Repeating Rifles and History: An Assault on Common Sense
by Bob Humphrey
The prose for each chapter in our country’s history was punctuated by armed conflict. War allowed us to be a country, then later nearly split us in half. Wars fought largely oversees have allowed us to continue enjoying our freedoms at home, including the pursuit of happiness and the right to bear arms. Combine those two and you get modern sport hunting, to which armed conflict has also been a large contributor, particularly with regard to weaponry.
With the possible exception of spears and arrows, virtually all modern sporting arms can trace their origins directly back to armed conflict. With each conflict the weapons of war evolved, and afterward came home for peace-time application. And like modern semi-automatic sporting rifles, the more advanced, non-traditional examples weren’t always warmly received at first.
This phenomenon is hardly unique to the U.S. Some eight centuries ago, the crossbow suffered similar prejudice. Because they could be used by a common foot soldier to fell those most noble (and entitled) of warriors – mounted knights – Pope Innocent II issued a judgement against crossbows in 1139, referring to “…the deadly art, hated by God, of crossbowmen…” Then in 1215, the fear of mercenaries “flooding” England from the continent resulted in an article in the Magna Carta calling for the banishment of “…all foreign born knights, crossbow men, sergeants and mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the kingdom’s hurt.” Does this biased propaganda designed to conceal an alternative agenda sound at all familiar?
Alas, the first assault weapons ban in history failed miserably and the crossbow remained a favored weapon throughout Europe and England. (To this day several European countries, like Italy, hold crossbow tournaments between villages and regions, the winning of which is a source of great prestige.)
If all that crossbow nonsense wasn’t bad enough, imagine people’s reaction to 13th Century knights leaving Europe armed with lances and swords, then returning from China with something called gunpowder. Warfare, and hunting would forever be altered, though not for the last time.
Jump ahead a few centuries to settlement and establishment of the New World. Europeans came across the pond armed largely with muskets – smoothbore muzzle-loading weapons with relatively short-range effectiveness. But things would soon change dramatically due to something called rifling.
Rifling involves “etching” grooves into a gun barrel. The purpose is to induce projectiles into spinning, thus making their flight more consistent, and the weapons that fire them much more accurate. Though rifling had been around for several hundred years, it did not become widespread until around the time of the American Revolution, when the face of warfare changed yet again.
In battle, the Redcoats marched in neat, orderly formation and fired musket volleys at their enemies, who also should have been standing dutifully in formation awaiting said volley. But the Americans learned a thing or two during the French and Indian War, not the least of which was guerilla warfare. Not only did they have the audacity to hide behind protective barriers like trees and stone walls, but they debased themselves – much like the crossbowmen of old – by sniping British soldiers with their (assault) rifles. One can easily imagine British sympathizers maligning the need for such dreadful weapons, particularly by simple farmers and villagers.
It didn’t matter because we won. And in 1789, what are to this day still considered some of the greatest minds in history sat down and penned a document designed to prevent, among other things, a tyrannical government from oppressing its citizens. Our founding fathers felt American citizens, all American citizens, must have the right to bear arms, not for sporting purposes, but to defend themselves from foreign invaders and corrupt governments. And for those who did not take history classes beyond the fifth grade, in order to protect yourself from either of the above, you have need more than pitchforks and axes.
Things settled down for a while, the frontier moved west and bold lads collectively known as mountain men headed for the mountains, many armed with flintlock rifles left over from previous conflicts. But as soon as they collected enough fur to afford them, they replaced those flintlocks with more reliable caplock rifles, yet another huge advancement in weaponry.
Muskets and increasingly muzzleloading caplock rifles remained the weapon of choice as our nation entered another critical time in its history (not to mention the ultimate oxymoron): the Civil War. The demand for a faster, more reliable ignition system led first to the enclosed cartridge, then to the repeating rifle. These were landmark advancements in firearms that far exceed almost anything we’ve seen since, with one notable exception. Brother went off to fight the Civil War against brother with caplock muzzleloaders. But when Johnny came marching home again he was carrying a centerfire repeating rifle. Folks were a lot more pragmatic in those days and they eagerly adopted those “modernistic” military (assault) weapons for purposes of procuring food and defending themselves against the occasional Indian attack or incursion from over our southern border.
Lever actions eventually gave way to bolt-action rifles, which remained the standard military issue through much of the early twentieth century. In 1898, the German military introduced the Model 89 Mauser, the action of which is still considered one of the most popular, reliable and accurate actions. In fact, the Mauser design, originally developed for military weapons has since been incorporated into countless modern bolt-action hunting arms. Later, when they and several other warring nations switched to more aerodynamic spitzer bullets, the U.S. military introduced the .30-06 Springfield cartridge. That came home with the doughboys after WWI and remains among the most popular big game cartridges in the world.
The next landmark, and probably the single greatest advancement in firearms systems, semi-automatic or autoloading rifles were used in WWI on a limited basis, but became far more widespread in WWII. The American foot soldier’s standard issue Springfield bolt-action was replaced with the M1 Garand, and the M1 carbine. Rather than working a bolt or a lever, you merely needed to pull the trigger to fire successive shots, a function that some, like New England’s bigwoods deer trackers, found particularly advantageous. It is the same action found in popular sporting arms like the Remington Model 760 and 7600, Winchester Model 100 and Browning BAR. And in function, it is virtually the same action that is found in the contemporary autoloaders used by every nation’s military and numerous law enforcement agencies.
Which brings us to those modern AR-style rifle. The initial resistance to it’s use as a sporting arm is not really surprising. For nearly 50 years, from the grainy, 1960s back-and-white newsreels of the Vietnam War to modern, high-definition live feeds from Afghanistan, we’ve seen it as a military weapon. With its pistol grip, large magazine and elevated front and rear sight configuration, it looks remarkably different from what has, until recently, been considered conventional hunting arms, at least since the post-WWII era. While it differs in form, it’s nearly identical in function to semi-automatic rifles used by hunters worldwide.
I suppose a lot of it boils down to human nature. I freely admit I wasn’t exactly “on board” with the concept of ARs as hunting rifles, until I tried one. I looked upon them the same way I looked down my nose at in-line muzzleloaders when they first came out; now I own four. We’re naturally resistant to change, but in the light of history and the face of logic, it becomes hard to formulate any logical argument for excluding a half-century-old design from the long list of military firearms adapted and adopted for hunting.
Stop and think for a moment. There are some hunters who question the “need” for modern sporting arms when they themselves tote rifles with synthetic stocks and telescopic sights. Do they need those amenities? The highest legal speed limit in the nation is 80 mph, yet the U.S., Germany and Japan continue to churn out vehicles capable of easily eclipsing 100 mph. And those vehicles are responsible for exponentially more deaths than firearms. Do we need them?
People argue there is no need for so-called assault rifles. Maybe not here, now. But look outside our borders to countries in Europe, Africa and Asia where to this day, corrupt governments continue to carry out widespread oppression and genocide. Ask those folks if there was a need for self protection. I truly hope we don’t ever need such means of protection again in our country. But until you can unequivocally guarantee that my government will never try to take away my Constitutional rights, I’ll stand by the lessons of history and the 2nd Amendment.