On Bellesiles: Were Gun Ownership Rights a Minor Issue in the US Colonies?

Last Updated on November 14, 2021 by Shaun Snapp

Executive Summary

  • Gun availability and cost in the colonial US were completely different from the modern era.
  • This led to a high degree of misunderstanding as to the established gun rights of this time.

Introduction

One reason that pre-revolutionary gun rights are not adequately contextualized is that we tend to consider the modern environment of guns in terms of price and availability. In this article, we will explore the use and availability of firearms in the US colonies.

Our References

See our references for this article and related articles at this link.

Gun Ownership The Colonial Period

The following quote describes life in the colonial period concerning gun ownership and general living conditions. However, much of these quotes is from Michael  Bellesiles’s book Arming America: The Origin of a National Gun Culture.

Colonials were farmers and had no need to nor did they hunt. Only a very small percentage of the population actually acquired their food through wild game. This is as incredible as it sounds, and unbelievable after generations of text and later media portrayals of colonial Americans as wilderness warriors. But the truth is, our forefathers obtained their meat the same way their relatives did in Europe, from domestic livestock. They were farmers. They spent long hours on their farms, tilling the soil and raising crops and all the animals necessary to feed their families. The chores were numerous and lasted all day and all year long. They had no time to wonder through wooded lands, carrying an expensive musket that cost an entire year’s earnings which was also notoriously inaccurate, hoping to find large game that was far more scarce than today. – Revolutionary War Journal (taken from Bellesiles’s book)

This is very difficult to believe. This is not to say I deny there was not domestic lifestock, however there were enormous quantities of game that would have been avaialble to the colonialists.

At first I found these quotations of interest, but then the more I read, the less realistic these quotes appeared.

The colonials are often presented as hunters.

The following describes the expense of bored rifle. A bored rifled is a rifle with barreling that dramatically increases the accuracy of a rifle as it applies a “top spin” to the bullet, which also expands range. The opposite of a bored rifle is a smooth bore rifle that files a ball.

Oh, and forget about grove bored rifles. They were even more expensive and rare, made by a small number of gunsmiths in America who still had to import the firing mechanism from Europe. Besides, the forests were heavily wooded. Getting off a good shot that wouldn’t be deflected by all the vegetation was nearly impossible. So why bother even owning a gun when all you had to do is raise some beef cattle, a few cows, some hogs, and chickens and walk out to the barn and slaughter all the meat needed. Even frontier communities and settlers brought their livestock with them. And as for hunting – they too found it time consuming and less productive, trying to bag large game in the tight forests. Most brought in wild meat for their family’s consumption by trapping small game which proved much more efficient to supplement their slaughtered livestock. – Revolutionary War Journal

Yes, bored rifles are more accurate than smooth bore.

This demonstration of a 1776 smooth bored rifle looks sufficiently accurate to hunt deer. But it is true that the further one goes back, say to the early 1600s, the less accurate the rifles were. 

I later found that Bellesiles had been fired from Emory University for academic fraud.

An independent panel of three prominent historians concluded in 2002 that Mr. Bellesiles was “guilty of unprofessional and misleading work,”and raised questions about falsified data. Columbia University’s trustees took back the Bancroft history prize it had awarded the book, and Mr. Bellesiles resigned from the faculty at Emory University. More troubling to some has been Mr. Bellesiles’s unwillingness to admit serious scholarly lapses, which included citing nonexistent sources and making mistakes in reading documents, all of which favored his thesis. – New York Times

Defenders have claimed he is the victim of a hatchet job by the NRA. However, I read the report by Emory University on Bellesiles and they point to many problems with Bellesiles’ research. My guess is that Bellesiles put a desire to minimize guns and gun ownership in the colonial period as a conclusion, and this caused him to cherry pick and fabricate a story that was quickly adopted by gun control advocates.

