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Firearms Have Purchased Our Unique Way Of Life

European wheelock

Firearms have been a part of this nation since, well, long before it was a nation. The right to them was endowed by the Creator; they secured our Freedom as Americans, they helped expand the Nation, and then became the basis of the manufacturing ascendency of the United States for more than a century. The Colonial period was one of almost constant warfare yet also one of tremendous growth. The first settlers in the new country brought firearms - presumably such as had seen long service - which may have been made in any part of Europe except Russia.

During the next generation arms began to be made in America, by European irmnigrant armorers, after European models. Thereafter firearms were made in increasing numbers in the American Colonies, and imported also in quantities, particularly from England and the Netherlands.

Beginning the period 1607 to 1689, the skirmishing between the earliest settlers and the Indians was on a small scale, partaking less of the nature of warfare than of the maintenance of individual rights. In addition to the personal property arms which guarded each man's fireside, each considerable settlement, as Jamestown, New Netherlands (New York and Albany), and Plymouth, possessed a stock of old arms held as common property. The early settlers - with the exception of a very few persons of power or wealth at Jamestown and in New Netherlands, and Captain Miles Standish at Plymouth, who owned superior weapons - were people of ordinary or poor circumstances, who used the cheapest firearm of the time, the matchlock gun, then made throughout civilized Europe.

Matchlock arms were the cheapest because they were easiest to make, they were obsolete, and second-hand ones at reduced prices were abundant. They were still the principal military firearms, but as sporting weapons they had been superseded for fifty or seventy-five years. The name matchlock is compound, match being an abbreviation of slow-match, which was a slender rope treated in various ways so as to burn slowly without flame but with a persistent live coal, and the word lock, which in firearm phrase means firing mechanism.

The muskets the Minutemen used at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge fired the first shots that eventually obtained liberty for 13 former colonies of the English Crown. In the 222 years since America declared independence, our nation's servicemen have gone to war 10 times and served in every corner of the globe, protecting America, American lives and preserving our birthright of liberty for the generations to come. On April 19, 1775, Capt. John Parker, along with 77 other militiamen formed on up on Lexington Green in anticipation of British Maj. John Pitcairn's force of British regulars on their way to Concord to “seize and destroy all the Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military stores whatever.”

The American Revolution didn't start over tea or taxes. Pitcairn was coming for their guns; that's when unrest and dissatisfaction turned into a shooting war. Parker is attributed with telling his men “Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” While it is likely not the gun that fired the “shot heard ‘round the world,” it is the only known gun thought to been there. Parker' fowler is a .62-cal. musket, 59 ¾” long with a 44” barrel, no bayonet lug and British and Dutch influenced components. It was donated to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1861 by his grandson, the Rev. Theodore Parker, and now hangs in the State House with a plaque that reads: “This firearm was used by Captain John Parker at the Battle of Lexington April 19, 1775.” Due to the state's draconian gun control laws, some genius decided the more-than 200-year-old unloaded musket (that appears to be missing its flint), and is accessible only via a stepladder, was such a threat to public safety it needed to have a trigger lock installed. In a moment of lucidity, someone removed the trigger lock.

So, why did the American Revolution end in 1781? In a word, the French. Why did the French come in on the side of the upstart colonists? Well, they hated the British, but that wasn't quite enough. No, it was the Battle of Saratoga, and in particular the unlikely American victory there. And you can thank a Pennsylvania rifleman by the name of Timothy Murphy. British Gen. John Burgoyne was leading a campaign to cut New York and the other colonies off from New England when he ran into a rebel army near Saratoga in October 1777. American Gen. Benedict Arnold was having trouble due to Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser rallying his redcoats, stalling the rebel attack. Arnold called over Daniel Morgan and told him: “That man on the grey horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of.” Morgan then turned to Timothy Murphy, who at distance of 300 yards, mortally wounded Fraser. (It took him three shots). Without Fraser's leadership, the American pressed forward and the day was won, and the French came into the war.

George Washington once said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." From Jamestown and Plymouth Colony in the 1600s to the sandy plains of Kuwait in our own decade, firearms have purchased, maintained and preserved our democratic ideals and unique way of life, so that the next generation of young Americans who come along and are asked to serve won't question why; they, too, will know the story and heed the call of duty to follow those who have served before.

One gun comes close to being the epitome of America's frontier spirit. That is the European wheelock that John Alden, a passenger on the good ship Mayflower and a signatory of the Mayflower Compact, brought with him to Plymouth Colony in 1620. For a short time in the waning days of the matchlock, a new, more radical lock was introduced, the wheelock. In this new lock type, a piece of iron pyrite was held by a hammer against a wheel with extremely rough edges. The wheel would then be turned by the operator using a special key. The trigger being pulled caused the wheel to rotate quickly, grating off pieces of flaming metal and throwing them into a small powder charge that would in turn ignite the main charge in the barrel. However, the wheelock was very expensive to manufacture, and the key used to crank the wheel prior to firing was easy to lose and break. The wheelock was quickly abandoned in favor of a new and more reliable lock type, the flintlock.

