The Myths and Secret Lives of the Men and Companies That Make Our Millions of Guns

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag (Basic Books, 2016): 

We think of the gun owner and the shooter—either 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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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 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.

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. 

Excerpt from The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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