Father’s Day is celebrated in June, and dads of all generations, including our Founding Fathers deserve to be celebrated. I have asked Historian, Ashley Hlebinsky, the Robert W. Woodruff Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West to help us remember the proud heritage of firearms in America. Hlebinsky is the first female firearm curator at the most prestigious firearms museum in the United States. She hails from the East Coast, where she received her Master’s Degree in American history – studying the perception of firearms in culture.
Cheryl Todd: Ashely, thank you for taking time today to talk about firearms in first century America, and the years leading up to the Revolution. At the dawn of our nation, firearms played a very important role, and had a valued place, in American homes. A firearm meant food on the table, protection from predators, and the reason we were able to establish this great nation apart from British Rule. Can you expound on these ideas? Were firearms a luxury or a necessity in first Century America?
Ashley: In the colonies and in early America there was a large culture of metalwork and gunsmithing. And gunsmiths were responsible for building and repairing the many muskets associated with the American Revolution, of which there were great variance among models. The two that are the most well-known are the British Brown Bess and the French Charleville. Both types of firearms were used by colonists, but to fully rebel against the British government the soon-to-be free people had to literally beg, borrow, steal and manufacture to arm themselves appropriately to put up a fight. Committees of Safety were formed in the various colonies to utilize the estimated 3,000 gunsmiths, who were spread amongst the colonies to manufacture muskets.
In addition to muskets, the American Longrifle has survived as the quintessential icon of American culture. Although it did not play as large a role in the American Revolution as many may think, it was a multi-purpose gun, used for hunting, self-defense and believe it or not, sport.
There were many schools of design behind these handcrafted tools, which oftentimes were ornately embellished, so the longrifle served as both necessity, and for those who could afford it, a luxury and a showpiece.
Cheryl Todd: When we talk about ideas like “putting food on the family table and offering protection from predators,” these present firearms as being life-giving tools. Where in history did see the image of the firearm begin to be seen in a negative light? Was it a specific event or did it happen slowly over time?
Ashley: I’m not sure if there was a specific moment in history when firearms were looked on negatively. Firearms, as well as other objects, have a long history of attempted regulation, but that has other origins rooted in politics, and is not necessarily a condemnation of negative attitudes about the object.
The post-Civil war period leading into the turn of the 20th century certainly played a role in the birth of a more “contemporary” gun culture. After the Civil War, there was a large number of surplus post-war firearms. For $6 soldiers could buy their service-firearm and take it home with them. Many modified these guns for hunting purposes. Manufacturers also capitalized on the cost-effective nature of the surplus. For example, Springfield Armory’s designer Erskine Allin, modified (many times over) a Springfield Rifled Musket, to create a breechloading rifle that was used for both hunting purposes as well as for the military.
In addition to the wise usage of the surplus of postwar weapons, the late 19th century marks the birthplace of the Golden Age of Firearms Manufacturing in America. A time when brand names like Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Colt and Remington are marketing to a growing consumer culture. Americans, men and women alike, at that point in history were becoming consumer oriented as we ushered in a more modern era.
Not only was production high and surplus large, the world of sport or target shooting grew exponentially. In 1869 the NRA of Great Britain was founded and the United States followed their example by founding our NRA in 1871 to help train marksmen. What resulted were international firearms competitions. At home on Sundays, sport shooting became a national pastime.
In addition to the shifting culture and use of firearms, gun-related terminology become parts of common speech and symbols of metaphor. In the 1870s, the expression Chekhov’s gun is coined, which in literary circles was a way to express that every element of a story should contribute to the whole. Theater turned to the realism movement and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show places the “western” on the international stage. Colloquialisms also form at the turn of the 20th century, thanks to companies like Kodak, who used gun terminology for their cameras, telling customers to “aim” and “shoot.”
Cheryl Todd: Getting back to Father’s Day, like many people’s dads, my father taught me gun safety and the proper use of a firearm. I learned at a very early age that a gun was a tool, like so many other tools we owned, and that it had a specific use for a specific purpose. Firearms in our home were unremarkable to me and my three brothers. They held no more fascination for us than did the lawnmower or the chainsaw. My father was not politically active, so I was unaware, and I was well into my adult life, before I realized that politicians and groups who would extinguish our Constitutional Rights had created a fear-based caricature of an item that my family considered as ordinary as the carving knife we used at Thanksgiving Dinner. This realization caused me to begin wondering where my family came up with this revolutionary idea that guns are simply tools. Which took me to…the Revolution…and our Founding Fathers. Ashely, what did first Century American parents they teach their children about firearms?…(READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE)
For more information on Ashley Hlebinsky or the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, follow these links.
Article originally published on 6.13.17 and has been reposted on Gun Freedom Radio Blog with permission.
To learn more about the author of this article, Cheryl Todd.