- [GunCite analyzes a sample of Bellesiles's work (and see for yourself his flawed and misleading citations -- it's more than just differences in "interpretation" of historical documents).]
More Bellesiles: "Cite Correction"
(Last revised: January 5, 2002)
- [Official announcement, by the Columbia University Board of Trustees, rescinding Bellesiles's Bancroft Prize.]
The Bancroft and Bellesiles, History News Network (December 14, 2002).
- Hillel, Italie, Columbia Rescinds History Prize for Book, Austin American-Statesman (December 13, 2002).
- Oct. 25: Michael Bellesiles Resigns from Emory Faculty
"Dr. Michael Bellesiles has resigned from his position as Professor of History at Emory University, effective December 31, 2002. Emory University has released a statement accepting Dr. Bellesiles's resignation and the report of an outside Investigative Committee appointed by Emory to investigate allegations concerning Dr. Bellesiles's research in his book, Arming America. Dr. Bellesiles has also issued a statement." (See also: How the Bellesiles Story Developed, History News Network)
- [Amazingly, the professor still has his defenders.]
Wiener, Jon, Fire at Will, The Nation (October 17, 2002).
[See Jon shredded...]
Sternstein, Jerome, Shooting the Messenger: Jon Wiener on Arming America, History News Network (October 28, 2002).
- Book Flap Prompts NEH to Pull Name From Fellowship, Washington Post (May 22, 2002).
|Sternstein, Jerome, "Pulped" Fiction: Michael Bellesiles and His Yellow Note Pads, History News Network (May 20, 2002).|
- Lindgren, James, Mr. Bellesilesís Emails, History News Network (April 15, 2002).
- History chair apologizes for Bellesiles controversy, The Emory Wheel on the Web (March 1, 2002).
- [Bellesiles changes his story again, and of course it doesn't check-out.]
Seckora, Melissa, Disarming America, Part III, National Review (January 29, 2002).
- ["Don Hickey, a professor of history at Wayne State College, in Nebraska, originally supported Arming America's thesis (he peer-reviewed the Journal of American History article and recommended its publication), but has since come to regard Mr. Bellesiles's work as not merely flawed but fraudulent. 'It is a case,' he recently told the Chicago Tribune, 'of genuine, bona fide academic fraud.'"]
Postel, Danny, Did the Shootouts Over 'Arming America' Divert Attention From the Real Issues?, The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 29, 2002).
- ["Now many of Mr. Bellesiles's defenders have gone silent. Over the past year a number of scholars who have examined his sources say he has seriously misused historical records and possibly fabricated them. They say the outcome, when all the evidence is in, could be one of the worst academic scandals in years." Also, from Ohio State University history professor Randolph Roth, whom Bellesiles had asked to help defend himself: "'The number and scope of the errors in Bellesiles's work are extraordinary'... They go well beyond the probate record data, he added, affecting Mr. Bellesiles's interpretation of militia returns, literary documents and many other sources."]
Worth, Robert F., Historian's Prizewinning Book on Guns Is Embroiled in a Scandal, New York Times (December 8, 2001) [registration required].
- [From a history professor "who peer reviewed Bellesiles's earlier work, recently said, 'These criticisms have convinced me that Bellesiles misread, misused, and perhaps even fabricated some of his evidence. I no longer believe that his evidence proves his thesis...'"]
Seckora, Melissa, Disarming America, Part II, National Review (November 27, 2001).
- ["Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Bellesiles not only fails to respond to the substantive criticisms of his research, but fabricates more tales in attempting his defense.]
Bellesiles, Michael, Disarming the critics, Organization of American Historians (November 2001).
- ["Bellesiles has done some inventing of his own... Some of the most significant statements in Arming America are 'based' on data that simply do not exist." When confronted with this, he changes his story, which still does not check out.]
Seckora, Melissa, Disarming America: One of the worst cases of academic irresponsibility in memory, The National Review (October 1, 2001).
Prior to the Civil War, were firearms scarce? Is it true "the average American had little reason to go to the expense and trouble of acquiring, mastering and maintaining a tool of such doubtful utility as a gun?" ("Spiking the Gun Myth," New York Times book review, September 10, 2000)
If you are just tuning in to the gun control and Second Amendment debate, you might think a strawman argument is being presented here. That is not the case.
According to the book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" by Michael A. Bellesiles (pronounced buh-LEEL), a historian at Emory University, the answer is yes, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, firearms were scarce and they were virtually useless.
The majority of reviews in newspapers and periodicals have been uncritical of Bellesiles's extraordinary claims. For example, the review cited above by Garry Wills, another historian, is nothing more than a cheerleading exercise for the book, with boos reserved for the "gun culture."
What the New York Times fails to tell its readers is that Wills harbors extreme feelings against the "gun culture." To wit:Mutual protection should be the aim of citizens, not individual self-protection. Until we are willing to outlaw, the very existence or manufacture of civilian handguns we have no right to call ourselves citizens or consider our behavior even minimally civil.Of course none of this refutes Bellesiles's work. That is done in the essay that follows as well as in the links supplied afterwards in the Reviews Critical of Bellesiles's Research. Part of the purpose of this introduction was to explain why uncritical reviews frequently appear in the media. (In fairness, the Washington Post which strongly supports gun control, including a ban on handguns, published a semi-critical review of Bellesiles's book.)
--- John Lennon's war, Chi. Sun-times, Dec. 12, 1980.
"Every civilized society must disarm its citizens against each other. Those who do not trust their own people become predators upon their own people. The sick thing is that haters of fellow Americans often think of themselves as patriots."...
--- Or Worldwide Gun Control?,Phila. Inquirer, May 17, 1981.
"The Terrorists Who Pack an NRA Card, Times Union (Albany, NY), April 22, 1996 (describing the NRA as a 'shill for terrorists' and as 'little better than a terrorist organization itself' [source] )"
Clayton Cramer, who has written several articles critical of Bellesiles's book (Again, links given in the Reviews Critical of Bellesiles's Research section below.), comments on the quality and integrity of Bellesiles's research:"[A]fter a thorough examination of Bellesiles's sources, I conclude that he isn't just wrong--he is intentionally deceiving people. Few of the sources that I have checked actually match what he claims that they say."
--- Clayton Cramer Web page cited December 26, 2000.
Cramer is not the only one finding incredible discrepancies between Bellesiles's claims and sources, and the truth. The articles below cite historians who are highly critical of Bellesiles's work. Bellesiles isn't engaging in an examination of history at all-- he has erroneously compiled and reported data, and deliberately avoided contradictory information even from within his own sources. History is being misrepresented for propaganda purposes. His attempts at myth creating rather than myth busting are reminiscent of Nazi apologists trying to erase the Holocaust.
Gun ownership in the U.S. is probably much more widespread now than it was during the Colonial period and up to the Civil War. However that is a completely different hypothesis than what Bellesiles is claiming. Unfortunately it appears that his wretched research sheds little light on the subject, and uncritical presentations and reviews of his book serve as great propaganda.
"Magic History:" Constructing a Past in Arming America
John G. Fought1
Michael Bellesiles, the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), is a professor of American history at Emory University and the founder and former director of the Violence Studies Program there. This book has received a lot of attention, including a very favorable feature in the New York Times Book Review (Sept. 10, 2000) by Garry Wills, a briefer and more thoughtful notice in the Atlantic by Richard Slotkin, and a long, generally favorable one in the New York Review of Books (Oct. 19, 2000) by the historian Edmund S. Morgan. An excerpt from the book amounting to most of the introduction was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 29, 2000).
The back of the book's jacket is filled with blurbs whose adjectives attest to its impact - "subversive," "authoritative," "innovative," "stunning." One of those quoted, Stewart Udall, former Arizona congressman and Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and Johnson, writes that "thinking people who deplore Americans' addiction to gun violence have been waiting for this information for a long time." I think this quote encapsulates the reason for the book's existence and for its eager reception.
