the British themselves.  As colonies of British empire, communities in the New World were required to keep up an active duty militia of armed men and artillerists with working cannon.  While the wars in Europe spread to the Americas, the French and their Native American allies were a constant threat to the frontier regions of many Northern colonies (all of New England, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, though also Maryland and Virginia).  During the 1760’s, the rise in bloody raids by French and Native forces, along with the burning of crops and farms (and amounting to the deaths of over 200 Pennsylvanians), the edict of arming the general populace and maintaining military associations seemed only reasonable and expected.

It should be noted strongly that certain factors, socially and regionally, led to the consequence of a some-what armed populace–mainly required military enrollment.  However that isn’t to say that everyone was armed; this myth needs to be dispelled.  The notion that every farmer had a rifle is one that is often played upon by politicians and activists without knowing the facts.  For a large part of the war, a good portion of the Continental Army just wasn’t armed (either because munitions were left behind in a struggle or because new munitions had not yet arrived from Europe).

David Kopel writes, “The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.””  But even if this had been stated, an attempt to suggest that this had started the war is nothing more than a fantasy.  In Pennsylvania, when the Militia Act went into effect in March of 1777, and classes of men were called up to serve (essentially drafted) and sent to the lower PA counties to participate in the Philadelphia Campaign under General Washington.  It was the job of the local governments to arm and supply provisions for these men, though if men had arms, they were requested to show up with them.

Why is this important? On October 3, 1781, the state of the Lancaster militia, residents of Lancaster who were called up to arms (the men who so gallantly charged the claim that they would raise their illegal arms to fight the British–in Kopel’s fantasy world, that is), had been so depressing that Governor Reed wrote to General Lacey that he had “no arms here, Mr. Moore having last week delivered all in the store to our militia of the town, and after this, you know, there is no recovering them” (which, by the way, supports the contention that these were not arms belonging to individual gun owners, but to a community magazine and storage area).  After which, Reed wrote that, “Colonel Ross called yesterday to inform me that he had a battalion of 690 in the same naked condition.”  The disposition of these troops was such that, without arms, they were useless and so Reed had to actually call them back home (though they were not discharged).  During the Battles of Germantown and Brandywine, hundreds of Pennsylvanians sat around camp in the regions of Chester and Trappe waiting for muskets instead of joining the fight.

These kids are better armed than many of the militia companies during the Revolutionary War.

When the British marched on Lexington and Concord, they did so not to harm any of the people, but to destroy the weapon stores and magazines in those areas to prevent rebellion (though they had already invaded at this point and had established a foothold in Boston–the war had already begun).  In other words, they did not go house to house and remove weapons from individuals (this is a mythic construct), but were headed to a community building where these arms were located to destroy them.  Through good intelligence, colonial militiamen and minutemen had already emptied the magazines and store houses and had armed themselves, some with those very armaments, and prepared for a fight.  Such is confirmed in eyewitness testimony of one Sylvanus Wood, a man who joined with other militia on the green at Lexington.  In 1858 his account was published, wherein he writes that the Captain of the militia at Lexington yelled:

“Every man of you, who is equipped, follow me; and those of you who are not equipped, go into the meeting-house and furnish yourselves from the magazine, and immediately join the company.’

Further supporting my position here is the fact that none of these men were solid shots.  While they may have drilled with weapons on occasion, they were not accustomed to firing a weapon often, as many citizen soldiers weren’t skilled at shooting as the math proves (don’t let your eyes gloss over, keep with me here–it pays off).

Assuming that every casualty inflicted during the battles at Lexington and Concord were the results of musket and rifle fire (they weren’t, some were caused by bayonets and bladed weapons–but for the sake of argument), just 15 out of every 100 rounds fired from the colonial militia (numbers unknown, but said to be around 70 at Lexington and around 1000 by the end of the engagement at Concord)  found their target (inflicting about 15% casualties on the British; about 270).  Of the British forces (numbering about 1800 regulars), they did slightly worse; less than 1 out of every 10 shots fired struck a colonial militiaman, which amounted to about 90 casualties.

While the number of British wounded and dead seems high, at the onset of the Battle of Lexington, the British (numerically superior, about 250 to 70-ish American militiamen) inflicted 19 casualties while receiving none.  So while potentially hundreds of rounds were exchanged in the beginning of the fight, by the British, loosely speaking only 8% hit someone.  Marksmanship just wasn’t important; the value of a musket was not in its accuracy but in the amount of them you could bring to the battlefield.  Most muskets were not rifled, so when a volley is fired by a company of men with muskets, within 50-75 yards, it acts like a shotgun.  Sometimes you hit and most times you didn’t.  But the real value to muskets was their fast-loading time and ability to keep up a continuous and steady fire upon the opposing forces.

“It’s a good thing we don’t have to fire at will, I can’t see a damn thing with all this smoke flying about.”

