- · vol. 1 · no. 1 · September 2000

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.



"Account books, which offer very complete portraits of local economies, demonstrate that throughout the American colonies most merchants carried little gun powder and shot--and almost never had a gun for sale--and few of their customers purchased either in times of peace."

Disarming Early American History
Michael Bellesiles

Part I | II | III | Notes

Hunters and gunsmiths

The records of the colonial militia, and the story of their generally abysmal showing in early American wars, may seem counter-intuitive. Surely there must have been more guns hiding someplace? After all, one of the most popular and persistent visions of the American past is that every settler owned a gun in order to hunt, "to put meat on the table," in the oft repeated phrase. This is a very strange perception. Hunting is and always has been a time-consuming and inefficient way of putting food on the table. People settling a new territory have little time for leisure activities, and hunting was broadly understood in the European context to be an upper-class leisure activity. One of the most significant advantages that European settlers enjoyed over their Indian competitors for the land of North America was their mastery of domesticated animals. 73 If a settler wanted meat, he did not pull his trusty and rusty musket, inaccurate beyond twenty yards, off the hook above the door and spend the day cleaning and preparing it. Nor did he then hike miles to the nearest trading post to trade farm produce for powder and shot. To head off into the woods for two days in order to drag the carcass of a deer back to his family, assuming that he was lucky enough to find one (not to mention kill it), would have struck any American of the colonial period as supreme lunacy. Far easier to sharpen the ax and chop off the head of a chicken or, as they all did in regular communal get-togethers, slaughter one of their enormous hogs, salting down enough meat to last months. Colonial Americans were famously well fed, based on their farming, not their hunting. 74

There were restrictions on who could and could not hunt in America, just as in England. But in America the privileged group was much larger and there were few restrictions on when and where one could hunt. For instance, most colonies banned hunting at night because it led to the death of too many cows and horses. In England only the wealthy were allowed to trap game. In the American colonies nearly everyone could trap, and most free white landowners could hunt with firearms. Nonetheless, not many people did so. When John Lawson came to the Carolinas in 1701 to explore and hunt, one of his first observations was that "the meanest Planter" in America could enjoy hunting. Even "A poor Labourer, that is Master of his Gun" might hunt under the law. Yet Lawson also noticed that these settlers all worked hard on their land and devoted little or no time to hunting, leaving that pleasure to the Indians. When Lawson went exploring with two settlers, he discovered that his was the only gun: "We had but one Gun amongst us [with] one Load of Ammunition." "Relying wholly on Providence," the three men, like so many others in early America, traveled among and with many different Indians for the next few weeks without mishap. 75 Lawson concluded that journey by noting that the local Indians were mostly friendly and "hunt and fowl for us at seasonable rates." He thought no place "so free from Blood-shed, as Carolina," though he warned his readers that they would have to bring their own arms and ammunition with them to America. 76

Account books, which offer very complete portraits of local economies, demonstrate that throughout the American colonies most merchants carried little gun powder and shot--and almost never had a gun for sale--and few of their customers purchased either in times of peace. Outside of the few colonial cities, merchants faced the danger of seeing their gunpowder rot, as it had a short shelf life, especially in moist or humid climates. But very few people appear in these account books as regular purchasers of gunpowder, buying an ounce or two every six months. With the vast majority of people never bothering to buy powder, it seems safe to say that they may have trapped animals, but they rarely hunted them. 77

Hunters were specialists. Individuals like Ethan Allen made their living by learning the routines of the forest and the best places to lay their traps, following the old Indian trails, and often, as in Allen's case, getting to know the local Indians and learning from them. Professional hunters relied on their traps, not their guns. Traps were reliable and required little time; one set them up and then checked them from time to time. Hunters like Allen were not out to put meat on their table, though they might do that as well. It was hides they were after. Every account of hunters prior to the nineteenth century speaks of their heading off on long journeys, generally of several weeks, checking their traps, trading with the Indians for furs and hides, seeking new areas that had not yet been developed, carrying their musket or rifle, but almost never using it. Again, it was not the most efficient way to kill an animal, and these were very practical people. 78