Such favorable notices surprised and disappointed me. The book contains numerous errors of fact about firearms and related matters, and also something worse, a kind of shell game involving the manipulation of whole categories of evidence bearing on the book's central theme. A portion of the existing, incomplete documentation concerning military firearms (especially militia weapons) for the period before 1840 is selected, and then interpreted as if it stood for all firearms in the country - civilian or military; manufactured, imported, assembled from imported parts, or captured. The core of his argument on these points was published as Bellesiles 1996.
Known documentation of the size and productivity of the gunmaking industry is fragmentary at best; the book presents a portion of it selected to seem consistent with the incomplete gun inventories just mentioned. Then Bellesiles invites us to share in his surprise at the rarity of firearms of every kind in America during this period. Instead, it would be well for us thinking people to ponder something Edmund Morgan wrote in his review: "We all know that people believe what they want to believe." He was referring to the NRA, but the desire to believe must be strong in him too, as it is in Bellesiles and Udall and the other reviewers.
Propaganda Costumed as History
The author's framing assumptions are openly stated. Violence is pathological, at least in industrialized countries; it is something that needs to be "solved." "An astoundingly high level of personal violence separates the United States from every other industrial nation. To find comparable levels of interpersonal violence one must examine nations in the midst of civil war or social chaos." The gun culture, created by the arms industry and its willing victims in the past 150 years or so, is a pernicious myth: "With guns in their hands and bullets in their belts, the frontiersmen conquered the wilderness with a deep inward faith that, as Richard Slotkin so eloquently put it, regeneration came through violence. In short, we have always been killers."  This last passage is a fair example of the rhetoric of the book, where caricature is sometimes hard to distinguish from exposition: it contains an elementary mistake about firearms, a baseless and deliberately anachronistic attribution of motive, and a childish outburst.
Bellesiles doesn't have much to say about frontiersmen, however. The long hunters, trappers, and explorers, who had at least to try to get along with the Indians around them, were few in number, provoked relatively little violence, and left behind few records compared with the townspeople who followed them. Most of the frontier violence that he does discuss took place after the establishment of fixed farming settlements.
He claims that in America, "gun ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier, and that guns became common only with the industrialization of the mid-nineteenth century, with ownership concentrated in urban areas. The gun culture grew with the gun industry." This dual conclusion, that guns were rare and that a gun culture was invented just before the Civil War, has attracted especially favorable notice from reviewers. Bellesiles asserts that "the gun is so central to American identity that the nation's history has been meticulously reconstructed to promote the necessity of a heavily armed American public. In the classic telling, arms ownership has always been nearly universal, and American liberty was won and maintained by the actions of privately armed citizens. The gun culture has been read from the present into the past."
In his review, Morgan wrote about this classic telling: "Until recently other historians, myself included, would probably have agreed, and so, surprisingly, would many of the eighteenth-century Americans supposedly so well equipped with guns. It is the purpose of Bellesiles's book to show that the facts are otherwise, that cherished suppositions about guns in early America are demonstrably wrong and were wrong as they came from the mouths of people at the time who should have known better." This is indeed Bellesiles's strategy.
Morgan's assessment is a powerful testimonial to the allure of his conclusions for readers who dislike guns, and to the effect of figures, charts, and tables purporting to give quantitative evidence of their rarity in early America. However, Bellesiles merely asserts that people believe as he says about gun ownership in early America, he never shows it; nor does he consider what varied reasons people may have had then - and now - for buying guns. Instead, he concentrates on trying to convince his readers of two propositions: that guns were both rare and not much good, and that from the start, the American militia was hardly ever a capable military force.
Selecting the Evidence You Like
I don't think that Bellesiles's book stands up as professional historical research. It contains too many factual errors, and it fails to give critical consideration to many kinds of evidence made relevant by its presence or absence in the documentary record. Instead, this book and its reception only make sense within the ideological context of today, as propaganda against the current interpretation of the Second Amendment that protects private ownership of firearms, and in favor of the relationship that Bellesiles and his comrades-in-arms see between widespread private ownership of guns and a high level of violence in America.
Of course, partisanship in popular or academic historical writing in not unusual. I strongly disagree with those who see guns themselves as an explanation or cause of violence, and that makes me a partisan too. But when I object to Bellesiles's failure to meet reasonable standards for finding and presenting evidence, I raise an issue of general concern that every reader can and should confront, regardless of personal feelings about guns. There is supposed to be a difference between history and propaganda. If we are all just inventing rather than discovering the past, building it from the evidence that suits us and leaving out the rest, then the whole scholarly apparatus of notes and quotes, like the blurbs and reviews, serve only as battle-flags in an endless, inconclusive conflict of opinions. I'm not yet ready to concede that.
The book is segmented both chronologically and topically, making assertions as it goes along about different aspects of the topic of guns and militias in early America, and giving or referring to selected evidence in support of some of these assertions. Some items or claims appear a number of times. In style and structure the book is thus more like gossip than an organized argument or the legal brief one believer likened it to. This structure and its considerable bulk present a special critical challenge to anyone hoping to upset in a few pages what was offered at length as a preponderance of evidence.
Here I will first give a few examples of a characteristic pattern of evidence selection that goes beyond mere carelessness. I will show how some specific claims based on cited evidence fail to hold up when checked against the source material. I hope in this way to raise doubts about the rest, and to encourage others to dig into the records. Finally, I will sketch out some parallel lines of research, which if performed more systematically might better test the claims made by Bellesiles.
I begin with a minor example, one of Bellesiles's several claims that muzzle-loading firearms were unreliable and inaccurate: "Most people have no idea how difficult it is to use and care for a black-powder muzzle-loading musket, or how haphazard and dangerous these weapons can be when fired. One indication can be found in records of any of the many states that set aside a separate deer season for muzzle-loaders. During New York's 1994 season, for instance, only 3.5 percent of the licensed hunters using muzzle-loaders bagged their deer. Far more deer-19,430 to be exact - were killed by archers."
His source is the New York Times Magazine, 5 November 1995, p. 20, the 'Sunday' page, which begins with a contributed list of seven faits divers about hunting, of which he uses two (in their entirety). These figures actually reveal nothing about the use, reliability, and safety of muzzle-loaders, only suggesting their ineffectiveness when compared with bows and arrows. But this is an odd way of presenting the numbers: a percentage for one and a count for the other.
By checking the relevant page of the state's website, and making a phone call, I learned that in 1994 New York's muzzle loading season was considerably shorter than the archery season. Moreover, there were many more bowhunters than hunters using muzzle loaders. Figures from State records for 1998 for these two categories of deer hunters in New York are shown in the table below. Hunting seasons for regular firearms, archery, and muzzle loaders are different from each other and different in the regions defined for this purpose.
In the table, Region N is the Northern part of the state, including the Adirondacks; region S is the rest of the state except for heavily populated Westchester and Suffolk counties (Region WS), which allow bowhunting but not firearms. That year, for all regions together, about 14.8% of bowhunters and 10.5% of hunters using muzzle-loaders were successful in taking deer:
Type of Weapon
Bow & Arrow
From this it seems after all that muzzle loading rifles must be more effective for deer hunting than bows and arrows nowadays, since there are several times more opportunities for archers to succeed. If all hunting had taken place in region N, there would have been a maximum of 4,180,800 archer-days (permits times days) versus 1,113,000 muzzle-loader days, the ratio being 3.76 opportunities to 1. If everyone had hunted in Region S, the opportunity ratio would be 12.83 to 1, again in favor of the archers. However, the ratio of deer taken is only 3.09 to 1 in favor of the archers. For comparison, in 1998, 671,600 regular firearm permits were issued, and 197,001 deer were taken by those hunters, a success rate of 29.3%.
The importance of the deer hunting example by itself, of course, is negligible, since it actually makes no difference to their historical role whether 18th Century muzzle loaders actually had all the defects he ascribes to them, and in any case, both classes of weapons have been greatly improved since then. Bellesiles's lack of trustworthiness in presenting quantitative data to his readers, however, is very important. He saw some numbers he liked, and just threw them in. Many of his examples are handled in just this fashion.
