Critics Comment on Bellesiles's Defense


Bellesiles’s Weighed in an Even Balance suffers from the same problem that Arming America did: he seems to have a problem reading simple English and understanding it.  Unfortunately, it is Bellesiles’s own writing now that he misreads, not historical documents.  Oddly, Bellesiles repeatedly quotes his critics—but fails to cite where these criticisms appeared.  Is Bellesiles accurately quoting these criticisms?  Did anyone even make some of these criticisms, at least in the form that Bellesiles presents them?  I do not know.  At least Arming America was filled with citations—citations that Bellesiles clearly did not expect anyone to check.

Rather than engage in a lengthy analysis of Bellesiles’s misrepresentation of his own book, let me settle for just one very gross example.  It is an adequate proxy for the accuracy and honesty of the rest of the book.

17 Early Gun Laws


“Completely ignored are laws requiring gun ownership.”


These laws are discussed in Arming America, as is the dissatisfaction of various governments with the result. See for instance, pages 75–80 and 229–39. It is worth noting that those who make this charge seem to work on the assumption that a law must become reality; if the state orders the purchase of a gun, the people respond by buying one. That may have been the case, but evidence is required in support of this position.[1]


I don’t know that anyone has claimed that Bellesiles “[c]ompletely ignored” laws requiring gun ownership.  Bellesiles’s discussion of colonial militia laws with respect to gun ownership is simply wrong.  Let me emphasize: Bellesiles’s error is not derived from assuming, “if the state orders the purchase of a gun, the people respond by buying one.”  Bellesiles’s error is that he makes a very clear statement about what the colonial militia laws said, and his own sources—at the page numbers he lists—either say nothing that supports his claim, or more commonly, directly contradict him.

Bellesiles contends that because the royal government did not provide “anywhere near sufficient numbers of guns,” the Colonial governments were handed the responsibility by England.  The Colonial governments in turn ordered freemen to own guns, but didn't trust them to actually possess them:

Few freemen welcomed this duty, and fewer still could afford firearms, so it became necessary for governments to supply them, with laws passed to effect that purpose.  At the same time, legislators feared that gun-toting freemen might, under special circumstances, pose a threat to the very polity that they were supposed to defend.  Colonial legislatures therefore strictly regulated the storage of firearms, with weapons kept in some central place, to be produced only in emergencies or on muster day, or loaned to individuals living in outlying areas.  They were to remain the property of the government.  The Duke of York's first laws for New York required that each town have a storehouse for arms and ammunition.  Such legislation was on the books of colonies from New Hampshire to South Carolina.[2]


The list of citations to back up that claim is impressive—until you start to read the sources that Bellesiles cites as evidence.  A detailed examination of all the errors would run to many pages, so let us examine a single claim in Bellesiles paragraph quoted above: that every colony required guns to be kept centrally stored, because the colonial governments mistrusted armed freemen.

Bellesiles cites Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina1:10-12, but those pages say nothing that supports his claim about central storehouses or mistrusted freemen.  Those pages direct storage of gunpowder “sent by the Lord Proprietors for the use and defense of this Province” and require “all, and every person and persons now in this Colony” to “appeare in armes ready fitted in their severall Companies….”  All gunsmiths in the colony were obligated “to worke up and fitt all and every Gun or Guns which he shall find in his Company not well and sufficiently fitted for service.”[3]

Bellesiles cites Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:397, 417-19 in his claim about mistrusted and disarmed colonists, but those pages directly contradict his claim.  Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:397 says nothing about guns, ammunition, or militia at all; it is a 1735 statute about the status of slaves.  Later in that statute there are pages that Bellesiles does not cite that authorize searches of slave quarters for guns, and requiring any “negro or slave” to have a license to possess a gun, but these are explicitly to disarm slaves, not freemen.[4]

At Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:417-19 is a 1743 statute similar to those of Virginia and New England, requiring “every white male inhabitant of this Province, (except travelers and such persons as shall be above sixty years of age,) who [are] liable to bear arms in the militia of this Province… shall, on any Sunday or Christmas day in the year, go and resort to any church or any other public place of divine worship within this Province, and shall not carry with him a gun or a pair of horse-pistols… with at least six charges of gun-powder and ball, and shall not carry the same into the church or other place of divine worship as aforesaid” would be fined twenty shillings.  Other provisions required church-wardens, deacons, or elders to check each man coming in, to make sure that he was armed.

The stated purpose of this severe gun control measure—requiring everyone to be armed—was “for the better security of this Province against the insurrections and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other Slaves….”  There is nothing in these pages that shows a distrust of freemen, and nothing that required guns to be kept in central storehouses.[5]

Bellesiles cites Strachey’s For the Colony in Virginea Britannia, 9-25—but the only discussion of arms on those pages is an order that anyone that robs the “store of any commodities therein… whether provisions of victuals, or of Arms… shall bee punished with death.”[6]  There are no rules or regulations concerning storage of guns of any sort.

