Alexander Rose: Three Presidents and The Rifle





[Born in the United States, Alexander Rose was raised in Australia and Britain. A military historian and former journalist, he is the author of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, and his writing has appeared in the New York Observer, the Washington Post, Studies in Intelligence, and many other publications. His website is www.alexrose.com. His latest book is American Rifle: A Biography (FSB, 2008).]

Three of our presidents have been particularly fascinated by rifles: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. But all for different reasons.

Washington was what we would call an "early adopter" of rifle technology. As early as the French and Indian War (1754-1763), when he was first baptized into frontier warfare, the young, ambitious officer owned his own rifle. This was at a time when few, apart from frontiersmen, even knew what one was.

In 1775, for instance, as well-informed a gentleman as John Adams mentioned to his wife Abigail that he had recently heard about a "peculiar" kind of gun that had "grooves within the barrel, and [carried] a ball with great exactness over great distances."

Muskets -- which, unlike rifles, were smooth-bored, short-range, and monstrously inaccurate weapons -- were all that he knew. Yet we find a New-York Mercury story reporting some twenty years earlier that somewhere in the wilderness one then-obscure "Col. Washington," accompanied by rifle-armed "woodsmen," was energetically hunting down French-backed Indian raiders.

But why the rifle? Why Washington's insistence on carrying one in battle (and purchasing several more -- specially customized, of course -- for hunting)? Originally, it was because rifles were better suited than muskets for frontier fighting, which favored fleety, camouflaged, loosely organized bands of men traveling light and adeptly using trees, ravines, and rocks to pick their targets and snipe at the enemy. Washington was nothing if not a practical man.

But he was also one keenly sensitive to symbolism, and by the time of the Revolution the rifle was famed as the fabled arm of frontiersmen -- even if poor John Adams remained as bemused as ever. Washington's call for the backcountry riflemen of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to join him besieging the British in Boston in the summer of 1775 was designed to impress and inspire his musket-armed New Englanders with the frontiersmen's "American" qualities: doughty individualism, rugged self-reliance, and an independent spirit determined to defend hearth and home.

Rifles, it would nevertheless turn out, were not ideal for the type of army-versus-army warfare that dominated much of the War and so played little overall role in it, but Washington was more interested in what they meant (or symbolized) than in what they did (or performed, in other words).

Lincoln was precisely the opposite. He had no idea what rifles "meant", but he was fascinated by what they did and how they worked. Lincoln's, unlike Washington's, was a mechanical mind.

As early as 1855, he was keeping abreast of firearms developments. He knew, for instance, from his treasured copy of that year's Annual of Scientific Discovery, of the debate between advocates of the new breechloaders (which were charged through an opening behind the barrel and above the trigger) and those of traditional muzzleloaders. One of his colleagues from his youth, Henry Clay Whitney, recalled his friend's insatiable inquisitiveness. While on the road they usually stopped at a local farmhouse for dinner, where Lincoln would obtain some "machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over . . . If he could make a practical test of it, he would do that; he would turn it over or around and stoop down, or lie down, if necessary, to look under it; he would examine it closely, then stand off and examine it at a little distance; he would shake it, lift it, roll it about, up-end it, overset it, and thus ascertain every quality and utility which inhered in it."

During the Civil War, Lincoln would invite arms designers to the White House and take them outside to his makeshift shooting range at the bottom of the lawn where he try out their products. Sometimes, he even overruled his own ordnance experts and requested that they purchase several thousand of the latest experimental rifles.

Lincoln was neither a ballistician nor a designer nor even a good shot (one of his bullets went astray and crashed through Mrs. Grady's window overlooking 15th Street, flying through her parlor and lodging itself in the opposite wall). To him, rifles were practical instruments of war that symbolized nothing. This was a typically mid-century American conception of technology: Man was an ingenious inventor of tools that served specific purposes.

By Theodore Roosevelt's day, at century's turn, finding such simple joy in the mechanics of things was fast disappearing. Many people were growing alarmed at the increasing dominance of industrialization in their lives; some feared that with the rise of "scientific management" (also known as Taylorism) in the factories, workers were actually being turned into machines themselves for the sake of efficiency and profit. The essence of humanity was as stake.

Roosevelt thought such concerns overblown. What alarmed him more was that, as he saw it, the very spirit of "American-ness" was being eroded by such social factors as immigration. He intended to use the rifle to reinvigorate the concept. The weapon he played a role in forging was the Springfield Model 1903, which he proclaimed would be an all-American one made on modern Taylorite principles. He himself would use one as his personal hunting arm, and the entire army was issued with them. (At the time, the dispirited military was using a Norwegian piece, the Krag-Jorgensen.) Magnificently manufactured and enjoying the highest standards of performance, the rifle represented American prowess, power, and confidence in the future. For the president, therefore, what his rifle meant mattered as much as what it did.

In Roosevelt's Springfield, the symbolism of Washington and the practicality of Lincoln finally merged into what would become the first of the modern American rifles. An old book (Brown's Story of Ordnance in the World War, published in 1920) I read while writing my own, American Rifle: A Biography, summed it up perfectly: "It is amazing to consider how deeply national characteristics are imbedded in mechanical design." Quite so.

©2008 Alexander Rose

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