First appeared in America's 1st Freedom magazine, March 2013.
There is an insidious lie at the basis of the latest attempt to ban popular semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 (what the anti-gun-freedom crowd wrongly calls “assault rifles”). It’s a lie so simple, yet sinister, that people seduced by it think government should take away basic human freedoms.
The lie is that, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is fond of saying, “military-style weapons” don’t belong in the hands of U.S. citizens.
This lie preys on ignorance. Those who don’t know the truth about American history can be conned by this lie. Those who aren’t aware of the link between private and military arms that has always existed in America can be tricked by this lie.
To defeat this lie about semi-automatic rifles, we have to educate those who don’t know our history of freedom. To help, here’s a primer on America’s history of private and public gun making, as well as the views of firearm historians and first-person experiences from soldiers.
A Short History of American Gun Making
To fully understand the harm this one big lie can do to individual liberty, let’s begin with the “shot heard ‘round the world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson coined this phrase decades after the American Revolution in a poem he wrote in 1837 called “Concord Hymn.” Emerson wrote: “Here once the embattled farmers stood /And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.”
School kids learn that on the night of April 18, 1775, hundreds of British troops marched from Boston to nearby towns to seize arms caches. They learn that Paul Revere and others sounded the alarm, and that Colonial militiamen mobilized to confront the Redcoat column. They are taught that an initial confrontation on the Lexington town green started the fight that led to a British retreat from a large force of Americans at Concord.
However, one small though important fact few learn about this battle is that the colonists actually had more advanced arms than the British troops.
Phil Schreier, senior curator of the National Firearms Museum, explains: “Some of the Americans had rifles, whereas the British had Brown Besses—smoothbore muskets. Also, many of the Americans used their rifles to hunt. They could hit a man-sized target at 200, and perhaps 300, yards. The British Brown Bess, by contrast, was accurate to perhaps 50 yards, probably less.”
Though barrel rifling is thought to have been invented in Augsburg, Germany, at the end of the fifteenth century, American gun makers improved on previous designs with the American Longrifle (what later became known as the “Kentucky rifle.”). The American Longrifle was longer and used a smaller caliber than other muzzleloaders at the time. As this firearm’s name indicates, it had a “rifled” barrel.
The British preferred the smoothbore Brown Bess because it lobbed a big bullet and was faster to load than a muzzleloader with a rifled barrel. The Redcoats were geared for close-quarter engagements between masses of troops. The Americans at Concord didn’t fight that way. They used their rifles to fire before the Redcoats could get close enough to take advantage of their less-accurate muskets.
There were downsides to Kentucky rifles. They were comparatively expensive and their production rate was slow, as small-arms makers produced them one at a time. As a result, although Gen. George Washington made significant use of American snipers, most American Revolutionaries were later armed with smoothbore muskets.
Nevertheless, small-arms makers who had served the private market made it possible for the war to begin on good footing for the colonists. This helped to get the public behind the revolution. Thus began the relationship between American citizens, the firearms they owned and carried, and the U.S. military.Today’s semi-automatic rifle is merely the latest example of private citizens using and helping to develop a firearm type that also happens to be used by the military.
After the American Revolution, George Washington established the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass., to produce and develop arms for the military. The armory began making flintlocks in 1795. These firearms were basically copies of the French “Charleville” flintlock musket. But from then until its closing in 1968, James Woolsey, superintendent of the Springfield Armory, says: “The armory worked to match and surpass advances in weapons by foreign and private manufacturers. In fact, civilian gun designers influenced and collaborated with the U.S. military to design new and better firearms. The civilian gun market and the government have always been in step with each other.”
Woolsey used Samuel Colt as an example. In 1836, Colt perfected and patented a revolving handgun by bringing together features from previous guns and fashioning them into a mechanically reliable revolver. Colt also advanced manufacturing processes by making guns with interchangeable parts (made by machine and assembled by hand). An order of 1,000 revolvers from the Texas Rangers in 1847 later solidified Colt’s business. His factory in Hartford, Conn., would later build handguns that were used on both sides in the American Civil War and in many conflicts in the American West.
Meanwhile, other innovators were also at work. In 1852 Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson formed a company to produce a lever-action handgun nicknamed the “Volcanic Pistol.” After it failed, the two men came out with a revolver in 1856—the Smith & Wesson Model 1. This was the first revolver that fired a fully self-contained cartridge.
At about this time, in 1857, Oliver Winchester hired a gunsmith named B. Tyler Henry. By 1860, Henry had created a breech-loading, lever-action rifle. Citizens and the U.S. military quickly embraced this rifle. In 1866, Winchester improved on the Henry with the Winchester Model 1866.
A few years later, the two most iconic guns of the Old West were produced: the Winchester model 1873 (see Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic “Winchester 73”) and the Colt Model 1873, otherwise known as “The Peacemaker.” None of these firearms, though they were major advances in technology, were thought to be exclusive to law enforcement or the military.
