90 Miles From Tyranny : The Five Most Important Guns In American History

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Five Most Important Guns In American History

From the Long rifle to the AR-15, the story of firearm innovation is inextricably tied to the story of the United States.

This piece is adapted from David Harsanyi’s new book, “First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun” (Threshold Editions).

1. Kentucky Rifle

Martin Meylin has been credited with being the first great American gunmaker and inventor of the Pennsylvania long rifle—which was to become known as the Kentucky long rifle (“Kentucky,” in those days, being anything in the wilderness west of Pennsylvania). Meylin’s small cobblestone workshop still stands off a two-lane road in Lancaster. Local schools are named after him. Plaques have been erected in his honor. State politicians have even written legislation commemorating his contribution to American life.

Well, while we know that Meylin left his home in Zurich, Switzerland, around 1710, and ended up in the German-speaking area of Lancaster County—a place that would become the center of American gun innovation for more than a century—we don’t know much else. And while it is tidy to give a single inventor credit for the gun, it’s probably the case that numerous inventors and blacksmiths engineered the Kentucky rifle over a period of decades.

The invention created by these German-speaking immigrants and their children changed the way Americans hunted, fought, and explored. Captain John Dillin, author of a popular book about the Kentucky rifle in the 1920s, would claim that the gun “changed the whole course of world history; made possible the settlement of a continent; and ultimately freed our country of foreign domination. Light in weight; graceful in line; economical in consumption of powder and lead; fatally precise; distinctly American; it sprang into immediate popularity; and for a hundred years was a model often slightly varied but never radically changed.”

The rifle—the word derived from the German riffeln, meaning to cut grooves—was first developed in Europe as a sporting weapon for noblemen to hunt with more precision. The invention of gun barrels with spiral grooves on the interior was likely to have originated among a number of blacksmiths in southern Germany and Switzerland. The physics of spinning propulsion as a means of improving aim was known to weapons makers for thousands of years—ever since feathers were placed on arrows to make them spin.

Muskets of early America were smoothbore weapons, and ammunition was fired at relatively low velocity. Moreover, the musket ball, which fit loosely when loaded down the muzzle, would bounce off the inside of the barrel when fired, making the final landing place unpredictable. The rifle Meylin and other gunsmiths made, on the other hand, immediately offered shooters decent accuracy at 150 or more yards—or a hundred more than an average musket.

The first German gunsmiths of Pennsylvania produced traditional Jäger rifles. Expensive and often ornate, they were short, easy-to carry, large-ammunition flintlock guns built to be quickly reloaded so that the carrier could hunt big game in dense German forests. The Kentucky rifle would feature a more elegant and elongated design. The longer barrel would increase the distance between the rear and front sights, giving the shooter a better bead on his target. A gun typically weighed only around nine to ten pounds: much lighter than a musket and therefore much easier to carry. The bore size, or “caliber”—which represents the diameter of the barrel—was reduced to save on powder and lead. The .45-caliber long rifle could deliver three times the number of shots from the same amount of powder that was used in the typically .75-caliber musket. These improvements made hunting for game—the most important use of the gun at the time—much more successful.

There were downsides to the weapon, of course, as the American revolutionaries would soon learn. For starters, rifles could be incredibly difficult to load. Fitting a projectile into a bore tightly enough to engage the rifling sometimes required hammering it all the way down the barrel. This was fine for a frontiersman who was hunting deer, but it created a perilous situation for a soldier. Another disadvantage of rifled weapons was that the black powder burned dirty and the grooves gunked up with residue after a few shots. This fouling often made loading impossible until the barrel was cleaned with a damp swab.

Yet, the imagination and techniques mastered by Meylin and others like him offered the thousands of incoming settlers and explorers the opportunity to continue to push into the wilderness of the Cumberland Mountains and surrounding areas. It was a gun that involved reengineering and reimagining Old World technology and was adapted to the rigors and uniqueness of frontier life, playing a large part in the Western mythos and becoming a standard tool of the American woodsman.

2. Colt’s “Peacemaker”

Like the Kentucky 
rifle, the revolver was a distinctly American invention. Unlike the Kentucky rifle, however, the revolver’s development, production, and initial popularity can be largely attributed to one man, Samuel Colt. The Connecticut native was not merely a mechanical virtuoso but a promotional and manufacturing mastermind who would become a template of the nineteenth-century American industrialist, epitomizing the exuberance and possibilities of the populist era of mid-1800s American life.

A self-made man, Colt was prodigious, a tireless self-promoter, innovator, autodidact, and mythmaker. His nose for opportunity made him one of the wealthiest men of his day. With this success came a leap forward in firearm technology. Colt invented the first hands-on, workable, mass-produced revolving firearm. And with his gun, he became one of the first industrialists to take advantage of mass marketing, celebrity endorsements, and corporate mythology to sell his product—a success that laid the groundwork for twentieth-century businessmen, including Henry Ford. In practical terms, his gun was more deadly, more accessible, more dynamic, and more useful than any that had ever been designed before it. It would play a part in carving out the West, revolutionizing war, and transforming the role of the gun in modern American life.

Although he certainly perfected the idea, multi-chambered guns already existed when Colt came up with his first revolver. Pepperbox pistols, for instance, were widely owned and used by the time Colt was first carving out his wooden model for the revolver. Named after the pepper grinders they resembled, these handguns had to be manually rotated, and were notoriously unreliable and difficult to aim because of the front-loaded weight of the multiple barrels. In 1814, the year Colt was born, the Boston inventor Elisha Collier had taken out a patent on a five-shot flintlock model pistol. Collier’s development was to invent a gun that was “self-priming”: in other words, when the hammer of the weapon was cocked, a compartment automatically released a measured amount of gunpowder into the pan for another charge.

Sam Colt
At the age of twenty-one, though, Colt decided to patent the idea he’d been toying with for years: the repeating revolver, It made a singular technical advance—what may seem obvious to us now: rather than relying on five barrels, Colt’s invention had a rotating cylinder that came into alignment with a single barrel. When cocked for firing, the next chamber revolved automatically to bring the next shot into line with the barrel. The gun included a locking pawl to keep the cylinder in line with the barrel, and a percussion cap that made it more reliable than any other gun available dominant mechanism of American weapons. The patent protected Colt’s fundamental ideas until 1857, by which time he was enormously wealthy and world-famous.

Colt would sell the Walker, Dragoon, and the Navy models. But it was the Single Action Army—more famously known as the “Peacemaker”—that would embody his legacy. An elegant gun with a practical and streamlined design, it took on near-mythological status not merely because of its easy use but because of the legendary men who claimed to shoot it. The first model gun had a solid frame that weighed around three pounds, a .45-caliber with a 7.5-inch barrel, blued steel, and an oil-stained walnut grip. It was soon one of the most popular guns ever made. In 1872, the Army’s Ordnance Board would adopt it for service.

It was likely Colt himself who came up with the moniker “Peacemaker” for his gun. It was not merely a stab at irony or an adman’s clever copy. Colt often, and vigorously, argued that this gun could empower the average American. The average man could order one through the mail for the somewhat affordable price of $17 and have a light but powerful weapon within weeks. And selling his guns to civilians—every civilian, if possible—would be Colt’s principal goal.

The weapon could be brandished for self-protection, of course, but it was a firearm so formidable that war was to become too destructive to be worth engaging in, Colt argued. The gun was, to him, an imperative tool in fulfilling the American dream on both a personal and providential scale. A Colt made one man six. “Place a revolver in the hands of a dwarf . . . and he is equal to a giant,” he said.

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