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Letter to Chicago Tribune Which They Won't Publish

by Michael Z. Williamson


I found the review of Michael Bellisiles’ book “Arming America” to be most amusing. I have to be amused, otherwise I would be outraged that such drivel could come from an alleged historian. Let me start at the beginning:

His survey of probate records covers only those who had wills and probate proceedings. These people were typically rich urbanites who had no need to hunt and could rely on neighbors for help if attacked. Since there was usually at least one person in the house at all times, the risk was slim. This survey does NOT represent the typical American at the time, but the typical elite snob.

American settlers, as he notes and then contradicts, used rifles for hunting. Muskets, which were military weapons, were inaccurate other than in volley fire, so were not desirable for frontier use, hence the lack of interest in buying surplus ones after the War of Independence. It did not take “two days” to find game, “luck” was not needed, and the typical game would be rabbit or squirrel, which are far more plentiful than deer. One would be unlikely to slaughter chickens regularly for meat, as he suggests, unless one had a sufficient breeding population to replace those slaughtered. It would actually be far easier, despite his amusing theories on hunting, to bag a woodchuck, squirrel, or rabbit. And they all taste like chicken.

Gunpowder is merely charcoal, sulfur, and saltpetre. Sulfur occurs naturally, charcoal is readily made, and saltpetre takes little effort to distill from cow manure. As late as 1873, the Zulus were using stones as projectiles in their muskets. This destroys his myth that owning a gun made one “dependent” on the government for lead and powder.

Flintlocks are remarkably simple devices, with only one spring and three major moving parts. Where he got the notion otherwise I have no idea. They function well, are easy to clean (they do not take “all day”), and displaced the earlier bow because of ease of use, despite a slower rate of fire and greater expense.

He makes an issue of gunsmiths not advertising in major newspapers of the day. Only the wealthy could afford luxury guns, and newspaper ads were expensive. Add to that that it was unlawful for the colonials to manufacture arms, and one can readily see why advertisements were scarce. Had he bothered to review old blacksmithing manuals, he would find that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM contained instructions for manufacturing, finishing, treating, and repairing non-luxury firearms, including building rifling cutters to rifle the barrels. Hardly the thing to waste paper on if these items were as scarce as he claims.

While it is true that the Continental Army (which numbered in the hundreds in 1795) sneered at the militia, ask any reservist today, and one will find the same attitude persists. He clearly has forgotten that it was the militia that drove the British from Washington during the War of 1812, the Army not being within a hundred miles at the time. So much for their relative effectiveness.

Early weapons were rusty? This much is true. Petroleum lubricants not being available in that era, bear grease had to suffice. As we all know, North America tends to have climate that encourages rust. What else could they do? How does surface rust affect the operation of a firearm?

Finally, one must ask, “So what?” So few Americans owned arms (if we concede for sake of argument that he's correct, which he is not). Few people, even with the modern advantage of email, actually write to their local newspapers or elected officials. Should we assume by this that there is no right to free speech?

He makes excellent use of the negative proof method--that lack of mention equals lack of presence. By that logic, outhouses were also scarce. I have found very few historical references to them. One tends to report only the unusual as news, and firearms were not unusual in Colonial America.

Bellisiles is all too typical of the true gun nuts in society--those who use their position to destroy civil rights from some misguided father-knows-best philosophy. He should evaluate his goals. If he wishes to be an historian, he should stick to history and do better research. If not, then he should be honest and declare himself a politician. And I don’t need 600 pages to make that point.

Mike Williamson is a veteran, an historian of warfare and freelance writer. His work appears in various firearms publications, JULES Magazine, and on  Read more of his writings here.