Firearms (Nonmilitary)

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Among the practices and prejudices English colonists carried with them to North America was the assumption that an armed population was normal and necessary. Few governments, then or since, have been prepared to trust the common people with weapons. Since "time out of mind," however, the English had preferred a citizen militia to a professional military force and depended on armed citizens to protect themselves and their neighbors by shouldering a host of local peacekeeping duties. Until the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, being armed had been more a duty than a right. But the English Bill of Rights of 1689, passed in the wake of that bloodless revolution, guaranteed Protestants, then some 90 percent of the population, what it described as their "true, ancient and indubitable rights," including the right to "have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law." The English prejudices that favored an armed citizenry translated easily to America, where the dangers of the wilderness made such community peacekeeping and self-reliance especially urgent.

firearms technology

By 1754 the civilian use of firearms had been common in England for some three hundred years and in its American colonies from the outset. Over the centuries, technology had led to the replacement of cumbersome, heavy, and inaccurate military weapons by more reliable and smaller flintlock muskets and, in the eighteenth century, by the famous Brown Bess musket. Lighter fowling pieces and pistols were also available and popular for personal protection and hunting. By the mid-seventeenth century, well-to-do women had taken to carrying little "pocket pistols" that could fit in a purse. By the eighteenth century the handgun had also become the weapon of choice for duels and highway robbery.

peacekeeping and hunting

The American colonists, faced with an often hostile native population and the usual array of crimes, immediately instituted the familiar means of keeping the peace. Every colony passed legislation to establish a militia and towns created systems in which householders took turns standing watch. All men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were liable for militia service, with some exceptions for clergy, religious objectors, and blacks. The dangers were so great that not only militia members but all householders were ordered to be armed. Many of these laws remained in place well into the eighteenth century. Connecticut's 1741 militia act, for example, ordered all citizens, both those listed in the militia and every other householder, to "always be provided with and have in continual readiness, a well-fixed firelock … or other good fire-arms … a good sword, or cutlass" and a specific amount of gunpowder. In 1770 Georgia felt it necessary, "for the better security of the inhabitants," to require every white male resident "to carry firearms to places of public worship." In many colonies those who could not afford a firearm were set to work to earn one.

Firearms were valued for hunting as well as protection. Game was plentiful in the New World and, in contrast to common European practice that strictly limited those who could hunt, colonists were enticed to American shores with the promise of the "liberty of fishing and fowling." American firearm needs differed from European needs, however, since hunting was less a sport than a key to survival in the wilderness and a reliable gun was critical for self-defense. For these purposes Americans wanted a rifle that was light, shot light bullets that needed only a modest amount of powder, was easy to load, and had a flat trajectory that would make it more accurate. By 1735 a rifle that met these specifications had been developed in Pennsylvania, although for some reason it was generally known as the Kentucky rifle. It quickly became popular throughout the country and proved effective in bringing down the larger animals in the American forests. Firearms expert Robert Held claims that until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, "there were no guns anywhere in the world which could shoot so far, so accurately and so efficiently" as the Kentucky rifle. A better weapon was developed in Britain but neglected by the British War Office, and so the Kentucky rifle remained the most accurate, and actually the only, long-range shooter until about 1840.

Travelers to America were struck by how common guns were. Charles Augustus Murray, who toured America in 1834, noted that "nearly every man has a rifle, and spends part of his time in the chase," while Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831, described a typical "peasant's cabin" in Kentucky or Tennessee as containing "a fairly clean bed, some chairs, a good gun."

indians and blacks

Sensible restrictions were put in place on the use of firearms in crowded areas or with intention to terrify. But the emphasis of colonial and early national governments was on ensuring the populace was well armed, not on restricting individual stocks of weapons. For the security of white colonists, efforts were made to prevent Indians, and in some colonies black slaves, from acquiring firearms. Nevertheless, Indians managed to obtain firearms and quickly became excellent shots. Access of slaves and free blacks to guns varied. The New England colonies and New Jersey permitted blacks, both slave and free, to keep private firearms but usually excluded them from the militia. A Virginia statute of 1640, "Preventing Negroes from Bearing Arms," was one of the first acts to legally define slave status. Free blacks in Virginia and South Carolina were permitted to keep firearms, as could blacks, whether slave or free, living on the frontier. Georgia, however, insisted upon a license for even temporary use of a gun by a slave. In the eyes of the law, neither the Indian nor the slave was a citizen; therefore, neither was entitled to the rights of citizenship. During the 1820s and 1830s therefore, a wave of anti-black legislation throughout the country was able to curtail the ability of blacks to be armed.

In sum, Americans were expected to provide themselves with firearms for the protection of themselves and their colony. There is ample evidence that they did.

See alsoGunpowder, Munitions, and Weapons (Military); Militias and Militia Service .


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Botein, Stephen. Early American Law and Society. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Higginbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Malcolm, Joyce Lee. To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Shy, John W. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Thorpe, Francis N., ed. The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies. 7 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909.

Joyce Lee Malcolm