The Gunning of America

Business and the Making of American Gun Culture


By Pamela Haag

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Americans have always loved guns. This special bond was forged during the American Revolution and sanctified by the Second Amendment. It is because of this exceptional relationship that American civilians are more heavily armed than the citizens of any other nation.

Or so we’re told.

In The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag overturns this conventional wisdom. American gun culture, she argues, developed not because the gun was exceptional, but precisely because it was not: guns proliferated in America because throughout most of the nation’s history, they were perceived as an unexceptional commodity, no different than buttons or typewriters.

Focusing on the history of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, one of the most iconic arms manufacturers in America, Haag challenges many basic assumptions of how and when America became a gun culture. Under the leadership of Oliver Winchester and his heirs, the company used aggressive, sometimes ingenious sales and marketing techniques to create new markets for their product. Guns have never “sold themselves”; rather, through advertising and innovative distribution campaigns, the gun industry did. Through the meticulous examination of gun industry archives, Haag challenges the myth of a primal bond between Americans and their firearms.

Over the course of its 150 year history, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company sold over 8 million guns. But Oliver Winchester-a shirtmaker in his previous career-had no apparent qualms about a life spent arming America. His daughter-in-law Sarah Winchester was a different story. Legend holds that Sarah was haunted by what she considered a vast blood fortune, and became convinced that the ghosts of rifle victims were haunting her. She channeled much of her inheritance, and her conflicted conscience, into a monstrous estate now known as the Winchester Mystery House, where she sought refuge from this ever-expanding army of phantoms.

In this provocative and deeply-researched work of narrative history, Haag fundamentally revises the history of arms in America, and in so doing explodes the clichéthat have created and sustained our lethal gun culture.




           Whatever a man makes is always a thought before it is a material thing. This is true of all things—from a pin, to an empire.

           —William Comstock, Plans for Suburban and Country Homes, 1893

WE THINK OF THE GUN OWNER AND THE SHOOTEREITHER TO regulate or to glorify—and not of the people who make the gun. We remember John Wayne, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, and Al Capone, not the men who patented and manufactured their rifles, pistols, and submachine guns. We might think of the National Rifle Association, Columbine, or Charlton Heston, but not of the Remington brothers gathered around their roll-top desk, or Samuel Colt lobbying with champagne parties on the political frontier at Washington, DC’s, Willard Hotel, or a time-motion man walking through the Winchester factory in the early 1900s, meticulously documenting the “Sum of Movements” required to make a cartridge (“place 8 trays on truck and take to machine=.013 seconds; Polish=0.140 . . . ”). Insofar as the gun business is imagined at all, it tends to be imagined in its pre-Revolutionary craft phase: a gunsmith, at a bench, with an anvil. A National Review reporter in 2013 confessed bewilderment at the Remington plant in Ilion, New York. In his imagination, he had half expected to see a gunsmith.1

The gun business, as a business, remains invisible, a secret in the closet of the gun culture. Although guns are bought every day, in locations from Walmart to gun shows, we imagine a gun “owner,” not a gun “consumer”: In America, we don’t buy guns, we have guns. We own them.

What sort of men made the guns that made the gun culture? Men who weren’t inordinately or single-mindedly interested in guns, for one thing. The gun-industrial elite did not aspire to invent a gun, per se. Not Eli Whitney, who moved from nails to hat pins to a government musket contract that allowed him to keep his workforce employed and machines running; not Eliphalet Remington, a poet, pacifist, and a deeply religious man who would not shoot a gun on Sundays and wanted to be remembered by a tree that grew near his home; not Christopher Spencer, who went from silk to guns and back to silk; not Samuel Colt, who after his traveling laughing-gas tour and his bankruptcy and failure at making guns in Paterson, New Jersey, ventured into submarine battery prototypes before returning to the revolver. And not Oliver Winchester, who might as easily have been the men’s shirt king as the rifle king. They were all, in Colt’s terms, principally dedicated simply to “making something to sell.”2