When the colonists felt that they had had enough of the tyranny of King George III, numerous Committees of Safety were formed throughout New England to train, arm and equip men who could respond to an armed threat from the British within minutes of being called. On April 19, 1775, at Lexington Green in Massachusetts, these Minutemen, who were among our country's first patriots, became the first to give their lives for independence. Committee of Safety rifles were copied from the British King's Arms long land pattern musket.

So it seems a repeating Austrian air rifle with an Italian-sounding name allowed Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery to explore the American West. That whole “sea to shining sea thing”? Probably would not have happened without one very special airgun. Most importantly, he showed the Indians the airgun because it amazed them to great wonderment. It was Lewis's parlor trick—his slight of hand to intimidate the Indians into thinking that the explorers were even more powerful than they seemed. The Indians, to whom Lewis never exposed the full contents of his boat or any of his supplies, never knew if the expedition had one or 40 airguns. To think that 30 or so explorers could lay down 22 shots with great accuracy within seconds must have impressed the Indians into a state of cooperation. Lewis traveled the west with an ace up his sleeve in the form of the repeating airgun. Only the Girardoni air rifle is capable of obtaining the results that Lewis got from the Indians. The party was never molested in force, and all but one man returned to St. Louis in 1806.”

The abolition movement of the 1850s prompted William Ward Beecher, a New England minister and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, to arm the anti-slavery forces in Kansas. He shipped Sharps Model 1853 slant-breech carbines in crates marked Beecher's Bibles to Brown. In 1859, Brown brought his carbines and revolution to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and seized the U.S. Armory there. Future Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stewart, along with a detachment of U.S. Marines, ended the siege and stopped Brown.

When Samuel Colt finally scored the big government contract that had eluded him for his revolvers, he was travelling around as Dr. Colt and selling laughing gas. Hits of nitrous, as the kids call it these days. His uncle had taken over the business Sam had started in 1836. Colt had nothing, no guns, no factory. But he had an order from the government to build a massive, 4-lb. 9-oz., .44 cal. revolver based on the ideas of Capt. Samuel Walker, a Texas Ranger who had used Colt Patterson's to good effect against the Commanches. Walker was a Captain in the then-new U.S. Mounted Rifles and wanted a brace of the big guns, designed with input from him, for each trooper. Colt went to Eli Whitney, Jr. (the cotton gin guy's son) and in 1847, Whitney built the guns, kept the money and gave the tooling to Sam Colt. The rest, they say, is history.

The U.S. witnessed its greatest trial during the years 1861-1865 when 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and war broke out. Confederates defended their freedom and liberty as they saw it with a variety of firearms both imported and domestically manufactured. Using captured machinery from the Harpers Ferry Armory, which was raided by John Brown in 1859, Southerners began production of rifled muskets in a new armory built along the James River in Richmond, Virginia. During the four-year struggle, more than 600,000 Americans, blue and grey, were killed.

The Remington Arms Co. of Ilion, New York, is the country's oldest arms maker, having commenced the manufacture of longarms in 1816. The Remington New Model Army revolver was made between 1863 and 1875. More than 130,000 of these .44-cal. revolvers were made, the majority during the Civil War years (1861-1865). This revolver and the Colt Model 1860 were popular sidearms among Union officers.

Inventors sought to get around the moribund U.S. Ordnance Dept. by slipping guns to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and his secretary William Stoddard turned the White House grounds into a range when the shot a Spencer in August 1863. Honest Abe, always interested in mechanical things, wanted to try it out personally. Turns out he was pretty good shot. While the U.S. Army made considerable use of Spencers, relatively few Henrys were purchased by the government. The 1860 Henry, forerunner of all Winchesters, did see some use during the Civil War, but Winchester's ascendency would start with the Model 1866 made under the name of the vaunted shirt maker.

On the morning of July 1, 1898, the U.S. entered the world stage near Santiago, Cuba, along San Juan Ridge and the adjoining Kettle Hill. In the mid-afternoon, a collection of cowboys, store clerks and college students stormed the heights and carried the Spanish trenches, making their way into the history books. This group of gallant young cowboys from all parts of the American west, recruited at the Menger Hotel bar in San Antonio and trained at Camp Wood, Texas will carry more than 100 1873 Artillery Model Colts bravely in the charge up San Juan Hill. These heroic American cowboys will be forever known as the "Rough Riders". A variety of models were manufactured over the years but it was the Model 1896 that was issued to the Rough Riders. The Krags were bolt action and fired a 30-40 caliber cartridge. A five round magazine was loaded from the side through a large hinged loading gate that give Krags their distinctive look.

Once Roosevelt's First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry captured Kettle Hill it became evident that the troops engaged in taking the adjacent San Juan Hill were having difficulty reaching their objective. Under a hail of rifle fire, the men of the all black 10th U.S. Cavalry, troopers known as Buffalo Soldiers, began their ascent of the hill and the entrenched Spanish position. In one gallant rush they and their lieutenant, John 'Black Jack' Pershing, carried the heights.

