Regulation, Not Rights: The History of Government Gun Culture in the Early Republic

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele
Machinery used to produce the Springfield rifle musket.  From Harpers Monthly Magazine, September 1861, digitized by Springfield Armory via Wikimedia Commons.

Machinery used to produce the Springfield rifle musket. From Harpers Monthly Magazine, September 1861, digitized by Springfield Armory via Wikimedia Commons.

It should be no surprise that today some of the biggest gun companies are in New England, where the government fostered the development of firearms manufacturing. These include Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC (Hartford, CT), Smith and Wesson (Springfield, MA), and Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.(Southport, CT). Although discussions of gun culture today tend to focus on the Second Amendment, I want to consider the origins of the government’s intervention in the arms industry, a history that involves regulating the types of firearms manufacturers brought to the market. By understanding the precise ways the federal government fostered the emergence of an industry that is dependent on both military conflict and a civilian gun culture, we can point to the ways the government is obligated to regulate it. It is more than a Second Amendment issue; it is a safety-regulation issue.

Although rarely invoked in the century after its passage,the Second Amendment, which states that, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” has since the middle of the twentieth century been debated vigorously. Historians, legal scholars and political commentators have agonized over language and precedent to determine whether it confers an individual, collective, or civic right.[1] But as historian Robert Thurston advises us, “the tension between the two parts of the sentence has led to endless, pointless debate . . . . That argument will never be resolved. It is necessary to move on.”[2]

I agree. Instead of focusing on Americans’ rights to own guns, we should focus on the government’s historical right and responsibility to regulate the types of firearms manufacturers can bring to the market.The government’s constitutional role was never just to safeguard citizens’ prerogative to own firearms; it was to provide them. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution granted Congress the power to organize, arm, and discipline the militia.

In the years following the passage of the Second Amendment, the federal government began developing and regulating the large-scale manufacture of firearms because American citizens did not produce enough affordable firearms to arm themselves. There was scarcely a civilian market for guns in the first half of the nineteenth century. No less a symbol of American arms making than Samuel Colt said so himself.[3] It is worth thinking about this. To listen to current gun-rights’ advocates, one would think that Americans always have enthusiastically purchased guns. This simply was not true. The federal government developed a large-scale arms industry because American citizens were not going to do it themselves.

Following the Revolution, gunsmithing was still a small-scale, specialized trade, and arms makers had little incentive to expand production. Probate inventories reveal more significant gun ownership than Michael Bellesiles’ largely discredited Arming America showed, but thereis at least some truth to his general argument about early American gun culture.[4] Government action was necessary to grow the number of firearms in the new nation. Congress prohibited the export of arms, made their import mostly duty-free during the early 1790s, and authorized the construction of two federal armories. These armories would manufacture most of the military’s firearms throughout the nineteenth century, but they at first did not produce more than a thousand muskets a year, not nearly enough to wage constant warfare against Native Americans, or prepare for military conflict against Europe. The government’s solution was to invest in private armories to supplement their output.[5]

Although throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the most established gunsmiths were in Pennsylvania, the majority of public funds would go to manufacturers in and around the Connecticut River Valley in New England. Their proximity to the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, made it easy for the federal government to centralize its control over firearms production, and their lack of arms-manufacturing experience appealed to government officials, who complained about established gunsmiths’ unwillingness to conform to government standards.

William Giles Munson, An 1827 View of the Eli Whitney Gun Factory and Whitneyville, via Wikimedia Commons.

William Giles Munson, An 1827 View of the Eli Whitney Gun Factory and Whitneyville, via Wikimedia Commons.

Beginning in the 1790s, the government entered contracts with manufacturers who had little or no experience making guns. Eli Whitney, for example, failed to profit from the cotton gin, but realized there was money to be made in firearms manufacturing. He convinced several acquaintances in the executive branch that he could successfully manufacture arms with the right support. Before he even constructed an armory, Whitney received a contract for 10,000 muskets, which included a cash advance and funding for several storehouses on his property in New Haven, Connecticut.[6] Several years later, the Militia Act of 1808 standardized these sorts of contracts, which ultimately shaped the development of the arms industry. Congress appropriated $200,000 annually to arm the state militias, which struggled to supply themselves, and stipulated that these funds go to private manufacturers (many congressmen feared centralizing all national arms production at the federal armories).

