About Tuesday, Jan. 27, 1701, John Lawson makes the following entry in his "Journal of a Thousand Miles Travel'd": "At Night, we lay by a swift Current, where we saw plenty of Turkies, but pearch'd upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho' we shot very often, and our Guns were very good."
I share this quote for many reasons. First, "we shot very often, and our guns were very good" sounds so much like Hemingway that I think Hemingway himself would be jealous. Second, though, is that once again we are talking about guns, and I think Mr. Lawson has some light to shed.
Lawson, walking through backcountry among wild animals and possibly enemies, would naturally have carried a weapon with him. To understand that weapon I turned to my trusted source, advisor, and friend Dale Loberger. Dale delivered a lecture about old roads that I wrote about, and he joined the Trek to teach how to use period surveying and outdoors tools. Most important, though, when I was just beginning my journey and
showing off the absurd pile of 21st-century outdoors accoutrements I was going to bring with me on my first venture out, he tweeted the image you see at left. Dale has since demonstrated himself to be a trustworthy source and a trustworthy friend and thoroughly versed in the equipment of Lawson's time. So I asked whether he'd help me understand what a gun was back in Lawson's day -- a day which, neatly, differed very little from the days a century hence when the successful American revolutionaries were reserving to the people the right to keep and bear arms. In light of the recent -- and constant --
What those guns were and how they worked was clear to Loberger, and he explained it to me. "I suspect that what Lawson most likely had was called a fowler," he told me. "A civilian shotgun of the day, single-barrel of course, but smooth bore." It would have shot buckshot or solid ball or both. Dale can load and shoot his fowler four times a minute in competition; a rifle, with smaller pan and breach, would take even longer to load, up to 45 seconds, but because of the rifling that imparted spin to the ball through the patch loaded around it, it offered a much more accurate shot, especially at a distance; the fowler wasn't accurate at a distance. So anyhow, if you think of an eighteenth-century gun, think 15 seconds between shots, with those seconds spent shaking a ball or shot out of a bag, measuring black powder and pouring it into the barrel; putting in a wad and ramming that down; putting in a ball (or a load of shot) and doing the same; then priming the pan, then shooting.
"The technology is not big," Dale said of the flintlocks of the period. "It's a rock hitting a piece of steel, causing black powder to ignite." The guns of the eighteenth century required considerable interaction. You couldn't just pick one up and shoot someone, let alone shoot a room full of people.As you know, sometimes the powder in the pan burned up but failed to ignite the powder and you got a flash in the pan; if while you were in the half-cocked position of your loading process your trigger tripped, you went off half-cocked; and in the late 18th century when mass production of firearms began, stores of barrels, locks (the trigger part), and wooden stocks filled warehouses, and then a craftsman could easily assemble a rifle, lock, stock, and barrel.
So anyhow that's your gun-related phraseology lesson, but more important, obviously, is that when it came time for the United States Constitution, and the framers enshrined the people's right to hold onto guns so they would be prepared to participate in that famous well-regulated militia, that's the kind of gun they'd have been thinking about. The type of gun that might have been able to allow you to harm one person if you barged into a learning environment all prepared and crazy, but would probably have enabled plenty of people to stop you before you got to your second shot.
That is, think less technology than tool -- like an ax, or a shovel; not like a computer or an airplane. It was a pretty simple thing, and you had to do a lot to make it work.
In fact, much earlier in his journal Lawson described one of his guides: "Our Indian having this Day kill'd good Store of Provision with his Gun, he always shot with a single Ball, missing but two Shoots in above forty; they being curious Artifts in managing a Gun, to make it carry either Ball, or Shot, true. When they have bought a Piece, and find it to shoot any Ways crooked, they take the Barrel out of the Stock, cutting a Notch in a Tree, wherein they set it streight, sometimes shooting away above 100 Loads of Ammunition, before they bring the Gun to shoot according to their Mind."
I bring that up, again, because I want you to think: this was the kind of tool a gun was. This thing with moving parts that would get rusty if you didn't clean them and that could shoot a few times a minute if you were very fast and well prepared and close to your target. A think you needed to wrestle into condition for it to work the way you wanted it to.
And again, my point: the thinking of eighteenth-century minds about eighteenth-century tools gives us a magnificent place to start. But slavishly applying only that thought to twenty-first-century weapons of mass destruction makes no sense. It makes no sense at all.
Dale himself -- "I'm very pro-gun myself," he says, and I know it to be true, in the most responsible way possible -- brings up the "well-regulated militia" point that's been receiving a good bit of attention in recent days -- here, and here, and here. "During the revolution, when men weremustered to the army, they were required to bring a gun with them. The assumption was, we're gonna need people who know how to use weapons. Men need to have them and they need to have familiarity with how to use them. That made perfect sense." Which it did -- until the military started providing its own weapons and storing them. Suddenly the well-regulated militia was supplying its own arms, so the people didn't ... well, as Dale says, "Some of what I've told you does go against my case and the case for why people want to have guns."
Dale also goes into significant detail about how people living on the frontier -- "and you're worried more about bears or Indians, that would be a good reason to have a gun." Most colonists were farmers, though, and "there's no significant need for a gun if you're a farmer." Going hunting was a waste of a day, and you'd spend that day much better tending your crops. You weren't worried about wildlife or hostile natives, so a gun would not have been important to you. This is Dale telling me this. He further noted that a gun would have been all but useless as a weapon of mass murder back then. If you wanted to commit such a crime then -- and people did -- you'd use "an edge weapon," like a knife, or maybe a club, like the person in the link.
Now Dale does believe strongly in the importance of keeping weapons, above all for the Jeffersonian "blood of patriots and tyrants" capacity they give the people to stand up to a government leaning towards totalitarianism. It's very hard to argue against that fear, and it's very, very hard to worry about the views of people like Dale -- responsible, thoughtful people willing to discuss their points of view like civilized people even when those perspectives differ. Dale understood my purpose in this piece and cooperated because he believes in the importance of understanding. I would fight hard for the right of people like Dale to keep and bear arms, and I suspect, bowing to that need for a well-regulated militia, Dale would support most calls for training, background checking, and the kind of gun control laws and programs that have rendered other countries far safer than ours. I'm not sure about that -- and I'll give him space to clarify if he likes -- but the point isn't really the second amendment.
The point is the tool. When Dale and I camped together he made breakfast using only his knife as a tool, and he taught me to use many other tools, like those for surveying. Above all else I think of Dale as someone who understands tools and uses them appropriately.
Lawson, himself a surveyor as well as the user of a fowling piece, knew the difference between a tool and a weapon of mass destruction. I believe the framers would have too. For the last decade or so the Supreme Court has been unable to tell the difference. I think Lawson would roll his eyes.
Lawson understood that a gun could be very good when it could shoot game. I believe he'd have known that a gun could be very bad when it could squeeze off hundreds of rounds per minute and was unregulated to the point of absurdity.