Probate Records: How Many? How Chosen?
Bellesiles has by now mentioned several times in print that his writings on this topic result from a ten-year research project that first came into focus as he examined a sample of early probate records. He noticed that fewer guns were mentioned in them than he had expected to find. The use of these records and his conclusions based on them are an important element in the reviewers' perception of his book as founded on convincing quantitative data. Yet his presentation of this material is as casual as the deer hunting data.
He tells us that he examined some 1200 records "from the frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania during the years 1765 to 1790," of which only 14% mentioned firearms. In the Appendix, in Table 1, he shows percentages of records mentioning guns for six periods covering the period from 1765 to 1859, and divided geographically between the frontier, urban and rural counties along the northern coast, and the south.
The table shows a higher percentage at each period in the south, and a general increase for all regions over time. He doesn't tell us how many records there were in total for all of these areas in the archives he visited, nor how many in total he actually examined, nor how he selected his sample for tabulation. He does mention some uncertainties specific to the use of probate records as historical evidence (so does Slotkin in his review), and gives some references to discussions of these, but there is no critical assessment here of probate records in general or of this particular body of records to support his acceptance of these numbers as valid indicators. That seems strange, especially if he really was surprised by what he first found.
The percentage of heads of households with probated estates who owned guns when they died is not related in any obvious, necessary way to the number of guns owned by those or other heads of household when younger, regardless of probate. There's no discussion of this issue. He just gives the numbers as evidence that surprised but convinced him. And again we find the same pattern of presentation: item counts for some of the data, percentages for most, a few anecdotal examples, but no consistent quantitative framework or critical assessment of the larger picture that the gun records fit into. The effect of this sleight of pen, however, is even more disturbing in this instance.
Joyce Lee Malcolm, in her review of Bellesiles, writes about the 186 probate inventories from early Providence of which, Bellesiles states, 48% mention firearms: "James Lindgren, professor of law at Northwestern University, examined the inventories and found that 'virtually everything Bellesiles said about these records was false.' Not 48 percent but 62 percent mentioned guns, of which not the 33 percent Bellesiles claimed but only 9 percent were described as old. Lindgren also examined probates from one of Bellesiles's frontier counties and compared the numbers of guns listed to the other sorts of property mentioned. He found more guns than knives, more guns than books, more guns than Bibles."
Professors Lindgren and Heather's comparison of probate records with Bellesiles's presentation of them shows the same pattern of distortion of quantitative evidence that I have noted here in his treatment of other topics. In this case, however, the distortion takes the form not only of biased selection, but also of gross and inexplicable numerical inaccuracies that in my opinion, as in theirs, completely discredit the book. The evidence of probate documents, as Lindgren and Heather brilliantly show, points in the opposite direction from Bellesiles's claims.
Firearms Manufacturing and Assembly Capacity in the Colonial Period
It would be surprising if anyone had ever doubted that guns were more numerous after 1850 than before. There is no question that in Europe and America, general manufacturing efficiency and productive capacity grew during the several centuries in question as the infrastructure and the tools of manufacturing technology improved. However, Bellesiles's view is that firearms were rare.
His explanatory portrayal of the American firearms industry, its size, and its productivity, is at variance with other sources, including some that he himself cites. He describes it as remaining at the household craft level during the Colonial period, and gives estimates and judgments far below what these other sources imply. He writes that there were "no gun manufactories in North America in the Colonial period - none." The context provides no qualification or explanation of this remarkable assertion. Perhaps manufactory or Colonial period has some occult meaning for him.
There certainly were gunmaking businesses in the Colonies, and some must have employed more than an individual or a few craftsmen. That of Hugh Orr (1737-1798) was capable of filling an order by the Massachusetts militia for 500 muskets in 1748 (Brown 1980.259-60). Nor was everything done by hand in that period. Although most American gunsmiths in the early 18th Century apparently employed only a few people, as early as 1725, a number of American gun makers used water power to drive their machine tools (Brown 1980.243).
Histories of industrialization assign to gunmaking an important role in the development of what became known as the American System of Manufacture. One important source Bellesiles mentions is Smith's study of the Harpers Ferry Armory. Smith's main argument is that unlike the Springfield Armory, Harpers Ferry never fully embraced the principles of industrialization emerging as the American System, instead continuing some aspects of the old craft orientation, with consequent lower productivity, higher cost, and less uniformity of parts in its products.
These shortcomings are noted by Bellesiles, but as examples of American firearms manufacturing in general, not as a local failure to adjust to changing methods of production. Likewise, he leaves out of account the component of lower productivity at Harpers Ferry attributable to the more complex and exacting production process for the Model 1803/14 rifles developed and made there (while Springfield mainly produced simpler smoothbore muskets). All that matters to Bellesiles is the smaller number of guns produced, as evidence that guns were rare.
To further support his claim that there were few private gunmakers of any kind in business during the Colonial period, and that all were individual craftsmen or very small operations, Bellesiles gives scattered figures for the number of gunmakers and gunsmiths during the period, emphasizing their involvement in government contracts ending in failure from poor quality or short deliveries. The purpose and effect of his presentation is to minimize our expectations of the number of guns that could have been produced by such a small number of gunsmith shops operating at what he describes as their low rate of production before the advent of interchangeable parts.
Although business records as we think of them are quite a recent development, even so, there is more evidence against his view than Bellesiles cares to use. Indeed, there is ample evidence to support a different conclusion. Using the count in Carey (1953), I tabulated the number of gunmaking establishments, private and governmental, listed as in business for any length of time in America from the earliest listings through 1820, including those listed as in operation about 1820, but omitting those setting up in 1820 or later. I tallied those in Pennsylvania separately. My count of what's in the book may be off by a few, but for what it is worth, the total is 756 gunsmith businesses, of which 412 (56%) operated in Pennsylvania. There is every reason to suppose that Carey's count is far from complete; he said so himself. This is sharply different from the impression Bellesiles seeks to create, of a few small operations barely able to make a few pieces a month, with some of them foundering for lack of demand.
Several towns in eastern and central Pennsylvania had quite a number of gunmakers in business at any given time. Within such communities, even this early in the development of the industry, specialization would likely have been found. Some craftsmen might specialize in making locks, stocks or barrels, or the metal bands, swivels, buttplates, or other furniture, or one might craft the whole weapon by himself. Importing locks and barrels, crafting stocks and furniture locally, and then assembling complete arms was another way a small business could still produce income, and quite a few weapons. And once again, some of these businesses were not small.
Clark, a standard work and one of Bellesiles's sources, referring to the Pennsylvania Archives (Ser. I, vol. IV, pp. 767-68), states that "At the time of the Revolution a complete gunshop was expected to contain three or four barrel-forges, a water mill for grinding and polishing barrels, a lock-shop with seven forges and benches for forty filers, ten benches for gunstock makers, a brass foundry for mountings with several finishing benches, a couple of forges for bayonets and ramrods, together with a mill for grinding and polishing them, another forge for fittings, and an assembling shop." In claiming that there were no gun manufacturers in Colonial America, Bellesiles goes beyond mere card-stacking, to the level of playing with less than a full deck.
Another facet of the problem of how many guns there were is the question of imports. Bellesiles writes that there is no usable documentation of imports of guns and gun parts from Europe during the crucial periods covered in his study. He chooses to conclude, based on this lack of evidence, that the number of imports wasn't high enough to matter much to his claim that guns were rare. One can just as easily conclude the opposite from the evidence he gives: that in view of much contemporary testimony to the availability of weapons, the frequent references to fine English and other foreign arms, and the brisk trade in cheap guns to the Indians, more must have been made and imported than the militia and army records alone would suggest.
The demand for guns among the Indians, which he supports with many citations, suggests that they at least must have perceived guns as good for something. Interestingly too, he seems not to deplore habitual violence and the adoption of guns by American Indians nearly so much as these same traits when displayed by White colonists. The rapid adaptation of their raiding tactics against both other Indians and settlers so as to exploit newly acquired guns, the eagerness with which the Indians traded for them, and their demonstrated effectiveness when fired from their side of the frontier, all stand in sharp contrast to what he says about their infrequent and ineffectual use by White settlers.