Bellesiles cites Tyler’s Narratives of Early Virginia, 273, but that page fails to demonstrate any worry about an armed population, or any requirement to store guns in central storehouses.  Instead, it shows a 1619 statute that required everyone to attend church on the Sabbath, “and all suche as beare armes shall bring their pieces, swords, pouder and shotte.”  Those failing to bring their guns were subject to a three shilling fine.[7]  If the colonial government required guns to be centrally stored, only issuing them during emergencies and at muster, why fine people for failing to show up with guns at church?

Bellesiles cites Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 321-22, but these pages say nothing to support this claim of disarmed and distrusted colonists.  There are requirements that soldiers on duty be adequately armed, a list of military goods that prospective colonists were to bring (including a gun “5 or 5 ½’ long near musket bore”), and a list of weapons sent over from the Tower of London in 1622, “short pistols with fire locks—300,” “arquebusses—300….”[8]  Nothing on these two pages supports Bellesiles’s claim that the population was not trusted with guns.

Bellesiles cites Hening’s Statutes at Large 2:304, 405, but these do not support his claim.  At 2:304 is a 1673 order for militia captains to “take a strict and perticuler account of what armes and ammunition are wanting in their severall companies and troops….”  The county courts were empowered to tax the population “for the providing of armes and ammunition for supplying the wants aforesaid, that is to say, muskitts and swords for the ffoote, and pistols, swords and carbines for horse….”  In short, guns were to be purchased for those who did not have them.  The militia officers were to keep these arms “for them to dispose of the same as there shalbe occasion; and that those to whome distribution shalbe made doe pay for the same at a reasonable rate….”[9]  Why would you distribute guns to militiamen, and demand payment, if the guns were kept in a government storehouse?  None of the sources that Bellesiles cites for V irginia match his claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists.

In Maryland, Bellesiles cites Archives of Maryland 3:103—but this is a 1642 law that required, “That all housekeepers provide fixed gunn and Sufficient powder and Shott for each person able to bear arms.”[10]  This is evidence of disarmed and distrusted colonists? 

For New York, Bellesiles cites the Duke of York’s “Military Affaires” statute.  That law did provide that “Every Town shall be provided of a Sufficient ware house and a Safe convenient place thereunto Adjoyning for keeping Powder and Ammunition.…”  The warehouse was to contain powder, bullets, and match, but the statute Bellesiles cites says nothing about any guns to be so stored, and certainly nothing about requiring militia arms to be stored there.

Bellesiles’s claim of disarmed and distrusted freemen is directly contradicted on those same pages he cites: “Besides the Generall stock of each Town Every Male within this government from Sixteen to Sixty years of age, or not freed by public Allowance, shall[,] if freeholders at their own, if sons or Servants[,] at their Parents and Masters Charge and Cost, be furnished from time to time and so Continue well furnished with Arms and other Suitable Provition hereafter mentioned: under the penalty of five Shillings for the least default therein[:] Namely a good Serviceable Gun, allowed Sufficient by his Military Officer to be kept in Constant fitness for present Service” along with all the other equipment required in the field.[11]  You were required to have a gun for yourself, if you were a freeholder, and supply one to your sons and servants.  That does not sound like guns kept in central storehouses at all—quite the opposite.

Bellesiles also cites Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York 6:54, but the only reference to guns on that page is an order that “Arms from on Board Captain Garrison &c be a Committee to make a Closet Opposite to the one Lately made in the Common Councill Chamber for the use of the City Arms.”[12]  While unclear, it appears that public arms, recently arrived by ship, were to be stored in the council chambers.  There is nothing that indicates that private arms were similarly stored, or required to be stored.

Bellesiles cites Bartlett’s Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1:79-80, 94, 223-34, as evidence for this mistrust of the population with guns, and once again, Bellesiles’s own sources contradict him.  Pages 1:79-80 directed that an earlier order “for every man to have so much powder, and so many bullets, and so the forwarning is to stand still in force; and also that every man do come armed unto the meeting upon every sixth day” with orders for militia officers to go to “to every inhabitant [in Portsmouth and] see whether every one of them has powder” and bullets.[13]  Guns were not centrally stored—you were required to bring them to public meetings.

Bellesiles's citation to Barlett, 1:94, is a city ordinance: “It is ordered, that noe man shall go two miles from the Towne unarmed, eyther with Gunn or Sword; and that none shall come to any public Meeting without his weapon.”  There was a fine of five shillings for failing to be armed in either circumstance.[14]

Bellesiles cites pages 1:223-34 as evidence for his claim, but only pages 1:224 and 1:226 have anything to say about guns and ammunition.  Page 224 specifies the number of barrels of powder, pikes, and muskets that each town was to keep in its magazine.  There is nothing that indicates that these were privately owned arms, or that there were any restrictions on private gun ownership.  On page 226 there are provisions for determining whether privately owned guns, “his owne proper goods” had been sold to the Indians, but no limitation on private ownership.[15]  Bellesiles cites fourteen pages about Rhode Island for his claim.  Three of those pages directly contradict his claim, and the other eleven say nothing relevant at all.

