Men and Their Guns: The Culture of Self-Deputized Manhood in the South, 1850–1877

Tracy L. Barnett
A tinted engraving of a large long factory with smoke coming out of its chimney on a riverbank with boats in the foreground

Armory of Colt’s Patent fire arms manufacturing co., 1866. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The nineteenth century was a critical epoch for manufacturing, and especially the production of firearms. Between the 1840s and 1880s, the process of making, selling, and buying guns evolved rapidly within the United States, which transformed the meaning of such products among consumers. The history of firearms indicates a complex link between southern civilians’ desire for technologically advanced weaponry as well as northern manufactures’ desire to profit by mass-producing and then selling large quantities of rifles and pistols. Both factors—the oversupply and the endless demand—caused a massive number of firearms to flow into the hands of white southern civilians, which were then used as tools of racial oppression and informal policing during the nineteenth-century. Today, the United States is still grappling with a similar problem: an overabundance of lethal weapons in the hands of civilians prone to mass violence or racial aggression. My own work explores the nineteenth-century origins of America’s gun culture and its mutually constitutive relationship to white supremacist ideology.

At the start of the nineteenth century, most civilian-owned firearms were produced by skilled artisans, but less than one hundred years later the vast majority of firearms were produced in large, New England factories. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, highly trained gunsmiths carefully crafted customized weapons at the behest of individual civilian buyers. In localized shops across the county, artisans built and assembled rifles by hand; they drilled the barrel, forged the lock, assembled the trigger, and engraved the stock—a time-consuming endeavor. As guns were expensive products, few civilian households purchased more than one gun. For well into the 1840s, small shops with under twenty employees supplied most southern and frontier households with weapons.[1] Ordinary Americans, of course, owned and used guns, but a large civilian market for mass-produced weapons simply did not exist prior to the 1840s.

The United States military, however, was a different market, which valued uniformity, simplicity, and mass production. To expand output in the early 1800s, the federal government issued contracts to private manufacturers in New England that invested in mechanized production and installed new machinery at the federal armories at Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia.[2] By 1840, the two federal armories alone produced nearly one-third of the nation’s firearms.[3]The federal government no longer needed to offer generous incentives or extensive contract to private manufacturing firms.

At first, large-scale, machine-powered armories were expensive to equip and, in the private sector, the transition from small artisanal shops to sprawling factories occurred slowly.[4] Manufacturers based in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania were at the vanguard of this transition. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, Samuel Colt courted politicians in Washington, DC, for coveted federal government arms contracts, but Ordnance Department officials expressed skepticism over his revolving weapons and instead preferred simple, single-shot muzzle loaders. Mass production, then, created its own problems for manufacturers such as Colt: to be profitable, weapons needed to be produced and then soldin large quantities. And those without extensive or consistent military contracts needed to tap into civilian or quasi-civilian markets.

Mass production increased the number of firearms available on the market—and, as more and more guns entered the market, they assumed a larger role in southern society, culture, and politics. In the 1830s and 1840s, southerners viewed rifles as a central marker of white masculinity. Elite white boys coming of age in the antebellum South desired a gun of their own, and most received a real one between the ages of ten and thirteen and, then, joined their fathers and uncles shooting small birds and deer.[5] Largely divested from its utilitarian purpose, hunting became a highly ritualized leisure activity by the 1840s aimed at promoting a refined version of white masculinity.[6] In the antebellum South, white men also joined local militias, which functioned as a force to patrol, police, and restrict the movement of enslaved people.[7]By joining militias and slave patrols, white men embraced a martial form of manhood deeply rooted in racial, gendered, and class-based hierarchies. In the antebellum era, however, not all militiamen or patrollers were well-armed, and many state arsenals were stocked with aging, malfunctioning guns. Firearms were a tool to subjugate the enslaved, but quality and quantity of guns were still relatively limited in the antebellum era. Within this system, guns became one tool, among many, used to extract labor and oppress enslaved men, women, and children.

A political cartoon showing a soldier labeled

Thomas Nast, “The Union as it was The lost cause, worse than slavery.” Harper’s Weekly, 1874. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In part, early industrialists recognized the role that firearms played in sustaining the antebellum racial order and many marketed their goods accordingly. In Colt lore, two origin stories exist about the repeating revolver. Today, the dominant narrative claims that sixteen-year-old Colt became inspired by a ship’s wheel while aboard the Corvo sailing to Calcutta. Pulling out a knife, the innovative and ambitious boy “whittled out of a ribbonblock the first model of the cylinder of his revolver, and reduced to a tangible shape the parts of the machinery by which the weapon was made effective.”[8] The lesser-known origin narrative connects Colt’s revolver to Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising. Noting the pressing need for multi-shot revolvers, an 1837 endorsement published in the Journal of the American Institute claimed: “Mr. Colt happened to be near the scene of a sanguinary insurrection of negro slaves, in the southern district of Virginia. He was startled to think again what fearful odds the white planter must ever contend, thus surrendered by a swarming population of slaves.” Noting the pressing need for multi-shot revolvers, the endorsement questioned, “What defence [sic] could there be in one shot, when opposed by multitudes, even though the multitudes of the unarmed? The master and his family were certain to be massacred.” Colt, according to this account, invented the first six-shot revolver to enable “the planter to repose in peace.”[9] Both Colt origin stories are almost certainly fictional, but the existence of this legend and subsequent advertisement—both of which most likely originated from Colt himself—points to an abiding interest in the southern markets and a deep desire to sell to white enslavers. It also showcases the role that repeating weapons played in the subjection of enslaved people. For antebellum white planters, guns functioned as a tool of racialized control. And these marketing and sales tactics worked: Guns produced in the Northeast reached the hands of white southern elites.

