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The Firearms of the American Founders' Era

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Taylor Day
September 4, 2019

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution lived in a generation that saw more advancements for firearms than any other, arguably even more than the era of WWII. They understood the importance of a well armed civilian population being "necessary to the free state," often pointing out themselves that a tyrant has never been able to take over an armed population. Their Pennsylvania rifles were supreme to the British Brown Bess muskets, and that is what secured our independence and the birth of America.

Pretending that these very intelligent men could never foresee the invention of the AR-15 (or similar weaponry) is ignorant.

These five weapon types held the technology and laid the foundation for the modern firearms we see today. Each was conceived and used before the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791.

The Blunderbuss

From the Dutch word "Dunderbus," which translates to "Thunder Pipe" in English, these handheld firearms were developed in the early 16th century. These were nasty weapons with widespread uses but were meant for close-range shooting and were essentially the first-generation shotgun. These crowd-controlling weapons shot whatever shrapnel could be stuffed into the barrel. One shot fired into a crowded area could easily kill and maim multiple people instantly. Blunderbuss-type pistols were standard weapons of naval personnel to protect their private ships during the "Golden Age of Piracy" after the Spanish wars. They varied in size, and production information is incomplete since they were custom manufactured by local gunsmiths, and of course, no national registry existed. Thomas Jefferson owned (and loved) several.

Photo: Three Blunderbuss pistols, Diocesan museum, Sandomierz, Poland (source: Wikipedia).

Puckle gun

The Puckle gun was one of the first machine guns, with the first prototype revealed in 1717, and worked much like a flintlock manual revolver but on a much larger scale. There were different variations, some firing square bullets and other round ones, but each bullet contained roughly 16 small balls. The large machine had between 6 and 9 cylinders, which would be detached to reload. Historians claim they weren't very popular, since the weapon required more than one person to operate and a heavy tripod base was needed, making it to cumbersome to carry into any military confrontation. Again, there is no way to be certain how many were actually produced for private ownership since gunsmiths then customized weapons on a customer basis. Some English records indicate there was at least one used to defend the Tower of London in the mid-17th century.

Hand mortars

Hand mortars were the predecessor to modern grenade-launchers. First developed in the 1500s, they were used with increased popularity into the 16th and 17th centuries. They typically shot a projectile up to 100 yards, which then exploded shrapnel using a fuse system. Barrels had large bores and were usually short, between two and four inches, although some records indicate that a few were manufactured with up to 13-inch barrels. Interestingly, some models utilized a duel barrel for a typical musket shot as well as a hand mortar, much like an AR-15 with a M203 flare launcher today. The barrels were packed down on a charge base with some sort of ammunition, usually whatever was on hand like glass, ceramic, or even canvas, and then secured with either a flintlock or wheellock until ready to be used.

Photo: German grenade rifles from the 16th century (wheellock) and 18th century (flintlock) in the Bayerisches National museum, München (source: Wikipedia).[/FONT]

Rifled American long guns

In the earliest part of the 18th century, Americans began mass-producing the highly demanded gun that changed history forever: rifled long guns. These firearms married two different concepts: the short, rifled barrels of German firearms and the long smooth-bored barrels of the muskets common at the time. The result was a long and rifled barrel gun that increased the range and accuracy of each shot tremendously. This quickly became the gun of choice for the American revolutionists. At the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780, a colony fully armed with these rifled guns were outnumbered by British loyalists; however, the superior weapon led to a complete victory for the Patriot militia. This battle would change the outcome of the war and insure American victory and eventually our independence from Great Britain.

Pepperbox revolver.

Pepperbox guns weren't just small pistols able to be used as the first concealed carry, but also the first repeaters. They used separate chambers, at least six, with each having its own individual percussion cap and ball. The shooter could manually rotate to the next chamber around a central axis, which gave the pistol at least six shots – pretty radical in the days of single-shot firearms. They were first produced as early as the 1500s and used a matchlock system, where the shooter would have to light each chamber by match in order to fire. By the late 1700s, the flintlock revolver was perfected. A Belgium gun-maker even made a 24-shot pepperbox revolver that took roughly 40 minutes to load and only seconds to empty.

Pepperbox revolvers didn't just fire small rounds, either; some held up to .44 caliber balls and could be the length of a regular musket. These pepperbox guns were immensely popular and became obsolete only in the 1870s, when Colt first introduced cartridges with the Peacemaker model.

The Founding Fathers knew that guns would continue to evolve and put no limitations when they easily could have. In fact, they specified that any limitation would be an infringement on this right of citizens. Privateers were allowed "weapons of war" like cannons and Gatling guns to protect their property and at times even leased them to the government. Even in the newly established United States of America, when threats to the infant government were raised, like Shay's Rebellion in 1786, Congress still refused to put a single limitation on the right to possess firearms.

Guns, both then and now, were only as useful as the person wielding them. Because firearms needed less training time compared to the bow and arrow or mêlée weapons to be effective, the Framers knew how imperative firearms were as an equalizer. The Old West adage "God created men and Sam Colt made them equal" highlights this sentiment.
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