Bellesiles cites Brigham’s The Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth, 84.  This is a 1646 order that “every Township within this Government before the next October Court… shall provide two sufficient snaphaunces or firelock peeces two swords and two pouches for every thirty men they have in their Towneship… which shalbe ready at all tymes for service….”[16]  Why did they only require towns to store two guns for every thirty men if this was a requirement that all guns be kept in “central storehouses”?  Bellesiles cites one source specific to Plymouth Colony for his claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists—and that source does not support his claim.  There is nothing at this location that requires storage of firearms.

Bellesiles’s footnote concerning central storehouses and a mistrust of an armed population lists Trumbull’s Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1:134, but the only relevant material on that page directs the constables of several towns “to gather up the knapsacks, pouches, powder & bullets, used in the last designe” for safekeeping.  It would appear that “designe” referred to some recent military operation—and significantly, guns were not among the items to be gathered, nor is there any requirement for government storage of guns.[17]

Bellesiles also cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 6:363, but this 1722 order only directs militia majors “to inspect the towns with their several regiments respecting the town stock of ammunition, and take care that the towns be supplied with ammunition according to law.”[18]  There is nothing about central storehouses, and no regulation of gun ownership.  Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 6:406, but on that page is an order that gunpowder should be purchased and stored “for the publick service of the Colony….”[19]  There is nothing at 6:406 limiting gun ownership or storage.

Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 8:386 (in the middle of the 1741 militia statute), but that page only directs the towns to have an adequate supply of ammunition—nothing about guns, either privately or publicly owned.[20]  Other parts of that statute directly contradict Bellesiles, reiterating the earlier Connecticut statutes that required every militiaman “and other house-holder” to have a firelock and ammunition, and to show those at militia musters.[21] 

Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 9:473, 580, but again, there is nothing at those locations to support his claim—only orders that “gunpowder belonging to this Colony” in private storehouses was to be sold, and the money delivered to the Treasurer.[22]  Similarly, Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 14:343, 392, cited by Bellesiles as support for this distrusted and disarmed view of the colonists, says nothing about guns at all.  Instead, these pages have orders for towns to have sufficient supplies of ammunition,[23] and a complaint about Loyalist interference with gunpowder importation just before the Revolution starts.[24] 

Bellesiles cites eight pages specific to Connecticut as evidence for this claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists.  None of the eight pages support his claim, and other parts of those same statutes, require individuals to own and keep guns—and not in central storehouses.

I could go on for many pages, because every colony by the time of the American Revolution had a mandatory gun ownership statute (although many were indifferently obeyed)—but why bother?  I have gathered up images of all the colonial militia statutes on this question at http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html#MilitiaLaws.  I was able to locate seventeen of the nineteen sources (and all of the primary sources) Bellesiles cited to defend his claim that the colonial governments did not trust their freemen with guns, and required guns to be kept locked up in central storehouses, except during militia muster or actual emergency.  Not a one of them supports his claim, and many directly contradict it.

Here’s the sad part: this one footnote is a demonstration that Bellesiles either cannot read, or will not tell the truth.  I found that I could flip Arming America open at random, and find similar examples on almost any page.  If you want to read hundreds of pages of similar examples, read http://www.claytoncramer.com/ArmingAmericaLong.pdf.  If you want a short list of examples using images of the original documents that Bellesiles has misrepresented, read http://www.claytoncramer.com/columbia.18apr01.htm.  This is a presentation that I gave at ColumbiaUniversity the day that Bellesiles received his now-revoked Bancroft Prize for Arming America.  Historians could have avoided a lot of embarrassment on this matter—if the truth mattered.

I am not surprised that Soft Skull Press is prepared to publish the second edition of Arming America.  What disappoints me greatly is that a reputable operation such as Oxford University Press trusts Michael Bellesiles enough that they are going to publish another book by him in 2004.  (If you want to know more about early American gun ownership, you can read the first two chapters of the book that no publisher will touch at http://www.claytoncramer.com/ArmedAmericaTeaser.pdf.

[1] Michael Bellesiles, Weighed in an Even Balance (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2003), 34.

[2] Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2000), 73.

[3] Alexander S. Salley, Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina(Columbia, S.C.: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1907), 1:9-12.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-9.jpg, http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-1011.jpg, and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-1213.jpg .

[4] David J. McCord, Statutes at Large of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnson, 1840), 7:397, 399-400, 404-5.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCStatAtLarge7-397.jpg .

[6] William Strachey, comp., For the Colony in Virginea Britannia: Laws Divine, Morall and Martiall, etc., ed. David H. Flaherty, (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1969), 13.

[7] August 2, 1619, “Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619,” in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907; reprinted New York: Barnes & Noble, 1959), 273.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/NarrEarlyVirginia273.jpg.

[8] Harold L. Peterson, Arms and Armor in Colonial America: 1526-1783 (Harrisburg, Penn.: Stackpole Co., 1956), 321-22.

[9] William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1823), 2:304.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/Hening2-304305.jpg and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/Hening2-404405.jpg.

[10]Archives of Maryland, 3:103.

[11]The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution… (Albany, New York: James B. Lyon, 1894), 1:49-50.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/ColLawNY1-49.jpg and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/ColLawNY1-50.jpg. .

