The Paradox of Gun History

tags: guns, gun control, Gun History

Pamela Haag is a non-fiction writer, essayist, and historian. She is the author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture.

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.  ...

Read entire article at Progress

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