Even when they were making guns, they were not steadfastly enchanted with their product. While his letters exude feeling for the cotton gin, a lover stolen away by southern patent violators and pilferers, Whitney seemed to tolerate the musket contract as a means to an end: resolving his ever-looming “pecuniary embarrassment.” He wrote to his dear friend Josiah Stebbins that he was a “poor forlorn bachelor—making guns yet.” Daniel B. Wesson’s future father-in-law thought little of Wesson’s gun pursuits, convinced that his daughter had made a wretched match. Winchester described the rifle, with abrading empiricism, as “a machine made to throw balls.”3

The majority of the first gun industrialists started off middling and ambitious. They had some resources, in family capital and kin, and they relied upon them for their reputations, their social and political connections, their boards of directors, their capital, and their maintenance of family control. Colt routinely pled to his father, Christopher Colt, a silk merchant, for more funds, and in 1837 Christopher advised Samuel to try another relative, his Aunt Foot, for money in exchange for stock, saying that he should “confine [the loan] to ONE of our family connections.” Daniel Wesson’s father was an artisan and merchant in the shoe business, and Horace Smith’s father a carpenter by trade. Winchester had a long if not entirely distinguished pedigree, and it does seem as if things should have been easier for him. Oliver was descended from John Winchester, who had arrived in 1636 as a “pioneer of the new world.” Six generations later, Oliver and his twin brother—the last of their father’s eleven children, and the product of his third marriage—were thrown upon their own circumstances almost from birth in 1810: their father died when they were still infants.4

What all these men lacked in heated passion for the gun, they had for family control and ambition, self-invention, and the business of industry, whatever its object. “To do my business thoroughly is, I must confess, a passion with me,” Colt wrote. Winchester asked only, of any request, “Will it interfere with Company work?” Their gun empires were at first and then for some time closely held—not only legally, as corporations, but in an almost metaphysical sense. The family name was the gun name; the family’s fate and the gun’s fate, the same.5

The American gun capitalists were a tight-knit group of competitors as well; it is curious to think how the mass production of such a culturally momentous commodity began with a small knot of intimate rivals. They sued each other, poached each other’s ideas and workers, and sometimes admired each other’s superior political skills (Colt praised one rival gunmaker as an “intriguer”). They were not above collaborating with each other: Winchester checked with Colt when he needed a new foreman. Colt wrote to Whitney in 1846, asking if he remembered a certain gentleman who had exhibited “specimens of a steel rifle barrel in Washington & endevered [sic] to get a contract from Government.” The gentleman, Whitney responded, was Mr. “Remmington [sic].”6

Aside from Whitney, who attended Yale, the men who made the guns that made the gun culture had little, if any, formal education. “I wish that you would so write English that I could show the letters,” his ever-censorious cousin Dudley Selden advised Colt, who was an atrocious speller. “Buy a dictionary,” he added. Spencer attended formal schooling only for a twelve-week session in 1848; Wesson and Smith were apprenticed, as a shoemaker and carpenter, respectively. Corralled by dire necessity onto the family farm near Brookline, Massachusetts, Oliver Winchester attended school only during the bone-chilling winters, and only for a short time.7

What mostly interested all of them were manufacturing methods, mechanical elegance, and machines. They didn’t love guns, but they were enamored of the machines that could make them. For the brief time that Oliver Winchester was in school, he would have learned the arithmetical art of reduction. Schoolchildren’s copybooks brimmed with occasions to take a deceptively indivisible whole—a number, a unit of time, an object, or a motion—and reduce it into smaller, measurable parts, or to take small parts and aggregate them, reckoning a whole. “How many inches in 3 furlongs and 58 yards? . . . What will ten pairs of shoes cost at 25s 6 d. a pair? . . . How many seconds since the creation of the world?” Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans cultivated “minds accustomed to [definite] calculations.” We were a zealously “guessing, reckoning, estimating and calculating” lot. If Winchester’s gun had an early intellectual muse, it might have been this perceptual skill, which was also a prerequisite to the industrial age. Out of his sparse classroom schooling, the lessons of reduction must have settled deeply into his way of seeing and thinking.8