But white hunters were the exceptions. Given the abundance of animals along the coast in the early eighteenth century, John Phillip Reid has pointed out, "it might be thought that the British settlers could have hunted them on their own." Yet the Indians did almost all the hunting, not only because they alone had the numbers and time to do so, but also because they were better at it and, as Reid says, only they "were willing to work for beads, guns, . . . blankets, and rum" (which is to say, for peanuts). In 1707 the Cherokee traded at the rate of thirty-five deerskins for a gun, thirty for a coat. 79 Given the wide availability of land and the demand for labor in the towns and cities, few free men could afford hunting as a livelihood, and those few generally did not succeed. Ethan Allen, for instance, gave up hunting in his early thirties and settled down to farming. And that, after all, is what most European Americans did: farmed. Historians have found that nearly 95% of the non-Indian population of colonial America farmed, either by choice or through coercion as indentured servants and slaves. These farmers often had to deal with varmints, and laid traps, then as now, as the most efficient way of addressing that problem. Occasionally a pest eluded their traps, or they had a particularly bad bird problem. On those occasions they would certainly use a gun, if they had one. If not, they would borrow a musket or a fowling piece from a neighbor, often entering the exchange in their account books, noting that they owed that neighbor a return of some sort. But they certainly did not keep a gun to put meat on their tables. They kept knives and axes for that purpose. 80

And the other five percent of the population? They were mostly urban artisans. To put meat on their tables they behaved like their European contemporaries: they went to the market to purchase food. 81

It was not easy to acquire a firearm, should an individual want one for some reason. The simplest route was to become an active member of the militia, and be supplied with one by the government from its stores, or the next time the crown sent over a shipment. But these guns were supposed to be used only at musters and during emergencies. To purchase a gun was a more difficult and expensive matter. In an age when £3 a month was considered a very good income for any trade, skilled artisan or prosperous farmer, and the average wage for a worker was £18 a year, a flintlock cost £4 to £5. In addition, the American colonies were cash poor, and most merchants insisted on payment in cash for firearms, which were among the most expensive single items they could carry. For the average free American in the colonial period, who devoted half of his income to diet alone, a gun represented the equivalent of two months wages and could easily claim all his currency. 82

Adding to the difficulty of purchasing a firearm was the fact that almost every single one had to cross the Atlantic from Europe. There were only a handful of gunsmiths in America in its first century and a half of settlement. Most of their labor was devoted to making and repairing other forms of metal work. These men were more smiths than gunsmiths, and in fact most labeled themselves blacksmiths. 83 Those few guns that were made in the British colonies were largely assembled from parts purchased in Europe. But then it was extremely rare to find a gunmaker who made an entire gun himself; it generally took three or four working together. Most European shops had one gunsmith specializing in locks, another in the stock, and a third in the barrel, while a fourth generally assembled and finished the gun. 84 No one in America could make the key part of the gun, its lock, until the Revolutionary era, and even tools had to be imported. 85 A very few gunsmiths did craft their own barrels, most notably for the famous Pennsylvania rifles, but their most common repair was stocking, putting new wood stocks on old firearms. 86 Simply finding someone to repair a gun required a major effort, as every colonial government discovered at the beginning of every war.

For instance, there was only a single gunsmith in South Carolina's first quarter century of European settlement. Thomas Archcraft understood his value to the colony as the only one capable of repairing its weapons and he extorted preferential treatment from the government. Archcraft soon discovered that the real profit was not in weapons repair but in the manufacture of Indian hatchets, and the council received many complaints that he was not repairing guns that had been "lying along time in [his] hands," but devoted his time instead to making axes. The council ordered Archcraft to stop making Indian hatchets until the necessary repairs were completed, and then tried to set repair rates--another edict ignored by Archcraft. When the threat of imprisonment evoked no response, the council ordered Archcraft into custody, to finish his repairs in jail. But Archcraft went on strike, refusing to repair any firearms, so the council ordered his release and tried other forms of persuasion, none of which worked. It finally took away his tools. The amazing aspect of this story is that the government found Archcraft a terrible gunsmith. The council reported that he either "altogether neglects the mending of [guns], or else returnes them as ill, sometimes worse than when he received them." But it had no choice, as there was no one else in South Carolina with training as a gunsmith. 87

