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An Eighteenth-Century Gun Culture Shaped by Constraints

  • Date:
  • September 6th, 2023

By: Kevin Sweeney

This guest post does not necessarily represent the views of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.

Compared to England, Britain’s thirteen American colonies imposed relatively few legal restrictions on the possession and use of firearms.  However, technological limitations and production methods still placed serious constraints on the use and availability of firearms and created conditions very different from those that exist today. The slow rate of fire and inaccuracy of the era’s muzzle-loading weapons are obvious limitations. Not as well-known are the economic and technological constraints associated with the fabrication and distribution of firearms during the eighteenth-century.

Producing a muzzle-loading firearm from scratch took a great deal of time and demanded a varied skill set.  The work began with forging, boring, and finishing a barrel. This process required two men with blacksmithing skills and would have taken several days. Making the lock mechanism that fired the weapon was the most technically challenging job. Woodworking skills were needed to rough out and finish a gun’s stock. Brass parts for the lock plate, trigger guard, and other mountings had to be cast, filed, and polished. These parts had to be fitted into and attached to the stock. Building an entire musket from scratch would have taken a gunsmith an entire week, and longer for a long rifle. Working with a couple of assistants, a colonial gunsmith might have been able to make two to possibly three muskets a week if some of the more intricate parts such as the lock mechanism were obtained from other sources.     

Estimates of the number of gunsmiths working in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution range from 350 to 3,000. The exact number is actually beside the point for understanding the production and sale of firearms during the period. Most guns sold in eighteenth-century America came from England, and American gun makers typically made repairs instead of producing new firearms. A rare surviving account book of an inland gunsmith, John Partridge Bull of Deerfield, Massachusetts, indicates that he made only three new guns over a period of 20 years from 1768 to 1788, while performing 452 repairs on existing firearms.

By contrast, English firearms were produced using a putting-out system that obtained barrels from one set of suppliers, got gunlocks from other sources, and assembled the parts at yet another site where the firearms also would have been stocked by woodworkers.  In London in 1747 there were 21 “distinct trades” making individual parts for firearms. Gun manufacturing in mid-eighteenth-century Birmingham involved 30 different “sub-trades”. This system is how firearms were made for the British army and for the export trade to Africa and England’s colonies.  

During the years from 1756 to 1763, at least 36,592 muskets and other long arms were imported into the thirteen American colonies from England for civilian customers. Another 18,900 trade guns were imported to sell to Native American customers. Most of the pistols purchased by Americans were not produced in the colonies, and 4,400 pairs of pistols were imported during this eight-year period. Advertisements indicate that urban gunsmiths in the colonies often sold imported firearms and made use of imported gunlocks and barrels. These figures suggest that the number of newly made firearms available for sale during the later eighteenth century would have been modest in comparison to the size of the growing population, which was about 2.5 million by 1776 and almost 4 million in 1790. 

Eighteenth-century Americans’ dependence on their existing stock of firearms was one reason why American gunsmiths had to devote so much of their time to repairing firearms. Table 1 categorizes into groups the probate inventories of 3029 male decedents according to the number of firearms listed in each inventory.  These probate inventories suggest that while the ownership of firearms was widespread, it does not appear to have been universal and the ownership of more than one firearm was uncommon. 

Table 1: Categorization of Eighteenth-century Male Probate Inventories by the Number of Firearms Listed in Each Inventory

Categories of Inventories

Number of Inventories in category

Percentage of total inventories

Number of firearms in category

Number of pistols in category*

Number of old firearms in category*

Number of parts or broken firearms in category*

Inventories with 0 firearms

 

 

      1627

 

      53.7%

 

       0.0

 

       0.0

 

         0.0

 

         0.0

Inventories with 1 firearm

 

 

       837

 

     27.6%

 

      837

 

   8 (1.0%)

 

206 (24.6%)

 

  23 (2.7%)

Inventories with 2 firearms

 

 

       292

 

      9.6%

 

      584

 

 70 (12.0%)

 

 95 (16.3%)

 

  25 (4.3%)

Inventories with 3 firearms

 

 

       136

 

      4.5%

 

      408

 

119 (29.2%)

 

 70 (17.2%)

 

  11 (2.7%)

Inventories with 4 firearms

 

 

        67

 

 

      2.2%

 

      268

 

 99 (36.9%)

 

  18 (6.7%)

 

   9 (3.3%)

Inventories with 5 firearms

 

 

        28

 

      0.9%

 

      140

 

 40 (28.6%)

 

  28 (20.0%)

 

  10 (7.1%)  

Inventories with 6 to 9 firearms

 

 

        32

 

      1.1%

 

      213

 

 57 (26.8%)

 

  45 (21.1%)

 

    5 (2.3%)

Inventories with 10 or more firearms

 

       10

 

       0.3%

 

      185

 

 49 (26.5%)

 

  77 (41.6%)

 

    1 (0.5%)

 

Totals

 

     3029

    99.9%

     2635

442 (16.8%)

539 (20.5%)

84 (3.2%)

NOTE: * The percentages in these columns are percentages of each type or condition of firearms expressed as a percentage of the total number of firearms in each category found in column 4. Sources:  The sources for the probate inventories used in this table are listed in Kevin M. Sweeney, “Firearms Ownership and Militias in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England and America” in Jennifer Tucker, Barton C. Hacker, and Margaret Vining, eds., A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 2019), 70-71

A significant proportion of these firearms were described as “old”.  While not referred to as old, the “Queen Ann’s gun” owned by Reverend Ebenezer Prince, who died in 1784, had been made in England sometime between 1712 and 1720. A contemporary’s account of a Revolutionary era militia muster describes “an old soldier [who] carried a heavy Queen’s arm with which he had done service at the conquest of Canada twenty years previous, while by his side walked a stripling boy with a Spanish fusee not half its weight or calibre, which his grandfather may have taken at the Havana, while not a few had old French pieces, that dated back to the reduction of Louisburg.” At the battle of Lexington in April of 1775, 18-year-old Solomon Brown carried a musket with a barrel from a French Model 1728 rampart musket, a lock from a Model 1754 French infantry musket, and a stock made of American cherry.

Overall, this probate evidence and other sources indicate that America’s gun culture in the late eighteenth-century was based on the need to make do rather than buying new.  Few individuals needed more than one firearm, and few were able to purchase more than one. Most gunowners had only one firearm for militia duty, shooting vermin, and possibly hunting.  The presence of old “guns” in probate inventories containing larger than average groups of firearms suggests that these lots did not result from the frequent purchase of new guns.  Only in the nineteenth century would this constricted gun culture would be transformed by a series of dramatic technological changes that revolutionized the production of firearms.