John Parker's Gatlings were chambered in .30-40 Krag and under the command of Lt. John Parker, a recent West Point grad, in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Without, these Model 1985 Gatlings, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders may not have survived as TR called it, his “crowded hour,” And I think TR was the last U.S. president who personally used a revolver to shoot our nation's enemies; “they folded like jackrabbits” Back to the Gatlings, they helped support the attack of the Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers up Kettle Hill and then San Juan Hill. Parker's guns fired 18,000 rounds in a short period of time on July 2, 1898, plunging fire into the Spanish defensive positions. Without Parker's guns there may not have been a Governor Roosevelt, let alone President Roosevelt. And the American Century could well have belonged to someone else.

In April 1917, the Great War became a World War when the U.S. entered to stem the tide of German aggression. The American Doughboy had at his disposal the very best in firearms, such as the Model 1903 Springfield in .30-'06, as well as the Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol and Colt Model 1917 Revolver, both chambered in .45 ACP. S&W also made an M1917 revolver.

Running low on rifle ammunition (he had already shot a lot of Germans), York, then a corporal, drew his M1911 when charged by five bayonet-wielding Germans. The Tennessean shot four of them down, “ticking them off back to front” until only the officer leading them remained. According to York's son Andrew that was the “way Daddy hunted ducks with his Remington Model 11 automatic shotgun and that he never missed.” And he didn't miss that day with his M1911. Smartly, the remaining German surrendered to York, and he was followed by 131 more of his comrades into captivity in what French Commanding General Ferdinand Foch called the “greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies in Europe.”

The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1” was adopted on Jan. 9, 1936, and by World War II, it was the only standard-issue semi-automatic infantry rifle in the world. Iconic and emblematic, the M1 is in a class by itself. It was the right rifle at the right time, and it is unlikely any other nation could have produced the rifle known for its inventor as simply the “Garand.” On Jan. 8, 1945, Turner and his nine men of the 394th Infantry held a flanking post at Am Aastert, Luxembourg. They were repeatedly attacked by more than a company of Germans, and Turner and his men used their M1s to put effective rifle on the enemy from 300 yds. to—literally—bayonet point. His story is one of incredible bravery, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Sadly, it was posthumous. Turner was killed one month to the day after his heroic action. We don't know the serial number of his rifle, and it may well have been used to mark the spot he drew his last breath, bayonet down in the soil of a land he came to liberate. A generation of young Americans did nothing less than save the world from unspeakable evil with their M1s, one eight round en bloc clip at a time.

Starting life as the Armalite AR15 rifle, designed and built by a private firm, the Armalite Division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, of Costa Mesa, California, the rifle was a result of extensive research by the Army's Office of Operational Research, beginning in 1948. In December 1959 Colt, a well-known manufacturer of weapons, acquired manufacturing and marketing rights to the AR15. By 1962, Colt's salesmen had convinced the Army to take 1,000 weapons for testing. The Army nomenclature for the AR15 rifle was M16, hence the name change. Defense Secretary McNamara ordered 85,000 M16 rifles for the Army and 19,000 for the Air Force. Vietnam was just beginning and the M16 would be along for the party. The M16 holds the record for serving the longest as our nation's standard service rifle. This selective-fire rifle has remained on watch as part of our foremost defense against oppressors.

Watermelons and coconuts played a role in the adoption of Eugene Stoner's direct-gas-impingement AR-15/M16 rifle by the U.S. Military. On July 4, 1960, Gen. Curtiss Lemay was at MacDonald's farm, at a picnic and was invited to shoot watermelons with an AR-15 built by Colt in 1959—the year the design was sold to Colt by Fairchild. The rifle, serial number 106, was also shot by President John F. Kennedy at another demonstration. And it was used at demos in Southeast Asia where coconuts were employed in lieu of watermelons. For those reasons, serial number 106 has come to be called the “watermelon and coconut rifle.” The picnic organizers placed watermelons at 50, 75 and 100 yards and invited the general to shoot them with the then-new .223 Remington cartridge. The general obliterated the first three then reportedly said of the fourth “Let's eat the son of a bitch.” General Lemay, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force placed an order for 8,500 rifles then and there; the black rifle's road to service to the United States Military had begun. Two years later, it would see combat in Vietnam. The U.S. M16 family is the longest serving rifle in American history, and its civilian semi-automatic-only variant is the top-selling rifle in America today. It all started with watermelons and coconuts.

If you have anything made from interchangeable parts, you need to thank John Hall. In 1816, Hall sold the U.S. government on not only his breechloading rifle, but on the idea that all the parts from one gun would fit another without hand-fitting. This was a revolutionary concept. Guns, especially military ones, were made to a pattern, but still required individual parts to be fitted. Hall battled Jacksonian cronyism, corruption, an entrenched labor force and other demons, but eventually got it done, introducing into the American armory system what was known as the “American System of Manufacture.” This helped jump start the Industrial Revolution. But it cost him. Hall died a penniless and a broken man. We don't even have a portrait of him. Eli Whitney often gets the credit for interchangeable parts, but John Hall got it done.

Mark A. Keefe IV. 10 Guns That Shaped America. American Rifleman. Tuesday, April 21, 2015.


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