As well, during the Siege of Boston in 1775-6, the militia participating in the siege had been given spears to use in case of an enemy assault, partly because ammunition stores were low and some men just didn’t have weapons to fire.  Later in the war, the situation had not much changed.  While many Pennsylvania riflemen were expert marksmen, the accuracy rate was abysmal amongst them.  We’d like to think that the hardened frontier made these men crack shots, but even in the thick of combat, as skilled as some of these veteran soldiers were in 1778-9 (like during the Sullivan campaign), hundreds of rounds were expended with few finding their mark.  As has been noted elsewhere, at the skirmish of Wetzell’s Mill, at least two dozen veteran riflemen fired at Lt. Col. Webster as he rode, on his horse, right towards them at close range; somehow, every round expended missed him and his horse.

The implications here are obvious; while some men on the frontier made it their livelihood to hunt for food and defend against attacks from local tribes, a good portion of the population did not bother with them.  Worse yet for Kopel’s position, even those who did own and use guns (which were expensive) did not seem to use them regularly to be efficient with them.

The fact is that the 2nd Amendment has never been about owning a gun.  Such language is not present there at all:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The context–given that it was written during the Revolution–is quite clear, that this is related to the function of an well regulated militia which, by the way, is run by the state government (and which played a key role in the American revolution); today we call them the National Guard.

Not the definition of a ‘well regulated militia’.

The notion of owning a firearm was not unheard of during the period of the Revolution, but it was more common that weapons were kept in community areas specifically for use by the militia who would need them in times of crisis.  In other words, the American colonials had already established a form of gun control, wherein private ownership–even on the frontier (of which most of Pennsylvania was included)–was rare enough that people simply could not arm themselves to fight in the Revolution.  The random speeches and poetic tracts of leaders, notwithstanding as anything more than propaganda, does not prove otherwise.  Attempts to saddle the issue of pro-gun ownership on the founding of this country, when the facts are on the table, are doomed to failure.

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9 Responses

  1. “The notion of owning a firearm was not unheard of during the period of the Revolution, but it was more common that weapons were kept in community areas specifically for use by the militia who would need them in times of crisis.”

    Some people lower down on the economic scale did not own their own personal weapon and communities often had firearms kept to furnish these men with. That is not particularly

    Those weapons were almost certainly smoothbore muskets which were the common infantry weapon of the time. They were not terribly accurate and that is why British infantry used tactics of massed fire at close range (as did all armies of the time, even the American Army once it was formed). The smoothbore musket was the “assault rifle” of the 18th century.

    On the other hand, private individuals in America who owned their own firearms might own a true rifle – a long gun with actual rifling in the barrel which made them potentially accurate hundred of yards farther out than the more or less 100 yards for the smoothbore.

    The disadvantage of the rifle was it took quite a bit longer to load and fouled up quicker. The smooth bore could be loaded much faster (hence why I called it the “assault rifle” of the time) and not become unusable as quickly due to fouling. In the retreat from Lexington American snipers used such rifles to inflict casualties on the British.

    During the whole war American snipers with rifles often tried to shoot British officers, and in several occasions may have turned the tide of battle when key British leaders were killed. But the militia was not always dependable in the massed battles of the day, although sometimes they had some good days too.

    While you are looking at how many shots were fired and how many were killed you are missing an important part of the equation. How many shots were missed might not reflect poor accuracy. You should read Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book “On Killing” to get some real insight into that. Contrary to Hollywood movies a lot of soldiers will _not_ fire to kill their enemy, even to save their own life (unless you have very special training as my generation learned for the Vietnam War and soldiers ever since have been given).

    If you read statistics from the Civil War you find similar statistics, due not so much to poor marksmanship but rather to human nature.

    lwk
    free2beinamerica2.wordpress.com

  2. I shudder whenever I read “historical” claims made by gun nuts, which are usually just myths and exaggerations. But I am a gun owner and I disagree with your interpretation of the 2A. It is an individual right, it has been affirmed as such by the SCOTUS, and is slowly but surely is being the preferred interpretation by constitutional lawyers. Only gun grabbers still insist that it is a states-only right, and they are on the losing side of history and jurisprudence.

  3. Hi, thanks for responding.

    Some people lower down on the economic scale did not own their own personal weapon and communities often had firearms kept to furnish these men with. That is not particularly

    You didn’t finish your thought there, not sure where you were going with it. On your earlier point, that is an interesting hypothesis but you did not provide any support for it. At this point I have to assume you’re just speculating. The issue with your claim is that a force of British elite light infantry marched from Boston (then occupied) to Lexington and Concord specifically to destroy the magazines. It seems your point of contention is that it was merely those “lower down the economic scale” who couldn’t afford to own their own weapon, but even if that were the case (it isn’t), what sort of argument are you trying to make? Are you suggesting, therefore, that there were but a handful of muskets in the magazine? Why send 250 troops to destroy a handful of weapons? No commander worth their spit would bother to do that; General Gage was a veteran of the French and Indian war and knew the area well. He was an extremely competent commander. If most of the weapons were within the homes of other individuals, he would not have bothered ordering the companies to the magazines. He would have confiscated all the weapons from private citizens.

