A U.S. soldier fires a Colt M16 in Vietnam in 1967. U.S. Army
After Stephen Paddock opened fire on Las Vegas concertgoers on Oct. 1, many people responded with calls for more gun control to help prevent mass shootings and the routine violence ravaging U.S. neighborhoods.
But besides a rare consensus on restricting the availability of so-called bump stocks, which Paddock used to enable his dozen semi-automatic rifles to fire like machine guns, it’s unclear if anything meaningful will come of it.
But what I’ve learned from a decade of studying the history of the arms trade has convinced me that the American public has more power over the gun business than most people realize.
Gun maker Simeon North made this flintlock pistol around 1813. Balefire/Shutterstock.com
The U.S. arms industry’s close alliance with the government is as old as the country itself, beginning with the American Revolution.
Forced to rely on foreign weapons during the war, President George Washington wanted to ensure that the new republic had its own arms industry. Inspired by European practice, he and his successors built public arsenals for the production of firearms in Springfield and Harper’s Ferry. They also began doling out lucrative arms contracts to private manufacturers such as Simeon North, the first official U.S. pistol maker, and Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin.
The government provided crucial startup funds, steady contracts, tariffs against foreign manufactures, robust patent laws, and patterns, tools and know-how from federal arsenals.
The War of 1812, perpetual conflicts with Native Americans and the U.S.-Mexican War all fed the industry’s growth. By the early 1850s, the United States was emerging as a world-class arms producer. Now-iconic American companies like those started by Eliphalet Remington and Samuel Colt began to acquire international reputations. Even the mighty gun-making center of Great Britain started emulating the American system of interchangeable parts and mechanized production.
This is an advertisement for a Remington rifle in the Army and Navy Journal in 1871. Army and Navy Journal
The Civil War supercharged America’s burgeoning gun industry.
The Union poured huge sums of money into arms procurement, which manufacturers then invested in new capacity and infrastructure. By 1865, for example, Remington had made nearly US$3 million producing firearms for the Union. The Confederacy, with its weak industrial base, had to import the vast majority of its weapons.
The war’s end meant a collapse in demand and bankruptcy for several gun makers. Those that prospered afterward, such as Colt, Remington and Winchester, did so by securing contracts from foreign governments and hitching their domestic marketing to the brutal romance of the American West.