Recently, Anne Verrill, a restaurant owner in Maine, said on Facebook that people who think citizens should be able to own AR-15s are not welcome in her establishments. “I want people to not have the power to own weapons of war,” she said. The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) official 2016 platform also uses this “weapons of war” phrase as it argues that America needs another so-called “assault weapons” ban. Hillary Clinton has also used the “weapons of war” catchphrase often. It is a talking point coined to demonize firearms that have certain features.
It is also a phrase that shows just how ignorant—or perhaps just disrespectful of the truth—people like Clinton are. Anyone who knows even a little about guns must wonder: Can Hillary really misunderstand America and the tool of our freedom this much? At this point, we have to concede, not only does she misconstrue American freedom, but if enough other people do also, she can take our freedom away while cloaking herself in compassion and common sense.
The first thing an educated person understands, of course, is that the AR-15 is not an M16 or its later M4 variants. There are real internal differences, as mandated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), between a semi-automatic AR-15 and automatic military assault rifles. So no, by its official classification, the AR-15 is not a “weapon of war.”
The AR-15 does share a lineage with the modern M4 carbine. But then, just about every other firearm used by American citizens today shares or shared traits with those used by the U.S. Armed Forces and/or police departments. This understanding exposes an important relationship between civilian arms designers, American gun owners and our military—a relationship that, if severed, would harm the readiness and technological advantage of our armed forces.
Here’s a quick tour through this 200-plus-year important, smart and critical connection between American citizens who chose to utilize freedom’s tool (yes, the gun) and those who chose to protect us from evil at home and abroad:
Most school kids today are not taught that on the night of April 18, 1775, some of the American colonists at Concord actually had firearms that were more advanced than those the British troops had. Some of the colonists had rifles, whereas the British had Brown Bess smoothbore muskets. The colonists’ rifles could hit a man-sized target at 200, perhaps even 300, yards, whereas the Brown Bess was only accurate to about 75 yards. And those New Englanders were hunters. They needed to kill squirrels and rabbits to eat, so they’d learned to be marksmen. They used these skills and their American Long Rifles’ technology by lying behind rocks and trees and shooting the Redcoats dead long before the British got close enough to use their .75-caliber smoothbore muskets.
These rifles were made one at a time by craftsmen in small American shops. They were comparably slow to load and expensive to manufacture, but they were so effective at sniping that George Washington armed snipers with them to pick off British officers.
In 1836 Samuel Colt perfected and patented a revolving handgun by bringing together features from previous guns and fashioning them into a mechanically reliable revolver. Colt even thought of developing an assembly line to manufacture his product. School textbooks often call Henry Ford’s use of an assembly line nearly a century later (in the late 1920s) a major innovation, as Ford used an assembly line to make the Model T Ford. But a gun maker had this idea a century earlier. Colt wrote in a letter in 1836 that the “first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”
These early revolvers were discovered by Texas Rangers who used them to defeat Comanches. In previous fights, frontiersmen had to get off their horse to use a flintlock rifle to fire one shot at a Comanche, a tribe renowned for swiftly shooting arrows from horseback. Even if the frontiersman killed one Comanche, he’d be killed by others before he could load powder and ball down his muzzleloader, prime the firearm, cock it, aim and fire. When armed with a Colt revolver, however, a Ranger could fight from horseback and fire multiple shots. This changed the frontier for civilians and the military.
On an August afternoon in 1863, Christopher Spencer went to the White House to show President Abraham Lincoln a new rifle that was significantly different from traditional rifles at the time. The Spencer Repeating rifle, like other lever-action designs then being developed, could be loaded with seven cartridges in a tubular magazine and featured a lever under the trigger. Spencer and President Lincoln walked over to a small park near the Treasury Building and used the rifle to shoot a pine board. Lincoln was so impressed, he wanted them for his army. Meanwhile, lever-action rifles would help win the West and would later become synonymous, through film, with the American cowboy.
The development and success of the bolt-action rifle for use by the military, as well as sportsmen, centers on Paul Mauser and his father and brothers. In a complex story—as product design and development can be—Paul developed a bolt-action rifle in 1859. Six years before, one of his bothers, Franz Mauser, had traveled to America with his sister and began working at E. Remington & Sons. Through this family connection, the rifle was shown to the Austrian War Ministry by Samuel Norris of E. Remington & Sons. The story of the development has many chapters, but in short, Mauser bolt-action rifles would come to reshape both civilian and military arms. As militaries began to see advantages to the design, Mausers were being readily adapted for use as hunting rifles. These rifles were often re-chambered in larger rounds for hunting in Africa and other places.
All of this civilian/military innovation led to the invention of the Model 1903 Springfield. The M1903 was officially adopted as a U.S. military bolt-action rifle on June 19, 1903, and was replaced as the standard infantry rifle by the semi-automatic M1 Garand starting in 1937.
The M1903 was so close to a Mauser design that, after Mauser sued, the U.S. government was forced to pay him $250,000 in royalties.
Later, many returning troops from World War I wanted bolt-action rifles like they’d carried in the war, so some “sporterized” M1903s to use for hunting. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers responded with better and better bolt-action rifles, later leading to Winchester’s Model 70 and to Remington’s Model 700. Many snipers in the U.S. Armed Forces carry Model 700s today, and many hunters and long-range shooters do as well.
Similar stories could be told about the Model 1911 pistol, Browning and later Remington pump-action shotguns and, finally, the AR-15. The truth is—whether people like Clinton know it or not—civilian gun designers, like Samuel Colt and John Browning, influenced and often collaborated with the U.S. military to design new and better firearms. There is a critical relationship between the American civilian gun market and the firearms used by the U.S. Armed Forces. Terminating that relationship through ignorance or misguided ideology would harm American freedom in many ways.
Editor’s Note: For those wanting further information on this topic, Frank Miniter tells this important American story in much more detail in his book,The Future of the Gun.