Innovators like Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, John Browning, John Thompson and many more kept working to please the public, who wanted firearms for self-defense, hunting and sporting uses. They also made firearms for the U.S. military. The American consumer market propelled firearm development. Manufacturing innovations by gun makers even helped the U.S. step into the Industrial Age.
We owe much to the gun and to gun designers. It’s hard to name a firearm type used yesterday or today that wasn’t used by both civilians and the military. Some military snipers use Remington’s Model 700, a rifle very popular with hunters. Pump-action shotguns from the Winchester Model 12 to Mossberg’s 500 are, or have been, used by both private citizens and the military.
Actually, the rest of this article could be filled with a list of examples of guns used by both citizens and the military. Suffice to say, today’s semi-automatic rifle is merely the latest example of private citizens using and helping to develop a firearm type that also happens to be used by the military.
The NRA Connection
The original reason for the founding of the National Rifle Association in 1871 also highlights this military-civilian connection. William Conant Church and Gen. George Wood Wingate first chartered the NRA in the state of New York on Nov. 17, 1871, because they recognized a need to train citizens to shoot. Poor marksmanship exhibited by the Union Army in the American Civil War made it clear that many Americans didn’t know how to shoot. As the Founders often expressed, Church and Wingate felt our nation’s very independence depended upon having an armed and skilled citizenry.
Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the NRA’s first president, also noticed.
“Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manual of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broad side of a barn,” Burnside said.
The NRA soon constructed a modern rifle range at Creedmoor, Long Island, and the NRA’s shooting programs for civilians and the military quickly began to grow and to produce quality marksmen. For example, after winning the British Empire championship at Wimbledon, London, in 1874, the Irish Rifle Team issued a challenge through the New York Herald to riflemen in the U.S. In response, the NRA organized a team through an amateur rifle club.
Remington Arms and Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Co. produced breech-loading rifles for the team. At the time, muzzleloading rifles were thought to be more accurate. This changed after the American riflemen won the match with breech-loading rifles.For the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century, NRA competitions and training kept producing good marksmen.
At the same time, with links to private manufacturers, the Springfield Armory developed and produced the Springfield “Trapdoor” rifle in 1873 (watch the 1952 film “Springfield Rifle” starring Gary Cooper to see what a big deal it was). These rifles were used by the military, by citizens in the West and by shooters in national matches, international championships and the Olympics.
For the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century, NRA competitions and training kept producing good marksmen. This continually resulted in innovations in firearms for both private citizens and the U.S. military.
Woolsey says: “Though the Krag-Jorgensen rifle was favored in competitions until 1907, the newer Springfield Model 1903 was used in 1908 competitions. These service rifles, sometimes slightly modified, were tested against a diverse selection of rifles in national and world matches. The 1908 American victory at the Bisley International Match, for example, was achieved thanks to the accuracy of the then-$16 Springfield rifle, Model 1903.”
Through the 20th century to today, research-and-development efforts on the part of firearm manufacturers continued to simultaneously serve the military and U.S. citizens. Today Beretta, Remington, Colt and many more have defense and commercial divisions. Many of these companies produce guns for civilians and the armed forces from the same CNC machines.
What Soldiers Say About Gun Freedom
Greg Stube, a former Special Forces sergeant who fought in Afghanistan, has a strong opinion on whether civilian gun ownership helps prepare citizen soldiers.
“In my experience, a lot of training time in the Special Forces is used to teach those who don’t have gun experience,” Stube said. “To put it plainly, the Special Forces are in the business of creating country boys.”
In 2006, Stube was badly wounded at the battle of Sperwan Ghar, a part of what the coalition forces in Afghanistan called “Operation Medusa.” An estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters had gathered to retake Kandahar and Special Forces teams, Canadian soldiers and Afghan fighters mobilized to stop them.
During an attempt to rescue a wounded Afghan soldier, Stube’s truck was blown apart by an improvised explosive device (IED). The bomb had detonated under the truck’s right front wheel, setting the gas tank afire and blowing the driver, Mishra, through the door. Stube was trapped in the turret feeling his legs burn off. Bullets slammed into the vehicle and ricocheted off rocks as Staff Sergeant Jude Voss pulled Stube out. Mishra, the driver of the truck, was dazed but somehow wasn’t seriously injured.
As Voss dragged Stube to a ditch, Stube remembers feeling something peppering his face. He began swatting at the annoyance as if gnats were biting him. Then, as the shock wore off, he realized sand was being blown into his face from machine gun bullets landing all around him.
When asked if Stube would make it, Voss shook his head and frowned. Nevertheless, Stube wasn’t ready to die. As he tried desperately not to choke on his own blood, he talked Voss through the first aid: “This is leaking,” Stube managed. “Here, check this.”
Somehow, perhaps in part because of his unbelievable composure, Stube was still alive when Special Forces medics arrived.
