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The rifle: Its history and its place in the future

Historian Alexander Rose chronicles the history of a ubiquitous and deadly weapon.

By Randy Dotinga / December 20, 2012

Aristotle Rogel of Aegis Trading Enterprises gun shop handles a Umarex Colt M4 semi automatic rifle.

Gene Blevins/Reuters

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Rifles aren't new. Far from it, in fact. The firearm that sits in millions of American homes – and became a weapon of mass destruction in this year's horrific killings – has a history that goes back for centuries. Alexander Rose, a New York historian, tracked the history of the ubiquitous weapon in the well-received 2008 book "American Rifle: A Biography."

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This week, I asked Rose to look back at the rifle's history, explore its evolution from civilian to military use, and consider its future. Since he focuses on history and technology instead of modern political debates, we left the issue of contemporary gun control for others to discuss.
 
Q: When did the rifle first appear?

A: The rifle made its first appearance in Europe in the early-modern era, around the 16th century, but there were exceedingly few of them. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century brought their gunsmithing skills and blended English-style muskets with German rifle technology to create a specifically American hybrid, popularly known as a "Kentucky rifle."

At that time, the distinctive difference between a rifle and the standard musket was that the former's barrel was grooved and the latter's was smooth. Among other things, the grooves imparted spin and stability to a bullet as it hurtled through the barrel, allowing it to fly farther and truer than a musket's.The downside was that it took much, much longer to load a rifle than a musket, so it was really a question of quality versus quantity.
 
Q: Was the rifle initially used for hunting or for military uses?
 
A: Paradoxically for a gun so closely identified with the military, the rifle began life as a weapon you'd have around the house – if you lived in a cabin in the woods and mountains of the 18th-century frontier – because you needed it for protection and, most importantly, hunting.

The rifle put food on the table, in other words.

For their owners, rifles' relative accuracy and range more than compensated for their high maintenance, the long hours of necessary practice, and their low rate of fire. It had virtually no military use for a very long time.
 
Q: How did the rifle then become a military tool?
 
A: Eighteenth-century armies relied on massed, synchronized broadsides to demolish the foe's formations in short order, a tactical task that required fast-loading muskets rather than rifles, which were much more fiddly and needed no little training to master. That meant that rifles were essentially restricted to specialists. They were a kind of niche interest.

During the War of Independence, for instance, the Americans mobilized small bands of backwoods riflemen, but not for very long and to very little practical effect. The vast majority of Revolutionary combat between the armies was conducted by musket, not rifles.

It wouldn't be until just before the Civil War that the two competing types of weapon – rifle and musket – merged to form what was known briefly as a "rifle-musket," soon shortened to just "rifle." And their once-distinct roles were united. Since then, rifles have been a staple of every army in the world.
 
Q: When did rifles become controversial?
 
A: Depends on what you mean by "controversial." I can't really think of anyone in, say, the nineteenth century who wanted to ban them outright or the like.

Within military circles, there were polite and intellectual debates over the proper employment of rifles and muskets on the battlefield and, later, between advocates of single-shot rifles and repeating ones. There were also debates concerning the appropriate caliber of ammunition, the use of magazines to feed cartridges into the chamber, the introduction of semiautomatic mechanisms, and so forth. But this is par for the course with any form of technology.

Within military organizations, there are always ongoing, evolving debates between contending factions or schools of thought. The central debate of the last few centuries has concerned the relative importance of firepower and marksmanship in warfare, the quantity and quality question I mentioned before. Pretty much everything gets back to that issue somewhere along the line.
 
Q: When and how did rifles become something that people wanted to limit or ban? Is that a late 20th-century development?
 
A: Guns, not rifles in particular, have always been subject to bans or restrictions, but such attempts stem from diverse motives and vary from culture to culture.

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