Study after study reveals a surprisingly low number of gunsmiths in early America. There were a few German gunsmiths who emigrated to Pennsylvania and continued in the trade over many decades; the Henry family becoming something of a dynasty in this regard. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was the great exception. No other area in North America could boast even half as many gunsmiths. 88 Harold B. Gill's exhaustive search of Virginia's records found three, possibly four, gunsmiths in the years from 1607 to 1676, with two additional artisans who performed the task of gunsmiths. In the following six decades, 1677 through 1739, there were seven gunsmiths and seven, possibly eight, artisans working on guns. And it was one of these men, Charles Parkes, who was the first known to have made a gun in Virginia, though he probably only stocked parts made in England. The thirty years from 1740 through 1770 witnessed a jump to seven gunsmiths and seventeen artisans in a colony with a population of 447,000 in 1770 (259,000 white), including the first, the Geddy brothers, able to rifle gun barrels. In other words, no more than eighteen gunsmiths served Virginia in its first 150 years. Gill's study further revealed that the major task of these gunsmiths was cleaning guns, which was seen by the government as a task requiring the services of a professional. 89

Likewise, studies in other colonies reveal a rather muted enthusiasm for guns at best. In the fifty years from 1726 to 1776, only two gunsmiths advertised their services in New York City's fifteen newspapers. Guns were occasionally offered for sale in shops dealing in other goods, though never in a large number. The jeweler John Richardson advertised that he had some guns and a brace of pistols for sale. Similarly, repairs were undertaken by people in a variety of other trades. Thus James Yeomen and John Collins, watchmakers, advertised their ability to repair guns for "Gentlemen." All the advertisements targeted gentlemen and promised guns "as neat as in England." 90 This desire to link their goods to English quality appears in the advertisement of one of the two gunsmiths in the city, Edward Annely. He did not have a shop, but operated at the "fly market," selling guns and pistols "all Tower proof" (meeting the standards of the Tower of London) and "Cheap." He also "makes Guns and Pistols as any Gentleman shall like, and does all Things belonging to the Gun-Smith's Trade; and engraves Coats of Arms on Plate." 91 A similar examination of three Boston newspapers from 1704 to 1775 reveals just four gunsmiths, two of whom advertised as importers of guns, and a third who did not have a shop. 92 And, most amazingly, Alfred C. Prime's examination of twenty-two Philadelphia newspapers during the colonial period produced not a single gunsmith or ad for gun repairs. 93

Unlike in Europe, there was no guild system in America to impose quality control over gun production. In England, each journeyman was rigorously examined, as was each gun, which required a government proof mark before it could be sold. In America anyone could claim to be a gunsmith, and any gun which could find a customer could be sold. Every American gun was thus not only different, but often very different, with bullet molds made to suit the individual gun and each repair specific to the gun--there was no standardization of any kind. It was little wonder that Americans often complained, as of Thomas Archcraft, that the gunsmith's work worsened the problem. Becoming a good gunsmith required years of study with a master of the craft and there were few to study with in the colonies. It could also be a dangerous task, as the Virginia gunsmith John Brush made evident in 1723 when he petitioned the government for support after "his misfortune in being blown up and hurt in firing the Guns on his Majtys Birthday." 94

