Who said your daddy's daddy won the West with the help of a gun?

November 10, 2000

Michael Bellesiles's suggestion that US gun culture is an 'invented tradition' has made him the gun lobby's prime target, Tim Cornwell writes.

Hate email arrives in Michael Bellesiles's mailbox in fits and starts. A news story on his research can generate a flurry of a hundred or more, but it is normally about two or three a day. This morning's contribution began with the words: "You stupid ****." "People are a lot ruder by email," Bellesiles says. "I open up these things with dread."

Bellesiles's crime has been to question - in point of fact, to more or less dismantle - the notion that America was born on the barrel of the gun. America's gun culture, he says, was a 19th-century invention, fostered by arms manufacturers on the back of the civil war, led by the promotional skills of Samuel Colt. Before that, Americans did not typically own guns and showed no particular proficiency in their use.

His claim has earned him interested headlines in major American newspapers, but it has also incurred the wrath of the National Rifle Association. Bellesiles has been labelled "anti-gun", which, like excommunication, means open season for the faithful, at least verbally. Every member of the board of trustees at Atlanta's Emory University has received letters demanding that this "socialist" professor be fired.

Why should a historian's investigation of gun ownership records from 150 years ago turn him into a legitimate target in contemporary gun politics? For America's single-minded gun lobby, Bellesiles is straying onto sacred turf. In 1968, Franklin Orth, executive vice-president of the NRA, told a US Senate sub-committee: "There is a very special relationship between a man and his gun - an atavistic relation with its deep roots in prehistory, when the primitive man's personal weapon, so often his only effective defence and food provider, was nearly as precious to him as his own limbs."

It is taken as a given in early America that man and his gun played an elemental role in shaping the nation, in beating the Indians, driving out the British and carving out the West. Hollywood has done much to foster that notion, from early Westerns to the recent Mel Gibson saga, The Patriot .

Earlier this decade, when the gun-loving "militias" emerged as a phenomenon on the American scene, their members typically imagined themselves as latter-day Minutemen, confronting the Redcoats at Lexington.

Bellesiles's research, however, led him to this conclusion: that until as late as 1850, less than 10 per cent of the American population owned guns. He draws his data from probate records, from the figures for gun production, wartime volunteer rolls in which the vast majority of men of military age had no weapons of their own, and other sources. The figures were there for the finding, Bellesiles says. The surprise is that even diligent historians accepted "universal gun ownership" without seriously exploring the facts. But even European critics who openly detested America, such as Frances Trollope, recorded nothing or little of guns.

His motive in deflating this myth, Bellesiles says, is two-fold. One is simply a matter of correcting the historical record. The other is pointing out that Americans were no different from anyone else in the world in their approach to guns, no more enamoured with their use. The question "is what it tells us about the nature of American culture. We have created this gun culture, it was not at the birth; we made it and we chose to live with it."

In other words - and this is what must give the NRA the jitters - America might one day shake it.

Bellesiles also targets another common mistake, of projecting the experience of contemporary weapons into the past. Early American weapons, notably hand-assembled matchlocks and flintlocks, were unreliable, inaccurate, miserably slow to load, expensive and shoddily made. It was not until the civil war's enormous demand for weaponry drove the production of breech-loading rifles and revolvers that guns became cheap and effective.

Until that time, hunting with a gun, as Bellesiles portrays it, was a quasi-comical affair, a matter of closing your eyes and hoping, useless for hitting anything other than a large stationary target at close range, far removed from the business of putting food on the table. The infamous Donner party, California-bound migrants who ended up eating each other, could have averted disaster if they had not wasted time hunting and tried setting a few traps, he suggests.

Bear-hunting was a matter of shoot and run. Taking ten paces in a duel, meanwhile, was a good way of ensuring that shots could be fired and honour satisfied with nobody getting seriously hurt.

Bellesiles's book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture , appeared this autumn, published in the US by Knopf. While laden with historical fact, the pages also drip with Bellesiles's contempt for the myth-makers. In a brief segue into the American West, he dismisses Billy the Kid as an ordinary psychopath who actually killed only three men, rather than the reputed 23. A British visitor to the notoriously violent Virginia City in 1876 found only a city of "perfect order and decorum".

America's gun culture, Bellesiles declares in the book, is an "invented tradition". "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," he writes. "There exists a fear of confronting the specifics of these cultural origins, for what has been made can be unmade."

If there is a villain in the piece, it is Samuel Colt. Colt is portrayed as a player in the dual American tradition of ruthless industrialists and self-promoters, bragging that his pistols won wars, while they failed US army performance tests. He dubbed his weapons "peacemakers" and did everything he could to link them with the image of an heroic western frontier, while selling them mainly in the East, as well as in Britain and Russia.

But Colt's efforts might have been nothing without the transformation that followed the American civil war. In 1860, America's two national armouries made only 20,000 weapons between them; by the war's end, the US had purchased 4 million firearms, while Colt alone had produced nearly 400,000. Soldiers were sent home with their weapons; the genie was out of the bottle, and has never been put back.

Postwar, pistols were reported "thick as blackberries" and guns began to dominate for the first time in homicide and suicide rates, as they do today. Guns accounted for less than 20 per cent of murders before 1846; 30 years later, the figure was 60 per cent. Gun manufacturers, following Colt's footsteps as they sought new postwar markets, turned to sharpshooters such as Annie Oakley to do promotional tours; in 1879, a religious magazine offered a pistol with every subscription.

Bellesiles's book has been reviewed as a compelling and path-breaking refutation of the mythology of the gun. It is that which moved Charlton Heston in a recent letter to The New York Times to dismiss his research as "ludicrous". (Heston had launched a similar attack, earlier in the year, in an editorial in Guns & Ammo magazine). But what rankles Bellesiles, he claims, is that his politics, rather than his book, has been impeached.

He is a Republican, a John McCain supporter, who has also enjoyed guns. "I like to skeet shoot. I'm not a hunter, I don't shoot things. But I'm a carnivore. I used to do target shooting until I became a professor."

But you have to be insane, Bellesiles says, to keep a gun at home or carry it under the banner of protection. "A gun is only good for self-defence if it's loaded, with the safety catch off, and if it's in your hand."

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