[12] Herbert L. Osgood, ed., Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1905), 6:54.

[13] John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England (Providence, R.I.: A. Crawford Greene and Brother, 1856), 1:79-80.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/RecRI1-7980.jpg.

[16] William Brigham, ed., The Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth… (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1836), 84.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/PlyLaw84.jpg.

[19]Public Records of Connecticut, 6:406.

[21]Public Records of Connecticut, 8:379-83.

[22]Public Records of Connecticut, 9:473, 580.

[23]Public Records of Connecticut, 14:343.

[24]Public Records of Connecticut, 14:392.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Derek Catsam - 12/26/2003

Clayton --
You wrote:"Maybe "Benny Smith" isn't Michael Bellesiles. It is a little odd how detailed his knowledge of the history is for someone who purports to be a database administrator--and he argues in the same character assassination and sophist style as Bellesiles."

Wait a second. Don't you claim to be a "software designer by day and historian by night" or something to that effect? Is it not possible that whoever Benny Smith is does his work as a database administrator by day and does historical work at night? Are you the only one who is not a professional historian but who nonetheless engages in historical work? I am not taking a side here one way or the other -- though I am rather wary of Bellisles after all that has happened myself -- but yours seems a bizarre argument from someone who is himself not a professional historian. And let me be clear -- one does not have to have the PhD to do good historical work. But it is a bit peculiar that you would assert that Benny Smith cannot have a level of knowledge while working in another profession that you have developed while working a different day job. Surely you are not so sui generis, so talented beyond what the rest of us can dream, that you are the only one with such capacities? You've done good and important work, but that doesn't give you the right to overstep.
Character assassination and sophistry indeed.

Tim Lambert - 12/23/2003

I summarise things here, with links


Bryan Haskins - 12/23/2003

I posted the following a moment ago on the page that has Bellesiles' newest defense of his work...

Welcome aboard! It’s nice to see someone other than our elusive Benny Smith come forward to defend Bellesiles.

For Think Tank—I disagree with your assessment that the Second Amendment is a collective right of the state to organize and equip its militia. I would like to offer you some specific reasons why I believe this, and I would like to hear your reasons for your position. However, this is a site devoted to Arming America, and as such it would not be fair to the others here to use it as a forum to discuss the Second Amendment generally. Would you be willing to talk about this issue offline via e-mail? If so, then let me know and I’ll give you my address here. Barbera, you are certainly invited to do the same if you wish to. If you have an opinion on either the individual or collective rights theory, then I would be willing to hear your reasoning as well.

For Think Tank and Barbera Cornett-- In my opinion Bellesiles continues to generalize his defense of his work without discussing the specific problems his critics claim to have found. This has naturally given rise to an impression that he avoids discussion of the specifics because he knows he cannot dispute their veracity. If there are specific charges made by his critics which either of you feel are fraudulent or otherwise without merit, then would you please share them with me? To put it another way, would either of you be willing to discuss the specific allegations of misconduct that have been lodged against Bellesiles?

I say this because I have spent the better part of a year attempting to get Mr. Benny Smith to engage in an actual discussion of the merits of AA. He has refused all my offers, and he merely wishes to forge ahead with his “liar gun hugging liar pants on fire” defense of AA and its author. All I want to do is engage in an amicable discussion with someone who can intelligently argue a position contrary to mine. If either of you would be willing to do so, then please let me know here. Additionally, if you would prefer to do this offline, then let me know and I will provide my e-mail address to you here. I have already done this before, so it is not a risk to me now. If you prefer, I will honor any request to maintain the privacy of any e-mail address you give me to prevent others from learning of it.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/23/2003

Thnink Tank:

My attempts to use these came up with mixed results. The web link comes up with a "not found" message for the page, althought he e-mail seems to work. Can you offer more readily read, independently verifiable, objective evidence one way or the other regarding the "Benny Smith is Michael Bellesiles" theory, or not?

I repear the point I and others have made before: the serious critics of Mr. Bellesiles have signed their names to their work, and they have responded to people who have questioned their assumptions. I am very suspcious of anonymous postings, and give them very little credibility. Generalities won't do, TT.

Charles V. Mutschler

ThinkTank - 12/23/2003

links curtousey of Tim Lamberts Blog

IP address's prove Smith isn't Bellesiles


Josh Greenland - 12/23/2003

Who proved that the Smith is Bellesiles hypothesis is false? Do you have a URL for the website where this great debunking was done?

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/22/2003

I've given several detailed lists of documents that demonstrate that either Bellesiles cannot read, or he is lying. He repeatedly makes claims for the contents of documents that directly contradict him. This was not a rare problem in Arming America. It was rampant. It took me twelve hours of checking Bellesiles's more amazing claims before I found one that was actually correct.

So far, all we have from you is pseudonym saying that I haven't proved anything. I am so impressed.

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/22/2003

Please start demonstrating that I am wrong about Bellesiles's falsehoods. I've given detailed descriptions of the serious problems of misrepresentation. You, hiding behind a pseudonym, haven't done anything but engage in insults.

