Of Arms and Men:
Arming America and Military History

IN Arming America, Michael A. Bellesiles has undertaken to use the past to reform the present.[1] He asks why the United States is the most violent of industrialized nations–why the American people are so tolerant of the guns that kill thousands of their fellow citizens each year. A principal reason, he says, is that Americans believe guns and violence are an “immutable” (p. 5) part of their heritage, that there is nothing they can do to change a gun culture that was established with the first permanent English settlements in the New World nearly four hundred years ago. Such a perception is, he argues, not only inaccurate (the United States did not develop a culture of guns and violence until after the Civil War) but also obstructive of efforts to curb our violent ways.

A large part of Bellesiles’s argument rests on his reading of Anglo-American military history, a reading that minimizes the importance of guns, militia, and warfare during the colonial and early national periods of the United States. According to Bellesiles, firearms were not well suited to American warfare before the Civil War. The smoothbore musket, used by Anglo-American forces from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, was so expensive and fragile that governments could not provide such weapons for more than small regular forces and a fraction of the militia. Those militia who were armed with muskets frequently found that swords, axes, and torches were more deadly than muskets in frontier warfare. Even British and United States regulars relied primarily on bayonets and cannon to win battles from the Seven Years’ War to the Mexican War.

Although Americans celebrated their militia and sought to rely on it for defense, the militia was almost never, Bellesiles argues, an effective fighting force. After the first few decades of English settlement, the militia was not properly trained or armed, and the colonists relied on volunteers, friendly Indians, and British regulars to provide security–to keep hostile Indians as well as other Europeans at bay. When the English colonists had serious fighting to do, they depended on the British army or, eventually, on their own Continental army. They wanted to believe that the militia had won their colonial wars and their independence, and they hoped to rely on that militia to defend the new United States. But after the militia proved ineffective in pacifying Indians and resisting the British in 1812, Americans turned increasingly to volunteers and a small regular army to fight their wars. Indeed, the regular militia collapsed in the 1830s and 1840s, giving way to volunteer militia units that were more interested in uniforms and entertainment than in weapons and training. Those volunteer units were the first to serve when the Civil War began.

Americans were satisfied with their poorly armed and trained militia because, Bellesiles says, the colonies and new nation were remarkably secure and peaceful until the middle of the nineteenth century. Whites did treat slaves, Indians, and other minorities brutally. But whites rarely assaulted other whites, almost never killed one another, and offered little armed resistance to their governments. Whatever historians might have said about the British colonies being at war more than one-third of the time between the founding of Jamestown and the end of the Seven Years’ War, Bellesiles found that “in this vast expanse of time from 1607 to 1775, peace was the norm” (pp. 71–72, 296)–just as it would be from 1815 to the Mexican War. The colonists and citizens of the new nation were sometimes drawn into wars by Europeans. But even then, battles in America tended to be less costly than those in Europe; and not until the Civil War did Americans learn to use mass-produced weapons to kill one another and to turn their peaceful culture into one of guns and violence.

What then are we to make of Bellesiles’s reading of Anglo-American military history? Consider first his arguments about guns. Although he is right in saying the colonists preferred torches to muskets in fighting Indians–burning crops to risking battle–he has otherwise exaggerated the weaknesses of the musket and the reluctance of militia and regulars to use it. If guns had been as expensive and fragile as he says, they would never have sustained an Indian gun culture or become the property of many eighteenth-century slaves.[2] Militia did not fight exclusively with muskets, but from the early seventeenth century, they included muskets among their arms and as an integral part of their tactics. Regulars were always equipped with muskets–from the turn of the eighteenth century to the Mexican War, with smoothbore flintlock muskets and a sleeve bayonet. Yet, contrary to what Bellesiles says, regulars did not rely primarily on their bayonets when engaging an enemy. Indeed, to pursue such an argument Bellesiles must make very selective use of current scholarship: citing but ignoring J. A. Houlding, who says that “heavy fire was all-important” in eighteenth-century British tactical thinking; ignoring the standard accounts of the Battle of Quebec (1759), which show that British firepower broke the French on the Plains of Abraham; and dwelling on the few battles during the War of American Independence where bayonets prevailed.[3]