Colonial Governments Demanded Armed Citizens

Bellesiles contentions don’t make much sense when compared to the demands of colonial governments for armed citizens. The colonial period was more marked by the colonial governments demanding that citizens — particularly on the frontier be armed — rather than the citizens of the colonies demanding the right to arms. One of the primary reasons was to defend against Indians. However, the effectiveness of ordinary everyday citizens against Indians is questioned in the following quotation.

But for the most part, the settlers did not fight the Indians very often. They handed that task whenever possible to highly trained individuals, the frontier rangers and military who fought like Native Americans. They did so not with rifles, but mainly axes and knives. And of course, British military had use of the bayonet. – Revolutionary War Journal

Really? Well the laws from many states are very focused on even non-fighting men to be armed, and frequently mentions Indian attack.

The commonality of Rifles at the Beginning of the Revolution

At the start of the American Revolution, when the alarm was sounded that the regulars were on the march, many patriots reached above the mantel and pulled down a rusting, decaying, unusable musket, not a rifle, or he found no gun at all. But what about all those movies and paintings of militiamen armed and defiantly standing before the British on Lexington Green that fateful morning, April 19, 1775? Those brave patriots may have been defiant, but barely a dozen had guns. The rest backing up Captain John Parker stood with pikes, bladed weapons, or were unarmed. They were there not to start a war, but to make a point. As the British advanced, Parker told his militia to disperse. After a mysterious gunshot, which the British answered by a volley then charge with the bayonet, only seven muskets on the rebel side were ever fired. Those minutemen suffered nine dead and eight wounded, but only one British officer was injured, shot in the foot and most likely by one of his own men.

So where did the guns come from to fight the British forces? Basically, the local colonial governments took on the responsibility in arming their farmers and merchants. In the two years before the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, the Sons of Liberty leaders, men like Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams, knew they were in trouble if there was to be an armed conflict. They had spent over a decade convincing a third of the colonials that they were living under a tyrannical government, but now they had not the weapons to back up a clash of arms if it came down to it. They worked through their Committee of Correspondence (brainchild of Adams which replaced the ousted royal legislatures) and later Committee of Safety (which became the military arm of local assemblies) along with individual towns’ militias of New England, to frantically assemble firearms and powder. They began stockpiling gunpowder and purchasing firearms from Europe, mainly Dutch and French weapons and – ironically, even some from England; gathering them in the traditional centers for maintenance of weapons – powder houses (that oddly also stored the King’s arms) and town halls. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts had 21,549 guns stockpiled for a province of 250,000 people. Only the New England colonies were doing this; the rest were hopeful that peace could be maintained. When war did come – some of the colonies raided the King’s cache of weapons, accounting for some of the early regiments who were equipped with military muskets along with bayonets. – Revolutionary War Journal

If we adjust the population for those men above 18 and younger than 60 and then remove all women, we end up with a potential number of men that could be armed at perhaps 50,000 (not all men within the appropriate age group are capable of fighting, and many have to serve as non-fighting men and keep the society going commercially, etc… So it is less than needed, but it is still within the range of being useful. This would have allowed a little less than every other man to be armed. And recall that Massachusetts was the most aggressively in favor of parting ways with England. One of the strongest agitators for a revolution was John Adams, who was from Massachusetts.

This scene from the HBO series John Adams shows how both representatives from Massachusetts were the prime advocates for war with England. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York were the least interested in breaking away. 

What Percentage of Colonials Had Access to a Gun?

If few Americans owned guns, how did they become such great marksmen. Another easy answer – they weren’t. This is where the common phrase no doubt originated: couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Most colonials, as research has shown, only about 13 percent, had access to a gun and many of them couldn’t get the relics stored in the corner to work. The rest of the population didn’t own a gun with a huge percentage of that number never having even fired a musket prior to the war.