Maybe "Benny Smith" isn't Michael Bellesiles. It is a little odd how detailed his knowledge of the history is for someone who purports to be a database administrator--and he argues in the same character assassination and sophist style as Bellesiles.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/22/2003

It would be helpful if the person or persons posting as "Think Tank" would provide an article with footnotes showing where Mr. Cramer's errors are. Like many of the other critics of Mr. Bellesiles' work, Mr. Cramer has produced long, well documented papers showing what he have found wrong, and where he found it. this is what some of still understand to be the nature of scholarship.

This is what Mr. Cramer has done. He also has the professionalism to stand behind his research with his real name. This is much more credible than the anonymous postings of someone who comes up with one line sound bites, but no evidence to back up the statements.

As to the "Benny Smith is Bellesiles" thesis - I have no opinion one way or the other. Perhaps you would like to offer us a documented analysis showing why Mr. Cramer is wrong. Oh yes, while I'm asking favors, would it be too much to ask you to use your real name? That would be a far more informative and professional response than the one-liner from a pseudonym.

Charles V. Mutschler

ThinkTank - 12/22/2003

of course who ever held you up to as close a scrutiny as you deserve?

ThinkTank - 12/22/2003

Its not for you to convict a historan of lying. And you have yet to do so.

ThinkTank - 12/22/2003


Clayton E. Cramer - 12/21/2003

Mr. "Smith" says: "I do not believe, as Mr. Cramer apparently does, that the construction of a colonial era firearm was a surprisingly simple task."

Mr. "Smith" is reading what I wrote here about as well as Bellesiles read his primary sources. I didn't say anything about the construction of firearms in the note to which he responds, but about repair of firearms. Go and check what I wrote.

What is a gunsmith? The meaning of the term is somewhat vague in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It included the shop that started with iron, made barrels, stocks, and somewhat infrequently, gunlocks, and sold a complete gun. It included the firm that made barrels, but bought stocks and locks from others, assembling a complete gun. It included the assembler who made nothing, but bought barrels, stocks, and usually imported gunlocks, put them together, and sold them. It included the artisan who repaired guns. It included a lot of craftsmen who did a variety of forms of metal work, including tinsmithing, blacksmithing, clock making, and gun repair. No surprise: specialization of labor starts to make sense in a big city, but not in a town of five hundred people. You do the work for which there is effective demand; no one is going to ride two days to get a gun repaired, when there is a blacksmith in town who also fixes guns.

Nonetheless, Mr. "Smith" makes the claim that the number of gunsmiths swelled at the start of the war. This may be, but how do we know? Official records dramatically swell the references to gunsmiths--as they do for many businesses that supplied goods and services to the government. What amazes me is how many gunsmiths there are before the Revolution who are known because of a single, random event.

We know of James Phips, a gunsmith on the 1643 Maine coast only because his son William became governor of Massachusetts. How many other gunsmiths were there on that coast? Probably not many, but could there have been one or two more? We don't know.

A 1642 Plymouth statute required "all Smyths within the Government be compelled to amend and repaire all defective armes, brought unto them, speedily and to take Corne for their pay at reasonable rates…" [Brigham, Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth, 72] but neglects to tell us their names or how many there were. Presumably, more than one, but how many?

In many cases, there are single references to gunsmiths who are merely bystanders or reference points to someone else’s business. Consider an advertisement from 1737 South Carolina. It described where a sale of merchandise would be held as, "William Cathcart next door to Mr. Miller’s the Gun-smith in Church-street...." [December 15, 1737, The South Carolina Gazette, quoted in Kauffman, Early American Gunsmiths, 67.]

Gunsmith Daniel Nash, who worked in Southfield, Massachusetts in 1699, left a trace only because a stolen gun was found in his shop, and Nash’s shop was mentioned in a criminal case. [Smith, Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts, 363.] Daniel Nash was apparently the grandson of Thomas Nash, colonial armorer to New Haven Colony, and an ancestor of mine.

John Whitten is only mentioned once in the historical records. Whitten was clearly a gunsmith in 1760 Boston, based on the inventory for which he sought reimbursement ("25 Gun locks… 22 Fire Arms" and various gunsmithing tools), after his shop was destroyed, along with many other businesses, in the great fire of that year. [Volume of Records Relating to the Early History of Boston, Containing Miscellaneous Papers 29 (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1900), 51-52.]

The only known reference to a "Mr. Prevost, gunsmith" is the exhibition of a miniature version of a European city on display in his shop in 1763. [New York Mercury, August 29, 1763.]

William Palmer, a gunsmith in 1761 Philadelphia, appears in the historical record only because he mentioned his occupation when advertising for the return of some goods stolen from his shop. [Pennsylvania Gazette, September 17, 1761.]

In 1773, Jacob Allen, "Gun-smith" had a shop in Maiden Lane, New York City—and the only mention of his business is that another merchant’s ad described his location as "between the House of Mr. Jacob Allen’s, Gun-smith and Mr. John Taylor Brass-Founder." [February 25 1773, The New York Journal or General Advertiser, quoted in Kauffman, Early American Gunsmiths, 2.]