Where are the Germans?
Bellesiles's decade of research apparently failed to reveal to him the reason for a concentration of gunmakers in Colonial Pennsylvania. Even more than the other Middle Colonies, Pennsylvania was heavily settled by German speakers. They were successful not only as farmers but in the trades and industry. They brought with them among other things a successful and scalable steelmaking process and a strong tradition of riflemaking, hunting, and marksmanship. What became known as the Pennsylvania rifle, and later the Kentucky rifle, was based on the traditional German Jäger style, named for its hunter or ranger users from the rugged and forested regions of central Europe. At that time, these areas still had large and dangerous game to be hunted, and an active community of hunters, gamekeepers, and marksmen, as they still do today. Their Schützen ('Guards') companies amounted to a kind of militia tradition as well, whose members took part in many campaigns in fighting between and outside the German states.
Search on the web today for Schützenverein 'Shooting Club' and you'll find dozens of them still active in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, with their own uniforms, clubhouses, and ranges. One of the first sites I looked at had posted photographs of the clubhouse, which nestled in rolling country cut by lanes lined with trees, and with scattered woodlots, looking just like central Pennsylvania.
The original Jäger rifle pattern, when made by immigrant German and Swiss gunsmiths, was gradually lengthened and reduced in bore, making them both more accurate and cheaper to shoot. An unknown number of them were made in Pennsylvania beginning around 1710, and were mostly traded westward. The evolving Pennsylvania style of rifle became in turn the basis for the US Rifle, Model 1803, which was modified again as the Model 1814, and produced at the Harpers Ferry Armory, some of them specially made as pattern arms to be duplicated by private contractors. Somewhat later, as the frontier moved farther, the Pennsylvania rifle was shortened again and given a slightly larger bore and a half stock; this style, known as the Plains Rifle, was produced well into the 19th Century by gunmakers influenced by or belonging to this German and Swiss gunmaking tradition, such as the famous Hawken firm in Saint Louis.
Bellesiles lives in Anglo-America, however. He barely mentions German contributions to Colonial life. These include not only their vital role in early American gunmaking, and their part in forming the traditions of hunting and of recreational and competitive target shooting, but also their contribution to the American military tradition, beginning before the Revolutionary War and lasting through the Civil War. Nor does he give even a hint of their importance for the development of entrepreneurship and industrial innovation in the Middle Colonies, or of the still greater importance of their early contribution to iron mining, smelting, and steelmaking from very early in our history. One of the large Colonial Pennsylvania iron ore deposits (near Hopewell Forge) was worked continuously until 1973, and another until early in the 20th Century. By itself, this utter neglect of the role of Germans in early America should discredit the book as serious history.
Militia Weapons or All Weapons?
Apart from the sample of probate records, the quantitative evidence given in the book bears primarily on the militia and its weapons. It is the militiaman, not the frontiersman, who marches through these pages, untrained, ineffectual, ill-equipped, and above all, scarcely armed. Whole chapters are devoted to documenting the shortcomings of American militiamen in motivation, training, and armament at all periods, through citations whose authors are identified but seldom characterized, leaving their veracity and motives out of account. Moreover, Cramer has documented a number of instances where he quotes these sources very selectively indeed, sometimes reversing their implications by omitting framing passages.
There are three reasons for his sustained attention to militias, I think. The first is their obvious connection with the Second Amendment. Another is that from before the Revolutionary War, through their documented dealings with Colonial governments, and later, with State and Federal bureaus, they were a source of records on firearms holdings. These records continue alongside Army records after the Revolutionary War. The third reason is that militias, like the Army, were generally held in low esteem during peacetime, and still more so in times of crisis, and were even less well maintained than the tiny standing Army. They are thus well suited to their assigned role in Bellesiles's pageant of military incompetence and futility.
It appears that at best, the principle of the Drunkard's Search may be at work: Bellesiles searches under the streetlight for his missing keys, regardless of where he may have dropped them. He wants to show how few guns there were, so he exploits some of the records that can be found, but then, although they are of admittedly questionable accuracy, and have no bearing on the number of other arms that were never militia equipment, he nevertheless uses them to reach, or at least to suggest, unwarranted conclusions about the total stock of arms in the country.
If one wishes to show how many or how few guns were actually present in Colonial and Revolutionary America, periods in which modern mass production methods had not yet been developed, there are only a certain number of possible sources of firearms to be sought. He alludes to each of these types of records at times, and comments on the status of available information. Here is what they amount to:
|Sources of American Firearms up to 1820||Number|
|Manufactured in Europe; imported to America||Unknown|
|Imported as parts; assembled in America||Unknown|
|Captured or confiscated||Partially known|
|Manufactured in America by commercial gunmakers||Partially known|
|Manufactured in America by government arsenals||Known|
It has already been noted here and elsewhere how selectively he exploits even these records. Upon such a slight foundation, and the numbers it provides, he rests his conclusion that guns were rare. In view of the reception given to this book, such glaring lapses in scholarship may be hard to credit. However, Clayton Cramer, in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 27, 2000), offered the following example of Bellesiles misuse of a source on militia weapons:Bellesiles claims that in 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn conducted 'a careful census of firearms in America, with the intention of demonstrating that the American militia owned sufficient firearms.' After reporting that there were 235,831 guns, Bellesiles claims that '[h]alf of all these guns were in the hands of the federal government, with about one-quarter in state arsenals. The remainder were privately owned' (p. 240).
But when you actually go to the sources that Bellesiles cites, they are a 'Return of the Militia' (and an incomplete one, at that) that asked the state governors to report on 'the military strength of each State, the actual situation of the arms, accoutrements, and ammunition of the several corps, with the same, and every other thing which may relate to their government, and the general advantage of good order and military discipline.' [not all states responded - JGF] Nothing in the letter or reports cited by Bellesiles claims that this is a census of all firearms in the United States. There is nothing that distinguishes between those 'in the hands of the federal government' and those in state arsenals, and nothing that indicates how many of the arms were privately owned, or how many other arms there were.
Bellesiles also claims that in 1806, 'a congressional committee estimated that there were 250,000 guns in America' (p. 240, n. 123). Bellesiles is attempting to pass this off as a count of all guns in America, and yet the report he cites is very clear to anyone who bothers to read it: 'From the best estimates which the committee has been able to form, there is upwards of 250,000 fire arms and rifles in the hands of the militia.' ... The report is explicit that guns in state magazines were not counted. ... There is nothing to indicate that this report counted or even pretended to estimate all the guns in the United States.
Bellesiles replied in part as follows (loc. cit.):I did discuss the limitations of any statistical source from the antebellum period, including computational errors made at the time. I also wrote that Secretary of War Dearborn's 1803 count was 'certainly incomplete,' and that William Eustis's 1810 census was 'probably the most thorough and exact' (p. 263). These gun censuses were undertaken on order of the president by constables and militia officers throughout the country. Dearborn made a number of personal inspections and conducted a lengthy correspondence on this matter. I cited Dearborn's totals, so that any scholar can examine them. I remain confident that any fair-minded and unbiased scholar who looks at the complete record will be satisfied that I reported the material accurately.
But Cramer doesn't just question whether the counts were accurate. He also questions what was counted and what was not, and whether Bellesiles accurately represents the contents of these documents in his book. Here is what Bellesiles wrote on pp. 262-63 [italics mine]: "In 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn conducted the first significant census of the militia and its arms, both publicly and privately owned. Dearborn discovered that 45 percent of the militia bore arms. His census of weapons, which was certainly incomplete, indicated that just 4.9 percent of America's population was armed, or 23.7 percent of its white adult males."
