The rifle: Its history and its place in the future

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

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

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."

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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.

Thus, in the Greek and Roman era, there was an aristocratic suspicion of projectile weapons (bows, spears), because the cowardly killed from afar rather than up close. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this snobbery was applied to bullet-launching weapons. Shakespeare, in "Henry IV," Part 1, mentions a "certain lord" who claims that "but for those vile guns, he would himself have been a soldier."

There were, accordingly, efforts to suppress their use on the battlefield, partly for reasons of noble prestige and partly for reasons of economy (armor did not come cheap, after all).

In seventeenth-century America, the various powers (England, France, and Holland) made sure to stop guns reaching hostile Indian tribes but freely traded with those allied with them. In this instance, limitations were imposed for purely geopolitical reasons.

During the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, there were strenuous efforts to restrict the supply of gunpowder and ammunition, if not weaponry, to Indians in order to suppress what we would probably call guerrilla warfare and to make them more reliant on Washington (and more willing to sign treaties in return for gunpowder). So, here we see gun restrictions being used for military and strategic gains.

Over in Japan, on the other hand, the Tokugawa shogunate used firearms to instill order and then banned them outright (even its own) for the sake of stability and the preservation of its sword-based samurai hegemony. Meanwhile, the ruling Mamelukes in Egypt forbade guns, not because they feared uprisings or loved swords, but because they thought them suitable only for Christian infidels.
 
Q: When did the rifle become a "sexy" weapon, one that people prized for its sleekness, its beauty, and so on? Was that an early development or a modern one?
 
A: I'm not entirely convinced that "sexy" is the correct way to describe a rifle. I think "aesthetics" is probably more useful in this context.

Soldiers have always liked beautiful weapons. Look at any display of medieval arms, Japanese swords, or Enlightenment dueling pistols. The rifle is no different, for the most part.

Probably the most classically elegant rifle was the eighteenth-century Kentucky, but one could also argue for the M16 – a product of the Space Age, using futuristic materials, based on a visually striking design – as a leading contender for the crown.

In sum, rifle aesthetics tend to reflect their environment and the culture that produced it. It's striking, I think, that the Soviet AK-47, certainly the world's most notorious rifle, is, to my mind, also starkly ugly. It's a characteristic product of a Stalinist culture and brutalist mindset.
 
Q: What's next for the evolution of rifles?
 
A: The end of the rifle is always nigh, so it has been traditionally proclaimed. One hears this sometimes nowadays, as robots and advanced technology increasingly dominate the battlefield. Perhaps, but I don't think so.

The rifle is here to stay, if only because it is the most useful object issued to soldiers. Its future form, however, is an interesting question.

Some analysts predict that there will be a Great Leap Forward in rifle technology that will render current models instantly obsolete. Again, I'm not so sure.

For most of the rifle's history, change has been gradual and incremental, mostly because genuine technological "revolutions" are rather infrequent, but also because the old, tried-and-true technology "just works," whereas the flashy, new stuff has not been tested in the field. And who wants to be a guinea pig when the bullets are flying?

Personally, I think the rifle of the future will look a lot like the rifle of the past and of the present.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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