Early Modern Arms and Changes in the Militia
Guns. Guns changed everything. 1
Throughout medieval times, the kings wanted people to shoot
the longbow. But the gun signaled the end of the bow as a military weapon. 2
A gun is a relatively easy thing to use and train a man to fire. 3 And
it does not have to be very good by modern standards to be a
more effective weapon than the bow and arrow. 4 With a bit of
inventiveness, an unskilled shooter with even an early gun can be
very deadly. 5
The advent of guns also coincided with changes in the English
militia system. From the end of the 1500s, the English divided
the militia into the “general muster” of all able-bodied men aged
16 to 60 and a smaller “trained band” of the most reliable men
(socially, politically and religiously) for actual military training.
The men of property in the community had the duty to arm
the small group of reliable men. 6 Thus, unlike the Second
Amendment’s articulation of a “right to keep and bear arms,”
those trusted few who bore the arms were not the ones who necessarily kept them.
This relationship infused the whole system with issues of social
1. “Point-blank” used to mean a shot by archers in the 16th century who
aimed the arrow at the small white, or blank, bull’s-eye in the center of the
target. Indeed, the Spanish word for “target” and “white” is blanco. Firearms
have considerably more destructive power than arrows and thus the term
“point-blank” is now synonymous for direct and uncompromising rejection
or blunt frankness as in point-blank refusal or point-blank denial. ROBERT
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD
AND PHRASE ORIGINS
574 (2d ed. 2004).
2. Unless, of course,
you are John James
Rambo, a troubled
Vietnam vet and
Green Beret skilled in
survival and combat.
With slogans like,
“Heroes never die…
They just reload.”
Rambo again made
the bow one cool way
to kill people. His
name alone does it,
with his personal missile launcher, the bow
is a complete part of
the action figure!
A gun from the Yuan (Mongol)
The bow was also the weapon of choice for Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight in DELIVERANCE (Warner Bros. 1972), based on the James Dickey novel of the same name. In
2008, the Library of Congress selected DELIVERANCE for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
class and power. In 1671, for example, Parliament drastically
raised the property qualifications for legally possessing firearms,
which disarmed all but the very wealthy. 7 Thus, guns themselves
became an issue, not just a weapon in an army or a hunting implement. 8
3. Whether the Chinese get the
credit for inventing guns and
gunpowder is still a subject to
debate. See, e.g., POPE, GUNS
17 (1965) (“We do not know
for certain who first discovered
gunpowder; who invented the
first gun; and when and where it was first used.”). The academic consensus, though, is that Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality discovered gunpowder in the
9th century AD. But instead of an elixir of immortality, they
found an elixir of death.
5. And a sniper is murderous. Sniper
gets its name from the snipe, a wary
quick bird that hunters could not kill
with a bow and arrow. In the 16th
century hunters began to use guns.
The bird was still hard to kill unless
the hunter hid and patiently waited for
a good shot. Thus, “sniper” is a hidden
marksman. HENDRICKSON at 671.
4. The earliest guns were
simple barrels with a
small hole at the end to
place a lit match to shoot (called the
flash pan), much like a cannon. This led to
the Matchlock, the first mechanism or “lock,”
allowing the shooter to pull a lever or trigger
while holding onto the gun with both hands
and to keep both eyes on the target. A variation of the
Matchlock was the arquebus from Dutch haakbus, “hook gun.”
Wheel-lock (c. 1500 AD) was a firing mechanism of a rotating steel wheel to
provide ignition. A wheel-lock uses the same principle as a Bic lighter.
The Snaphance (1560s), a variation of the snaplock, used a flint to hit
metal causing hot metal shavings to ignite the powder.
This led to the Flintlock (c. 1600) that worked generally the same as the
snaplock but with safety and reliability features. Flintlocks continued in common
use for over two centuries until the mid-19th century.
“Lock time” is the time it takes for the gun to fire after the trigger is pulled.
Hawkeye’s long rifle was a flintlock.
The flintlock’s long use has left us several expressions:
“Lock, stock and barrel” refers to the flintlock’s three
main parts. During the American Revolution, the French shipped
muskets to America in three parts—lock, stock and barrel—to be
assembled in America.
“Going off half-cocked” comes from the half-cock position of
the hammer to open up the flash pan to put in priming gunpowder.
After that the shooter “cocked” the hammer full for firing.
“Flash in the Pan” happened when the gunpowder in the
priming pan went off causing noise and smoke without igniting the
main charge in the gun
barrel and launching
The Puckle gun patent diagram.
A wheel-lock pistol
7. LEV Y at 136. See also Churchill, Gun Regulation, at 155–56; An Act for the more
effectual Preserving the Kings Person and Government, 30 Charles II, stat. 2, c. 1 (1677)
(Eng.); Bogus, Hidden History, at 377–78; and
JOYCE LEE MALCOLM, TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS: THE
ORIGINS OF AN ANGLO-AMERICAN RIGHT 162 (1994).
8. The Puckle gun. The flintlock
approached modern efficiency with
“the Puckle Gun.” In 1718, Puckle
demonstrated his multi-shot gun with
a pre-loaded revolving “cylinder” of 11
charges. A flint still ignited the charges
but it could fire 63 shots in 7 minutes
when the standard soldier’s musket
could at best fire three times per
minute. Puckle provided two cylinders;
one, intended for use against Christian
enemies, fired conventional round
bullets, while the second fired square
bullets, for “the Muslim Turks.”
Somehow the more damaging square
bullets would convince the Turks of
the “benefits of Christian civilization.”
6. Robert H. Churchill, Gun Regulation, The Police Power,
and the Right to Keep Arms in Early America: The Legal
Context of the Second Amendment, 25 LAW & HIST. REV.
139, 144–45 (2007) (hereafter Churchill, Gun Regulation )
(outlining the differences between the militia traditions of
England and America).
From How Stuff Works
(last visited Jan. 12, 2015).
SNIPER (TriStar Pictures 1993),
followed by SNIPER 2 (2002) and
SNIPER 3 (2004).
Common Snipe (gullinago gallinago)