Like the vanguard computer-technology elite of the late twentieth century, the industrial elite of the nineteenth had a distinct worldview and character. If it could be used descriptively rather than pejoratively or diagnostically, the term “sociopathy” might apply, to connote, in its literal meaning, a disordering of social conscience, out of which a new social conscience emerged. The new order was more limited and circumscribed than the previous one. It was governed by the clean boundaries of contracts and the narrower view of empathy, mutual obligation, and accountability that contracts invited. A Whitney biographer once wondered why Whitney seemed never to take a stand on the social issues tied to his inventions, including slavery and the emergence of an industrial order with ambivalent effects on society. She concluded that Whitney had adopted a stance of “reasoned inaction,” choosing not to see. Like other industrialists in the new regime, he tended to the “rituals of ethics” and the scrupulous observation of “contractual obligations,” but ignored the larger, more nebulous ethical milieu. The essence of the free market, governed by contracts, is to specify obligations and relationships, not to generalize them. This specificity gave order to new obligations and new freedoms, but it also dictated a more circumscribed sense of conscientious obligation. The gun industrialists had a modern wariness, distrust, and skepticism about humanity—“Mankind generally are not to be depended on,” Whitney casually asserted. It was a wariness that attuned Colt, at least, to his gun’s potential market: “The good people of this wirld [sic],” he wrote, “are very far from being satisfied with each other, & my arms are the best peacemakers.”9

Empiricists in their souls, Winchester and the other gun industrialists had little interest in the fretful tracking of spiritual consequences in their everyday pursuits. They were not bound by culture or law to ruminate on what their doing did in the world. Thomas Carlyle, a Cassandra against the machine and its empiricism, named and denounced the “Age of the Machine” in his influential 1829 essay “Signs of the Times.” Mechanization, he said, brought detail into sharp focus, but blurred the world beyond. How would this affect a man’s soul, or his perceptions? Carlyle passionately articulated the common concern that men would grow “mechanical in head and heart.” The mechanical would all but eclipse the “dynamical” realm of “the spontaneous, the imaginative, the mysterious springs of love, fear and wonder.” A supporter of the machine age aptly summarized its detractors’ position: they saw mechanization, he said, as “circumscribing the view” and making men “insensible to perceptions of beauty and truth.”10

But the gun-industrial elite’s success began, and then persisted, on a unique double sense of sight—a sensibility that was at once intensely circumscribed and expansive. The gunmakers could “vision the future,” Colt said in a letter, inventing a verb while trying to sell guns to Brigham Young. They may have had vision, but Winchester and his competitors were also meticulously empirical. Like their founder, Whitney, they did not go “quixotting” about impractically, as an 1850 advice manual put it. Whitney and the others avoided the “common failing” of inventive mechanics, that of an “ardent imagination and extravagant expectations” without pragmatism. They sought the juncture of intangible vision and tangible profit.11

BUT THIS IS NOT HOW THE GUN INDUSTRIALISTS ARE REMEMBERED, when they are remembered at all. The capitalists whose names the guns still bear were feverish to invent a gun, say the myths, and their guns came from the muse of artistry rather than ambition, creativity rather than the market. Eliphalet Remington “just wanted to make a better rifle” for himself when his father refused to buy him one, and then his neighbors clamored for him to make more. Remington’s origin story was actually typed out laboriously in 1873 on the first Remington typewriter to be manufactured, passed down through the family, and solidified in headlines such as “Ragged Boy Wanted to Shoot Partridges: His Desire Brought World-Wide Changes in War and Peace,” and “Boy’s Desire for Gun Saved Ilion.” Remington “was not seeking great wealth,” the legend holds. Samuel Colt was seized by the image of a revolver from a ship’s wheel in 1830 while sailing on the Corlo to Calcutta, in a kind of immaculate conception, and then “whittled his way to millions”; and Oliver Winchester is persistently misremembered as the inventor of the rifle that bears his name, rather than its financier and manufacturer, when his contribution to invention was Patent #5421 (1848) for an improved men’s shirt collar that “remedied the evil” of the too-tight neck band. He never owned a gun before he made a personal and corporate fortune producing them. Had there been more future potential in it, Oliver Winchester might have been the men’s shirt-collar king and not the rifle king.12