Bellesiles’s treatment of the militia is much like that of guns: he regularly uses evidence in a partial or imprecise way. He is right in saying the militia was not well trained and that Americans relied on volunteers, conscripts, or regulars to do much of their serious fighting. Historians from John Shy to Fred Anderson and from Charles Royster to Marcus Cunliffe have agreed that the militia was not an effective military force. Bellesiles acknowledges their scholarship but forgets it when declaiming against the myth of the “mighty militia” (p. 123–24, 297), a myth that he finds useful in stressing the incompetence of the militia and the originality of his argument. He even forgets his own scholarship in emphasizing the neglect of the militia during the colonial period: “It is curious that a supposedly violent society in which all adult males owned and used firearms and belonged to the militia should not produce a manual of military procedures or a guide to gun use in its first 170 years” (p. 179). Americans might not have produced an original manual for militia before 1776 or benefited fully from the manuals they had, but, as Bellesiles’s notes (p. 487 n.15) and Charles Evans’s American Bibliography make clear, the printers of Boston, New York, New Haven, and New London turned out many manuals for the militia before the Revolution.

Bellesiles is right in saying the militia was never completely armed. But his figures on the size of the militia and the number of firearms that it possessed do not inspire confidence. In arguing that the militia of 1750 could not have been completely armed, he says that there were “two hundred thousand men eligible for service in the Colonial militias” and that there were enough guns for “at most one-sixth of those eligible for militia duty” (p. 149). Subsequently, he reports that in 1803 the “official militia” (p. 241) numbered 524,086 and had some 235,831 guns. He does not explain why in 1750, when the militia was limited to white adult male property owners, 20 percent of the total population should have been eligible for service or why in 1803, when the militia included all free able-bodied white male citizens aged eighteen to forty-five, only about 10 percent of the population should have been counted in the official rolls. It might be possible to reconcile the discrepancy, but to say nothing gives the impression that he has shaped his figures to suit his argument. Similarly, Bellesiles asserts that “90 percent of the firearms used by the Americans in the Revolution came from Europe during the years of the war” (p. 183). He also says that Massachusetts alone had 21,549 firearms on the eve of the war and that the United States succeeded in buying 100,000 muskets in France and the Netherlands during the war (pp. 181, 193). Such figures require, at the very least, some discussion. Is it possible that Americans could have been better armed in 1775 than Bellesiles allows but that they needed standardized weapons for their forces?

Just as Bellesiles has overemphasized the weaknesses of the militia, so too has he created too pacific a description of life in Britain’s American colonies and the new United States. To argue that peace was “the norm” in the colonial period and that “the years from 1815 to 1846 were notably peaceful ones for the United States” (pp. 71–72, 296) requires so many qualifications or evasions as to raise doubts about the generalizations. Bellesiles acknowledges that the colonies were at war one-third of the time from 1607 to 1775 and that Europeans thought American warfare particularly violent; he also acknowledges that there were a number of armed encounters between opposing factions within colonies and that violence marked ordinary relations between white colonists and the African slaves and the native peoples they aimed to dominate. But he persists in saying that the colonial period was peaceful. He argues that warfare in America was less destructive than that in Europe (ignoring the unlimited war aims of the colonists at a time when Europeans sought to limit war). He also ignores many examples of deadly white on white violence (particularly in the South during the Revolution) and sees no inconsistency between the ferocity of the Black Hawk and Seminole Wars and the peacefulness of American life between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War (pp. 293–96).

