Book Explores History Of The American Rifle A new book traces American history — though the sight of a gun. Alexander Rose, author of American Rifle: A Biography, and host Andrea Seabrook visit a shooting range to tell the story.

Book Explores History Of The American Rifle

Book Explores History Of The American Rifle

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A new book traces American history — though the sight of a gun. Alexander Rose, author of American Rifle: A Biography, and host Andrea Seabrook visit a shooting range to tell the story.



Ask writer Alexander Rose about the icons of U.S. culture, and he'll tell you there is one innovation that represents the ingenuity, the independence, the pioneering spirit of America - the rifle.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SEABROOK: Rose is the author of a new history called "American Rifle." He calls it a biography.

Mr. ALEXANDER ROSE (Author, "American Rifle: A Biography): Well, I kind of treat the rifle almost as a human being. The American rifle is completely and inextricably intertwined with American culture, technology, business, war and society.

SEABROOK: Rose met me at the firing range of the National Rifle Association outside Washington D.C., to take a tour through two centuries of American history, and how it was shaped by the rifle. That history begins with the Red Coats. In the 18th century, British soldiers were mainly armed with muskets - loud, slow, clunky things that were horribly inaccurate. And the British style of fighting with these rifles?

Mr. ROSE: Essentially, line up all of your men in a very long line and tell them, and this is actually from an 18th century British drill book, that when you fire your gun, make sure to close your eyes because you don't want to actually aim because you just waste time like that. And so what they would do is they would send this proverbial hail of lead towards the enemy in the hopes that some of it would actually connect.

SEABROOK: But the American rebel had a new invention.

Mr. ROSE: The famous Kentucky rifle, or long rifle, which was created specifically in America for a specific purpose - frontier warfare and frontier living.

SEABROOK: It could shoot farther and more accurately. That led to a uniquely American style of warfare - taking aim and firing on specific targets. Rose argues that is what won the revolution. While the Red Coats fired their muskets indiscriminately, the rebels picked off British officers. You know the rest of the story. Back to the firing range, the NRA is letting us shoot a few of the guns we're talking about.

Mr. ROSE: OK, I want you to grab a seat and we'll get you set up.

SEABROOK: OK. The mid-1800s brought a new American original, the Winchester. Doug Wickland, a curator at the NRA's National Firearms Museum, gives me a tutorial. OK.

Mr. DOUG WICKLAND (Curator, National Firearms Museum): It's loaded with five cartridges. Now to work the action each time, you just work the lever like that.

SEABROOK: And that loads a new bullet?

Mr. WICKLAND: It loads it and cocks the hammer.

SEABROOK: So you just have to pull a trigger. OK. Now I feel like Annie Oakley.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SEABROOK: OK, so now I pull this back. Oh, and it pops out the cartridge.

Mr. WICKLAND: And you're ready to shooting again.

SEABROOK: And now it's cocked again. My God, that's easy. OK, I'm going to do it again.

The Winchester's big innovation? It's a repeater. With a quick pump of the lever, you're reloaded. This rifle is the co-star of a thousand movies.

(Soundbite of movie "Winchester '73")

Mr. JIMMY STEWART: (As Lin McAdam): Seems they knew all about your Springfield being single shot.

Unidentified man: You mean they had repeaters?

Mr. STEWART: (As Lin McAdam): Yep, only this time we just might outfox them.

Unidentified man: On account of we got two Winchesters.

SEABROOK: Jimmy Stewart leading a posse in the movie "Winchester '73." If the Kentucky rifle won the American Revolution, Alex Rose says the Winchester won the American West.

(Soundbite of gunshots and fighting)

SEABROOK: By the end of World War I, modern warfare demanded, as Alex Rose writes, a light, full-powered, rapid-fire rifle. Enter the M1 Garand.

Mr. ROSE: The Garand was a semi-automatic which really means that every time you pull the trigger a bullet is unleashed.

SEABROOK: You didn't have to mess with it. You didn't have to reload.

Mr. ROSE: It was very simple, you just pushed your magazine in. You fired, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Clip came out, filled it with a new one quite quickly - quite an advance over the older guns of the early 20th century and late 19th century.

SEABROOK: The German and Japanese armies were still using bolt-action rifles. They had to manually work the lever between each shot. The M1 gave the Americans an advantage, but the Garand changed U.S. culture in another important way. General Douglas MacArthur appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal sensibilities. MacArthur made the case that by spending lavishly on updating American forces with the latest technology, he would be creating thousands of new jobs and turning unskilled laborers into skilled gunsmiths. The military-industrial complex was born.

(Soundbite of shooting range)

Mr. WICKLAND: The safety for this gun is inside the trigger guard. It's a blade that you push forward to remove.

SEABROOK: Back on the range, Doug Wickland hands me an M1 Garand. OK. Now this thing is heavy. This is not for wimps.

Mr. WICKLAND: You want to hold this into your shoulder as well.

SEABROOK: Is this one going to kick me?

Mr. WICKLAND: Just a little bit, but you've got experience. Now you can have one.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

SEABROOK: The Garand was the last of the old rifles, says Rose. It was used straight through World War II, Korea, and into the beginning of Vietnam. Then came the rifle that brings us right up to today, the M16.

Mr. ROSE: The M16 is the first gun of the space age. I mean, even looking at it with that characteristic carrying handle and the fiber glass stocks.

SEABROOK: It's a jet black scary looking thing. Again, Doug Wickland sets me up.

(Soundbite of shooting range)

Mr. WICKLAND: It latches into position. Now flip off the safety, and you're ready to shoot.


(Soundbite of gunshot)

SEABROOK: That is so easy to fire. That's all - the first thing that comes to mind is that it's easy to pull the trigger. It doesn't kickback on you. It's just - it's simple. Now of course, I didn't even come near. I didn't hit the target, but ...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSE: Well, this is how these modern guns go, they're not supposed to be as quite as accurate as the old-time guns. But it is interesting that the M16 is - that you're not supposed to fire more than a couple of rounds at a time. It was designed deliberately so you conserve your ammunition and you take your aim, which is a very American idea about fighting wars.

SEABROOK: Rose says it may look different, but the M16 is still a direct descendant of that first Kentucky rifle.

Mr. ROSE: In its civilian and military aspects, the American rifle to this day mirrors traditional American ideas about individualism and self-control and discipline under fire and, you know, being able to think for oneself. You know, rifles are, I mean, they are part of the American character. The Americans have a relationship to rifles that others countries simply do not have.

SEABROOK: Now, I have to say, there are going to be listeners who aren't going to like the idea of looking at American history through the evolution of rifles.

Mr. ROSE: I mean, I just talk about the technology of them and the ideas behind them and what they represent and exemplify, that's my job as an historian. I am not a polemicist one way or the other. The real point is it doesn't really matter whether you like guns or whether you don't like guns. The point is that much of what you see about you today was indirectly or directly created by the rifle.

SEABROOK: Alexander Rose, his new book is called "American Rifle: A Biography."

(Soundbite of movie "A Christmas Story")

Mr. PETER BILLINGSLEY: (As Ralphie Parker) There it is, the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts, the Red Ryder 200-shot range model air rifle.

SEABROOK: That was the gun Ralphie Parker absolutely pined for in the movie "A Christmas Story." In a few minutes, our film critic, Bob Mondello, shares some of his favorite holiday scenes with a dysfunctional family twist.

(Soundbite of movie "A Christmas Story")

Mr. JEFF GILLEN: (As Santa Claus) You'll shoot your eye out, kid. Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

Mr. BILLINGSLEY: (As Ralphie Parker) No!

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