Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hands-On History

It's been impossible to ignore the gun control debate currently raging across this country - I see it on the news, on Facebook, and plastered across tumblr. However, one aspect of gun culture rarely addressed in this feeding frenzy is that of historical firearms. Eric and I both collect those weapons which have had such an impact on the world's most recent history. A couple of our examples predate 1900 and are therefore legally antiques, not firearms. The weapons used in the twentieth century's defining conflicts, though, are regulated like any other firearm despite obsolescence in modern conflict. It is far too easy to argue that these weapons should be demilitarized and kept only for display purposes in museums and such. (Eric would hate that I'm even voicing this idea. While I was interning at the Fort Bliss and Old Ironsides Museums, the curator allowed him some time in the armory. The sight of a half dozen demilitarized Thompsons almost brought him to tears.)

Some historical firearms are purchased as "wall-hangers," but I think relegating all artifacts to this future deprives historians of their value. During one of the first sessions of my graduate "Craft of History" seminar, we conducted an exercise in identifying primary and secondary sources. When we came to a uniform jacket from the Mexican-American War, one student said, "but that's an artifact." Three or four of us in unison proclaimed "it's still a primary source!" Artifacts provide a great resource for historians, as demonstrated by scholars like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Firearms are no different and offer the additional opportunity for what I term experiential history. This process allows the modern historian to glean a sense of the past through the use of an artifact or the application of practical research. My experiences have mostly involved weaponry* and sewing, but other opportunities abound. During our years at William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg's relationship with the college offered many such to my friends and I. Living history is the most common forum for this kind of history as interpreters immerse themselves in the daily minutiae of the past. Emily spent a semester in the apothecary's shop; Abigail wrestled with colonial cookware for a few months in the kitchens of the Governor's Palace. As part of my seminar on the "Early Modern Book," I got to try working the press at the Printing Office. My page turned out fairly well, but pulling the operating handle lifted my full weight off the ground.
My British surplus FN FAL.
While I don't claim that firing a historical weapon gives you omniscient understanding of the person(s) who used it in the past, it can enrich your impression of those individuals with details that don't come across in written sources. Handling a weapon in an afternoon can hint at where shooters developed calluses, bruises, or soreness. Long-term projects can examine change over time, examining how extended use affects both the individual and the artifact. How accurate is the firearm in various circumstances? How reliable is the weapon in different environments? What kind of maintenance is necessary is necessary to keep the firearm fighting fit? The controlled environment of the shooting range does not offer the same experience as combat, but the observations made can help explain any technical or physical reasons why an individual acted in the past in a certain way. What an individual learns about their equipment affects their decision-making, contributing to the actions that become history.
Me again, firing Eric's M1903 Springfield.
I haven't spent an extended amount of time on this sort of project, but I have had a couple of experiences that hint at it's usefulness. A few years ago, Eric taught me how to shoot the musket from his Revolutionary War reenacting days. He had prepared the cartridges, but I was responsible for all other parts of the process: removing each round from the cartridge box, pouring powder in the flash pan, ramming the rest of the cartridge down the barrel, and firing the musket. The thing was almost as tall as I was and proved pretty unwieldy, though at 5'4" I'm probably not abnormally short for colonial soldier. I had trouble reaching to get the ramrod down the barrel and probably would have hit someone with it had I been standing in ranks. I also manged to dump the powder out of the flash pan onto the ground a couple of times. It would have required an extensive amount of drill to prepare me for combat in Washington's army. Simpler observations include the way the grip on a Luger irritates my hand, the difficulty of firing most historical weapons as a left-handed shooter, the kick of a 1903 Springfield compared to that of an M1 Garand, and the finickiness of a Mosin-Nagant bolt. Speaking of the Mosin, I wasn't present for its most absurd moment. Eric and our friend Tim were enjoying a lovely day at the range when the Mosin fell apart in Tim's hands for no apparent reason. There were no immediate risks to the rifle's failure in this environment, but the frustration could be translated to any of the battlefields where the Mosin-Nagant saw combat.

I briefly mentioned reenacting above, but those weapons used by reenactors of the American Revolution and Civil War are reproductions of antiques. Twentieth Century reenacting requires different tools entirely.
Me (age 6?) and Dad  at a museum in Quebec.
During the past decade, my Dad (yes, history is a family business for me) has expanded his repertoire from two Civil War impressions to include an Irish Volunteer from 1916-1923, an officer with the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles in WWII, and a member of French Resistance. For these impressions he has spent tireless hours finding appropriate firearms which proper dates and matching markings. He's also gone to a great deal of trouble to accessorize these examples.
Dad as a 1919-1923 Irish Volunteer, carrying the SMLE and wearing an
original South African Model 1905 five pouch bandoleer.
The Irish Volunteer carries a .303 SMLE No 1 Mk III, Lithgow 1914, to which he has added a sling, reproduction bayonet and scabbard, 1914 Enfield brass oil bottle and WWII Australian pull through for cleaning. For him, this collection of artifacts complements the rifle as an educational tool, allowing him to present a thorough and accurate impression. He and Eric fired the SMLE over Thanksgiving, providing more experience for my Dad to draw on in conveying the experience and  identity of an Irish Volunteer.
Eric checking the aim on the SMLE.
What does any of this have to do with gun control? Basically, there are valid reasons for the ownership and use of historical firearms, which many legislators and commentators have not acknowledged. While gun buybacks have proved enormously successful in getting unwanted, unused, and possibly illegal firearms off the streets, most don't distinguish between mass-produced modern pieces and historical treasures. A police officer in Hartford, Connecticut saved one such artifact from destruction. The original German STG-44 is a lucky survivor. How many other museum pieces with not be so lucky, forever depriving historians of invaluable artifacts? I don't have any answers, but I believe we should consider the historical value of firearms before haphazardly banning or destroying them. From what I can see, we need new thinking and new ideas about gun control, developed by those who understand the nuances of guns, gun culture, the constitution, and the realities of crime. I fear that simply rehashing old ideas won't have the needed effects, will further the great divide within this country, and destroy important parts of history from around the world.
Me, during the month I had blue hair, firing a reproduction  GSG STG 44,
produced by American Traditional Imports and chambered in .22 LR.
*and not just guns! In high school I studied Rapier and Short Sword at the Virginia Academy of Fencing.