Gonne gonne gonne (courtesy wikimedia.org)

Dr. Stephen Wardlaw of ctmuzzleloaders.com writes:

A few years ago I was at a cocktail party here in the North East, talking to an obviously liberal type. Someone mentioned to him my interest in guns. His immediate reply was to say “they are terrible things – I wish they were never invented.” I restrained my usual eye-rolling response. I said that he was blaming the implement. If guns weren’t around, something equally lethal would be used by people of ill-will. It wasn’t a particularly satisfying response for either of us. After thinking about it off and on for several years now, I realize that, rather than an apology, I should have made a good, affirmative case for guns. What I should have said was “if it weren’t for guns, you would most likely be toiling in a field, watched over by a large man with a sharp sword – but you aren’t, because guns have democratized violence – and that’s a good thing.” And here is why I believe it is so . . .

 The Warrior Class

Prior to the invention of firearms, learning how to effectively use edged weapons was a long and grueling process; years of intense physical training, group discipline and the need to be fairly tough to begin with limited the number of soldiers which could be fielded. Even the famous long-bowmen of England, recruited from the yeomanry, required training from early age in order to be effective. A state could always conscript “spear fodder”, but they were generally not worth their feeding, so any state with an effective military required a ‘warrior class’.

These were not necessarily full-time, but they all required periodic training, which meant resources for them had to come from somewhere, and this usually meant from people from a lower class of citizenry – who were in no position to object to the appropriation of their resources.

A classic example are the Samurai, who became (or already were) almost a distinct hereditary subgroup. Another is the citizenry of Sparta, who were essentially a cadre of trained fighters who controlled a huge number of Helots over whom they had total life-and-death control.

Democratic Athens was in many ways similar, with the yeoman class expected to be proficient in arms for the usual yearly military campaigns – and again – controlling a large slave population. Athens was indeed, for a time, a democratic city-state, but the democracy wasn’t very deep.

If it is virtually impossible for a single untrained man to defeat a trained warrior; it is even less possible for an untrained mob to overthrow a disciplined army, unless the odds are truly overwhelming. Thus, a society with an established warrior class can remain static for millennia unless the equilibrium is disrupted.

A Disruptive Technology

It is often stated that gunpowder was invented in China and the knowledge passed to Europe, perhaps by Arab traders, but it is also possible that it was the other way around. In any case, the earliest verifiable written record describing gunpowder in Europe is from Rodger Bacon in the year 1267, where he mentions its ingredients and complains how the town miscreants set off firecrackers at night to disturb the peace of sleeping citizens.

Gunpowder may have been discovered well before that, but this is the first definitive contemporaneous record. There are suggestions from the time of Alexander the Great of a town in India having weapons which suggest gunpowder, and perhaps guns, but no written or archaeologic record exists.

Regardless of the origin of gunpowder, the gun itself is generally considered to be a European invention. Although it sounds obvious to us now, the concept of a gun in that period would not only be non-obvious but would be counter-intuitive. Also, knowledge then was highly compartmentalized in the various Guilds, so an inventor would have to enlist considerable support for the seemingly simple project of building one.

Getting Here From There

Imagine you go to the local Duke and ask him to support your new concept. After you describe it to him, he would be likely to say: “So – you want me to give you a significant amount of money so you can make a lot of this dangerous stuff you call ‘powder’, and then you want my best armorers to learn how to make a tube to put this powder in, and then you put a rock or some such in the tube too so it can be shot out the front? YOU WANT TO DO ALL THIS JUST TO FIND AN EXPENSIVE WAY TO THROW ROCKS AT MY ENEMIES!! Guards!! Take this fool out and hang him for wasting my time!!”

Well – you can’t blame him, because tossing stones or lead pellets at the enemy was well-know at the time. The Romans used Baleares, expert slingers who could launch lead pellets over a hundred yards with deadly effect against unarmored barbarians. But, in the Europe of the late 13th Century, most soldiers were armored, so such a weapon would be an annoyance but otherwise relatively ineffective, and proposing a ‘fancier’ way to do it would seem like madness.

The West had another military problem which needed solving – walls. Most important cities had fortified walls, so armies of the time were used to throwing very large rocks to try and knock a hole in them, and finding a better way to toss the rocks would have been quite important. Besieging a town was a lengthy and very expensive process, so experimenting to develop a cannon would have been a reasonable use of scarce resources, and that is likely why huge cannons (bombards) were the first guns known to have been used.