But lets take a look at the record of participants and rate of fire which is clear. A total of 3763 Americans, fighting all day, hit 273 British. To quote Professor Bellisiles again, those who follow the exact details of Revolutionary battles – and this was studied immediately after the Revolution by the British, by Napoleon, and by the great European armies – know exactly how many rounds of musket fire are necessary to effectively damage the enemy. Understand that rifles were extremely rare and not present among the farmers surrounding Boston. Only later on, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, with the advent of regiments like Colonel Stark’s New Hampshire, (and even later when Daniel Morgan’s company of riflemen showed up for the Siege of Boston) did some militiamen have grove-bored rifles which were far more accurate. It is estimated that one half of one percent, or one in 200 of all balls fired actually hit their target. The classic statement was that in order to kill a man with musket fire, it was necessary to fire seven times his weight in lead. And that’s not too far off.

At the Battle of Lexington and Concord, it took between 50 and 100 pounds of lead per battlefield casualty which included wounding. People would fire and fire and not hit much of anything. Even trained troops tended to fire too early and too high, forcing commanders to hold fire for as long as they could; why we get the classic misquote, don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. At the Battle of Bunker Hill – Colonel Prescott actually told his men to fire low, Colonel Stark told them to aim for their enemy’s gators that wrapped around the the ankles, and General Putnam… well, he was too busy safely tucked behind Bunker Hill to utter any historical quotes, riding around with entrenching tools dangling from his horse.

But if guns were not regulated, how do we know for sure, outside probate records, that there were few colonial household guns? The answer is plain – guns were regulated and closely recorded by local governments well before and after the American Revolution. The Second Amendment clearly states a well-regulated militia. Not to point fingers, but the truth is often harsh when confronting propaganda. The notion of any colonial, and citizens long after the founding of our nation, being allowed to own a gun, as many as they wanted, and no one, especially the government, ever checked, as embodied in our history, is just a bold-faced lie, intentionally or unintentionally propagated by dismal research or gun activist organizations.

Bible Nathan character bio 2The fact is, colonial governments and later states kept inventories of weapons from the time militias were first organized in America. Research proves colonial assemblies and later states regularly took a census of all firearms. They sent constables and appointed magistrates door-to-door to ask the basic questions; what guns do you have and what condition were they in? – Revolutionary War Journal

A specific reason for this was that the colonial governments wanted to know their “fighting force”. At this time, there was no Continental Army. The only defense was militias or citizen-soldiers.

How Many Weapons in Maryland?

This raises the question as to how many guns the governments found in their census? Turning to Bellisiles’ extensive research: “In the Colonial period, there were only enough guns for about one and a half to two percent of the populace. But individual surveys are revealing: At the end of the 17th century, Maryland legislatures tabulated the weaponry they had on hand. They found 20 muskets, 38 carbines, 16 bayonets, 16 swords, 56 fuses, 16 horse pistols and 78 barrels of powder accumulated over the previous 25 years but never used. Not a formidable array of weapons. By 1768, the inventory had grown, listing 200 muskets, 86 carbines and six pistols in usable condition. Another 400 muskets were “very rusty” or “without locks and not worth repairing.” Interestingly, the colonial legislatures collected all these arms and put them in storage for safekeeping. – Revolutionary War Journal

This is almost impossible to believe. I need to find other sources to corroborate this. Like Kleck, Bellesiles has been repeatedly accused of painting a very one-sided picture, but while Kleck is quoted by conservatives and gun advocates, Bellisiles is quoted by those that support more gun regulations,

All the legislatures of the colonies passed laws controlling access to guns, as well as the use of firearms. They reserved the right to seize weapons in times of emergencies and to hand them out to those better able to use them. – Revolutionary War Journal

This would fit with both the shortage of good weapons in the colonies, and the fact that the weapons were viewed primarily for putting down insurrections and the common defense, as noted by Hamilton in the Federalist Papers — and there was very little discussion of firearms for public defense or for hunting.

The quote continues.