The gun industrialists are cast as besieged and single-mindedly obsessed. Edward Dickerson, Colt’s faithful lawyer—almost more like a spouse—earned his money in Colt’s patent trial against the Massachusetts Arms Company on poetic hyperbole. Here was Colt, who had toiled incessantly as the only true believer in his invention, with a passion and ambition that only a man of “ingenuity” and genius could feel. Colt “plants the seed, . . . the fruit is just ripe, he sees the market opening before him . . . he is just about to . . . take it, when the infringer steps between him and the prize,” and, what is worse, the infringer is a “corporation [the Colt’s company would be one, too] . . . a being that can have no merit as an inventor. They can only be purchasers of the ingenuity of others.”13

Colt was fashioned as a lone inventor rather than a “mere capitalist,” corporate warrior, savvy self-promoter, and businessman in the new order. It was not the case that Colt and Winchester invented nothing, but the invention for which they are almost never praised today is the one they truly and ingeniously came up with: the gun market, not the gun itself, which had a densely tangled provenance and many ancestors. They envisioned markets where they were currently hypothetical or hazy at best; they were on the leading edge of advertising, mass distribution, and an understanding of market segmentation (Colt probably coined the phrase “new and improved”); they established modern distribution and sales networks to move guns throughout the country; and they understood that their success depended on self-promotion. Colt’s advances in machine production, and the “relentless and brilliant promotional war he waged on multiple fronts to create markets and move the product,” were both more important than anything he did in gun invention, concluded a Colt expert. Other gun experts, writing largely for fellow gun devotees, have emphasized that Colt understood the “necessity of creating demand through aggressive promotion.” As for Winchester, he was no “gentleman merchant,” said a biographer, but “a master of product and self-promotion with a tad of flimflam thrown in,” whose efforts were directed at “building up a market” for his product. He was especially skilled, as we will see, at manipulating the corporate universe, very much its maestro rather than its victim. Popular literature in earlier times tended to celebrate the marketing and promotional genius of the gun industrialists. This all changed with the emergence of modern gun-control politics in the late 1960s.14

Legends and partisan apocrypha are often wound around aspects of the American gun, and from any political point of view. In this case, and as this chapter and the next will explore, the image of the lone gun inventor occludes the industry’s complex reliance in its founding years on federal government capital, patronage, guaranteed markets, and armories. In these collaborative contexts, at the industry’s beginnings, ideas on interchangeability and design were incubated. The inventor toiling alone with his mad creation also occludes the tangled, collective ownership of gun ideas and technology that the patent system, which transformed ideas into property, could only poorly digest. The legend obscures even the existence of the gun business as a business, focusing instead on the creative muse.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the gun industry that the legend masks is a certain banality or unexceptionalism at the heart of the business in its formative years. The metaphor of the American gun in twenty-first-century politics is exceptionalism: guns have always had a special place in American society, they enjoy an exceptional legal status, and they are prized possessions rather than mere commodities, once and always beloved historically. We could be forgiven if we imagine that guns sprang fully formed from the head of the Second Amendment itself. But the metaphor of the gun, historically, and especially as revealed from the vantage point of the gun as a business, is more accurately a metaphor of interchangeability, not exceptionalism. Interchangeability describes the method of the gun’s mass production as well as the gun industrialists’ feeling toward the gun: for them, it was one thing to make, and sell, among other possibilities, a business fueled more by the inner drive of generic ambition than specific passion for firearms. And as the gun moved out of the crucible of the federal government—a martial one—into its commercial phase, the same terminology could describe the gun’s status in law, policy, and economy: it was interchangeable with other commodities being produced, and treated as no more or less exceptional than the others. Much of our gun culture comes from this legacy of interchangeability—the gun’s non-exceptionalism.

