300 Years of Guns That Kept America Safe
Wars are won and lost with technology. The current arms-race North Korea continues to push is as old as war itself. The United States has a solid track record of staying ahead of the curve. Here’s a list of the guns that have keep American soldiers, sailors, and Marines competitive, and a couple that have put us way ahead of the curve.
We rarely pair the words “cutting edge” and “flintlock.” Back in the 1700s, though, a good rifle spanked the pants off of a smooth-bore musket. Rifles, though, were very rare. Our British persecutors were carrying the old Brown Bess musket. France wanted in on the Colonial action, so brought over some Charleville muskets to help us fight the Brits.
“A year before the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga,” Popular Mechanics writes, “the French were already supplying the colonies with 25,000 Modele 1763 Charleville muskets. George Washington quickly had these weapons stamped “U.S.” to prevent theft. Smoothbore muskets like the Charleville lacked the spiraled groove rifling that made rifles so accurate, meaning they were accurate out to only about 100 yards. However, they could be loaded faster, with a good soldier firing three rounds per minute.”
Rifles, though, had already made muskets obsolete. Yet the remained hard to manufacture, so muskets ruled the battle field well into the Civil War (though the flint locks were replaced by percussion caps).
The Civil War saw incredible advancements in lethal technology.As the Union Army began the war, the were fielding smooth-bore muzzle-loaders. By the end, they had Henry repeating rifles.
“This special Henry rifle was presented to President Abraham Lincoln in an effort to influence the gun’s purchase for defending the Union during The Civil War,” PM notes.
Conical projectiles and rifling made rifles far more accurate and increased their range. Benjamin Tyler Henry’s rifle design, though, held 16 rounds in its tube magazine.
After the Civil War, firearms changed rapidly. The industrial revolution made manufacturing easy. Firearm designs privileged modular designs.
And guns like the Trapdoor Springfield (in Geronimo’s hands above) combined power, speed, and accuracy and was a very popular gun in the wars fought against (and by) Native Americans in the last half of the 19th century.
“In 1892,” PM writes, “the increasingly obsolete Trapdoor Springfield was replaced by the M1892 Krag-Jorgensen. The Army’s Ordnance Board reported that the ‘Krag-Jorgensen [was]… vastly superior for use in the United States service to any weapon adapted to single fire loading only.'”
While the gun performed well, the Spanish had Mausers that loaded faster and held more rounds, and that was noticeable during the Spanish-American war.
The Springfield M1903 would change that. This beast fired the .30-06, a huge round by today’s standards. The power and accuracy extended the range well beyond what was thought possible from small arms. When scoped, these made great sniper rifles.
During World War I, rifle production in the states went into overdrive. Close to 1 million 1903s were made. More than 2,200,000 M1917s were made. The M1917 also fired the .30-06, but it was even easier and cheaper to produce (if not as beloved).
“It was with this M1917 that Sergeant Alvin York won the Congressional Medal of Honor,” PM writes, “in October 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. ‘I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them.'”
It worked for York. He took out a machine gun nest and managed to capture 132 Germans.
One of the most widely recognized American guns was designed by John Cantius Garand, a French-Canadian. The Garand was an automatic, making it much faster than the bolt-action rifles still common in the era.
General Patton called the Garand “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” It was also heavy, at more than 9 pounds, and the ammunition (.30-06) was heavy. Because it fired fast, soldiers blew through ammunition.
Still, the M1 was effective. The rifle stayed in service into the Vietnam war. The M-14 that replaced it (briefly) was not a hit. The M-14 was heavy, and had a full-auto function, but still fired a large round (the 7.62x51mm or .308).
The M-16 was quick to replace it. The design and construction wasn’t immediately successful in the harsh conditions of Southeast Asia. After two problematic years, the M-16 seemed to settle out. Barrels were lined with chrome. Powder loads in ammunition was perfected. And some iteration of the gun has been in service ever since.
The M4 is a shorter version of the M-16, and focuses on user adaptations.
So what’s next? That conversation is hard to predict.