But then, not many Americans demonstrated much interest in becoming gunsmiths. In fact, the opposite: keeping the few gunsmiths at their work troubled the colonial legislatures. Most gunsmiths who came to America found it more profitable to enter other lines of work. In 1633 the Virginia assembly ordered that gunsmiths and other artisans "be compelled to worke at theire trades and [be] not suffered to plant tobacco or corne or doe any other worke in the ground." In 1662 the assembly tried incentives instead, exempting smiths from paying taxes if they followed their trade. But such extraordinary legislation did not prove sufficient, and in 1672 the legislature fined any smith who failed to "lay aside all other worke" and devote himself to the repair of firearms. Twenty years later the legislature had to repeat this expropriation of labor in ordering that every smith in Virginia "fix all Armes . . . brought them by any of the Souldiers of this Countrey." In 1705 the assembly granted all militia officers the authority to "impress any smith . . . or other artificer, whatsoever, which shall be thought useful for the fixing of arms." 95

One revealing aspect of this legislation is the way in which the assembly lumped all smiths together as competent and needed to handle gun repair. Repeatedly through the colonial period governments turned to artisans in other trades for assistance with their firearms. 96 These artisans cleaned and repaired guns; they did not make them. In 1692 the Virginia council reported that no guns were "to be had but from England," and they worried that this supply was erratic. In 1699 the council reported that they had only three "good muskets" in the Jamestown armory and begged for more guns. The crown indicated little sympathy for Virginia's plight. 97

Gunsmiths sought income elsewhere, it appears, because there was just not a sufficient market for their services in colonial North America. 98 As the probate records of the period evidence, gun ownership was far less widespread than is generally assumed. It is vital to emphasize that these probate inventories scrupulously recorded every item in an estate, from broken glasses to speculative land titles to which the deceased claimed title, including those which had already been passed on as bequests before death. 99 It is a bit difficult to discover complete runs of these inventories and wills (which would record any items given up until that time) for the period prior to the 1760s. But gun ownership in those complete probate inventories which do exist run the range from 7% in Maryland to, curiously, 48% in Providence, Rhode Island. Apparently gun ownership was linked to prosperity, not to the frontier.

The Providence records serve well to indicate the nature of gun ownership in colonial America. These 186 probate inventories from 1680 to 1730 are all for property-owning adult males, or the top quarter of Providence society. Ninety of them mention some form of gun, from pistols to "a peice of a Gun Barrill." More than half of these guns are evaluated as old and of poor quality. Two-thirds of those inventories containing guns fall into the last twenty years of this fifty-year period, after the distribution of firearms by the British government to the New England militia in Queen Anne's War. A great many inventories explicitly list "one of ye Queens armes," which officially still belonged to the government. The inventories also note when a gun was on loan, such as "A Gun at Henry Mores." Fifty-one of these ninety men owned one gun of some kind, twenty-five owned two, nine held three, three owned four guns, and two owned five guns. Four of the five men holding four or five guns were militia officers. If one could imagine these 186 men as a militia company, half would be unarmed and a third armed with guns which were broken or too old for service. And yet they would have been one of the best armed forces of their time. 100

There is a traditional belief that gun owners were emotionally attached to their favorite weapon, passing them on to their eldest sons in moving manhood ceremonies. There is no contemporary evidence for such rites of passage in the colonial period. It is hard to imagine that Epenetus Olney felt a strong attachment to his only gun, "an old short Gunn without a lock," or John Whipple to his only weapon, a "pistol without a lock." Nor could William Ashley give his "Queenes Arm" to his son, since it officially remained government property. Just two of the 186 wills accompanying these probate files specifically mention guns: Captain Joseph Jenckes left his only gun to his son; and William Vincent, who owned two guns, left "my shortest Gunn" to William Jr. The other wills are all silent on the distribution of guns.

It is difficult, therefore, to credit the unsupported statements of historians that "the callused hand of the pioneering settler cradled a musket as easily as a pitchfork, and military training of a sort was nearly as much a part of his diet as salt pork." 101 Contrary to the popular perception which imagines all settlers as hunters as well as farmers, the vast majority of those living in the British North American colonies had no use for firearms, which were costly, difficult to locate and maintain, and expensive to use. For those few Americans who did own guns--and the evidence from the militia records is very compelling on this point--a gun was an object which sat gathering rust.

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