The Civil War accelerated both technological innovation and material output, and the Reconstruction Era dawned with a surplus of technologically superior weapons and the capacity to produce more. Building upon and perfecting their antebellum marketing tactics, northeastern suppliers found eager buyers below the Mason–Dixon line and willingly sold large quantities of rifles and pistols South in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Advertisements and endorsements directly and indirectly appealed to white southerners eager to restore the racial hierarchy with violence. In the 1870s, Wade Hampton, a former Confederate officer and a leader of South Carolina’s Red Shirts, regularly endorsed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company: “I regard the Winchester Rifle the most effective fire-arm I have ever seen. Its accuracy is remarkable, while its range and penetration were equal to any gun I have used. In my opinion it is the best breech-loader yet invented.”[10] Lower prices enabled white men from all walks of life to procure breech-loading, repeating rifles. These armed civilians, in turn, formed paramilitary groups devoted to a white supremacist cause and, using their purchased weapons, employed violence to disenfranchise Black Americans. This time, guns were the key tool used to terrorize Black Americans and overthrow Reconstruction policies.


[1] Richard C. Rattenbury, A Legacy in Arms: American Firearm Manufacture, Design, and Artistry, 1800–1900 (Norman, OK, 2014), 3–14; Lindsay Schakenbach Regele, “Industrial Manifest Destiny: American Firearms Manufacturing and Antebellum Expansion,” Business History Review 92 (Spring 2018), 63–64; Joshua L. Rosenbloom, “Anglo-American Technological Differences in Small Arms Manufacturing,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 4 (Spring, 1993), 689.

[2] David R. Meyer, Networked Machinists: High-Technology Industries in Antebellum America (Baltimore, 2006), 85–87; Lindsay Schakenbach Regel, Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776–1848 (Baltimore, MD, 2019), 52–53; James V. Joy, Jr., “Eli Whitney’s Contracts for Muskets,” Public Contract Law Journal 8, no. 2 (Dec. 1976), 143–45. See also, Robert S. Woodbury, “The Legend of Eli Whitney and Interchangeable Parts,” Technology and Culture 1, no. 3 (Summer 1960), 235–53.

[3] For more on the technological developments at federal armories, see Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change (Ithaca, NY, 1977); Merritt Roe Smith, “Army Ordnance and the ‘American System’ of Manufacturing, 1815–1861,” in Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience (Cambridge, MA, 1985), 39–86.

[4] Regele, “Industrial Manifest Destiny,” 61–63; Rosenbloom, “Anglo-American Technological Differences in Small Arms Manufacturing,” 684, 687.

[5] While impossible to pinpoint the precise age at which boys received their first gun, many southern male diarists mentioned hunting and shooting in their early and mid-teens and it is therefore likely that most southern boys received their first gun, or had access to a family member’s rifle, around the age of ten. D. E. Huger Smith, “A Plantation Boyhood,” in Herbert Ravenel Smith, Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties (New York, 1936), 85; Diary, Feb. 2, 1860 in the Harry St. John Dixon Papers, #2375, Southern Historical Collection, UNC; Diary, Volume 1, May 9, 1855 in the George Anderson Mercer Diary, #503, SHC, UNC.

[6] For more on antebellum hunting culture, see Nicolas W. Proctor, Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South(Charlottesville, VA, 2002).

[7] For more on southern slave patrols, see Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, MA, 2001).

[8] Henry Barnard, Armsmear: The Home, The Arm and the Armory of Samuel Colt (New York: 1866); Jack Rohan, Yankee Arms Maker: The Incredible Career of Samuel Colt (New York, 1935), 195.

[9] Journal of the American Institute: A Monthly Publication, Devoted to the Interests of Agriculture, Commerce, Manufactures, and the Arts: Accompanied with Public Documents, Sketches of Natural History, And, Occasionally, Philosophical and Literary Essays, Vol. 3 (New York, 1838), 99–101.

[10] Winchester Repeating Firearms and Metallic Cartridges Manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (New Haven, CT, 1875).

24 October 2023

About the Author

Tracy L. Barnett is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Georgia.

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