Bellesiles then goes on to present the Eustis count of 1810 in exactly the same way, as if it somehow revealed the total stock of arms available within the country. In connection with the same document, and thus the same count of weapons, he gives percentages for militiamen, adult white males, and people of all descriptions. To give these percentages only makes sense if he means to say, or means us to believe, that there were no other arms to be counted. His rejoinder doesn't directly contradict Cramer about the challenged document, but rather delivers the following discourse on historiography. Once again, I have added italics to my favorite passage:"It is not my intention to give an introductory history lesson, but as a non-historian, Mr. Cramer may not appreciate that historians do not just chronicle the past, but attempt to analyze events and ideas while providing contexts for documents. A citation therefore generally refers to the exact document being examined or quoted. To contextualize every footnote would require an additional volume. Mr. Cramer says that he spent 12 hours on his research. I spent 10 years. To frame this single counting of 1803, it is necessary to read carefully ... the many excellent works of military history covering the period. A thorough scholar will then move on to the Congressional Record, the secretary of war's letters in the National Archives, Dearborn's correspondence in the Chicago Historical Society, and Dearborn's papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, for starters."It is fair to disagree with my interpretation of a cited source or my entire thesis. For instance, what I see as a limited and insufficient supply of firearms can be interpreted as a great many guns by another reader. Likewise, raising contrary evidence, as I attempt to do in my book, is a legitimate aspect of all scholarship. But the misrepresentation of a text and blanket accusations of fraud strike me as inappropriate. I am pleased to say that my articles based on this research have been subjected to peer review and have benefited from the advice of many readers."
Even such a dense cloud of sepia should not discourage our pursuit of Prof. Bellesiles on this point. No elaborate contextualization, no specialization in military history, is necessary to establish what Dearborn and Eustis were reporting on by reading their instructions and their reports. Cramer and Bellesiles can both be wrong about this, but they can't both be right. Tellingly, Bellesiles doesn't challenge Cramer's reading of these documents, only his personal credentials. But like any author, Bellesiles himself is responsible for his interpretations and errors, even those the peers did not catch.
Peer review is the subject of many stories and many studies, whose cumulative effect is very negative. The best that can be said for it is that it's cheap. Peers, like ordinary readers (and book reviewers), may be friends or enemies of the author; their work may be diligent or careless; in the end, their recommendations to the editor or the author may be ignored anyway. What seems clear is that Bellesiles has used these militia gun census returns misleadingly, not only without caveats as to their stated scope, but presenting them as if they were meant to represent all of the arms in America.
American Militia and British Regulars in Combat, 1755 and 1775
In Bellesiles's account of the disastrous Braddock expedition of 1755, an action usually understood as showing the effectiveness of the ambush and skirmish tactics of the French and Indians against the road-bound British regulars, he rejects without discussion the usual opinion that bayonets were of little use as an offensive weapon on such heavily overgrown American battlefields. He also disparages skirmishing tactics in later chapters, where he again extols the bayonet as the decisive infantry weapon.
Indeed, if there were time for it, I could show more evidence from his book of what seems a curious fascination with the appearance and use of edged weapons, equal but opposite to his repugnance for firearms. Military historians of the period agree that by 1750 European tactics already had a long history of balancing regular or line regiments with cooperating bodies of light forces, often irregulars. The regulars were trained to maneuver in compact field formations designed mostly for direct control and mutual support, and partly to resist attacks by heavy cavalry in the open battlefields of western Europe; the light forces, such as the "Croats," "Hussars," German Jäger or French chasseur ("ranger") units, were often armed not with muskets but with rifles (often without bayonets), and were used for mobile operations, fighting in open order as scouts and skirmishers, harassing and weakening the regulars. The British army was slow to adapt to this trend. Braddock's view of infantry tactics, like Bellesiles's, was behind the times.
Bellesiles also summarizes the action at Concord, Lexington, and along the road to Boston, on April 19, 1775. I focus on this day's action in order to contrast his treatment of the historical evidence, both quantitative and narrative, with other published accounts. Here I further condense his brief presentation, following his wording as closely as I can, mostly dispensing with quotation marks and ellipses for simplicity except in a few key passages. If you are concerned with the accuracy of my summary, by all means read his three-page printed account for yourselves - you can easily do so without buying the book.The government of Massachusetts had provided arms for those in the Lexington militia (40 of 110) who weren't armed. When the alarm was given at Lexington around 4:30 AM, many men ran to the meetinghouse for their weapons; "others milled around the green while [Captain John] Parker attempted to get his men in line." Six companies of British infantry, under Major John Pitcairn, marched onto the Green from the other side. "These troops settled into their formidable ranks, recently cleaned Brown Besses fixed with long bayonets at the ready." ... "Staring at those two hundred bayonets just thirty feet away, Parker thought the dispersal part of the command a very good idea, and ordered his men to fall out." Then somebody fired a shot, and two platoons of British soldiers fired their muskets and charged with their bayonets. "Jonas Parker was the sole member of the militia to stand his ground and shoot; he was bayoneted and killed while reloading. Only six other Americans pulled their triggers while falling back; a British private was grazed by a bullet. The battle was over; the war had begun." The British troops formed up and moved on to Concord, where they believed arms and powder were stored.This account contains many elements that are part of the myth that David Hackett Fischer (1994) says has grown up around these events. The image of the Americans fighting as individuals, sniping at the regulars from behind trees and rocks, is an especially familiar one. But a great deal of documentary evidence from both sides, in the form of depositions, letters, memoirs, and official reports, is available also. Fischer integrates the contents of quantities of such material into his narrative account, which also deserves a careful reading in full. Here I cite or paraphrase Fischer.
At Concord, the militia at first retreated before the regulars, who entered the town square and began searching for munitions. A fire was set to burn some artillery carriages, and perhaps accidentally it spread to the courthouse and blacksmith shop. Some 400 militiamen gathered outside the town, believing that the troops were setting fire to the town, began to move "toward North Bridge, where several companies of regulars stood at ease. Though not in formation, the British fired at the Americans, killing two. The militia was stunned. 'God damn it!' someone shouted. 'They're firing ball!" This shooting was entirely unexpected, and scores of Americans opened fire at some twenty feet, killing three and wounding nine British soldiers."
"Even at very close range, few of these shots hit the enemy, which was the norm in eighteenth-century warfare. Though British casualties were light, it was now the turn of the regulars to be stunned.... In not so much a retreat as a panic, the British left Concord in a hurry, their officers trying to bring them into order. The militia stood around talking, wondering what it all meant."
"But other militia units lined the road back to Boston. Neither side in this long battle fought very well. Occasionally a unit of the British would trap some Americans and charge with their bayonets; at other times some rebels got off an effective volley and then retreated into the woods. But for the most part, the British retreat was just a constant barrage of individual shots from each side, most missing, but enough hitting to disorganize the British command." Summing up, he quotes the estimate of French (1925) that 3,763 militiamen took part in the day's fighting, not all of them armed, not all firing, that though they may have been superior to the British that day, marksmen they were not, though they did inflict 273 casualties while suffering only 95 of their own.
Bellesiles concludes: "Expert marksmanship requires training, good equipment, and a regular supply of ammunition for practice. These farmers rarely practiced, generally had no ammunition, and owned old muskets, not rifles, if they owned a gun at all. Guns were in such short supply that in the months before Lexington a number of efforts had been made to buy or steal muskets from British soldiers."
