The apostles of clean fighting: Who put the rifle into the National Rifle Association?
By Alexander Rose
Why is the National Rifle Association called the National Rifle Association? It seems an odd choice considering the organization's commitment to the Second Amendment, which refers broadly to "arms," not rifles, that require keeping and bearing. Wouldn't it make more sense for the NRA to call itself the National Firearms Association or the National Gun Association? Rifle comes across as a little . . . exclusionary. I mean, what about all those millions of pistol and shotgun owners?
At least that's what I naively thought before I began writing American Rifle: A Biography. As it happens, there are very sound reasons, rooted in its foundation in 1871, for the NRA's emphasis on rifles.
Consider the year. 1871. Just six years before, the most lethal war in American history, the Civil, had finally ended, leaving roughly 620,000 combatants dead and numberless legions maimed, traumatized, and shocked. Half the country was a morgue, the other, a madhouse.
This (still-)astounding death tallies, as well as the grieving of millions of mothers and widows, caused Americans to swear never again, no more Antietams, no Gettysburgs. While few believed that men would war no more, many dreamed that when battle was joined the slaughter could at least be controlled. Soldiers would die, of course, just nowhere near as many, and the violence would be confined strictly to the battlefield, not visited on civilians. As World Wars One and Two would starkly demonstrate, this was a fantasy, but there could be no gainsaying the appeal of such sentiments at the time.
There was not, by the way, even the slightest hint of soft-headed pacifism about the desire to ratchet down bodycounts. In fact, among proponents could be counted hardbitten veterans and hardheaded military experts alike. Unlike those who tended to romanticise war, these individuals had seen battle up unpleasantly close. Not least among them was William Conant Church, editor of the Army and Navy Journal, who was sure he knew what had gone wrong during the war.
He ascribed the bloodletting to the popularity of firepower among generals. To them, volume of fire -- or the ability to send vast numbers of shells, bullets and other pieces of metal hurtling toward the enemy -- was the creed that won battles. Church felt, however, that such thinking was extravagantly wasteful in lives and ammunition, and also indicated a distinct lack of discipline.
To him, what counted was accuracy: Soldiers needed to learn how to hit their targets with the minimum number of bullets. This wasn't just about being able to hit a bullseye at 300 yards with a rifle. Such marksmanship went hand-in-hand with other typically American virtues. Good shots required coolness under fire; steely self-discipline; familiarity with such high-tech implements as telescopic sights, windage indicators, and ballistic instruments; a determination to improve themselves by constant training; and independence of thought and action. In Europe, where the ideology of mass-firepower had long held sway, soldiers were still treated as dull, disposable automatons and subjected to fearsome discipline to flog out any remnants of individual initiative. Civil War generals had fallen beneath the European spell; Church wanted to "re-Americanize" warfare.
It's telling to remember exactly how incompetent were many recruits at target shooting before and during the Civil War -- a relic of the Musket Age, when guns were inherently inaccurate. Thus, in the 1850s, one soldier recalled, marksmanship was given such short shrift by the army that he was taken out to the rifle range only twice in five months, while the colonel commanding Fort Laramie bragged that he hoped about half his troops might one day "become expert enough to shoot at a crowd" using their rifles. During the War, Captain George W. Wingate discovered that most of his New York company couldn't hit even a barrel lid at 100 yards.
By improving the men's shooting skills, thought Church and his allies, fighting would be made safe, humane, and short. No more would wars drag excruciatingly on for years. No more would battles climax in horrific, wanton frontal assaults against entrenched troops. No more would there be endless sieges punctuated by titanic artillery bombardments. Instead, elite teams of sharpshooters (itself a Civil War term) based far behind the front lines would aim at officers' heads with their rifles, kill them with a single shot at 1,000 yards or more, and thus bring the battle to a halt.
In a eerie echo of today's technology evangelists sitting thousands of miles away and guiding precision missiles to their targets using just a joystick, Church was certain that victory would henceforth go to the sure of eye and the steady of hand, not to those who relied on brute force and blunt firepower.
In 1871 Church and Wingate would together found the NRA to propagate and popularize their principles among civilians and soldiers. They were so successful in persuading the army to overcome its previous suspicion of target practice that by the early 1880s the Chief of Ordnance could exultantly inform the Secretary of War that he had at his disposal "an army of marksmen."
The United States Army had become, shot for shot and man for man, the deadliest force on earth -- an enviable ranking it retains. Marksmanship was the military's watchword and the Holy Grail of civilian shooters. The rifle, not just any old gun, was their weapon of choice.
And that's why the NRA is called the National Rifle Association.
Alexander Rose earned his doctorate from Cambridge University, where his prizewinning research focused on political and scientific history. He is the author of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, and his writing has appeared in the Observer, the Washington Post, and many other publications. He lives in New York City. His latest book, American Rifle: A Biography, is available October 2008 from Delacorte Press. For more information, please visit http://www.alexrose.com. ©2008 Alexander Rose