I recently completed a book on the history of the gun industry, culture, and the Winchester rifle family. In subsequent interviews with mainstream media outlets, I had a chance to observe where hosts and callers begin in the gun debate, and their starting point about the American gun’s place in history.
In this popular conception, if generalization is possible, the historical status of the gun is a paradox: there are few themes so historically grounded, and few so historically loamy and vague.
On the one hand, the American gun is “timeless” and deeply-engrained. Think of how many sentences in the gun conversation begin, “Americans have always _____.” Americans have always loved guns; they have always been a nation of cowboys (some celebrate and some condemn this, but it has always been thus); they have always associated guns with freedom from tyranny.
As the twentieth century advanced the gun industry itself became more self-conscious about their product’s historical mystique and gravitas as a selling point. This was something new. Oliver Winchester wasn’t selling guns in the 1870s by trading on nostalgia about firearms in the Revolutionary War; Samuel Colt wasn’t invoking the minutemen or Thomas Paine to sell a revolver. Actually, to be accurate, they lay the first strata of their respective gun fortunes outside of the U.S., seeking military and other contracts internationally.
In a post-frontier, modern America of the early 1900s, however, the industry increasingly utilized gun history as part of its marketing. Smith & Wesson ran a series, “Makers of History,” that airbrushed their pistols into historical timelines featuring events unrelated to guns; Colt’s touted its revolver as “famous in the past;” the Winchester company slogan, the “gun that won the west,” was a marketing campaign introduced in 1919. Meanwhile, bottom-up interest in guns as antiques and collector’s items grew. The gun’s instrumentality and historical influence were magnified: Guns were imagined to have done more work historically than perhaps they did. This is encapsulated by the Colt’s Company’s 1926 book, Makers of History: A Story of the Development of the History of Our Country at the Muzzle of a Colt.
On the other hand, the American gun lacks a true historical sense of change over time, or of historical specificity and nuance. Indeed, the narrative of timeless gun love conforms more to the characteristics of myth: It’s a story that explains present values through a hybrid of fact and fiction about the past.
For example, the debate about the American gun culture is largely a categorical one—we either were or were not a gun culture—and not a dimensional one—there are degrees, and different kinds, of gun attachment over time and within eras. A more accurate gun history would ask, which guns, how made, why made, how used, by whom, and why or if loved. Americans have had a variety of feelings about different kinds of firearms within each historical moment, and their degree of gun attachment, and its sources, have changed over time.
At the least, the idea of a monolithic gun culture needs to be fractured and pluralized into cultures. The gun industry itself was acutely attuned to market segmentation early on, and recognized that the “ordinary shooter” and “farmer’s boy,” as Winchester described its customer, who was reached through American Agriculturalist was not the same in gun needs, desires, or attitudes as the reviled “market hunter,” or military markets, or the urban recreational shooter, or those who wanted guns for self-defense.
While guns are seen as timelessly valued, gun control or gun regulation is assumed to be a new construct. In other words, gun love is timeless, and gun regulation has no history. The abridged narrative goes like this: Americans always had guns, just as they wanted them, and then in the 1960s, the gun grabbers emerged. Actually, gun regulations, and some measure of aversion to guns, have long been part of the historical mix as well.
Equally absent from the historical narrative are other consequential and vast aspects of the American gun culture, including the gun industry itself, and its archives, the focus of my book. If that history suggests anything to contemporary gun politics, it’s that the gun control movement has been banging its head against one wall—the Second Amendment, and with federal legislation—and perhaps it should try banging its head against another wall—the gun industry, and with consumer activism. The admittedly secretive gun industry has been almost invisible in the popular telling of American gun culture, which is all about the gun “owner,” not the gun customer, or maker.
Today, guns draw political authority not only from foundational views of the Second Amendment but also from the narrative of their timelessly central place in history. The American gun is in the paradoxical position of being both overly historical, and under-historicized.