Colonies forbade the use of firearms in connection with drinking or “entertainments.” The frivolous shooting of a musket during a time of emergency was punishable by death. There were laws about how large the weapons could be, the size of the shot, the quality of powder. All of this was regulated, and continued to be after the Second Amendment was passed; strong evidence of our founders’ use of a well-regulated militia present in the amendment’s wording. – Revolutionary War Journal

This is true.

The colonial governments were quite “opinionated” about the weapons their populations had and about regimenting them in terms of their condition — but one of their primary considerations was that the weapons be in good working order. This is well explained in the following quotation.

Nor was gun ownership a free-for-all in the colonial period and the early republic. Because of the importance of the militias to public safety, gun registration was mandatory and government officials had the right to come into your home to inspect your musket. The government had opinions as to which weapons you should buy and even as to how you should keep your weapon—mandating, for example, that gunpowder be stored in a safe manner. The men who enrolled in militias in the early days of the nation—and, under the 1792 Militia Act, enrollment was mandatory for all able-bodied free white men between the ages of 18 and 45—had six months to buy themselves “a musket, bayonet, and belt, two spare flints, a cartridge box with 24 bullets, and a knapsack.” – The Topic

This article is about gun rights in the colonial period.

However, the 1792 Militia Act, passed eleven years after the 2nd Amendment, is evidence of the government becoming more severe about mandating specific weapons to have a more prepared militia for putting down insurrections and the common defense (as well as slave patrols). This act is virtually ignored by gun advocates, but it clearly stipulates a military weapon, and the provisioned as a military weapon. If the 2nd Amendment had been more about personal defense, it is unlikely the government would have been so specific about what weapons met the requirements of a militia.

What Happened With Militias During the War of 1812?

The Second Amendment tied the right to bear arms to the concept of a well-regulated militia. Therefore, the notion that individual citizens would rise to protect the nation bore out when America was attacked. A look at the War of 1812 is proof this did not happen. When the nation’s capital in Washington was attacked by 4,300 British troops in 1814, there were 50,000 militia within a day’s march. What occurred next, as they say, is history. The majority of the militia did not show up. Most of those who did were unarmed. And among those with firearms, they generally fled when fired upon by the British. The few thousand British marched largely unopposed into the capital and burned it.

This lack of dedication by militias is explained in the following quotation.

Despite the praise showered on militia forces by Republicans, most of those responsible for coordinating the war effort hoped that the army would consist of regulars and volunteers rather than militia forces. The preference for volunteers was simple. First, army volunteers could serve longer than militiamen. Militiamen were, in reality, well-known for simply walking away when their terms of service ended or for deserting to harvest their crops regardless of what was happening in war. This was true in the War of 1812, too, as approximately thirteen percent of soldiers deserted the army.2 Second, the use of volunteers avoided the inevitable arguments
over authority produced by the system of federalism. Some governors invoked states rights’ when called upon to provide Madison, as commander-in-chief, with militia forces. The other immediate problem was who paid militiamen; state leaders naturally argued that it should be the
federal government if the state had to give up control of its soldiers. – Brandy Heritage Center

This type of performance is repeated throughout US history — and another example is Shay’s Rebellion, where the militia sent to put down this insurrection also proved low ineffectiveness and during the Revolutionary War, as is explained in the following quotation.

In addition, he states that “colonial and Revolutionary Americans were virtually of one mind in espousing a well-regulated militia under local authority.” The War of Independence and Shays’s Rebellion severely hurt the militia’s credibility, causing many Federalists to advocate a federalized militia. – Jeffrey Campbell

The militias sent to invade Canada during the War of 1812, which Thomas Jefferson said would be “a mere matter of marching,” ended in disaster. The entire method by which the militia was raised is a bit pathetic as is explained in the following quortation.

