A spirited, scholarly analysis of the prominence of the gun in American history and mythology.
Bellesiles (History/Emory Univ.) combines the techniques and discipline of the historian with the skills of a felicitous journalist to identify the causes of the "astoundingly high level of personal violence" in the US. Using probate records and variety of other primary sources, he establishes that "gun ownership was exceptional" until after the Civil War. After a quick look at a couple of recent school shootings, Bellesiles dives into the river of history and demonstrates convincingly and eloquently that its current has not flowed in the direction that popular mythology would suggest. He reveals that the famous Kentucky rifle took about "three minutes to load”—and was highly inaccurate. From the Seven Years' War through the Crimean War, an estimated 95 percent of projectiles missed. He notes that during the Colonial period there was not a single manufactory of firearms in North America—and the notion that gun ownership was wide among American colonists is "a grand mythology"; prior to 1850, only about one-tenth of Americans owned guns. Few Americans resorted to hunting for food (trapping and animal husbandry were far more effective and economical), and "the vast majority of American males showed not the slightest desire to serve in the militia." Even American icons crack under the pressure of the author's relentless scrutiny: Eli Whitney apparently defrauded the government by supplying the military with "dreadful" guns and, during the War of 1812, "the militia . . . performed terribly, if at all." In the 1850s the creative advertising of Samuel Colt and the emergence of hunting magazines convinced people that "they needed guns in order to be real Americans," and by the 1870s "guns were everywhere in American life." To document his argument Bellesiles includes hundreds of endnotes, many with compelling supplementary comments and information.
A timely and powerful text that reverberates with the explosions of treasured American myths.