American Rifle

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-09-29
  • Publisher: Delta
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George Washington insisted that his portrait be painted with one. Daniel Boone created a legend with one. Abraham Lincoln shot them on the White House lawn. And Teddy Roosevelt had his specially customized. Now, in this first-of-its-kind book, historian Alexander Rose delivers a colorful, engrossing biography of an American icon: the rifle. Drawing on the words of soldiers, inventors, and presidents, based on extensive new research, and encompassing the Revolution to the present day,American Rifleis a balanced, wonderfully entertaining history of this most essential firearm and its place in American culture. In the eighteenth century American soldiers discovered that they no longer had to fight in Europe's time-honored way. With the evolution of the famed "Kentucky" Riflea weapon slow to load but devastatingly accurate in the hands of a mastera new era of warfare dawned, heralding the birth of the American individualist in battle. In this spirited narrative, Alexander Rose reveals the hidden connections between the rifle's development and our nation's history. We witness the high-stakes international competition to produce the most potent gunpowder . . . how the mysterious arts of metallurgy, gunsmithing, and mass production played vital roles in the creation of American economic supremacy . . . and the ways in which bitter infighting between rival arms makers shaped diplomacy and influenced the most momentous decisions in American history. And we learn why advances in rifle technology and ammunition triggered revolutions in military tactics, how ballistics testsfrequently bizarrewere secretly conducted, and which firearms determined the course of entire wars. From physics to geopolitics, from frontiersmen to the birth of the National Rifle Association, from the battles of the Revolution to the war in Iraq,American Rifleis a must read for history buffs, gun collectors, soldiersand anyone who seeks to understand the dynamic relationship between the rifle and this nation's history.

Author Biography

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

The Mystery of Washington's Riflep. 1
The Rifle and the Revolutionp. 41
The Rise of the Machinesp. 69
The Big Bangp. 105
The "Grewsome Graveyard"p. 155
The Army of Marksmen and the Soldier's Faithp. 189
The Smokeless Revolutionp. 231
Roosevelt's Riflep. 255
The Paths not Takenp. 281
The Great Blunderbuss Bunglep. 321
Gun of the Space Agep. 359
The Rifle of the Futurep. 391
Note on Sourcesp. 411
Notesp. 413
Photo Credits and Permissionsp. 477
Acknowledgmentsp. 479
Indexp. 481
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One

The Mystery of Washington's Rifle

George Washington, never exactly a cheerful or chipper soul, was today even more glum than usual. It was May 21, 1772, and all day he had been posing for his portrait motionless, awkwardly dressed in an antique uniform originally tailored for a younger, slimmer man. The painter—an up-and-coming artist by the name of Charles Willson Peale—was certainly taking his time about it.

And then, at last, Washington was allowed to see the result. There he was, looking suspiciously more youthful (Peale knew how to flatter his subjects) than his forty years might suggest, but otherwise the likeness was most accurate. There he stood, Colonel George Washington of the defunct Virginia Regiment, officer, gentleman, loyal servant of His Majesty, and veteran of the French and Indian War.

Peale's portrait of Washington—the earliest authentic likeness of the man that is known to exist—is distinguished from hundreds of other pictures of eighteenth-century soldiers hanging in the world's museums in one remarkable respect. It's easy to overlook, but, subtly protruding from behind Washington's left shoulder, is the muzzle of an American rifle.

This particular arm had probably been commissioned two years before, in early 1770. In March of that year Washington was staying with his friend Robert Alexander, and according to his diary, they often "went out a hunting" foxes; but he one day rode to "George Town" (then a small place eight miles upstream from Alexandria, Virginia) to pick up "my rifle" from the gunsmith John Jost (or Yost) for £6 and 10 shillings. (An exact conversion to today's dollars is extremely difficult to determine, but $1,400 is a very rough approximation.) Gratifyingly, the cost of the firearm was partly offset by Washington's winning of £1 and 5 shillings from his host at cards, while its fineness can be gauged by the fact that during the Revolution Jost would make rifles for American troops invoiced at £4 and 15 shillings each—and this after prices had already soared owing to inflation. Washington may well have paid more than a 100 percent premium for the privilege of owning a custom-made Jost.

Few but Washington would have instructed their portraitists to add such a weapon. Rifles, at the time, were rarities among common soldiers and were carried by officers only in the field—the hunting field, that is, for the noble pursuit of shooting game, not the battlefield. Among civilians, many Americans weren't even sure what exactly a rifle was. As late as June 1775 John Adams mentioned to Abigail that he had recently heard about this "peculiar kind of musket, called a rifle" which had "grooves within the barrel, and carries a ball with great exactness to great distances."

All of which makes Washington's insistence on including one of these "peculiar" firearms in his portrait all the more mysterious. Indeed, a man who wished to use an object as an emblem of rank might have brandished it openly, but he didn't. The rifle is instead discreetly tucked away in the background, serving, it seems, as a reassuring symbol, for those in the know, that this individual, dressed in a uniform last donned two decades before, is one of them. So what was Washington telling his fellow Americans? The answer lies hidden somewhere amid the vast, remote American wilderness, an unconquered territory densely thicketed by forests, rumpled by towering mountain ranges, and watered by unbridgeable rivers. For newcomers to this land, it was a terrifying place such as had not existed in Europe since the dark and cold days of the Neanderthals. It was the frontier.

The great Spanish conquests did not hinge on firearms. Columbus brought with him just one for his infantry—a gun weighing about thirty pounds aptly named the "hand-can

Excerpted from American Rifle: A Biography by Alexander Rose
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