No one knows how or where the siege cannon evolved into the hand-cannon (or gonne, as it is often called). It is possible that once the basic technology was in place, someone made a model cannon and discovered the power of kinetic energy. The effect of velocity on energy was not really appreciated until the 18th Century.

Thinking of a small gonne as just a way of tossing relatively harmless rocks is not surprising. However, if you take the same lead ball tossed from a sling – say at 300 feet per second (fps), and shoot it from a gonne at 900 fps, it has nine times the energy, not three times as might be expected, so the soft lead ball which flattens against the armor at 300fps blows a large hole through it at 900fps.

Simple & Effective – If A Bit Slow…

These gonnes also had the advantage of being easy to make. A blacksmith could go from an iron bar to finished gonne in under five hours – a fraction of the time needed to make a good crossbow. Unlike a traditional bow – which took an archer years of conditioning and training to use effectively – a typical peasant conscript could be quickly trained to load and fire a gonne. The only remaining problem: how to use this new weapon in an actual battle.

In the Hussite Wars (1419 – 1434), gunners were stationed in and behind carts, protecting them from mounted knights while they shot their horses out from under them (horses were a much bigger target than their riders). After the knights were un-horsed, everyone ran out with flails and beat them to death – very neat and effective.

The technique of providing protection for the gunners (or crossbowmen or archers) while they shot the mounted cavalry to pieces was widely adopted. It signaled the end of the armored, mounted knight, the warrior class of that time. Cavalry themselves could not effectively use gonnes. All that would change with yet another advance in gunnery, the self-ignited arm.

Into The Future

The invention of the wheel-lock, and later, the flintlock in all its various versions, allowed a gun to be carried loaded and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, even from horseback. This made them quite popular with assassins and also made them excellent skirmishing weapons. A troop of cavalry, each member carrying several wheel-lock pistols (or petronels) could gallop along a line of foot infantry, shoot them up and then gallop away to reload – rinse and repeat…

Massed musket fire eventually put an end to this game, as tactics and counter-tactics continually evolved. One constant in all of this was the development of better guns which were less expensive to make and easier to use by non-professional troops. In addition, the wider adoption of guns for hunting and recreation put thousands of them into civilian hands, where, for example, they became decisive in the early part of the American revolution.

Eventually, simple repeating arms could be used by literally anyone, and as has been often quoted (in various versions), “God made Men, but Samuel Colt made them all equal”. This gave any citizen the ability to have an easily carried weapon capable of neutralizing most threats, and contrary to much modern opinion, concealed-carry pistols were a normal part of life up to the beginning of the 20th Century in both America and Europe.

Not Sufficient In Themselves, But Necessary

This march of firearms technology has thoroughly democratized violence, reducing the need for a permanent Warrior Class for at least two reasons. First, an armed and capable citizenry does not need such a permanent class for its defense. Although there will always be a need for an organized military, the ranks can be filled from the citizenry. Second, the same citizenry can resist the formation of such a class if the need arises and if it has the determination to do so. Crazy people and outlaws with guns can disrupt a peaceful society, but the overall benefits of an armed and aware citizenry gives everyone a chance for continued liberty.

63 Responses to The Democratization of Violence: A [Very] Short History of The Modern Gun

  1. Summarized James Burke’s book Connections. The point of firearms is the instrument made war and the slaughter of men cost effective.

  2. And now you know why the ruling class hates guns: because a ruling class cannot rule if the peasant class has destructive tools which the peasant class can use to nullify the enforcers of the ruling class.

    • I do not believe an elected representative is a ruling class, nor that they want to outgun peasants. They’re passionate to help people, work deals legislate revenue or pleasure themselves redistributing others peoples money. They’re responding to the poverty they created and the hopelessness of their cause, citing if guns are removed, it could fix black on black violence, educate stupid, & feed/house homeless.

      Shows just how far for reality their world is

      • Mk10108,

        Why would you believe anything that the ruling class (elected politicians as you call them) says? Look at their actions and their results, not their statements.

        The ruling class places themselves above the “peasants”. At best the ruling class believes that the peasants are basically just big children who could not possibly exist without constant help and intervention from the ruling class. And in consideration for their “charity”, the ruling class takes what they want for their own benefit from the “peasants”. At worst the ruling class sees the peasants as a “resource” to exploit, use, consume, manipulate, and control however the ruling class desires.

