An Eighteenth-Century Gun Culture Shaped by Constraints

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














Inventories with 1 firearm









   8 (1.0%)


206 (24.6%)


  23 (2.7%)

Inventories with 2 firearms









 70 (12.0%)


 95 (16.3%)


  25 (4.3%)

Inventories with 3 firearms









119 (29.2%)


 70 (17.2%)


  11 (2.7%)

Inventories with 4 firearms










 99 (36.9%)


  18 (6.7%)


   9 (3.3%)

Inventories with 5 firearms









 40 (28.6%)


  28 (20.0%)


  10 (7.1%)  

Inventories with 6 to 9 firearms









 57 (26.8%)


  45 (21.1%)


    5 (2.3%)

Inventories with 10 or more firearms








 49 (26.5%)


  77 (41.6%)


    1 (0.5%)







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. 

In Search of Repeating Firearms in Eighteenth-Century America

[This is a guest post that is part of a mini-series on the history of firearms and gun regulation in early America.]

Over the past ten years, opponents of regulating assault rifles have argued that repeating firearms — some capable of firing 10 shots or more — were well-known and possibly common in eighteenth-century America. Using period sources, it is possible to assess this claim critically and quantitatively. To this end, a systematic search was made of America’s Historical Newspapers, a database with 450 newspapers dating from before 1800, and of a database of colonial newspapers from South Carolina available from Accessible Archives. These searches discovered a total of 1410 different advertisements and news stories that collectively contained 2018 discrete references to firearms. 

Just how common were references to repeating firearms in eighteenth-century American newspapers?  The short answer is that they were extraordinarily rare.  The search turned up 10 references (0.5% of the 2018 references to firearms) to what appear to have been repeating guns. In addition to these 10 examples, there is one more well-known instance of an unpublicized demonstration of a repeating firearm that took place in Philadelphia in April of 1777. [1] This makes a total of 11 documentable references to eighteenth-century repeaters for the period from 1720 to 1800.

What do these references to repeating guns tell us about how they were used, their capabilities, and why they remained relatively uncommon in eighteenth-century America? The earliest reference was from the Boston News-Letter of September 12, 1723, which reported “Delegates from several Nations of Indians were Entertained with the sight of a Gun which has but one Barrel and one Lock,” but fired “Eleven Bullets successively in about Two Minutes” after being loaded only once.  On March 2, 1730, the New-England Weekly Journal advertised that Boston residents could pay 9 pence each to see a gun that could fire a succession of twenty projectiles “at once Loading.” A June 19, 1736 advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette announcing the sale of gunsmith James Massey’s estate listed “a six times repeating Gun.” In the Boston Gazette for April 12, 1756, gunsmith John Cookson advertised “a Gun will fire 9 Times distinctly, as quick, or slow as you please” without reloading.

John Cookson’s repeater — and quite possibly the other three firearms — employed what is today often called the Lorenzoni breech-loading system–named for the Italian gunsmith Michele Lorenzoni, who made firearms in the mid-1600s. This system placed at the breech-end of the barrel a complex and delicate gunlock operated by a handle or lever attached to the left side of the lock.  As the 1756 advertisement recounted, with “one turn with Handle of the Said Gun, it doth charge the Gun with Powder and Bullet, and doth prime and shut the Pan, and cock the Gun.”  Unfortunately, if the parts of a Lorenzoni gun lock did not fit tightly or if the shooter failed to lock it in the proper position when firing, flame might leak back and explode the black powder stored in the gun’s butt. 

Another type of eighteenth-century repeating firearm employed what is known as the superimposed system, which dates back to the 1300s. In 1777, Joseph Belton probably had a firearm employing this system when he informed the Continental Congress that “a common small arm, may be maid [sic.] to discharge eight balls one after another, in eight, five or three seconds of time.”  Later, the July 20, 1793 issue of Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States described a pistol created by “the ingenious and philosophic Mr. [Joseph Gaston] Chambers” that “discharged six balls in succession, with only one loading and once drawing the trigger, exclusive of the reserve shot, which went off with the drawing of another trigger.” The Continental Army never carried Belton’s firearm, and in 1793, the United States War Department rejected Chambers’ gun.

Black powder weapons employing the superimposed system could be very dangerous. Both Belton and Chambers initially demonstrated a firearm employing the simplest version of a superimposed system. Like a Roman Candle, the gun’s discharge employed a chain reaction of explosions.  A series of alternating powder charges and projectiles were loaded directly into a gun’s barrel. All of the powder charges were — ideally — set off in order from front to back by first igniting the powder charge located behind the ball closest to the muzzle of the gun’s barrel. If something went wrong and produced a simultaneous discharge of all of the gunpowder, the barrel exploded like a giant pipe bomb.   

A safer alternative to the systems employed by Cookson and Chambers was an air gun that used compressed air instead of black powder as a propellant.  The February 10, 1792, issue of New York City’s Daily Advertiser announced “To the Curious” daily exhibitions of an air gun that could be discharged twenty times without reloading.  An announcement for a public auction in the Boston Columbian Centinel for March 7, 1795 listed among the items to be sold “a Magazine Air-Gun, equipped for hunting, and will carry ball or shot.” On their 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, Lewis and Clark carried with them a Girardoni air rifle that they used to impress Natives they encountered along the way. However, European contemporaries learned that, “[d]ue to their construction, these guns were much more difficult to use effectively than normal, as one had to handle them much more cautiously and carefully.”[2]  

In eighteenth-century America, repeating firearms were not in common use. The fact that some types of repeating firearms had been produced in Europe for four centuries by 1800 does not necessarily support the conclusion that Americans in the late 1700s would have assumed that such weapons would become reliable, safe, and widely available.  At the time, it was still not possible to manufacture with precision and in any quantity firearms with closely fitting parts that could contain the destructive potential associated with the use of black powder as a propellant.  The improvements needed to fabricate dependable repeaters in large numbers only resulted from a series of revolutionary technological changes during the 1800s. Calling these early repeating weapons “eighteenth-century assault rifles” is an example of twenty-first-century rhetoric, not evidence of inevitable developments in firearms technology and production.

[1] M. L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology 1492-1792 (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Press, 1980), 317-318. The original correspondence is reproduced here.

[2] Quoted in Frederick J. Chiaventone, “The Girardoni Air Rifle: The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Secret WeaponMilitary Heritage Vol. 14  No. 5 (January 2015), 19.