Our gun myths are all wrong: The real history behind the Second Amendment clichés that have sustained our lethal gun culture

An abridged history of the American gun culture, told from legend and popular memory, might go like this: We were born a gun culture. Americans have an exceptional, unique, and timeless relationship to guns, starting with the militias of the Revolutionary War, and it developed on its own from there. Some celebrate and some condemn this relationship, but it is in either case unique. Guns have long been a commonplace part of American life, which is why guns pretty much sell themselves. The Second Amendment, ubiquitous to contemporary gun politics, was a prominent presence historically and is a source of the gun’s unique stature, while the idea of gun control is more recent. The American gun story is about civilians and individual citizens, and they are its heroes or its villains—the frontiersman, the Daniel Boone “long hunter” who trekked far into the wilderness alone, the citizen-patriot militiaman, the guiltily valorized outlaw, and the gunslinger. The gun’s mystique was forged most vividly on the violent western frontier of the 1800s, and this mystique is about individualism: guns protect citizens against overzealous government infringement of liberties; they protect freedom and self-determination.

This book tells the story of American guns from the perspective of what the gun was—in essence, an object, produced by businesses, to be sold. The story that highlights the Second Amendment, frontiersmen, militias, and the desires and character of the American gun owner is not to be found in the pages of this book. Or, more accurately, my work deliberately skews the story of the gun in another direction: it focuses on the missing element of the gun culture rather than reworking the familiar themes. As such, it has different characters, motivations, plot twists, highlights, and timelines, and all of these elements call into question the gun clichés that animate contemporary politics.

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Perhaps the most powerful cliché is gun exceptionalism. Many people on both sides of the debate about guns believe that America has a unique and special relationship to guns, and that this exceptional relationship—whether celebrated or condemned—is a foundation of American gun culture. Americans have always loved guns, common wisdom holds, or, “guns are part of the American identity.”

A main thesis of this book is a simple but important one. We became a gun culture not because the gun was symbolically intrinsic to Americans or special to our identity, or because the gun was something exceptional in our culture, but precisely because it was not. From the vantage point of business, the gun was a product of non-exceptionalism. Perhaps not in the earliest years of its manufacture, when the government construed the gun as an exceptional instrument of war and common defense, whose more efficient production merited guaranteed contracts and markets, generous funding, protective tariffs, and a freewheeling exchange of innovation across public armories to germinal private industry, but in the key years of its diffusion, and for many years thereafter, it was like a buckle or a pin, an unexceptional object of commerce. No pangs of conscience were attached to it, and no more special regulations, prohibitions, values, or mystique pertained to its manufacture, marketing, and sale than to a shovel. Indeed, there were no special rules concerning the international trade of guns until modest presidential embargo powers became effective in 1898. By that time, Winchester’s company sat at the center of its own web of gun commerce that radiated outward to six continents. No exceptional regulations existed when Winchester and his competitors were first “scattering the guns,” in his terms, to create US markets. Although the gun industry produced an exceptional product—designed to injure and kill—it followed the ordinary trends and practices of the corporate industrial economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In short: the gun was no exception.

Ironically, had the gun been perceived in its early commercial years as a unique and extraordinary thing in society, we might never have become a gun culture. Under those circumstances, politics, law, and other regulatory forces might well have stepped in early on to circumscribe or shape the gun’s manufacture and sale, as they did in some other places around the world. For the United States, the gun culture was forged in the image of commerce. It was stamped, perhaps indelibly, by what historian John Blum called the “amorality of business.” America has an estimated 300 million guns in circulation today, but the gunning of the country started extemporaneously, and it was etched strongly by the character, ambition, and will of gun capitalists rather than by diplomats, politicians, generals, and statesmen. Gun politics today are consumed by Second Amendment controversies, but the Second Amendment did not design, invent, patent, mass-produce, advertise, sell, market, and distribute guns. Yet the gun business, which did, and does, is largely invisible in today’s gun politics.

In the context of business amorality and unexceptionalism, Winchester cast his industrial lot and fortune on a faster and mechanically improved rifle, and he did so not as a gunsmith or even as a gun enthusiast, but as a nineteenth-century capitalist. Others later recalled that Winchester had never personally owned a gun, had never displayed guns in his home, and had never shot a gun before he built his family and corporate fortunes off of them. He was, at the beginning, a men’s shirt manufacturer. If he identified with any group, it would have been with the vanguard class of self-made men who scorned esoteric learning, but, with the help of enterprise, mechanization, and technology, took the world in hand, shattered it into discrete pieces, and then redesigned and reassembled it into more profitable versions of itself. Spellbound by the hows of industrial production, and indifferent to the whats—the industry’s object—Oliver Winchester went into the gun business the way his compatriots went into corsets or hammers.