        Don’t take my word for it. Look around. Look at how many mayors and governors are prosecuted for major felonies. And those are the ones that failed to remain discrete or to bribe their way out. Imagine how many more are never noticed or prosecuted. Look at the fact that so many laws which apply to us do NOT apply to members of government. Examples include firearm restrictions and Obamacare as prominent and easy examples. Look at former New York City mayor Bloomberg who brought about a ban on sugary soda drinks over 16 ounces in New York City. Look at Al Gore who crusaded to reduce carbon emissions … all the while creating more carbon emissions himself than something like 10,000 average people. Look at our commander in chief who took a trip to Africa that cost the taxpayers something like $100 million during our nation’s bleak financial situation.

        Open your eyes. Very few government agents are true statesman who want to make our nation better. Rather, they consider themselves better than all of us and will take as much from us as they can get. And they know that they can take so much more if we are not armed.

    • Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner.

      A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

      Beware of anyone wishing to infringe upon the individual right to keep an bear arms. When we encounter another who espouses the idea that reasonable gun control is not infringement, attempt to set them straight as to the basic fact that the importance of the individual right to keep and bear arms outweighs ANY argument declaring reasonable gun control is not infringement. If they continue in willful ignorance then beware of them for they are no longer misguided in ignorance but dangerous to freedom and traitor to individual Liberty.

      Resist the chains of servitude because once they are forged, you might not have the strength to remove them! Wisdom demands that the individual break the forge and resist the tyrant while the chains are without form and he is yet weak.

  3. “This march of firearms technology has thoroughly democratized violence, reducing the need for a permanent Warrior Class”

    I was just thinking about that – war is now obsolete. It won’t be long before people figure out that government is obsolete, as more people come to realize that Freedom is better no matter what.

      • Nor will government.

        The problem has ALWAYS been, “Who will guard us from the guardians?”

        The Founders tried very hard to resolve this problem with the Constitution. Faithfully followed it should have worked. Now the answer is clear – the people must guard themselves from their guardians, if the need arises, and the Second Amendment is the prescription which allows this to be accomplished.

      • “As long as there is money and people who will kill for it, war will never be obsolete.”

        Not if we make them do their own killing, rather than conscript other people’s kids to make killing machines out of them.

    • That requires a population with “adult” sensibilities and view of responsibility. There have always been people willing to offload the figurative weight from their shoulders to accept the easier weight on their neck. For a time, such people did not prosper in the “borderland” and “build it here or you can’t get it” environment of the early United States. Nowadays they are cultivated as vote-stock.

      • Exactly. Mass communications and essentially unlimited ability to tax and spend make guns of less value. The very large corporations, allied for a time with the politicians that appeal to the poor and separately to the useless, can get anything voted in if they try hard enough.

        Guns made it possible to ignore the training of the peasants until such time as you needed trigger pullers. Trigger pullers then became machine-gun-trigger pullers. Now the Lords have robots, drones, and cyber snooping, and the peasants are only needed for votes, nothing else. But the Lords have to buy those votes with free stuff. Which we are forced to pay for. A truly dystopian view emerges.

    • Rich: War is obsolete? We’ve been fighting them non-stop for more than a decade. The biggest scare of the current Davos conference came this week when a Japanese government minister hinted that war with China was almost unavoidable. What makes you think war is obsolete, as opposed to much more heavily automated? Last I heard we are in another World War, or Global War. On Terror. It is a war, isn’t it?

      • OK, poor choice of words. Maybe I was doing wishful thinking – war _should be_ obsolete. There is no need for war other than to maintain Our Glorious Beloved Infallible Commissar’s “terrorism” boogeyman, and all the reasons that evil people perpetrate wars. But the USA is the only country making any significant wars. That’s another reason I’m running my Write-in Campaign. 😉

    • would I be right in thinking that SWAT are a warrior class and the group think of the generic elected representatives is the ruling class? Therefore pro gun control citizens are the same as Stalin`s “useful idiots”.

  4. “They are terrible things, I wish they had never been invented”.

    So well educated, The “educated elite”,without an ounce of wisdom or perception. They remind me of children that have been shown how to turn on the key of a vehicle and press the gas pedal without any understanding of how the vehicle works, how to steer or where the brake is.

    No understanding of human nature, of history, of experience. No logic or critical thinking skills, all the “education” and all of the decisions of how to use that knowledge based on nothing but emotion and wishful thinking.

    And these are the people that help decide what direction this vehicle called civilization goes; Wow!, It is incomprehensible, after the complete failures of every pet theory these people have helped to enact, that they are STILL held in some level of respect and that their ideas STILL have any validity.

    • “They are terrible things, I wish they had never been invented.”