James Steel, a blacksmith and gunsmith of Catham County, North Carolina, makes only one appearance in the historical record: a newspaper article that lists his occupation, and that he was wanted for murder.[June 13, 1792, Pennsylvania Gazette.]

The Continental Congress ordered payment to a Peter Agnew "for repairing Arms for the Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion" [June 15, 1776, Journals of the Continental Congress¸ 5:445; American Archives 4th series, 6:1707] but no other references to him as a gunsmith are listed anywhere else. Was this a one-time job by someone who was not a gunsmith? Or did he work for many years as a gunsmith, and left only this one indication in the official record?

I can give many other examples--along with the thousands of gunsmiths that I have already documented.

Mr. "Smith" clearly has the advantage over me; because his book promotes a particular, ideological view on the subject of gun ownership popular in academic and publishing circles, he has had no problem getting the second edition of his fraud published. I am beginning to think that little details like accurate history are completely irrelevant to the profession now.

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/21/2003

Peer review makes certain assumptions: one of them is that the facts contained within it are probably correct. Peer review cannot catch fabrication or careless research. Peer review is thus only appropriate to historians engaged in honest work. It can catch honest mistakes and misinterpretations. It does not catch intentional fraud.

John Simutis - 12/21/2003

Mr Smith is quite correct to be skeptical of resources found on the internet. However, Mr. Cramer provides 37 references for his count of gunsmiths. Should Mr. Smith care to do so, he may provide the same service to Mr. Cramer as was provided to Professor Bellesiles - he can check the references, count for himself, and publish the result.

It has already been established that what one believes is not quite so important as what one can support; the need to support a belief is a strong motivation for historical research -- a benefit to all concerned.

Todd Galle - 12/21/2003

Some of the 'gobs' of gunsmiths in PA before 1800: Jacob Albright; Donald Alexander; Adam Angstadt; Peter Angstadt; Thomas Annely; William Antes; Conrad Atley; George Baker; Joshua Baker; Melchior Baker; Nicholas Baker; Robert Bailey; Christian Balsley; George Bannacker; Samuel Barber; Robert Barnhill; Luther Burns; and so on through the rest of the letters of the alphabet, all from Kauffman's _The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle_, so you need not wait for Mr. Cramer's efforts. Avail yourself of already published works. I might also suggest the two volume set covering martial long arms of the revolution (the author, title and publisher escape me as I used our library's copies).
That a gunsmith might turn down an offer of work by a Revolutionary Government suggests any number of things. Perhaps they already had enough trade. Perhaps they were Loyalists. Perhaps they were small concerns who could not fill the contracts. Indeed it was trouble of this sort which caused the new US to start the Federal arsenal system. I won't throw out any blind quotes, but certainly these are plausible considerations.
As for the Hessians and their disdain for American Militia, many Continental officers agreed. But Hessian officer Capt. Johann Ewald, in describing the Continental soldier (as opposed to the militia) wrote, "...he keeps his piece clean and shining..". Regarding the militia specifically he writes, "Who would have thought a hundred years ago that out of this multitude of rabble would arise a people who could defy kings...". As for guns which shoot crooked, that is fine if you are the one aimed at, rather than the poor sod standing to his side.

Benny Smith - 12/21/2003

I do not believe, as Mr. Cramer apparently does, that the construction of a colonial era firearm was a surprisingly simple task. Nor do I believe that there were “gobs” of gunsmiths champing at the bit to construct the guns that gun lobby historians like Mr. Cramer seem to think were so widespread among the populace here in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Although the number of gunsmiths naturally did swell during time of war, even then many men who did serve as gunsmiths, also did smithing of other kinds, and seemingly preferred to avoid the task of making guns. One reference in a Pennsylvania historical document illustrated the difficulty in obtaining “firelocks” after the start of the American Revolution: “On the 23rd of the same month (October 1775) Mr. Fox reported that he was ready and desirous to employ persons to make the number of firelocks required by vote of Assembly, but could not get workmen to undertake to make them. He afterward made application for five hundred pounds to advance to the gunsmiths.” Another Pennsylvania historical document of the same period contains this passage, referring to the frustration in obtaining guns: “any gunsmiths in the county who, upon application by members of the committee, should refuse to make firelocks and bayonets, within two weeks from the time of the application, should have their names inserted in the minutes of the committee as enemies of their country, and be published as such, and their tools should be taken from them . . .”

Perhaps these guns were not as simple to put together as Mr. Cramer claims. Maybe that is why a Hessian soldier commented after facing the American militia during the Revolution, "The rebels have some very good marksmen, but some of them have wretched guns, and most of them shoot crooked.”

If Mr. Cramer has evidence that constructing straight-shooting trusty rifles by hand was a relatively easy task, accomplished with zeal by thousands of eager gunsmiths, hopefully that will be well documented in his long promised book on early American firearms. I will wait until then as I do not trust information from his internet websites. It lately does seem that I am about as likely to find Mr. Cramer’s book at Barnes & Noble as I’m likely to find Mr. Cramer himself as a makeover guest on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

John G. Fought - 12/21/2003

You may be able to plead to a lesser offense for one of your replies to Clayton in the other thread here, but it certainly looked texty to me, under at least one reading. And as you know, one is all it takes. In your place I'd update my immunizations before a rash begins to appear.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2003

John, I think we simply disagree about your first point. As you well know, peer review can be pre-judiced by such a note. You did give me a good laugh over "text," however. Did I actually do such a thing? Lie down with pomos, get up with pomoecstacy, I suppose.