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A second cliché of American gun culture holds that with guns, “demand creates its own supply,” in the words of sociologist James Wright. In a nation of gun whisperers, so believers say, guns were commonplace, and their later industrial production was a reflection of pre-existing demand. The view from the ledger book is different, however. The creation, discovery, invention, and reinvention of gun markets— the visible hand of the gun industrialist at work—was a recurrent, bedrock project of the gun business. It is also a recurrent theme of this book.

To start at the beginning: Historians of the colonial period have stumbled into controversy when they have attempted to count guns; but studies find, in general, that guns, in various states of repair or disrepair, were neither ubiquitous nor rare. Most find a higher rate of gun ownership in the southern colonies—a few placing it around two-thirds of households—and lower rates in the northern ones—anywhere from one-third to just under a half.

In the craft phase, America had as many guns as were inherited, requested, or required. In the industrial phase, after Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester founded private armories that made six-shot revolvers and rapid-firing repeater rifles—new and patented firearms—it had as many as could be mass-produced by machine. From the gun industrialist’s perspective, supply creates the need for demand: volume production required volume consumption. And the gun was no different from other commodities in this arithmetic of industry.

The US military was certainly the most convenient market. Colt wooed government support with champagne feasts at Washington, DC’s, Willard and National hotels. His cousin, the company treasurer, bristled, “I have no belief in undertaking to raise the character of your gun by old Madeira.” But both Colt and Winchester struggled to acquire government contracts from the 1840s up to the Civil War, and so they saw the wisdom of cultivating other markets. To woo a civilian customer, Colt demonstrated his arm at the Battery Park in New York, to little avail, since, as one gun expert noted, “multi-firing arms were not needed by the average man.” Winchester’s own compatriot New Haveners thought he had “lost his reason” when they learned that his new manufactory “was equipped to produce 200 rifles a day.” A letter book in the archives of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company reveals detailed, fractious bickering between the company and its favored sales “allies” over how many guns the dealers should be expected to “push.” After World War I, saddled by massive wartime plant expansion and burdened by debt, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (WRAC) had to push sales again, especially through what its executives shorthanded as an ambitious national “boy plan,” with a goal of reaching “3,363,537 boys” ages ten to sixteen. “When the boys and girls of your town arrive at the age of twelve years, they become your prospects,” the company’s internal sales letter explained. It was a new refrain in an old song. At this time the company announced the largest nationwide marketing campaign ever undertaken for guns “in the history of the world.” As it was in the beginning, so it was in 1922: gun markets and demand could never be taken for granted. It was the gun business’s business to create them.

This example leads to another key point. Company records puncture the compelling assumption that guns just “sell themselves” in America, or that the gun industry is fueled by a pristine demand unsullied by the need for promotion, salesmanship, or marketing. While it is true that some demand always existed, and will always exist, it is also true that the gun industry needed to sell at adequate volumes to support mass-production, and that selling in such volumes took work. Moreover, it took work recurrently, in different eras and under different conditions, as the gun industry grew.

This work of inventing and cultivating markets did not occur because gun titans were nefarious “Merchants of Death,” intent on the business of “Death, Inc.,” as a later generation of disarmament activists

xvi Introduction: “The Art and Mystery of a Gunsmith”

would proclaim. Rather, they were almost the opposite of that caricature: they were businessmen. Their dispassionate and ironclad grammar was the agnosticism of commerce.

The exploration of gun markets fractures the monolithic idea of an American gun culture into cultures, in the plural, because it reveals the very distinct market segments that gun industrialists courted, some of whom were barely on speaking terms. The WRAC itself was especially proud of its capacity to recognize and stimulate desire for the thing it made, even when that desire was dormant, insufficient, latent, or indiscernible.

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When the gun industrialists could not find sufficient domestic civilian markets or secure US military contracts, they looked far and wide to find markets and customers elsewhere. Indeed, one of the most striking findings of this book is the degree to which all four of the major gun capitalists relied on international markets for their very survival in the mid-1800s. This finding points to another myth that the business records dispel: the idea that America’s gun culture is, in a word, American, with its geography confined to the national singularities of the Revolutionary War or the frontier. Today, gun-control advocates look longingly to Western Europe, which has lower homicide and gun violence rates than America, and Europeans occasionally puzzle disapprovingly over the American gun “obsession.” But the countries that today condemn the United States’ relationship with guns kept US guns in business in the 1800s. It was very much European bellicosity and imperial ambition by regimes and governments that provided viable markets for America’s mass-produced arms.