      Typical elitist intellectual – cry about things you don’t like, wish they had never happened, but NEVER come up with a reasonable or workable solution to resolve the “problem.”

      I believe the phrase “Putting the Genie back in the bottle…” is appropriate here.

  5. Doesn’t the whole Asian martial arts concept of turning farm tools into weapons when the sword was banned kind of refute the idea that it was guns that “democratized” violence. Violence was democratized when the first man-ape realized it could club a larger ape when it’s back was turned.

    • You’re either missing the point (in that firearms are a much easier weapon for a layperson to use effectively) or purposely being semantic. Not sure which is worse.

    • Yes, but you miss the history of the firearm in Japan. They outlawed firearms because it took an absurdly skilled martial artist to go up against a sword-wielding samurai.

      A guy with a firearm? Now the samurai, the retained killer of the ruling class, was the easy mark. The rulers couldn’t stand that prospect.

      • Now that the US Army (but not yet DHS) has started to place orders for TrackingPoint systems, I’m not so comfortable with the idea, though certainly I accept the historical view. I’m just not going to ask any Native Americans about their analysis of the democracy rifles produced. I’d bet they’re ambivalent.

        It is true, and counters the Gandhi propaganda so rooted in academia, that what let India throw off the British Imperium were the rifles the Japanese provided to anti-empire Indians during World War II. The threat produced by weapons in would-be free men’s hands posed a risk of very bloody war that the British were not willing to face so shortly after the war’s end. So that is another proof of the narrative.

        • “I’m just not going to ask any Native Americans about their analysis of the democracy rifles produced. I’d bet they’re ambivalent.”

          What you’re talking about there is a clash *between* different cultures, not within one. The plains indians might have gotten ahold of scavenged or even bootleg repeating arms, but they lacked metallurgy, 1800s pharmacology, surgery, morse code communications, steam traction, et cetera. Moreover, they lacked the broad, common assumptions and worldview (the Culture) that allowed those things to be utilized effectively, iterated adaptively to the situation, or even promote their coming into being in the first place.

          *Within* a given culture, common access to simple, effective, and affordable weapons evens the field and inhibits a subset of overseers controlling the populace for a gentry. (So long as the populace can keep those arms, anyway – or doesn’t disarm itself…)

          .
          I very highly recommend Victor Davis Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture”. It’s an examination of Western civilization’s base assumptions and how they provide a comparative advantage versus other cultures.

      • The same concerns were present in Europe. In 1096 Pope Urban II attempted a ban on crossbows for much the same reason: A semi-skilled peasant armed with one could take down a highly trained, expensively armored, noble knight. The powers that be, in direct correlation to the level of entrenchment of their power structure have always shied away from the democratization of violence since it presents a threat to the status quo that maintains their supremacy. Innovation in warfare is most often for the underdog (witness Germanys development of ‘modern’ weapons and tactics in the build up to WWII).

        If you’re comfortable with the way things are there isn’t much incentive for innovation, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

  6. I have pointed out to very leftist friends how firearms made democracy possible and relayed much of the history laid out in this article. Still didn’t work. The response? We’ve evolved past that and don’t need them anymore. I give up.

    • All have not evolve and there in lies the problem. In our culture of democracy we’ve evolved our politics, not human behavior.

    • You must not have very quick leftist friends, they could have retorted more effectively that the gun also made the spread of communism possible.

      • A retort to the retort: Guns make the spread of the will of the people possible. They may choose different paths, but established powers have a much more difficult time remaining so in the face of an armed populace. An important note though to the antis and a rallying cry for those who are disarmed around the world; Remember the Bastille! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storming_of_the_Bastille

        Oppress the people enough and they will arm themselves, the time it takes and the amount they suffer to remove their oppressors often decides the fate of the latter. Consider the outcome of the French revolution, or the fate of Sadam Hussein, or that of Muammar al-Gaddafi.

        When a disarmed people storm an arsenal of swords they are left with weapons of limited utility in the face of trained and organized armies, but when they obtain rifles they quickly become very dangerous even to similarly armed foes. Given that the number of those oppressed is generally many times the number of oppressors it is seldom long before the will of the people is restored once fighting commences. A general collapse of society and infrastructure are a major impediment to standing armies but offer advantages to irregular forces. The longer the disorder exists the more profound the effects meaning that in the most modern times the ability of a very modern army to resist its own people on its own territory is both severely impaired and quite short, Sic Semper Tyrannis.

