How the West Won the Gun

Peanut Butter and Jelly. Chips and Dip. Simon and Garfunkel. Summer and Ice Cream. Americans and Guns. All these things go together and are culturally inseparable. The world knows that America is the land of gun loving-second amendment wielding-wild west winning red-blooded citizens. Americans view their own successful history tangentially with the success of the gun: single shot muskets in the Revolutionary War; Colt pistols in the western frontier; Winchester repeating rifles in WWII. Even my favorite movie during the holidays, A Christmas Story, details Ralphie’s unstoppable obsession with the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Guns are constantly in the news because they beckon polemic arguments. Just last week Donald Trump incorrectly stated that Hillary Clinton wanted to abolish the second amendment, and if that happened, the gun lovers would have to take matters into their own hands (source). I for one am not anti-guns. I believe people should have a right to own pistols and rifles designed for hunting. I do not believe that people should be able to buy assault rifles that can kill dozens of citizens in a matter of seconds. Guns to me are like pharmaceuticals-they have the ability to protect but some come with severe side affects. And like drugs, guns should be regulated to prevent excessive harm to the public-think Antibiotics vs. Heroin. Many of our conversations about guns today are myopic in their view related to their long history in America. Were Americans always so gun obsessed? Why does American culture and the gun fit together like peanut butter and jelly? I found the answers to these questions in The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag.

In 1756, a report found that the colonies’ “militia amounts to about 36,000 but not half that number are armed.” In 1776, the governor of Rhode Island wrote to George Washington that the colonists disposed of their arms due to feelings of security, that the colony was effectively “disarmed.” During the 18th and early 19th century, guns were made by gunsmiths. Gunsmiths would make one gun at a time per request and there was a high amount of skill required to complete the entire project. These early American guns were single-shot front loaders which were very heavy and not all that accurate. Since this type of gun was difficult to produce and limited in its capabilities, it was treated as a tool for people with specific needs-farmers, soldiers, Lewis and Clark expeditions, etc. The average Joe did not own a gun during this time. This would all change with Eli Whitney’s idea that he could make a gun with interchangeable parts.

Eli Whitney was one of the first gun manufacturers that made guns not with gunsmiths but with factory workers. Whitney was the forefather to Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester who would begin their businesses in the mid 1800’s. Colt and Winchester are household names today but their businesses had very slow starts in the US. Americans simply did not see the appeal in semiautomatic rifles or handguns and in 1850, Henry William Herbert, one of America’s first sport-hunting writers, predicted that rifles would be obsolete by the end of the century. The Civil War kept the businesses temporarily afloat but afterwards, to stay in business, gun manufacturers used their factories to produce “sewing machines, horse carts, cotton gins, bridges, plows, mowers…” The only market that truly kept Winchester and Colt alive was the foreign war market. During the 1800’s, in South America, Europe, Mexico, and Asia, there was a huge demand for arms. The “American” gun only stayed out of bankruptcy because foreign nationalism required semiautomatic rifles. Colt and Winchester had to solve a problem, they had a ton of guns but little demand in America. How could they make a market?

Winchester and Colt were geniuses in marketing and they used the wild west as their primary medium. Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Belle Star, Calamity Jane, and many others were incessantly written about in dime novels. These dime novels were written as truth but were only fictional stories where “virtue must triumph, vice and crime must not only be defeated, but must by painted in colors so strong and vivid that there is no mistake about it.” What was the quintessential weapon of all these western heroes? Not coincidentally…Colt and Winchester. In addition to the dime novels, Winchester was a prolific user of full color advertisements that showed harrowing scenes of men in action making “The Finishing Shot” with their repeating rifle. It doesn’t end there, Winchester sent 3,363,537 boys between the ages of 10 to 16 a written letter about their .22 caliber that could be used to earn Winchester “Sharpshooting Medals.” This form of marketing extended to all forms of print and media-including Winchester sponsored movies that flashed ads for their guns. Over 750 westerns were released between 1950 and 1960 with 8 of the top 10 prime-time television shows in 1959 being westerns. The gun had morphed from a tool of war to a sexy symbol of virtue over vice, freedom, and individualism. Like so many other products, the gun was marketed towards our emotions and Americans soon connected this 1900’s gun mystique with all guns throughout American history. The guns of the American Revolution, that were sparse and clunky, were now prolific and majestic tools of freedom-just like they were with the winning of the west. Fast forward to today, where gun manufacturers have no problem selling guns because it is as American as eating apple pie. The second amendment gave us the right to bear arms but Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester gave us the desire to bear arms.

 

 

One thought on “How the West Won the Gun

  1. The Weatern movies did brain wash the young American public. Your article was very interesting I personally didn’t zone in on the guns but the thrill of riding a beautiful horse through the country side.

    Like

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