For the next three decades, the War Department issued five-year renewable contracts that came with 10- to 20 percent cash advances, as well as a host of expectations. All gun parts had to conform to federal standards and pass regular inspections. These contracts kept a small cohort of arms makers in the Connecticut River Valley steadily employed making small arms that conformed to federal standards. According to arms contractor Asa Waters, “if the patronage of the government is not continued, our factories will be worth but little.”[7]

As Waters and other contractors petitioned Congress for continued patronage in the 1830s, things were starting to change. Decades of public expenditure had established the arms industry on sound footing, and advancements in the public sector had spread to the private sector; meanwhile, increased levels of frontier violence and territorial expansion led to greater demand for firearms among both the military and civilians. Congress called for military officers to conduct a series of experiments to compare the safety and effectiveness of firearms manufactured at different armories. During the first round of tests in 1837, the officers preferred the standard U.S. musket and decided there was “risk to the national safety by adopting new inventions without being convinced of their superiority.”[8]

Several years later, they tested firearms manufactured by Samuel Colt, who would become one of America’s most eminent arms makers. The board found Colt’s arms much improved from the 1837 tests, but noted that several features caused safety risks, namely “the possibility of two or more chambers going off at the same time” and the “deafening sharpness . . . which must injure the hearing of those who use them” and recommended more trials in the field.[9] Soon after, the United States stopped issuing regular contracts and switched to short-term arrangements with new arms makers like Colt, who had since improved his arms. These new contracts required the manufacturer to bear the burden of the manufacturing costs. Colt borrowed government-subsidized machinery from Eli Whitney, Jr. to build a new factory in Hartford, Connecticut. His business was further helped by new civilian demand, which peaked after Colt used soldier testimony from Florida and Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s to market his guns as agents of frontier conquest. As Colt’s business took off in the years following the Mexican‒American War, he owed at least some of his success to a half century of government intervention in the arms industry.

In closing, I don’t want to suggest that American citizens bear no responsibility for the creation of a national gun culture. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s recent Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendmentshows,gun violence and white power went hand in hand throughout American history, with and without government intervention.[10] But even if the state did not create violence or firearms, it did create a big firearms industry that now lobbies for freedom from regulation. Their right to freedom from regulation is ahistorical.


Endnotes

[1]For an overview of the Second Amendment and constitutional law, see Carl T. Bogus, ed., “Symposium on the Second Amendment: Fresh Looks,” Chicago‒Kent Law Review76, no.1 (2000), 3‒6. Don Higginbotham, “The Federalized Militia Debate: A Neglected Aspect of Second Amendment Scholarship,” William and Mary Quarterly 55 (Jan. 1998), 39‒58, 40. See also Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (New York, 2008); and Michael Waldman, The Second Amendment: A Biography (New York, 2015).

[2]Robert W. Thurston, “Hiding Behind the Second Amendment Is a Nasty Scam and Misunderstanding of American History,”https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/168359.

[3]United States Circuit Court, The Trial of Samuel Colt (Harriman, TN, 1853), 8.

[4]Michael A. Bellesiles, “The Origins of Gun Culture in the United States, 1760‒1865,” Journal of American History83 (Sept. 1996), 425‒55; and Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York, 2000). For another argument that civilian consumption of patent firearms was limited before the Civil War, see Pamela Haag, The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture (New York, 2016).

[5]ASP, “Armory at Springfield,” Communicated to the Senate Jan. 7, 1800, Military Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 37: 130.

[6]Henry Dearborn to Eli Whitney, Feb. 25, 1803, Order Book, Letters Sent Regarding Procurements, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, RG107, National Archives, Washington, DC. Oliver Wolcott to Daniel Gilbert, Sept. 8, 1798, National Archives and Record Administration: Post-Revolutionary War Papers, Record Group 45.

[7]Memorial of Private Contractors to U.S. Congress, 1835?, Waters Family, Papers, 1749‒1873, Box W1, Folder 4 1835, AAS.

[8]ASP, “Report of the President of a Board of Officers on Improvements in Fire-Arms by Hall, Colt, Cochran, Leavitt, and Baron Hackett, as Compared with the United States Musket,” Oct. 3, 1837, 25thCongress, 1stSession, no. 743, 525‒29.

[9]ASP, “Report from the Secretary of War, transmitting the report of a board of dragoon officers appointed to witness an exhibition of the repeating fire-arms and water-proof ammunition invented by Samuel Colt,” Dec. 16, 1840, 26thCongress, 2ndSession, no. 14, 3.

[10]Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment(San Francisco, 2018).

16 July 2018

About the Author

Lindsay Schakenbach Regele is Assistant Professor of History at Miami University.

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