When viewed from the perspective of business, the American gun culture is better understood as an international, global phenomenon on the leading edge of the first wave of globalization in the 1860s and 1870s. Winchester survived initially by selling internationally—as did Colt’s, E. Remington & Sons, and Smith & Wesson. In the chapters that follow, I describe the WRAC’s globe-trotting “gun men” and the expatriate American gun community in Europe. Before it was—or could be—the “gun that won the West,” the Winchester repeater was the gun that armed the Ottoman Empire, and that traveled in an oxcart to the Juárez revolutionary forces in 1866 in Mexico. Before Remington armed sportsmen of the American outdoors, it armed everyone from the acting war minister for the papacy (5,000 sold) to various actors in Egypt (55,000) and Cuba (89,000). The Colt revolver, the “peacemaker” of the American frontier, was before that the gun of the king of Sardinia, and Smith & Wesson’s contract with the Russian Empire in the 1870s to supply Model 3’s kept the company afloat for five years.

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Another powerful cliché in twenty-first-century politics is that gun love is timeless, or at least as old as American history.* To be sure, gun mavens have existed as long as guns, and there will always be anecdotal, narrative evidence to corroborate a variety of feelings toward guns, from love to revulsion, across time. But in the Winchester company’s early ads, the gun comes across as closer to a plow than a culturally charged object, more on the tool tide of the equation than the totem side. For the most part, although not exclusively, the ads emphasized functionality, and gun titans sought markets in places such as the American Agriculturalist. Other evidence from the gun archive suggests that Americans purchased far more relatively inexpensive, secondhand, cast-off rifles that were unglamorous yet workable than they did the Winchesters or Colts prominent in legends of the frontier. The WRAC envisioned their primary customer as the “ordinary shooter”—a farmer or rural hunter.

In the early 1900s, the tone of the gun industry changed. The country was more urbanized. The martial phase of western conquest was over. Logically, sales should have dropped, but the WRAC did quite well from 1890 to 1914. The company added $15.5 million to its net worth from 1889 to 1914. Its annual gun sales were almost thirty times greater in 1914, at 292,400, than in 1875, at 9,800, and eleven times greater than the 1880 sales of 26,500. Although best known for its Model 1873 of legend, the company’s bread-and-butter model with much larger sales, antique gun experts will point out, was the Model 1894. Overall in the gun industry, twenty-seven gunmakers in 1910 produced over $8 million in guns and $25 million in ammunition. With less practical utility, the gun became—and to some extent had to become—an object with emotional value. One answer to the question “Why do Americans love guns?” is, simply, that we were invited to do so by those who made and sold them at the moment when their products had shed much of their more practical, utilitarian value. What was once needed now had to be loved. This observation suggests in turn that the notion of an emotional and political affinity for the gun was perhaps a post-frontier phenomenon of the twentieth century talking about the nineteenth.

Modern advertising fascinated the Winchester executives: again, the gun was no exception to the business trends of the day in a new consumer culture, whether the product was soap or a rifle. The WRAC’s internal bulletins instructed the sales force on how to seduce otherwise indifferent customers who had little need for rifles as tools. Winchester pushed the modern American gun in two seemingly opposite directions, aiming to make it an object of luxury—a nonessential but gratifying commodity like “Packards, or golf clubs, or diamonds”—as well as an object of natural or “subconscious” instinct—something all “real boys” wanted, in more modern terms of psychology. But, in both cases, the gun was an object of desire, and the customer was to be seduced to want the product. In a daily sales bulletin sent to distributors, for example, the company thought to emulate “the liquor people,” who “tried to perpetuate their business by ‘educating’ young men to the use of their products. Very immoral of them, of course, but mighty good business.”13

In the late 1910s, in short, the targeted customer began to shift from the “ordinary shooter” to the “gun crank.” The latter, who emerged in company correspondence and the gun press, was a customer with a deep psychological bond with his gun. This was a transition from imag- ining a customer who needed guns but didn’t especially want them to a customer who wanted guns but didn’t especially need them.

Obviously, the gun industry’s sales efforts did not begin in a vacuum—no good advertising does—but rode on the weedy proliferation of gun legends across popular media. Therefore, this book does not just follow the money of the gun business; it also follows the trail of the gun legends. Beginning with a largely fabricated 1867 account of Wild Bill Hickok in Harper’s, for example, I trace forensically how this and other American gun legends took a reverse migration, beginning as fiction and hardening into fact and highbrow history as the decades progressed. On the way, they passed through scores of dime novels, movies, and fictionalized real histories. The “West that won the gun” is a collective legend of the American gunslinger that has consistently, across characters and decades, exaggerated both the quantity of gun violence in America—our ancestors were not actually as trigger-happy as twentieth-century moviegoers and readers of pulp fiction were led to believe—and the “quality” of that gun violence: in the legends, guns were tied to honor rather than intoxication, justice rather than impulsivity, and homicide rather than suicide, even though suicide for many decades has accounted for the majority of gun deaths.

Above all, the West that won the gun is almost always a narrative about American individualism. Paradoxically, an industry that first perfected interchangeability and machine production, and that mass-produced its products to within 1/1,000th of an inch of each other, created one of the most enduring twentieth-century icons of this American trait.

Excerpted from “The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture” by Pamela Haag. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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