An enduring romance with guns is a striking facet of of American uniqueness – exceptionalism – that began at the very beginning of America’s history.
The first Europeans to settle in North America brought guns with them. Guns were tools of survival. The settlers used them to kill game for food and fur, and they used them for protection and aggression against indigenous natives they called Indians. Virtually every colonial household had one or more personal firearms; such was required by law in many colonies to facilitate maintenance of citizen militias.
With their personal guns, colonists fought Indians for survival and land, they fought with Great Britain against the French, and they fought against King George for independence. Guns had become embedded in the American psyche.
By the mid-1700s colonists were becoming vocal in their objections to English rule with its increasing taxes and manufacturing restrictions. Tensions grew. Great Britain responded with increasing arrogance and repressive measures. In 1773, colonists reacted to one of these, the Tea Act, by boarding English ships and dumping more than a thousand chests of tea into Boston Harbor and the Delaware River. Great Britain’s response was more repression.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress agreed to boycott British goods and cease exports to Great Britain unless the ‘Intolerable Acts’ were repealed. They weren’t. Violent skirmishes at Lexington and Concord began the American war for independence.
In 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, with George Washington as Commander-in- chief. That army consisted almost entirely of militiamen bearing
More than 50 land and sea engagements were fought. The Treaty of Paris formally ended the war in 1783.
The Constitution of the United States took effect in 1789. The first ten amendments (Bill of Rights) guaranteeing individual and states’ rights were ratified in 1791. The second of those amendments put guns in the Constitution:
Even before the American Revolution, American folk heroes were bearing arms. By the end of the nineteenth century, scores of gun-toting characters such as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Kit Carson had entered American history accounts and become icons of popular culture.
Territorial expansion begun with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 continued until 1916, by which time land area had more than quadrupled. Helped by waves of immigrants, population surged to about 140 million by 1945, 56 times that of 1776.
America became a respected and sometimes feared military and naval power before the end of the nineteenth century, largely because of the many wars it fought. These included scores of limited engagements, mostly with Indian tribes, and major campaigns – the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War.
Demand engendered by the earliest of these wars spawned the American arms industry. Eliphalet Remington forged his first rifle barrel as a young blacksmith in 1816. Remington companies have become the largest American producer of shotguns and rifles.
Rapidly expanding boundaries of the United States provided a magnate for the adventuresome, who began moving into the new lands even before being invited to do so by the government. And the spirit of entrepreneurship produced an explosion of new inventions to be used in that expansion. Several of these were for dramatic new guns.
The spread of American society ever further westward was accompanied by growing demand for firearms by the Army, by the settlers ... and by the Indians. The U.S. Army and civilians were buyers of guns. Indians captured weapons when possible, or bought from whoever was selling. Even in towns where Indians had been vanquished, a thriving demand for guns continued, from the criminals to lawmen to self-defending civilians.
In 1867 Winchester Repeating Arms Company began manufacturing a series of lever-action repeating rifles developed from the 1860 Henry rifle. The Model 1873 became colloquially known as "The Gun that Won the West". Winchester became the favorite of cowboys, settlers, western lawmen and at least one United States President.
Military pressure on Indians resumed after the Civil War. Civil War officers supported white hunters’ wholesale killing of the buffalo (American Bison) on which plains Indians depended. William F. Cody was one of these buffalo hunters. He got the nickname "Buffalo Bill" while he had a contract to supply railroad workers with buffalo meat.
Cowboys often carried ‘six-shooters’ and rifles. They used them mostly for hunting food and, occasionally, for defense against Indians. But some places were violent, especially railheads like Abilene and Dodge City, and mining towns like Deadwood and Tombstone. Gunfighters were popularized by newspaper reports and stories during their times, and they’ve become legends through all manner of media. Most Americans know the names of western gunfighters, outlaws and characters.
In 1888, the forerunner of the Daisy Manufacturing Company introduced the first full-metal air gun. Made to resemble the Winchester 73, its ‘Red Ryder BB Gun’ would be introduced in 1940 and sell hundreds of thousands each year since, especially around Christmas.
The “Wild West” era was ending by the turn of the century. But guns would remain highly visible in American reality, media coverage and entertainment.
Practical equipment for taking and projecting motion pictures was developed in the late-nineteenth century. The Great Train Robbery in 1903 introduced the American Western genre; the first major western was The Covered Wagon, in 1923. Radio soon followed, and through film and radio, a new list of gun-toting personae joined and reinforced American’s romance with guns.
Some of these shows moved on to television, which has run more than 200 weekly series in which guns are involved in regular action, and in which the ‘good guys’ virtually always win. Only a few of this genre were still on television into the 21st century and, except for reruns, none are playing today. But television still presents dozens of weekly shows of gun-related genre such as detective, espionage, law enforcement, etc.
The Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution imposed nationwide prohibition in 1920. The Amendment would be repealed in 1933, but bootlegging and organized crime arose and became entrenched during the prohibition years – the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the early years of the great depression. Gun-related violence, gangsters and law-enforcement heroes replaced those of the Wild West in coverage by newspapers and other media, by then including radio and movies. More than a thousand westerns have since been produced.
The likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Bugs Moran competed to supply Americans’ illegal thirst, bootlegging and smuggling to supply tens of thousands of ‘speakeasies’ and other illegal purveyors with beers, wines and whiskeys. They battled each other and law enforcement, often or usually with guns. Gang warfare, murder rates and burglaries rose sharply, all covered extensively by newspapers. Activities of Elliot Ness and The Untouchables were followed closely by Americans at the time, and are memorialized in current books, films, television and video games.
Similarly, outlaws such as Bonnie & Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd traveled the central United States with their gangs, robbing and killing. Most of their ilk were killed or captured by the mid-1930’s, but their exploits captured the attention of the American public. Such ‘public enemies’ were depicted in contemporary newspapers, newsreels and pulp magazines as attractive and exciting desperadoes. Their exploits
The 1950s were years of great prosperity and turbulence. Stimulated by rising incomes, income-tax, housing subsidies and guaranteed loans, home ownership jumped. Suburbs rose around metropolitan areas. And educational achievement reached the highest in America’s history as millions of returning servicemen went to college under the G.I. Bill.
Until the 1960s, many major universities required all male students (except veterans) to participate in a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) program. (The requirement has been dropped, but more than 500 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine ROTC programs are active at colleges and universities in the United States; more than 3,000 Junior ROTC programs are active at secondary schools.)
Americans have always used guns for hunting and, since mid-to- late 19th century for skill sports. In 2016, 11.5 million people 16 years and older hunted 184 million days and took 147 million trips. Hunting expenditures totaled $26.2 billion.
The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a “scientific” basis. It began to establish rifle clubs at all major colleges, universities and military academies in 1903. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 led to establishment of an Olympic shooting Program administered until 1995 by the NRA and administered since by USA Shooting.
More than a million youth now participate annually in shooting sports events and programs run by 4-H, Boy Scouts, American Legion, NCAA, USA High School Target League, National Guard Bureau, ROTC, JROTC and others. Begun in 1965, the Daisy National BB Gun Championship brings 8-to-15 year old winners of state competitions to Rogers, Arkansas for a championship match.