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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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.