The last phase of the day's action was the retreat from Lexington, where General Hugh Percy, leading a full brigade of more than 1000 troops and two light field guns, waited for the retreating detachment to arrive from Concord by the road through Lexington. There was a clash at Mentonomy. The retreat from there turned into a rampage, with British troops attacking civilians near the road and looting houses. There were hand-to-hand fights along the way, until Percy was able to get his troops safely behind British lines.The British column sent out of Boston before dawn numbered about 770 men and officers, including Col. Smith and Major Pitcairn, who led the advance detachment about 228 of these troops that was engaged first at Lexington. About half of these were formed up on the Lexington Common facing about 75 militiamen when the firing broke out. Captain Parker of Lexington was 45, and had soldiered in the French and Indian War, as had a number of Massachusetts militiamen present that day. The British troops, on the other hand, though from line regiments and the Marines, were mostly inexperienced. The militia had a statewide chain of command; through it the Lexington men were under orders not to engage the British unless first attacked by them. Captain John Parker's men began to fall back under his orders before the firing started. Militiaman Jonas Parker was shot, and then bayoneted on the ground. The men scattered when attacked, some of them running, but reformed just afterwards, joined by the rest of the company.Fischer does not report any ammunition shortages during the day except among the British, who had come out with only 36 rounds per man in both detachments. Two wagonloads of ammunition had been sent on with an escort of Grenadiers by General Gage in the morning (which Lord Percy, commanding the relief column, did not yet want); they were ambushed, taken, and the men and horses killed or captured by a company of elderly Alarm Men, the oldest group in the militia system, ably led in this action by one David Lamson, listed in the records as a mulatto.
The British column then marched the 8 miles to Concord, which was alerted long before it arrived there. There the Colonials had divided their forces, placing the minutemen (the youngest and best equipped) in line in front of the town, the militiamen on a hill near the town center, and the older Alarm Men farther back, beyond the North Bridge. When they saw the number of British troops coming into town, they retired in good order ahead of them, gathering on high ground across the North Bridge to watch the British.
The orders given by General Gage for searching Concord were specific. Col. Smith secured the South and North Bridges, sent four companies northward to search a mill at some distance out of town, and set the rest of his troops to searching the town for military supplies. In the course of this, a fire was set to burn the wooden carriages of three iron cannon that were found. The fire began to spread to nearby buildings, perhaps accidentally, and both soldiers and townspeople joined in controlling it. The militia looking toward town from beyond the North Bridge saw the smoke and concluded that the British were setting fire to the town. They decided to march closer to see what was happening, and formed ranks; they turned toward their flank and marched in two files downhill toward the North Bridge.
The British officer at the bridge had about 115 men with him, and as the Americans approached, he ordered them to form for street firing, a compact formation of several narrow ranks that would concentrate their volleys along a narrow front at the column that was approaching them over the bridge. They were not able to do this smoothly, and some tangles resulted. In this confusion, one of the regulars fired without orders, then two more, and soon a ragged volley, aimed too high, as at Lexington. Two Americans fell dead, and a few more were wounded.
The Americans continued to advance smoothly, to the amazement of the British soldiers. The British continued to fire rapidly; when the range closed to fifty yards, Major Buttrick of Concord ordered the Americans to fire. Their double file curved back over the bridge and along the track just on the far side of the river, so that a considerable number could aim and concentrate their fire at the British. After a short time under this fire, the British companies broke and ran, leaving their dead and wounded. British Ensign Lister wrote of this moment, "the weight of their fire was such that we was obliged to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance."
Back in the town, Col. Smith heard the firing, and himself led two companies of Grenadiers toward it. The routed light infantry soon ran into their ranks. The Americans led by Col. Barrett advanced toward the town. He placed his minutemen behind a stone wall between the bridge and the town, and held the rest back. The advancing Grenadiers saw them in position at the wall, and halted with their officers about 200 yards away to look them over.
After a while, without further advance or any firing, the British turned back to the town center. At this point, the four companies of British infantry sent to the mill came back toward the bridge between the Americans on both sides of the stream, and were allowed to pass by without incident and join the other British troops in the town. The British moved indecisively about inside the town center for a time, and the Americans began to move across the fields to cut them off from the road back to Boston. Seeing this, Smith sent three companies to hold high ground along the road, and formed his men into a marching column. Wounded officers were placed in confiscated carriages; wounded other ranks were left on foot to get along as best they could.
The column left for Boston, 20 miles away, at noon. Flanking parties of light infantry were put out on either side of the road to prevent the Colonials from approaching too closely, but in many places the ground along the road was too broken for them to keep pace.
Militia companies had been converging on Meriam's Corner, about a mile east of Concord, all morning. The force of American militia present now amounted to about 1000 men, more than the British. Some militia companies formed up in close order for volley fire along the road at Meriam's, others found cover and fought as skirmishers.
This was the first in a whole series of actions along the road back toward Boston that Galvin (1989) characterizes as a "running ambush." Fischer writes (1994:249), "Altogether, from Concord Bridge to Lexington Green, the New England militia stood against the British force in large formations at least eight times.... Twice the British infantry was broken, at Concord Bridge and again west of Lexington Green."
The "running ambush" continued for some hours, not under centralized command, but with cooperation improvised among the men already engaged and the additional companies of militia arriving by side roads, and then maneuvering along the road and cutting across country to take new positions as the British column marched and fought back.
The front and rear of the column were constantly confronted by Colonial militia; when the terrain was favorable, as at Brooks Hill and again at several points on the curving, hilly road toward Lexington, their flanks were harassed.
When the head of the column climbed up the grade toward Lexington again, often under crossfire, with the bright uniforms of officers as preferred targets, they were again engaged by Captain Parker and his company, who had rallied after their defeat in the early morning. So it went at every hill and curve in the road.
By the time the British left Lexington, most of their officers and many soldiers were dead or wounded, all were exhausted and thirsty, and they were nearly out of ammunition. Lt. Barker, the only officer unwounded in the first three British companies at this point, wrote later that they were near to surrendering. As they came into sight of Lexington Common they saw beyond it a full brigade, more than a thousand British troops, drawn up just beyond the town, supported by two small field guns, and commanded by Lord Hugh Percy. They had been sent out by General Gage in the afternoon, and took their position at just about the last minute.
After resting the newly arrived retreating soldiers, the brigade put out strong parties of flankers and began moving back eastward along the road. By then, more than 45 regiments of militia had gathered around them, and command of this force had been assumed by a militia general, William Heath, a self-taught soldier. He had based his plans on reading about the skirmishing tactics of the European light infantry of the time, believing this to be the right way to use the militia.
For the rest of the day, the Americans refrained from confronting the British in large linear formations, as they had a number of times earlier. Instead, under Heath's direction, orders were sent to units still on their way to the battle area, redirecting them farther east; the units shaken together during the pursuit were sorted out, and assignments were given to subordinate officers to form a moving ring around the British brigade, "dispersed tho' adhering" as one later wrote. The goal was to win a battle of attrition, skirmishing in open order and sniping from cover to minimize their own losses. During this phase of the action, as before, they maneuvered as companies and regiments, but now they often fought as small groups or individuals.
Lord Percy later wrote "Whoever looks on them as an irregular mob, will find himself very much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as rangers against the Indians and Canadians, and this country, being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting." (Fischer 1994:254).
The brigade fought its way back through Mentonomy and on to Cambridge in this way, reaching there in nearly the same desperate condition as the men whom it had saved in Lexington: tired, with many casualties, and nearly out of ammunition.
As they entered the town, amid heavy fighting with still more freshly arrived militia companies, they discovered that the bridge across the Charles River in the town, which they had to cross to return to Boston, had been broken down by the Americans and was blocked by a large force of militia. Lord Percy quickly decided to change direction, swinging his column north along a small lane leading to Charlestown. His last artillery ammunition was fired to clear from the lane some militia who had gathered on a hill just outside Cambridge.
The movements of the surrounding ring of militia companies had to be adjusted to this new development, but the ring could still have closed around him again, with surrender as a likely outcome, if one militia commander, Col. Timothy Pickering, had not again dallied as he already had earlier in the day, allowing the British to pass into Charlestown under heavy pressure from the militia following them, where they were protected by the guns of the Royal Navy and ferried in its boats over to Boston. It is believed that at this time Pickering still thought some accommodation could be reached with the British to avoid war, and held his troops back on purpose.
From Fischer's account, which agrees in all important respects with General Galvin's, we can see that Bellesiles has again stacked the cards, in order to show the militia not so much in a bad light as in a false one, as a rabble just barely in arms, when in fact they assembled and maneuvered capably, and drove the British regulars quite hard all the way from Concord to Charlestown, inflicting nearly three times as many casualties as they suffered, breaking their line of battle twice, bringing the whole body of the enemy to the brink of surrender twice, capturing troops and munitions, and, of course, starting the War of Independence. Somewhat to my surprise, I became quite angry as I read the three pages Bellesiles devotes to selectively misrepresenting the actions of the Massachusetts militia on that day. It was this reaction that stimulated me to write these pages.
