Opinion

Personal firearms have shaped American history

Photo of Brion McClanahan
Brion McClanahan
Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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      Brion McClanahan

      Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes (Regnery, 2012).

The historian Richard S. Ellis wrote that the great American hero Daniel Boone was happiest when he had the “privilege of wandering with gun and dog” on the American frontier. “Nothing can be more pleasant to the American boy,” Ellis wrote, “than just such a life as followed by Daniel Boone — wandering for hours through the wilderness, on the look-out for game, building the cheery camp-fire deep in some glen or gorge, quaffing the clear icy water from some stream, or lying flat on the back and looking up through the tree-tops at the patches of blue sky, across which the snowy ships of vapor are continually sailing.”

Boone’s marksmanship served him well during the American War for Independence and subsequent skirmishes with the Shawnee. He helped rescue his daughters and two other girls after they were captured by a group of Shawnee braves, a feat that would have been impossible without his personal (“military grade” at the time) firearm. It would be no stretch to say that life on the frontier would have been miserable without guns, both for hunting and self-defense. Firearms helped forge the American federal republic.

In his influential commentaries on English law, the eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone called self-defense a “natural right.” Countless early Americans used personal firearms to defend themselves and their communities. The heroes of the Battle of Lexington in 1775 stood their ground against superior British forces with personal firearms, and the famous minutemen of Massachusetts were often equipped with whatever they could bring from their homes. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys assisted in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 with private firearms. Davy Crockett helped defend the Alamo with his own rifle, a rifle made famous by the many marksmanship contests he had competed in during the early 1800s. Andrew Jackson marched out to fight the Creek War in 1813 with his own weapons, and later became the hero of New Orleans with a rag-tag militia and a bunch of pirates who used personal firearms to defend the city against a British onslaught.

John Burns, the civilian hero of Gettysburg and a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, originally went to fight Confederate forces in July 1863 with his personal flintlock musket, only to trade it for a more modern Enfield rifle during the battle, but his skill as a marksman — at 69 years old — was forged by a lifetime with firearms. The Union needed him that day.

On the other side, Jack Hinson, a prosperous Tennessee farmer, killed at least 100 Union soldiers during the war with a homemade .50 caliber sniper rifle, a weapon far superior to anything the military issued in the 1860s.

These private citizens with personal firearms helped their causes because they were armed and knew how to defend themselves. Of course, there were thousands of Confederate soldiers who had to use their own firearms in the Civil War because the South was woefully short of supply. They relied on those weapons, many of which were considered “military grade,” in defense of hearth and home. After the Civil War, the Republican-controlled governments of the South made a concerted effort to disarm these men because of their opposition to Reconstruction. Confiscating firearms is always the first step in quelling dissent. The slave codes, which prohibited Southern blacks, both free and slave, from owning firearms, implicitly recognized that guns create a climate of resistance.