      • For “… the gun also made the spread of communism possible”, wikipedia’s 1907 Tiflis bank robbery article begins:-

        The 1907 Tiflis bank robbery, also known as the Yerevan Square expropriation,[1] was an armed robbery on 26 June 1907[a] in the city of Tiflis (now Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi). A bank cash shipment was stolen by Bolsheviks to fund their revolutionary activities. The robbers attacked a bank stagecoach and surrounding police and military using bombs and guns while the stagecoach was transporting money through Yerevan Square (now Freedom Square) between the post office and the Tiflis branch of the State Bank of the Russian Empire. The attack killed forty people and injured fifty others, according to official archive documents. The robbers escaped with 341,000 rubles (equivalent to around US $3.4 million in 2008).

    • They’re greatly overestimating the speed of evolution. At the core, we are not different people than we were 200, 500, 2,000, or 5,000 years ago. If the outcomes are different today, it’s because we have the benefit of perspective to see what happened back then. But if we follow the same roads, they’ll lead to the same places.

    • You could point out that Iceland was a democracy in the 10th century, and these were not the most peaceful folk you could hang out with.

  7. I own the pocket pistols owned by both my grandfathers and carried by them fro the first half of the 20th cent. Curiously they both carried colt .32 autos one a first version the other the 2ed version one grandmother carried a S&W .32 safety hammerless with her name engraved on the side and the other grandmother a nickel plated with mother of pearl grips colt .25 auto that had a fitted moleskin bag with silver clasp. She died in a traffic accident in NYC right before WW 2 and it was listed in her things in the report she and her husband had NYC pistol permits he was head of the trust dept of a large NYC bank may have been the reason but lots of Americans carried pistols right through the 20th cent it did not end in 1900.

    • For some reason I find that bit of personal history charming. Everyone in the world (suburban town) of my youth had nice guns somewhere in the house. Skeet and trapshooting were equivalent to playing golf in my grandfather’s day. But something about the ubiquity of pocket pistols in the hands of NYC executives and their wives is a special bit of history.

  8. What I should have said was “if it weren’t for guns, you would most likely be toiling in a field, watched over by a large man with a sharp sword – but you aren’t, because guns have democratized violence – and that’s a good thing.”

    That simply isn’t true, on the one hand because it rarely made sense to have slavery or serfdom anyway, even in the days before guns (which is why those things vanished from western Europe well before then), and on the other hand because, when it did make sense to have them, those very democratised forms of violence were put to work enforcing those things anyway. You know, like the way democratised Colt guns played such a large part in bringing slavery to parts of Mexico. (You did know that legalising slavery was a large part of why settlers in Texas revolted, right?)

    As for the rest…

    Prior to the invention of firearms, learning how to effectively use edged weapons was a long and grueling process; years of intense physical training, group discipline and the need to be fairly tough to begin with limited the number of soldiers which could be fielded.

    True but irrelevant. Prior to the invention of firearms, for centuries the strongest form of combat was the Swiss update of the phalanx; that used pikes rather than edged weapons, and needed little training (what there was could be acquired in the field, and in fact the system relied on only having trained men in certain positions). ‘A state could always conscript “spear fodder”, but they were generally not worth their feeding…’ is, bluntly, wrong. C.W.C.Oman described the Swiss system well in his The Art of War.

    Democratic Athens was in many ways similar, with the yeoman class expected to be proficient in arms for the usual yearly military campaigns…

    Wrong. The hoplite class was like that, but it was more of an elite than that, and much less democratic. The democratic and less elite parts, up to and including mere free yeomen, only had to be ready to serve as rowers in the navy; they needed to be fit and co-ordinated, and to bring their own sliding cushions, but no more.

    If it is virtually impossible for a single untrained man to defeat a trained warrior; it is even less possible for an untrained mob to overthrow a disciplined army, unless the odds are truly overwhelming.

    The former is false, unless you restrict that to mean in ordinary combat; otherwise, simple ambushes can do it every time. The latter is false, in that it ignores the usual successful case: when the mob serves to extend the application of an outnumbered elite group, e.g. the way the French could never have defeated the British in 1781 if the rabble in arms hadn’t tied the British up too much.

    • How encouraging to see an elevated rebuttal. Money talks, and it always has, and the balance shifts between the coercive power of the upper strata and the disruptive power of the lower, with the relatively educated non-wealthy forced to put money ahead of philosophical purity, and to keep their heads down.

      Even this web site was created to make money, and its devoted continuation requires that it not destroy the economy of its producers, but enhance it. And that is good.

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