In making these arguments, Bellesiles is inattentive to numbers and context. To show that European battles were far more destructive than those in North America, he compares totals of killed and wounded at Blenheim (1704) and Zorndorf (1758) with those at Braddock’s defeat. The numbers engaged in Europe were far larger than those in America and the total casualties were, as might have been expected, larger as well. But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim, and he has neglected to say that the percent of killed and wounded in the armies at Blenheim and Zorndorf was lower than that in Braddock’s detachment (p. 153).[4] He has also significantly understated the total number of Americans who served with the British in the Seven Years’ War (his 10,000, p. 157, would not come close to the total of provincials from Massachusetts alone).[5] So too is he careless with context. He says, for examples, that the duke of Cumberland’s imperial ambitions drew Britain’s American colonies into the Seven Years’ War (p. 143; just the opposite is true), that the British had less trouble conquering Canada than defeating the Indians of South Carolina and the Old Northwest (pp. 164–66; again, the opposite is true), and that there could “be little doubt that the number and quality of Union firearms determined the outcome of the [Civil] war” (p. 427; most historians would insist on a more comprehensive explanation).[6]

Arming America is a very frustrating book. The subject and its implications are important. But Bellesiles’s scholarship does not do justice to his subject–at least, not from a military perspective. His efforts to minimize the importance of guns, militia, and war in early America and to portray the Civil War as the catalyst for a national gun culture founder on a consistently biased reading of sources and on careless uses of evidence and context. Had he not been so determined to set the early history of the colonies and nation sharply against the Civil War, had he been willing to see some variations in the importance of guns and levels of violence from one period to another–had he been willing to let the sources add unexpected and refreshing complexities to his argument–he might have produced the kind of history that would not only have won the admiration of scholars but also have provided an uncontested foundation for a fresh debate on guns and violence in the United States. Unfortunately for all of us, Arming America does not match his admirable intentions.

Ira Gruber is Harris Masterson, Jr., Professor of History at Rice University.


1 Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York, 2000). (References to the book are in parentheses in the text of this article.)

2 Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998), 300. Bellesiles assumes that slaves did not have firearms.

3 Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army, 1715–1795 (Oxford, 1981), 261 n. 10, 160, 318-21, 358–37; C. P. Stacey, Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle (New York, 1959), chap. 8. British commanders in the War of American Independence did try to take advantage of the superior discipline of their troops by using bayonet charges to break the rebels, and they sometimes succeeded. But they did not turn to the bayonet because they found the fire of the flintlock smoothbore ineffective. Musketry was, save on rare occasions, a fundamental part of British tactics. American commanders, having less well-disciplined troops, put even less emphasis on the bayonet than did the British. See Ira D. Gruber, ed., John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier 1776–1782 (Stroud, Eng., 1997), for detailed descriptions of battles and skirmishes as well as the siege of Charleston.

4 Frank Taylor, The Wars of Marlborough, 1702–1709, ed. Gertrude Winifred Taylor, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1921), 1:205–06, 231–33, says that the duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy Carignan led 52,000 men against 56,000 French and Bavarians at Blenheim, killing and wounding 14,000, capturing 15,000, and taking another 3,000 to 5,000 deserters–all at a cost of 12,000 killed and wounded. The total of killed and wounded at Blenheim was, according to Taylor, 26,000 or 24% of those engaged. Christopher Duffy, Frederick the Great: A Military Life (London, 1985), 162–70, says that Frederick led 37,000 against 45,000 Russians at Zorndorf and that he suffered 12,800 casualties while inflicting 18,000. Duffy thus puts total casualties at Zorndorf at 30,800 or 38% of the 82,000 present. Braddock lost 977 or 67% of his 1,450 men.

5 Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War (Chapel Hill, 1984), 58–60.

6 Guy Frégault, Canada: The War of the Conquest (Toronto, 1969), chap. 3, and Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (New York, 2000), chap. 6, show that Americans were sweeping Britain toward war with France well before the ministry drew the aggressive duke of Cumberland into its plans. Anderson also shows that conquering Canada required far more resources and time than defeating the Cherokee or breaking Pontiac’s Rebellion. Finally, in explaining the Union victory in the Civil War, historians emphasize more than the “number and quality of Union firearms.” See David Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War (Baton Rouge, 1960), and Richard E. Beringer et al., Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens, Ga., 1986).