"American Rifle: A Biography" by Alexander Rose
Thursday, November 20, 2008
By Alexander Rose
Delacorte. 495 pp. $30
The title of Alexander Rose's marvelous book says it all: Although "American Rifle" is ostensibly about the history of a piece of machinery, a tool, a killing instrument, it is only in America that the rifle has become an ineradicable part of the culture and can be written about as if it were a living person. "My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus I will learn it as a brother," runs an old hymn still memorized by both Army and Marine recruits. That hymn was intended to serve as an instructive and inspirational credo for young men joining the armed forces who, increasingly, no longer came from a rural or ranching background in which boys started shooting as small children with a BB rifle, got a .22 for their 10th birthday or sooner, and were taught how to shoot and look after a gun by their father, uncle or grandfather, in a rite of passage as old as the republic.
Let me confess that I myself received my first rifle (a Browning .22) when I was 10; that I went to school in Switzerland (home of William Tell and of an armed militia in which every Swiss adult male keeps his service rifle at home), where we were encouraged to shoot on the rifle range frequently; and that I am a life member of the NRA. However, this book can be read with pleasure regardless of one's position on gun control.
In the Old World, firearms were a class indicator: prerogatives of the military or, when intended for sporting purposes, of the landed aristocracy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, throughout Europe and Great Britain, poaching was a capital offense; the ordinary non-landowning man had no need, and no right, to keep a firearm at home, and hanging judges gleefully sentenced those of the starving rural poor who killed a pheasant or a deer. The biggest difference between America and Great Britain was not just the abundance of wildlife, but the all-important fact that in the Colonies it didn't belong to anybody; a good marksman could put meat on the family table every night without being hanged for the act. The firearm above the fireplace became a symbol of self-sufficiency, of freedom, of a potentially classless society (at any rate, one without a hereditary aristocracy), of sturdy independence and of self-defense.
Rose begins his story with the German invention of the rifled barrel in the 15th century and its introduction to the New World by German settlers and gunsmiths in the first years of the 18th century, where its merits over the smooth-bore musket were quickly appreciated. Within a few decades, the American rifle had taken on its unmistakable appearance -- the very long barrel and the accurate, long-distance sights -- as well as taking its place in myth and legend as the Kentucky rifle or the Daniel Boone rifle, and backwoods Americans were already cultivating standards of marksmanship undreamed of in the Old World. Indeed, when George Washington posed for a portrait by Charles Willson Peale circa 1789, his rifle appeared clearly in the painting, for ownership of a good rifle and the ability to shoot it accurately were already becoming popular attributes for aspiring politicians.
English aristocrats cherished their expensive, handmade shotguns, but in America the weapon that mattered was always the rifle. With a marksman's eye for detail and a gift for describing odd characters, Rose describes the way in which the rifle helped create and transform American industry. As the frontier moved farther west, the great and growing market for cheap rifles generated mass production: The first mass-produced artifact with interchangeable parts was, unsurprisingly, a rifle, produced by unskilled labor in Vermont. Rose tells the extraordinary story of how the American yearning for technological improvements led to the repeating rifle, first used in warfare in the Civil War, and eventually to the Winchester lever-action rifle, ultimate settler of arguments and killer of Indians and buffalo. He works in the complex and fascinating story of the U.S. Army's ceaseless pursuit of perfection in military rifles, sometimes resulting in triumphantly successful weapons like the World War II Garand, sometimes in costly failures like the M14 and the still controversial high-tech, small-caliber M16. Rose sensibly reaches the conclusion that "for some years to come the rifle of the future will be the rifle of the past," which pretty much sums up 250 years of military thinking on the subject.
Like David McCullough in "The Great Bridge," Rose has the rare ability to make technology come alive even for the non-technology-minded. He is not only a good historian but also a gifted storyteller, and I hope his book will make its way beyond the readership of American Rifleman and Shotgun News to everyone who wants to read about a singular and enduring artifact in American life and history.