Friday, November 14, 2008

American Rifle: A Biography (Gunnie Book Review)

Alexander Rose is an American-born military historian who grew up in Australia, was educated in Great Britain, once lived in Canada, now lives in New York, and a former journalist. He wrote American Rifle as a biography of well, American rifles. Given his own mini-biography (see his website) you might think we would decry the role of rifles in America (given that there is an “America Sucks” school of history).

Instead, Rose has maintained an admirable objectivity. He concerns himself primarily with military rifles. Sometimes he makes room for discussions of what was going on in the civilian market, but mainly as that market would then or later affect the military.

American Rifle opens with a vignette. In 1772, Charles Wilson Peale is painting a portrait of the youngish George Washington who insisted that a rifle be included in the background. The book then backtracks into earlier history of the rifle. Later, Rose states that Washington learned to appreciate rifles as an Indian fighter on the colonial frontier.

Washington became the model of what Rose describes as the tension between sharpshooting and mass firing philosophies. As commander of the colonial forces during the American Revolution, Washington at first stressed aimed fire by small bands of marksmen. He learned that battle still had to be joined with soldiers bearing muskets (in fact, the army had too many rifles and scrambled to find muskets). The conflict between marksmanship and mass-firing continued to affect rifle development throughout United States history.

Rose names the advocates of marksmanship the “progressives” (no relation to people who use the name today) who believed that war could be fought by small cadres of marksmen who would surgically destroy an enemy through long-range carefully aimed shots. He names the mass-firing disciples the “diehards” who believed in throwing a great deal of lead while fighting at closer ranges—much like 18th century lines of musket wielding troops who pointed their weapons but did not aim them.

Rose discusses the development of most of America’s military rifles and shows how the tension between progressives and diehards explain some truly surprising choices in military rifles. For instance, after the Civil War the Ordnance Department believed the “Trapdoor” Springfield had reached the absolute zenith of accuracy and fire discipline. Small bands of marksmen could use it to hit officers and enemy soldiers at 1,000 yards. In this context, former Union officers and others formed the National Rifle Association to increase marksmanship and lead the way to such a military.

Unfortunately for progressives, soldiers experienced something quite different in the Indian Wars. Instead, Indians attacked quickly and tried to get among the soldiers. The soldiers needed repeating rifles that could throw a lot of lead. They pushed the military to consider repeating arms such as the Winchester and others.

Slowly, the army began to adopt repeaters, but even as late as 1900 kept a magazine cut-off that would force a soldier to load one cartridge at a time (as on the 1903 Springfield rifle). Another five rounds were kept in “reserve” in the internal magazine.

Today, we still have arguments between very accurate guns and rapid-firing guns and tactics that take advantage of one or both (see the chapter on the M-14 versus the M-16 especially).

I wish Rose had included more discussion of civilian guns. Granted, most civilian makers have tried to get the military interested in their guns. Also, military developments certainly impact the civilian market (less so now with banning civilian ownership and development of new fully-auto rifles).

American Rifle explains how our rifles came into being. It describes the successful innovations and the failures. It shows that their development was not just one straight line from the Kentucky Rifle to the M4 Carbine. At any point, another road could have been taken. It tells of lost opportunities such as the early breechloader invented by John H. Hall. It is well written and a valuable addition to any gunnie’s library.

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