Alexander Rose: Who Put the Rifle into the National Rifle Association?

Roundup: Talking About History

[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).]

Why is the National Rifle Association called the National Rifle Association? It seems an odd choice considering the organization's commitment to the Second Amendment, which refers broadly to "arms," not rifles, that require keeping and bearing. Wouldn't it make more sense for the NRA to call itself the National Firearms Association or the National Gun Association? Rifle comes across as a little . . . exclusionary. I mean, what about all those millions of pistol and shotgun owners?

At least that's what I naively thought before I began writing American Rifle: A Biography. As it happens, there are very sound reasons, rooted in its foundation in 1871, for the NRA's emphasis on rifles.

Consider the year. 1871. Just six years before, the most lethal war in American history, the Civil, had finally ended, leaving roughly 620,000 combatants dead and numberless legions maimed, traumatized, and shocked. Half the country was a morgue, the other, a madhouse.

This (still-)astounding death tallies, as well as the grieving of millions of mothers and widows, caused Americans to swear never again, no more Antietams, no Gettysburgs. While few believed that men would war no more, many dreamed that when battle was joined the slaughter could at least be controlled. Soldiers would die, of course, just nowhere near as many, and the violence would be confined strictly to the battlefield, not visited on civilians. As World Wars One and Two would starkly demonstrate, this was a fantasy, but there could be no gainsaying the appeal of such sentiments at the time.

There was not, by the way, even the slightest hint of soft-headed pacifism about the desire to ratchet down bodycounts. In fact, among proponents could be counted hardbitten veterans and hardheaded military experts alike. Unlike those who tended to romanticise war, these individuals had seen battle up unpleasantly close. Not least among them was William Conant Church, editor of the Army and Navy Journal, who was sure he knew what had gone wrong during the war.

He ascribed the bloodletting to the popularity of firepower among generals. To them, volume of fire -- or the ability to send vast numbers of shells, bullets and other pieces of metal hurtling toward the enemy -- was the creed that won battles. Church felt, however, that such thinking was extravagantly wasteful in lives and ammunition, and also indicated a distinct lack of discipline.

To him, what counted was accuracy: Soldiers needed to learn how to hit their targets with the minimum number of bullets. This wasn't just about being able to hit a bullseye at 300 yards with a rifle. Such marksmanship went hand-in-hand with other typically American virtues. Good shots required coolness under fire; steely self-discipline; familiarity with such high-tech implements as telescopic sights, windage indicators, and ballistic instruments; a determination to improve themselves by constant training; and independence of thought and action. In Europe, where the ideology of mass-firepower had long held sway, soldiers were still treated as dull, disposable automatons and subjected to fearsome discipline to flog out any remnants of individual initiative. Civil War generals had fallen beneath the European spell; Church wanted to "re-Americanize" warfare.

It's telling to remember exactly how incompetent were many recruits at target shooting before and during the Civil War -- a relic of the Musket Age, when guns were inherently inaccurate. Thus, in the 1850s, one soldier recalled, marksmanship was given such short shrift by the army that he was taken out to the rifle range only twice in five months, while the colonel commanding Fort Laramie bragged that he hoped about half his troops might one day "become expert enough to shoot at a crowd" using their rifles. During the War, Captain George W. Wingate discovered that most of his New York company couldn't hit even a barrel lid at 100 yards.

By improving the men's shooting skills, thought Church and his allies, fighting would be made safe, humane, and short. No more would wars drag excruciatingly on for years. No more would battles climax in horrific, wanton frontal assaults against entrenched troops. No more would there be endless sieges punctuated by titanic artillery bombardments. Instead, elite teams of sharpshooters (itself a Civil War term) based far behind the front lines would aim at officers' heads with their rifles, kill them with a single shot at 1,000 yards or more, and thus bring the battle to a halt.

In a eerie echo of today's technology evangelists sitting thousands of miles away and guiding precision missiles to their targets using just a joystick, Church was certain that victory would henceforth go to the sure of eye and the steady of hand, not to those who relied on brute force and blunt firepower.

In 1871 Church and Wingate would together found the NRA to propagate and popularize their principles among civilians and soldiers. They were so successful in persuading the army to overcome its previous suspicion of target practice that by the early 1880s the Chief of Ordnance could exultantly inform the Secretary of War that he had at his disposal "an army of marksmen."

The United States Army had become, shot for shot and man for man, the deadliest force on earth -- an enviable ranking it retains. Marksmanship was the military's watchword and the Holy Grail of civilian shooters. The rifle, not just any old gun, was their weapon of choice.

And that's why the NRA is called the National Rifle Association.

