American Rifle: A Biography by former military historian and journalist Alexander Rose is a paean, in equal measures, to American marksmanship, engineering, planning and industry.
Starting with the earliest known portrait of George Washington, Rose transfers our attention to the muzzle of a rifle protruding above the first President’s left shoulder. At a time when the rifle was not as common as a musket on the battlefield, Rose muses why Washington insisted on including this weapon in his portrait. Was he trying to say something, assert the individuality that a rifle conferred upon a soldier as opposed to a musket?
From this point, Rose takes off on a short history of firearms in the Americas, moves on to analyze the rise of specialists in gunsmithing, the establishments of powder mills in towns across New England, the efforts of the early settlers to control production of both guns and powder, and simultaneously, both provide and prevent the trade of firearms and accessories to Native Americans, depending on their utility as friend or foe.
From these beginnings, he dwells on the tide of immigrants coming to the newly formed colony named after William Penn from regions of Germany. Many of these people were gunsmiths, and they brought along with them a slim rifle used for hunting called the Jaeger rifle. This rifle, named after the method needed to inscribe grooves in the barrel of a musket, resulted in a weapon capable of throwing a ball of lead more accurately and further than weapons in current use. It evolved into what became known as the Kentucky rifle.
The book examines the rise of marksmanship amongst the American frontiersmen. Powder and shot were scarce; food on the frontier was very often supplied by hunting, and a missed shot meant no food on the table. People learned to make their shots count, unlike in Europe where hunting was mostly restricted to the privileged classes and their adherents.
Rose touches on the establishment by the government of Federal armories at Springfield in Massachusetts, and Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. It chronicles the adoption by American armorers of the French ideas of standardized production and how this played its part in kick-starting the Industrial Revolution in this country. The reason to be able to assemble rifles from disparate components made by different manufacturers became a reality in this country before it became the norm everywhere else.
Rose chronicles the advances made in the manufacture of gunpowder, machine tools, the evolution of the cartridge from paper to metal, and the rise and fall of American gun manufacturers such as Colt, Remington, and Henry. He spends time on the repeating rifle of choice of the Westerners - the Winchester - and the Springfield used by the U.S. Army in many of the Indian Wars.
The dismal standard of marksmanship in the U.S. Army during the Civil War is mentioned, as are the efforts made to overcome this deficiency. There are also interesting tidbits of information about the biases of the military and ordnance officers toward single-shot rifles and repeaters. The bias against repeating rifles drove Winchester to seek markets in the militaries of other countries and only civilian markets in the U.S.
The book closes with current research in the U.S. on the weapon of choice for the infantry and muses on whether the rifle as we know it has reached the end of its evolution as a firearm.
American Rifle is a very readable book, peppered with interesting anecdotes about the guns, the people who made them and their idiosyncrasies – not to mention the idiosyncrasies of the men who helped adopt the guns for the army, thus elevating some to prestige and, in other cases, consigning them to the dustbin or alternately driving the manufacturers into alternate markets and better ideas. Lastly, it traces the evolution of the firearm itself, from a marginal player in wars and hunting to the decision-maker in both.