    Further, your suggestion that only those higher up on the economic pole could afford a gun seems anachronistic. Classes were not as defined as they are today; Lexington and Concord were small hamlets back then, mostly inhabited with farmers who made decent livings. The militia who formed and took arms on the green at Lexington were the standard militiamen (those given to forming and drilling under orders from the British crown since the 1750’s). These were not beggars from the streets. The communities kept firearms in a magazine because that was the place for them. This method (storing the weapons in one location) was based upon New England’s vast experiences with skirmishes and campaigns against the native tribes going back as far as the mid-1600’s. The minuteman concept derived from the lessons learned from these skirmishes and from the basic construct of English militia practices (which were, again, ordered by the crown and utilized during the French and Indian War). So your premise is incorrect; these magazines held the weapons for the militia. That isn’t to say no one had a musket–just that most didn’t. They didn’t have to, they were kept in the magazine.

    Again, we’re talking about thousands of men without arms. Washington actually complained to congress because, while Pennsylvania had supplied most of the militia for the war (thousands upon thousands of men), less than half of them were capable of fighting because they had no weapons to fight with. No muskets or rifles were had. And this is in 1777, when France was secretly supplying the American colonists with rifles–and they still didn’t have enough. That, to me, suggests that rifles were just not as common as has been presumed by laypeople.

    Those weapons were almost certainly smoothbore muskets which were the common infantry weapon of the time. They were not terribly accurate and that is why British infantry used tactics of massed fire at close range (as did all armies of the time, even the American Army once it was formed).

    Uh, yeah. I know. I said that in the article (did you miss that part?).

    The smoothbore musket was the “assault rifle” of the 18th century.

    Now that’s silly. The two are not even close to being comparable.

    On the other hand, private individuals in America who owned their own firearms might own a true rifle – a long gun with actual rifling in the barrel which made them potentially accurate hundred of yards farther out than the more or less 100 yards for the smoothbore.

    I feel like you’re thinking you need to give me a lecture on the weapons of the American Revolution. Let me stop you there. I’m well versed in the weapons and tactics of the war.

    In the retreat from Lexington American snipers used such rifles to inflict casualties on the British.

    Maybe, but you didn’t provide any support for this.

    While you are looking at how many shots were fired and how many were killed you are missing an important part of the equation.

    No, pretty sure I didn’t.

    How many shots were missed might not reflect poor accuracy. You should read Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book “On Killing” to get some real insight into that. Contrary to Hollywood movies a lot of soldiers will _not_ fire to kill their enemy, even to save their own life (unless you have very special training as my generation learned for the Vietnam War and soldiers ever since have been given).

    Again, good hypothesis but without any supporting for it, it doesn’t generate anything more than a simple “well, okay, but where’s the evidence?”. This is, again, anachronistic. You cannot apply soldier’s views on life and killing from one war to another.

    If you read statistics from the Civil War you find similar statistics, due not so much to poor marksmanship but rather to human nature.

    600,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. While maybe *some* soldiers chose not to shoot their opponents, your claim fails on the fact that most (over 75%) chose to shoot their enemy than to not. Noteworthy here is that the rifled muskets of the Civil War were more accurate and more deadly; the same style of fighting was used in both wars, and the Civil War yielded more casualties mainly because of better training (better marksmanship training) and better accuracy.

    Either way, it is still anachronistic to presume that the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were the same as those who fought the Revolution. Social situations were vastly different and so were the reasons for fighting.

    Thanks for replying.

  4. I dislike your polemical tone; I’m no ‘gun grabber.’ And whether or not it is an individual right or otherwise does not ipso facto imply that the founders, who were writing hundreds of years before the SCOTUS case (assuming you mean from 2008), had the idea that it was acceptable that every man be allowed an assault rifle on today’s standards.

    I am not arguing that they didn’t think it right or not to own a gun; my argument is that–if they thought that–it is not implicit in the text. You can disagree, but the text is right there clear as a bell, context and everything. Anything more is something you or someone else decided to add to it. And I’m not saying that adding to it is necessarily wrong, but let’s not pretend something is there when it isn’t.

  5. […] The American Revolution and the Debate Over Gun Control […]

  6. […] the British were trying to enact stricter regulations on the sale and distribution of firearms (they weren’t), or as if Patrick Henry decried ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!–because I […]

  7. How long are you going to stay a strict constructionist, Tom?

  8. […] by means of force is necessary–against all who would stand up against it.  The 2nd Amendment did not recognize unsanctioned groups of common folk with rifles as ‘militia’; and if a group of farmers gathered together in armed resistance, the government would then […]

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