©2008 Alexander Rose

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2008

I insist on the validity of my arguments.
When talking about the crimes with firearmes involved, I specifically mentioned: <kill more police officers and ARMED citizens than are killed in any other large civilized and industrial country.>
While trying to point out errors in my data, Mr. Graham refer to <most African countries> and <the worst crime spots in South America>, which are by most of the international accepted standards do not belong to the countries I made the above-quoted comparison with (plus are currently in economic, social, and political turmoil/war or have just been recovering from such a state.)
New Zealand's population, on the other hand, is a miniscule in comparison with the US' one and therefore that country's example delivers more than questionable counter-argument.
In the most recent murders (per capita) by country UN list the United States of America has
#24 position, ABOVE practically all civilised and industrially developed large countries: France, Germany, UK,
Japan, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Spain. It is above even such a developing, but comparably stable economically, socially, and politically, as India and Indonesia.
Practically all the countries that stand in this list above the USA, are
either unstable at the best , still developing in the sense indicated above (at the best), semi-developed democracies, or even dictatorships.
One cannot legitimately compare them with this country in the sense discussed.
Thus, the alleged errors in my short comment found by Mr. Graham are essentially non-existent.
As far as it concerned his alleged rebuff of my characterization of the Second Amendment as obsolete and impractical, I would object in the following way: Certainly, if the army (along with the other governmental law enforcement agencies)
takes the side of some (even a small) ARMED group of the populus, the force combined in that fashion could make (and, as history showed on multiple occasions, did) the respective government to surrender, or, at the least, back off.
But the goverments did and will surely act the same way, if army and those other agencies mentioned above will take the side of some UNARMED group, as again, history demonstrated
in many cases. The only minute (but crucially important) difference that that many historians and sociologists miss here is that the latter situation
occur mostly when the army joins the large majority of the population, while the former frequently (though, admittedly, not always) happens for the cause of the nation's minority.
In the US army, police, and other law enforcement agencies never took the majority's side against the goverment in modern times, despite that majority being armed. So my conclusion
in that sense is supported by historical EVIDENCE, while my opponent's one is based just on a highly doubtful BELIEF.

Doug Graham - 11/8/2008

Arnold Shcherban makes several errors in his post above.

The crime rate and murder rate in the U.S. is in fact not especially high in relation to other nations - about in the middle in fact. Murder rates are however extremely high in many nations which do what Arnold suggests-concentrate firearms in the hands of military and police. Most African nations follow that model, for example, as do many of the worst crime spots in South America.
U.S. criminals do not stand out as being particularly armed among the nations of the world. Again, the countries to the south of the U.S., Mexico for example-which prohibits nearly all private ownership of guns- has a serious and growing problem with armed criminal gangs. Nations such as New Zealand have no such problem despite allowing relatively free access to firearms. In fact, Arnold, the problem is cultural and not related to availability of any material objects.
Certainly a corrupt government fears an armed populace-otherwise why go to such lengths to disarm the people?
Armed citizens are more than a match for the current military and police- they are within them already!
The Second Amendment is one of the priceless freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights. We need to defend it with all our strength against those who would deny us the right to be armed!

Arnold Shcherban - 11/7/2008

One of the highest in the world crime rates (especially - murders) in this country is the exact consequence of promoting firearms into general population, instead of concentrating it in the hands of professionals, i.e. police and the army.
That's why criminals are so well equipped in the US and kill more police officers and ARMED citizens than are killed in any other large civilized and industrial country.
The infamous notion that otherwise the
Americans would left unprotected from the "bad" government, has become obsolete a hundred years ago.
Any half-brained understands that no matter how big citizens' arsenal of firearms is they are no match nowadays for a regular army, or even police, FBI, Homeland Security, and other force enforcement agencies fully supporting governmental actions.
Thus Second Amendment has become nothing more and nothing less than a violence-promoting excuse for a Big Business of firearm manufacturing and must be cross out the Constitution (along with some other articles.)

Frank Steven Silbermann - 11/6/2008

Even if the U.S. Army prefers marksmen to cannon-fodder, they will always lack the resources to inculcate such an individual skill. (All the moreso when it comes to skill with rifles of the enemy picked up off the battlefield.)

Nor have arms manufacturers ever been able to design and perfect weapons economically on short notice, unless the technology was already perfected for civilian sales.

Therefore, the only way to have an army of riflemen is to draw its soldiers from a _nation_ of riflemen. Marksmanship is a republican (small `r') virtue; having well-trained and well-armed commoners leads to expectations of self-government (which, not surprisingly, evolved independently among both the long-bow archers of medieval England and the William Tells of Switzerland).

Nowadays, our liberites (e.g. freedom of travel, privacy of the home, control over our own bodies, freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures) are most threatened by common rapists, muggers, burglars and car-jackers. To counter these threats, either we will leave the task to professional policemen as we evolve into a police state with an ever-growing prison-industrial complex, or we will follow an analogy to the civilian-soldier model -- by promoting a population well-trained in the use of the police-pistol, ready at all times to use it in the legitimate defense of one's rights and liberty.

Sport, too, is to be encouraged -- to the extent that the training encouraged by its pleasure prepares us for firearms' more serious social purposes.