IN THE 1790S, DURING THE FIRST, CRAFT PHASE OF THE AMERICAN gun business, the United States had a gun problem, but of another sort—it did not have enough of them. It had been undergunned in the Revolutionary War, and it was still undergunned. The Blair Report on the colonies’ military preparedness in 1756 concluded that the “militia amounts to about 36,000 but not above half that number are armed.” The guns that did exist were of a “miscellaneous character,” a magazine for sportsmen later noted, and many were “cranky and imperfect.” Many patriots had broken weapons or weapons that were nearly useless. Even the best were hard to use. They were heavy, ungainly, and encumbered by accoutrements ranging from ramrods and powder horns to bullet molds. Many were badly balanced and had to be rested on forked sticks when used. Guns were produced laboriously, one at a time, as requested. Curiously, an expert on colonial guns noted that as the Revolutionary War began, guns were especially scarce on the frontier, just where one might have expected them to be most plentiful and a household staple. The governor of Rhode Island, writing to George Washington in January 1776, said that, as for many years the colonists had “thought themselves in a perfect state of security,” they had “disposed of their arms so generally” that the colony was effectively “disarmed.”15

George Washington had noted the “scarcity of gunsmiths” as well as guns at the start of the war. In the colonial era, gunsmiths entered the trade as apprentices through one of several pathways, including family ties, indentured servitude, the Overseers of the Poor, or the Orphan’s Court. The man who would become the public armorer for Massachusetts Bay during the Revolutionary War, Richard Falley, was captured by Native Americans at Fort Edward, New York, as a young man. He was taken to Montreal, where a woman purchased him for sixteen gallons of rum. She then sent him off to Massachusetts, where he became a gunsmith’s apprentice. However men arrived in the gun trade, they began to learn what apprentice contracts called “the Art and Mystery of a Gunsmith.”16

To be a gunsmith was, most often, to be other things as well. Antique gun experts have noted that there was simply not enough volume of business for gunsmiths to specialize in one gun part, or to make only guns. Most ran larger blacksmith and whitesmith cottage industries. George McGunnigle advertised in Pennsylvania that in addition to gunsmithing he made “locks, keyes, hinges of all sorts, pipe tomahawks, scalping knives, boxes and pins for vizes, grates, polished and unpolished, and iron shovels, tongs and pokers; chafing dishes, bread toasters, ladles, skimmers, flesh forks and skewers, with all kinds of iron work for a kitchen; currying combs, plate, saddles trees; . . . curbing and pincing tongs; rupture belts; grinds swords, razors, scissors, and pen knives.” He later advertised in the Pittsburgh Gazette that he also made “bed screws and branding irons” and, apparently bored with his own list, “several other pieces of business in the white smith line, too tedious to mention.” From the perspective of business, the gun belonged to the genus of other ordinary, needful domestic objects and tools that artisans could produce. Another gunsmith advertised, characteristically, that he was a repairer of “Household and Kitchen Furniture and any sort of mending in brass or iron works.”17

These gunsmiths made guns, one at a time, for distinct markets, referred to as the “indian, civilian and publick.” Meeting the demand for public arms production was a struggle in the Revolution (and the United States would find itself undergunned at the start of the Civil War, too). Renowned historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase “gun culture,” writing at a time of increased gun violence in 1970, and inferred its existence from the militia experience. But among the gun markets during the colonial years, one could argue that the most robust candidates for a true “gun culture” were those Native American societies that had been monumentally transformed by the lucrative fur trade. In these societies, the gun achieved diffusion, consequence, and mystique, transforming everything from gender relations to hunting techniques to spiritual beliefs.18

When the Revolutionary War began, “patriot gunsmiths” accepted Committee of Safety contracts to produce arms for their colonies. As for the less patriotic, Pennsylvania resolved that if gunsmiths in Lancaster County refused to make arms when asked to do so, “at the Philadelphia prices, such gun-smiths shall have their names inserted in the minutes of this committee as enemies to their country, and published as such,” and their tools would be confiscated. New York was compelled to send a Thomas Blockley to England to recruit and import gunsmiths, defray the expense of their “removal,” and pay their way over. They instructed Blockley to find as many sober, unmarried, and prudent men with the requisite gunsmithing tools as could fit in the small room that would accommodate them.19

No two guns were alike, the gunsmithing craft held, but in battle there was no advantage to uniqueness. Damage to one part of a gun made the gun useless until a gunsmith or armorer could fit a new piece specifically for it. A war chronicle describes the fractured, pokey process of keeping muskets in working condition. One county committee paid for “fetching 20 guns from John Carpenter to Waters, the Gunsmith,” and then payment of 14 pounds to Waters for “repairing Guns.” Other men were paid for making arms chests, or for the carriage and delivery of newly repaired arms to colonels.20