Some Federalists members of Congress rejected the use of militias for purposes of defense and war because these soldiers were often the dregs of society. To a certain extent, such arguments are not far from the mark, and they did reflect a reality about who fights in a war. Soldiers are often-times motivated by reasons other than patriotism. That economic incentive
drew men to serving in the armed forces would be difficult to make at the beginning of the War of 1812. Congress wanted volunteers, so it offered bonuses and other incentives to entice men to join up. Strapped financially, the only real thing the government had to offer soldiers was land. The cash bounty at the start of the war was $31 and 160 acres of land; pay was $5 a month for a private. Excluding the land bounty, compensation was pitiful considering that a common laborer could make $10-12 per month. By 1814 Congress was offering cash bounties of $124 and 320 acres of land. – Brandy Heritage Center

So the US government was not paying enough for “the best” or even those with good military experience, but rather for people who did not have other options. And as I point out in the article The Revolutionary Elites’ Double Standard on Insurrection, there were issued with payment for soldiers of the Revolutionary War.

How the States and Federal Government Could Pushed Responsibilities On to One Another for Paying and Equiping the Militia

It is more likely that the real problem with militiamen was their lack of discipline, poor training, and unreliability under combat conditions. The system of federalism left states to equip and train militia forces, and many states did not follow through with that mandate. On the western frontier or along the northern border in New England preparation of militiamen was
much better, and militias from these regions generally performed better than those from states less threatened by Indians or fluid borders. Even under the best of circumstances deploying militiamen effectively was a challenge. At the start of the war when General William Hull prepared to invade Upper Canada and secure Detroit; it took him months to stage his men to leave Ohio for Michigan country. In consequence, supplies ran low, disease started to spread, and morale declined. When his men reached the border with Canada, 200 Ohio militiamen refused to go any further, an example repeated many times over in the War of 1812.

One of the problems inherent in using militia forces illustrated itself early in the war: militiamen were best at defending their home regions rather than conducting offensive operations, or in this case, invading the territory of another sovereign state. – Brandy Heritage Center

The Performance of the Militias Was Highly Variable

As might be expected, the performance of the militias greatly depended on their situations, the combat experience of the militias, their provisioning, etc… The following are examples of militia successes during the War of 1812.

It would be unfair to base the assessment of militia forces on such a few well-known examples. Militiamen performed well in other battles, especially if they had combat experience. The militia turned back British invaders at North Point in Maryland and killed General Robert Ross just before the assault on Fort McHenry and Baltimore.

Andrew Jackson’s militia, working with regulars and volunteers annihilated British invaders at New Orleans to give the United States a lopsided and clear victory, even if it was after the peace treaty had been signed. – Brandy Heritage Center

Overall it seems the founding fathers placed far too much faith in militias, and the idea that a militia could defend against an invasion when they could not put down rebellions, calls into question how realistic was the idea of militia or citizen army.

A Colonial Gun Culture?

Only thirteen percent of colonial Americans owned a gun. Most Americans were farmers; they had no need for firearms as they did not hunt, but got their meat from domestic animals. Firearms did not prove a deterrant on frontier farms when attacked by Native Americans therefore only about ten percent of settlers had a gun. Colonial homicide was extremely low and when it occured, it did so with a bladed weapon. All firearms were closely regulated and carefully counted before and after the American Revolution. They were collected prior to the war and after the war and most were stockpiled for military use only. When the research is closely examined, it brings into question our Founder’s original intent when crafting the Second Amendment as a right created for all Americans to personally have access to as many arms as they desire without the need for regulation. When one takes historical records into consideration, it lays bare many of the arguments that America has always had a gun culture. It just didn’t.

I am not entirely on board with this analysis, but it does bring up some good points. But I wanted to conclude by going in a little different direction.

Conclusion

Gun rights were generally accepted in the colonies. However, one reason for the lack of controversy on the topic is that violence levels were generally low, firearms were expensive, and few colonials owned a gun. Rather than restricting gun use, the motivation and behavior of the colonies were much more focused on promoting gun ownership. However, Bellesiles’ assertions regarding the small importance of guns in the US colonies does not match the laws at that go back to 1631 which required that  both men in militias and men that did not serve in militias to be armed.