John G. Fought - 12/21/2003

I don't speak for Clayton, of course, but I do think it would be a good idea to send such a message to the peer reviewers, preferably BEFORE they report on the ms. After all, it's true. And the original article was peer reviewed, even if the original book wasn't. Much good did it do. And by the way, Ralph, I'm disappointed to see pomo jargon appearing in your recent postings ('text'). You must have caught something from one of your co-bloggers. Get treatment.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2003

HNS made its decision about whether to distribute Bellesiles's op-ed based on an evaluation of the quality of the op-ed, not on an assessment of _Arming America_. My understanding is that the same is the case for the Oxford University Press book manuscript. It was submitted to a blind peer review process. It passed peer review. Do you expect that the publisher would say to peer reviewers something to the effect that "the co-editor of this manuscript has been found to have committed fraud in previously published work and we wonder whether you would recommend the publication of this manuscript"?

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/20/2003

Unfortunately, people with considerable reputations in the history profession seem intent on restoring this dead horse to life. When I saw that History News Service was still distributing columns by Bellesiles, it really demonstrated what contempt HNS has for integrity. Bellesiles didn't get in trouble because he made some mistakes. He got in trouble for lying. HNS clearly doesn't let that bother them.

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/20/2003

What Mr. Bellesiles (regardless of what pseudonym he is using today) seems to have missed is that shoes wear out--rapidly. You walk in them everyday, and they are made of fairly soft materials.

Guns during the colonial period would be used for hunting, but relatively few Americans living in urban areas went hunting daily. I would guess that many didn't even hunt every week, because they lacked the leisure time. More importantly, guns were made out of metal. Iron doesn't wear out very quickly compared to leather.

Compared to modern guns, flintlocks are surprisingly simple. The only complex part that might require repair was the lockwork. A stock has no moving parts. Neither does a barrel. A gun barrel might burst because of metal fatigue, requiring a gunsmith to fit a new barrel. Once past proof stage, this does not appear to have been all that common. It seems entirely likely that the average owner would have little or no reason to go to a gunsmith.

Modern firearms are comparatively complex pieces of machinery. I have a dozen or more guns. I have gone to a gunsmith for any sort of repair three times in more than twenty years. I suspect that I am not atypical of gun owners today. Would you conclude from the small amount of business that gunsmiths get that there are few guns in America?

How many gunsmiths were there in America? Gobs. Visit http://www.danlo.com/cramer/index.cgi for a list of several thousand gunsmiths that I have found operating in America befor 1840.

Benny Smith - 12/20/2003

I used “gun” as the keyword because it produces the most number of returns. Searching “flintlock” or “rifle” produces no records from the New Hampshire probate collection. There were two records that contained “musket”, two that contained “fowling” as in “fowling piece”, five records of “pistol” or “pistols” and six that contained the misspelling “gunn.” Some duplication occurs by using multiple keywords, since a probate record that contains the word “gun” may also contain “pistols” or some other firearm term. However, using a different term for oxen—ox, for example—yields 58 more probate records as well. So it seems that early Americans were far more interested in oxen than guns. Of course, this evidence is meant to be anecdotal. I present it to demonstrate the complexities of using probate records as the linchpin to prove any case, particularly a case of fraudulent research as Professor Lindgren has attempted to do with Arming America.

Regarding the Boston records, much of the gun lobby’s rhetoric in response to Arming America has insisted that there must have been widespread gun ownership in early America. After all, early Americans did not have police or a military like we have now. There was an ongoing threat from hostile Native Americans. Predators like wolves were a common nuisance. And, of course, gun lobby historians would have you believe that hunting for food constituted an important part of colonial subsistence. Guns took time and talent to construct, and needed much care and repair. Some would have you believe that guns were as important to early Americans as a good pair of shoes. So why in Boston do you find just four gunsmiths and 77 cordwainers in the 1790 city directory, a cordwainer being a common term for a shoemaker? There were twice as many musicians (8) listed as gunsmiths. From the evidence, it appears that early Americans were quite indifferent to guns and gunmaking, when compared to music, jewelry, and books. The logic of the gun lobby often dissolves into myth when reconciled with hard historical evidence.

John G. Fought - 12/20/2003

Wrong in both clauses. First, there are many other questions. His shameful book has just been published in a second edition. Do you wonder how it is different from the first? Second, what makes you think this is a dead horse?

Norman Heath - 12/20/2003

New evidence of gun scarcity, even if true, is irrelevant because this controversy is not about the level of gun ownership. This controversy is about appalling discrepancies between the contents of the documents Bellesiles cited and the way he characterized and reported those documents.

Norman Heath

John Tarver - 12/20/2003

Only one question remains: why beat a dead horse?