“I shouldn’t have lived,” Stube said as we talked at a Washington, D.C., pub after he’d spent a year in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.“My wounds were too severe.”
Stube has since retired from the U.S. Army. He now works for Nightforce Optics. He has told his story to audiences at the NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits. He still goes on a lot of national television and radio shows to talk about the military and freedom in America. He’s a passionate and charismatic spokesman for freedom.
“I’ve toured the Smith & Wesson plant in Springfield, Mass. I saw firearms headed for law enforcement and for the civilian market coming off the same lines,” Stube said. “This is how America has always worked. It’s how it should and must work.
“I saw again and again in training and on the battlefield that soldiers who grew up hunting and shooting recreationally are better soldiers. As I said, the Special Forces is in the business of creating country boys. If our free citizens are barred from using firearms similar to those used by the military, then we won’t be as prepared as a nation.“Also, my experience in war taught me,” Stube added, “that law-abiding people shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re potentially less armed than those who might prey on them.”
“Also, my experience in war taught me,” Stube added, “that law-abiding people shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re potentially less armed than those who might prey on them.”
Stube believes we need people like Sgt. Alvin York in our military. York was the most decorated American soldier in World War I. He was born in a Tennessee cabin and grew up hunting. During a battle, York and seven other men captured 132 German prisoners. (The 1941 flick “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper tells the story well).
Steve Adelmann, a retired Special Operations Forces operator and owner of Citizen Arms, agrees with Stube.
“America’s firearm culture helps the military and law enforcement,” Adelmann said. “When I trained new snipers for my team, I always found the best shooters had been raised with a gun in hand. In fact, drill sergeants and other instructors spend much of their limited range time trying to get young men and women with little or no gun experience up to par with troops that grew up hunting or target shooting. In particular, people who come from urban areas use a disproportionate amount of training time just learning to sight in their rifles and hit targets at close range.
“I’ve also seen a difference in the abilities of other armed forces,” Adelmann added. “I’ve trained with and fought alongside allied soldiers from many nations. Soldiers from firearm-friendly places like Israel and Scandinavian countries acquit themselves very well with a wide variety of arms. Conversely, soldiers from nations with severe gun restrictions like England and Australia are far less familiar with firearms and generally don’t have the same comfort level as Americans. They’re very good with the weapons they are issued, but the battlefield requires enough flexibility to adapt quickly to a wide variety of firearm types.”
Adelmann now builds custom AR-15s for private citizens. And he asks customers what they intend to do with their rifles.
“Ninety percent of them list hunting and home defense as their first two reasons for ownership. ARs are supremely accurate hunting rifles and utilitarian home-defense firearms,” he said. “If they’re banned, we’ll lose an effective tool for the citizen, while military and law enforcement entities will suffer down the road. Also, many advances in firearm technology come from the civilian market, especially competition shooting. If manufacturers can no longer sell ARs to citizens, much of that innovation will grind to a halt.”
To add an exclamation point to the experiences and views articulated by Stube and Adelmann, consider a letter recently written by retired Army Special Forces MSG Jeff Hinton and signed by 1,100 Special Forces operators.
“Like you,” Hinton wrote, “we have been stunned, horrified and angered by the tragedies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Fort Hood, and Sandy Hook; and like you, we are searching for solutions to the problem of gun-related crimes in our society… . First, we need to set the record straight on a few things. The current debate is over so-called ‘assault weapons’ and high-capacity magazines. The terms ‘assault weapon’ and ‘assault rifle’ are often confused. According to Bruce H. Kobayashi and Joseph E. Olson, writing in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, ‘Prior to 1989, the term “assault weapon” did not exist in the lexicon of firearms. It is a political term developed by anti-gun publicists to expand the category of assault rifles. The M4A1 carbine is a U.S. military service rifle—it is an assault rifle. The AR-15 is not an assault rifle.’ ”
Hinton is right. “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for the first two letters of the original manufacturer’s name: ArmaLite Corporation. Today’s ARs are designed to look like the military’s M4A1 carbine, but AR-15s can’t be configured to be fully automatic. The truth is assault rifles, according to the real definition of this term, are already banned or heavily restricted.
Also, outlawing modern semi-auto rifles would ban a class of firearm that is “in common use” —which is the test the U.S. Supreme Court used in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) to explain why the Second Amendment protects certain firearms. In fact, the earlier case of United States v. Miller(1939) suggested that a gun could be protected under the Second Amendment if it was ”ordinary military equipment” that could “contribute to the common defense.”
So anti-gun politicians who are fond of saying “weapons of war have no place in civilian hands” are either unaware of American history or are dishonest. A gun market that serves both private citizens and our armed forces has long helped fuel innovation and defend freedom in American homes and on battlefields.
This is a link anti-gun politicians want to sever. If they succeed, such bans won’t only harm civilians and our Second Amendment, but will also lead to less firearm innovation and a less-prepared military in the future.