The continental army actually relied on commercial intrigue in Europe to arm itself. Among others who went on such expeditions, Silas Deanne, a Connecticut lawyer and storekeeper, was sent to the court of Louis XVI by the Continental Congress. The king’s foreign minister, Vergennes, was secretly sympathetic to the American colonists, as was Vergennes’ confidant (and France’s leading dramatist), Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who wrote the Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. With the king’s consent, Vergennes connived to have the prized 1763 pattern Charleville musket declared obsolete, so that 30,000 of them could be disposed of. At the same time, Beaumarchais and Deanne organized a firm called Hortalez & Company, favored by large loans, to buy 23,000 of the suddenly obsolete Charleville muskets for the American rebels.21

IN THE 1790S, WAR CLOUDS LOOMED ONCE MORE, AND THE COUNTRY still had to continue its “disgraceful resort to foreign markets” to secure guns, decried Eli Whitney’s old tutor, Elizur Goodrich. Although the government did manage to secure gun shipments from some of the more advanced European gunsmiths, many were seized by ruthless privateers and pirates roaming the coastal waters. Those prized Charleville muskets were already ancient and obsolete. And the government still had only a limited number of private smiths to meet the public need. After the Revolutionary War, many gunsmiths had gone back to more profitable crafts. One man, Balthasar Smith, for example, who had run a gun-powder mill during the war, converted it into a cooper and coffin shop afterward.22

Congress went to work, establishing the Springfield Armory, to produce “a good and efficient magazine for the reception of the public ammunition,” in Massachusetts in 1794, and Harpers Ferry, in West Virginia, in 1798. The Springfield Armory sat on an elevated plot about half a mile east of the village of Springfield. It consisted of a two-story brick building with eight rooms, which were occupied by lock filers, stockers, and finishers; a brick-forging shop; and another two-story building with storage and offices on the ground floor and a second story devoted to religious services and prayer. Armory gunsmiths were as happily irregular as their guns. They worked at their own pace. They came and went as they pleased, took frequent holidays, and kept their tools as an informal fee-simple inheritance for their work. They drank hard liquor and left their stations to gamble, gossip, and roughhouse. Harpers Ferry was a quirky, incestuous enclave where two families controlled the land and advanced their own and their friends’ private interests through public funds. Armory gunsmiths produced guns just as they would in their own shops: by hand, one at a time, at a bench, on an anvil.23


  • "In her remarkable new book, The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag undercuts much of the charged rhetoric about the importance of firearms in the nation's culture and history with a richly sourced, empirical look at the 19th century origins of the gun business and the men who made it."
    Boston Globe
  • "[An] inspired new book... Haag's book is strongest when it upends the belief that America has had an uninterrupted love affair with guns."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "[A] fascinating exploration of the major businesses and families that have manufactured firearms--and manufactured the seductiveness of firearms--in this country over the past 150 years."—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post
  • "A revealing new account of the origins of America's gun industry."—New York Review of Books
  • "[A] fascinating account.... Both convincingly argued and eminently readable, Haag's book will intrigue readers on all sides of the gun control debate."—Publishers Weekly, "starred review"
  • "In her masterful The Gunning of America, Pamela Haag furnishes a salutary corrective to the perception of the gun's inevitability in American life by showing its history as a commodity invented and then deliberately marketed and distributed like any other widget or household appliance.... [A] beautifully composed and meticulously researched volume."—New Republic
  • "Pamela Haag has accomplished a rare feat. She combines wonderful storytelling with a serious analysis of the firearms business to reveal how the Winchester Repeating Arms Company taught Americans to love guns."—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University
  • "Pamela Haag has written a very smart book, deeply researched, original, provocative. The compelling narrative makes a powerful argument about the origins of America's gun culture."—John Mack Faragher, Howard R. Lamar Professor of History, Yale University

On Sale
Apr 19, 2016
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

Pamela Haag

About the Author

Pamela Haag holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. Her work on a diverse range of topics has appeared in many venues such as American Scholar, NPR, Slate, and the Times (London).

Learn more about this author