Dave Tabaska - 12/19/2003

One criticism of your search method, Benny. What you did would find any probate record containing the word "gun", but leave out any that would have such terms as "rifle", "musket", "flintlock", etc.

It really isn't too surprising that there would be more printers and goldsmiths than gunsmiths in a town. True, guns would require more maintenance, but how many guns would a person actually buy in his lifetime? Acquiring more gold jewelry and reading more books and newspapers are ongoing, lifelong processes. So, lack of gunsmiths does not necessarily imply a lack of guns.

Benny Smith - 12/18/2003

In my records of armorers in the city of Worchester, there were a reported 138 in 1890, not in 1900 as I stated. I apologize for the error.

Benny Smith - 12/18/2003

While recently tracing the history of my wife's family in Pennsylvania, I happened to run across this passage in a historical document entitled The History of Lehigh Valley: "In the petition of the 10th of October 1763, his name appears as one of the defenders of the town at the time of the threatened massacre by Indians and we may infer that he, as the wealthiest inhabitant of the place, had the only gun fit for service. (We are informed by the report of Colonel Bard to Governor Hamilton, that there were but three in the town and two of these not fit for service)." The vision of a town under threat by hostile natives only being defended by three guns, two of them broken, is not one you're likely to see re-created in Hollywood, but it is written history. And it's the type of historical evidence that zealous critics like Lindgren, Cramer and Sternstein choose to ignore.

Genealogical databases provide a helpful source of materials, since, for one, they are searchable on the internet. They also provide much evidence that Arming America, rather than being thesis-driven research, is more likely the research-driven theses that Bellesiles claims. For example, I searched for the keyword "gun" in the New Hampshire Probate Records, which contain wills and inventories from the period 1635 to 1753. I am not sure whether these records produce the kinds of inventories that Lindgren claims provide the evidence that gun ownership was widespread, but when I searched the keyword "gun", 38 probate records are returned out of at least 1,000 in the database. Interestingly, the keyword "oxen" produced 73 separate records. So if guns were owned by a majority of landowners, it appears that oxen were owned by nearly twice that many. Although it may prove that all colonials owned oxen, it also may prove nothing. It does demonstrate that probate records should be used sparingly and carefully as evidence, and in context with other evidence. Bellesiles does this. Lindgren in his prejudice does not.

Searching on the keyword "gunsmith" in early American directories also returns some tantalizing evidence in support of Bellesiles. For example, the city directory in Boston from 1790 shows four gunsmiths. However, there were 24 printers and 17 goldsmiths. That’s quite a discrepancy, especially considering that neither books nor gold would seemingly require the kind of repairs that a gun would.

You can see the growth of the gun industry throughout the latter half of the 19th century in the city directories of Worcester, Massachussetts. Worcester reportedly has its gunmaking roots as far back as the Revolutionary War. Searching "armorer", a common term then for those manufacturing firearms, in Worcester's various city directories, you will find there were 26 armorers in 1848. This number grew to 61 in 1854 before dropping to 38 in 1862, possibly because these gun specialists were drafted into the army during the Civil War. But it is after the Civil War that the number of armorers really jumps. By 1900 there were 138 per directory records and by 1903 there were 268. The arming of America had begun in earnest, just as Bellesiles has claimed.

It is unfortunate that Sternstein and Lindgren with their continuing vendettas have made a mockery out of what should have been a scholarly discourse over a controversial subject. They should show some honor to their profession and recuse themselves from further discussions of Bellesiles. Then, maybe Bellesiles' revised edition will lead to more reasoning and less ranting in academia.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/18/2003

Clayton, I've just read your bit on Bellesiles and the question of "central storage". Quite devastating, I'd say. I believe there is a root to this problem that takes one outside Arming America.

Saul Cornell has called Garry Wills the "seminal" source of historians' response to the individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment. Bellesiles and others (particularly the Chicago-Kent group) do indeed cite Wills with great frequency, and his early (Sept. 21, 1995) article in the New York Review of Books does seem to have acted as a template for Bellesiles.
And how does Wills demonstrate that arms had to be kept in a central storage? From what he calls "the vast literature on militias" (p.67) he cites not an actual law, but Trenchard's suggestion (proposal for a law) that "a competent number of them [firelocks] be kept in every parish for the young men to exercise with on holidays".(p.67)

Yep, that's it. Just amazing. From a "vast literature" on militias Wills could cite not one law, just Trenchard's proposed law. And that's his "evidence" that firearms were be stored only in depots. The trail then runs from Wills to Bellesiles, I think.

Todd Galle - 12/17/2003

Indeed. The whole 'yellow legal pads were pulped' defense rings as either ridiculous or inexcusable. I often work on large projects with historical connections. When working on such a project, I have my work in three places. On my computer hard disk at my desk, on a data CD on my book shelf behind my computer, and on a data CD at home. Granted, perhaps data CDs were not available to Bellesiles, but I know that when I was in college in the 1980s, the old 5.25" floppies were available. I always found that working with data a second time, i.e. entering it into a database all at once, helped me to focus on the notes after a long day at an archives or library. I never understood how anyone could rely on pencil ticks on legal pads. Never.