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Trigger Words: A Gun Ride Through American History

AMERICAN SPECTATOR June 4, 2019 – When Free Soil settlers in Kansas were being bloodied by pro-slavery forces in the years before the American Civil War, abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher decided enough was enough, endorsing the shipment of a thousand high-powered Sharps rifles to the settlers.

The guns’ new breech-loading mechanism dramatically increased their rate of fire over the era’s slow, awkward muzzle-loaders. In essence, this made them the assault rifles of their time. The Rev. Beecher (brother to Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) told a reporter that there was “more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.”

Viewing guns as a positive good isn’t typical in this era of mass shootings, but a recent book suggests that for much of America’s history, that is exactly how they were regarded.

In First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History with the Gun (Simon & Schuster, Oct. 2018), David Harsanyi argues that in America at least, guns were central to the national experience; without them we might still be squatting on the Atlantic seaboard subsisting on shellfish and charity from the nearby Wampanoag Indian tribes.

Harsanyi begins at the beginning, with man’s discovery that doing violence is safer at a distance. The use of “ranged weapons,” sticks and stones, for the most part, likely began in Africa some 71,000 years ago.

Working forward, he touches on the use of gunpowder weapons in China, where “alchemists searching for an elixir for immortality combined saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal and inadvertently stumbled upon a man-made recipe that would cause more premature death than any other mixture in history.”

The Chinese also demonstrated an entertaining creativity in the naming of their gunpowder devices: “Heaven-Shaking-Thunder-Crash Bomb,” “Match-for-Ten-Thousand-Enemies Bomb,” “Bandit-Burning Vision-Confusing Magic Fire-Ball.” [Read More]

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