To his credit, though he does not criticize the account of the April fighting, Morgan's review observes that "Although he [Bellesiles] marshals figures to show again and again the dearth of guns for the militia and their incompetence in using them, he neglects to give us the numbers for their spectacular stand at Bunker Hill, where they inflicted 1,054 casualties on British regulars while suffering only 411 themselves." The ratio of casualties on April 19 was about 2.9 to 1; in June at Bunker Hill it was 2.6 to 1. At Bunker Hill, the militia did run out of ammunition; only then did they give ground. I submit that the record shows that the militia on those two days performed well. Later in the war, both the American militia and the regulars had their ups and downs, as did the British and their German units, but there were a number of occasions when American riflemen contributed strongly to victories, Saratoga and King's Mountain among them.
Why does Bellesiles deal with the militiamen in this way? Again I suggest that it is their assigned role in his book merely to attest to the rarity, ineffectiveness, and general wickedness of guns in their hands and to the overall inadequacy of their performance, as a means of arguing against any justification then or since for the Second Amendment, and thus, finally and most importantly for him, against the current relevance of any constitutional assurance of an individual's right to keep arms. Bellesiles, in his distaste for the risk of private violence as the price of a hedge against political repression, prefers instead, on our behalf as well as his own, the historically greater risk of official violence where violent means are a state monopoly. As a hedge against what?
After the American Revolution, though fortunately not just before it, and up to the Cold War, the same great principle has applied in this country to both militia and regular forces: prepare for the last war after the next one starts. It is easy to pile up sources for each period between wars and especially just at the outbreak of war, in which State and National forces are portrayed as totally inadequate in motivation and training, with outdated equipment that is in desperately short supply. I don't dispute these records.
Nevertheless, at each time of need up to the Civil War and beyond, local militias or state troops formed the bulk of every large American military force as first mustered, and were then integrated into the national forces for the duration of the conflict. It can be argued that a national military policy based on a large standing army and universal military training would have served us better over that period, but that policy was not chosen, and it is still not our system.
If the militias and their successors were at times badly led, poorly equipped, and sloppily trained, as they surely were in many cases, it still requires a special set of assumptions and unlimited self-assurance to claim that even the most rudimentary weapons training and drill for militiamen was of no use at all when they later formed state regiments or became regular troops serving in those wars.
If that is a part of what Bellesiles's means by what he writes, as it seems to be, he gives us no justification for it. It would be easier to argue the contrary, that often in the past, Regular Army battlefield tactics and training have been far behind the times and inadequate to the capabilities of the military weapons our troops have had to face while catching up. In place of rigorous training in poor battle tactics, in several critical periods those men were for a time perhaps better served by the bonds already uniting them in small groups of friends and neighbors and by their civilian or militia experience, until the lessons of battle and improved weapons filled the gaps.
What Should be Done?
There probably never have been detailed business and other records that would show how many and what kinds of firearms were imported to America or manufactured here in the period before 1850. Nevertheless, there is surely much underexploited manuscript evidence waiting in library collections and in state and national archives. Bellesiles even mentions some of it in his notes. This material should be looked at carefully. There is probably work for a generation of history students in that task alone. Let's make sure that at least some of them read German.
Beyond that, the assistance of specialists in industrial and military history needs to be enlisted to make the best possible use of indirect evidence on the numbers and distribution of weapons in our history. Ancillary information about steelmakers, powder mills, shippers, etc., and more systematic use of family history records besides probate papers, would help as well. In such an effort, it is obvious that the direct testimony of the inhabitants of those earlier times must be examined critically but respectfully. Eye-witnesses can't simply be ignored whenever their testimony contradicts today's preconceptions.
Academic culture is strongly biased against even the study, let alone the reality of nonverbal violence. But suppose that such a broadly based, fair-minded, and freshly conceived research program on the social history of weapons was launched somehow and carried to a conclusion. What could be more likely to emerge from it than a complex, mixed picture, differing from one time and place to another, and scarcely less diversified than our own circumstances? We can see already that guns were not evenly distributed within the Colonies, nor throughout the history of any one of them.
If guns were not ubiquitous then, they need not for that reason have been rare either; if we are not all saints, we are not therefore necessarily all killers. The distribution of violence within the United States today is not homogeneous: homicide, for instance, is more common in the South and the Southwest.
Moreover, people today do not own guns only for the sake of killing. A visit to a gun show will at once reveal a more complex gun culture than Bellesiles seems able to imagine. Many people there collect and deal in guns as investments, as if they were jewelry, and would never dream of actually firing one of their prizes. Some visitors are off-duty policemen as accustomed to carrying a gun every day as most people are to driving a car. Others enjoy target shooting but never hunt. Some evidently want to own or at least touch a military weapon just like one they or a relative once carried, or that may once have been aimed or fired at them. Some, like me, are attracted to classical or unusual designs, as brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed steel ideas. A certain number of visitors, fewer than a stranger to this world might expect, appear to be stereotypical extremists, and no doubt some of them are the real thing. Still others just want props for a personal masquerade as a cowboy, a soldier, or a fanatic, or perhaps just the required gun to carry in a reenactment group they have joined. There are many, many reasons for owning or coveting a gun, and I believe that there always have been.
Bellesiles can't seem to grasp this. For him, apparently, guns themselves are somehow charged with evil. Perhaps the first step in reconsidering the history and cultural significance of firearms in America should be to close his book and put it aside.
1. My scholarly training is in linguistics, not American history. Most of my recent publications deal with the history of American linguistics. In military history and the development of firearms I am an amateur, though after reading Bellesiles that no longer seems like a great disadvantage. My email address is email@example.com.
2. Bellesiles, Michael A. 2000. Arming America: The origins of a national gun culture. NY: Knopf. What real evidence is there for his idea that among industrialized nations, America has "an astoundingly high level of personal violence?" It would be insulting to the reader to list the spectacular counterexamples that come readily to mind. There is nothing obvious about industrialization, which often brings sharper discontinuities in social status, wealth, and power, that would of itself tend to mitigate violent tendencies. Industrialization is an organizational mode; it can eventually encompass all social activities, including violence. John Keegan (1976.228-30) has pointed out that modern crew-served military weapons such as machine guns are specialized industrial machines, bringing to their work precision, efficiency, and productivity, and different more in purpose than in principle from nonmilitary machine tools and agricultural machinery. Ellis (1975) also deals with a number of these issues. Moreover, America is not only and not altogether industrialized. Within its cities there are bands of homeless hunter-gatherers, tribes settled in adjoining neighborhoods subject to frequent border disputes, and many other forms of social organization, all in close proximity, bringing conflict of many kinds at many levels. Whoever believes that social conflict generates physical violence and that violence is especially frequent within a particular society (not just violence involving guns), should look first for social causes of it rather than only for mechanical ones suspected a priori. An hour's drive or less in any direction from the Emory University campus, for example, should reveal a number of social factors likely to foster violence, thus making the level of it in American life less "astounding."
3. Bellesiles 2000, p. 5.
4. Metal cartridges that can be carried in belt loops date only from the 1850's. Earlier, there were boxes or pouches for paper cartridges. The frontiersman's bullets were just small lead balls - if loose they too would have been carried in a pouch. Perhaps Bellesiles doesn't distinguish bullets and cartridges.
5. Bellesiles 2000, p. 5.
6. Bellesiles 2000, p. 9.
7. Bellesiles 2000, pp. 14-15.
8. Bellesiles 2000, p. 266.
9. Malcolm (p.c.) got her information on Lindgren's recount in conversation with him.
10. Bellesiles 2000, p. 81.
11. Smith 1977.
12. Clayton E. Cramer is compiling a database of early American gunmakers, conflating available sources.
13. Clark 1929, vol. 1, pp. 192-93
14. Bellesiles 2000, pp. 154-55
15. See Duffy 1988.168-88 and references.
16. Bellesiles 2000, pp. 172-75.
ReferencesBellesiles, Michael A. 1996. The origins of gun culture in the United States, 1760-1865. Journal of American History 83:2.425-55._____. 2000. Arming America: The origins of a national gun culture. NY: Knopf.Brown, M. L. 1980. Firearms in Colonial America: The impact on history and technology. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Carey, A. Merwyn. 1953. American Firearms Makers. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell.Clark, Victor S. 1929. History of Manufactures in the United States. NY: McGraw Hill.Cramer, Clayton E. nd. Firearms Ownership & Manufacture in Early America. Ms.Duffy, Christopher. 1988. The Military Experience in the Age of Reason. NY: Atheneum.Ellis, John. 1975. The Social History of the Machine Gun. New York: Pantheon Books.Fischer, David H. 1994. Paul Revere's Ride. NY & Oxford: Oxford University Press.French, Allen. 1925. The Day of Concord and Lexington. Boston: Little, Brown.Galvin, John R. 1989. The Minute Men2 Washington, etc.: Pergamon Brassey's International Defence Publishers.Keegan, John. 1976. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking Press.Peterson, H. L. 1983. "The Eighteenth Century and the End of the Flintlock." In Claude Blair, ed., Pollard's History of Firearms, Ch. 4. NY: Country Life Books.Smith, Merritt Roe. 1977. Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The challenge of change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Reviews Critical of Bellesiles's Research
[This examination of probate records is apparently so thorough and so damaging to Bellesiles's integrity, it's embarassing. Virtually every claim Bellesiles attempts to make: that firearms were scarce, that the guns remaining in probate were often old or broken, and women did not own guns, is flat-out wrong-- way wrong. As one GunCite visitor commented after reading Lindgren's paper, "Talk about egg on your face. Bellesiles has a whole chicken farm perched there." (This paper requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)]
- Lindgren James, and Justin Lee Heather, Counting Guns in Early America, Draft (December, 2000).
[Now that Bellesiles's work is being seriously challenged, he claims his notes on probate records have been destroyed! Bellesiles "compiled his data on paper notes that were recently flooded and ruined." (At least he is not accusing the NRA of stealing them.) Bellesiles also contends that Lindgren's paper (see above) used a different database of probate records. "Lindgren responds that he used exactly the same databases that Mr. Bellesiles's cites in his published work." Bellesiles often asserts "that many of the people who have leveled criticisms at his book are 'ideologically motivated.' " However, "not all of these professors have an obvious political agenda. Jim Lindgren, Gerald Rosenberg, Erik Monkkonen and Randolph Roth all prefaced their remarks by saying they favor gun control..."
- Strassel, Kimberly A., Arm-Twisting, Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2001).
["The controversial book Arming America has the facts all wrong."]
- Malcom, Joyce Lee, Concealed Weapons, Reason (January, 2000).
["Professor Bellesiles of Emory University has provided a novel work in his Arming America. It is novel in both senses: much of it is certainly 'new,' and much of it is highly imaginative fiction."]
- Cramer, Clayton E., Shots in the Dark, National Review Online (September 24, 2000). (A more detailed version [in PDF] is available here.)
[A short two-page column, but worth reading from About.com. Excerpt:"Bellesiles's account of the pivotal Battle of New Orleans, really the great victory of private arms over regular troops in American history, doesn't square with that in Robert Remini's recently published The Battle of New Orleans. Bellesiles writes that '[c]annon, not firearms, won the Battle of New Orleans.... But the myth of Kentucky riflemen picking which eye of British officers to shoot out fulfilled some deep national yearning.'
"Without detracting from the remarkable achievements of the artillery, Remini, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and biographer of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, credits American riflemen with rather more effect. He writes at one point that 'what should not be forgotten in explaining why and how the battle turned out the way it did was the excellence of the so-called rag-tag army of Americans. First of all, the rank and file were excellent marksmen.' "]
- Misfiring history: A review of Arming America , About.com (September 17, 2000).
["In his eagerness to bust a myth about an American gun culture, it's induced him to create one."]
- Were the colonists gun-haters? Geoff Metcalf interviews Second Amendment historian Joyce Malcolm , (January 7, 2001).
["His conclusions frequently overreach the evidence"]
- Chamber II, John Whiteclay, Lock and Load, Washington Post (Sunday, October 29, 2000; Page X02).
["Bellesiles avoids any meaningful discussion of key episodes that illustrate the historical importance and extent of firearms ownership."]
- Halbrook, Stephen P., Deconstructing the Second Amendment, NewsMax.com (November 3, 2000).["As Bellesiles spins the tale, our Founders hated firearms, didn't own any, didn't know how to use them, and couldn't shoot straight."][This article takes "particular exception to the way muzzle-loading is portrayed."]
_____, "Arming America" or Disarming Reality?, American Rifleman (January, 2001).
- Swan, James, Ph.D., Put a Muzzle on It, National Review Online (October 14, 2000).
["Bellesiles's assertion that his book does not '...seek to pull out a few quotations scattered through America's long historical record to strengthen a current political position' is but one of the many claims that doesn't bear closer scrutiny."]
- Trotter, T.W., Arming America Takes Aim with Both Eyes Shut: Bellesiles Book Is Polemic Masquerading As History, GlobalTV.com (September 25, 2000).
["Masquerading as an historical investigation, this book is really about promoting statist public policies that reveal the class hatred felt by many intellectuals for a broad section of the American people."]
- Stromberg, Joseph R., Bellesiles vs. History, Ludwig von Mises Institute (October 3, 2000).
Uncritical Interviews and Reviews
- ["For many Americans, the gun is a holy object, the emblem and guarantor of their identity."]
Willis, Garry, Spiking the Gun Myth, New York Times book review (September 10, 2000).
- [Anti-individual right law professor Bogus's review is as lightweight as his writings on the Second Amendment.]
Bogus, Carl T., Learning to Love the Gun, The American Prospect (December 18, 2000).
["The people who supported the change acknowledged that muskets were militarily useful only at a range of up to eight or ten yards; the longbow was effective at two or three hundred... The musket, always a muzzleloader, took minutes to reload; an archer could aim and fire up to a dozen arrows in a minute. Muskets required continual cleaning and repair; bows were quickly made and easily maintained. In 1595, by order of the Privy Council, the English armed services abandoned the longbow and fought with muskets for the next two centuries and more. Nobody is sure why. "]
- Morgan, Edmond S., In Love with Guns, The New York Review of Books (October 19, 2000).
- Petersen, James R., Arming America: when did we become a gun culture?, Playboy (January, 2001).
[A GunCite visitor shares his response to the above.]
["Guns are central to the identity of Americans, to their self-perception as a rugged and violent people, as well as to their perception of others."]
- Bellesiles, Michael A., Exploding the Myth of an Armed America, The Chronicle Review (September 29, 2000).
- ["If the NRA was smart it would either ignore my research or embrace it, carefully manipulating it to suit its purposes. "]
A Conversation with Michael Bellesiles, author of ARMING AMERICA: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, RandomHouse.com.
- ["America's love affair with the gun is the eternal stuff of fiction. It has not always been the stuff of fact."]
Arms and the man, The Economist (July 1, 1999).
- ["[T]he NRA will continue peddling its myths, oblivious of Bellesiles and his annoying truths."]
DeGroot, Gerard J., Up in arms for 225 years, Christian Science Monitor (September 6, 2000).
- ["Denounced by the NRA, a historian talks about the myth of early American gun ownership and his own fascination with firearms."]
Bowman, David, The Reasonable Gun Nut, Salon.com (September 7, 2000).
- ["He concludes that 'America's gun culture is an invented tradition. It was not present at the nation's creation.... Rather, it developed in a single generation [following] the Civil War.' "]
Slotkin, Richard, The Fall into Guns, The Atlantic Monthly (November, 2000).