This is a PDF of an interview with the fine journal, Historically Speaking.

Interview with Historically Speaking – April 2010

Tough BroadI

Posted by Alexander Rose


In American Rifle, following every other source on this matter, I wrote that the target board Lincoln used to test the new experimental Spencer rifle on the White House grounds had been lost in the decades following the president’s gift of it to Christopher Spencer, the rifle’s inventor. (See also my article in American Rifleman on “Lincoln’s Rifles,” available at my website,

I now happily stand corrected. Apparently, it was just miscatalogued some time ago and can now be seen at the Illinois State Military Museum at Camp Lincoln. I’ve pasted in two letters on the subject below.

All in all, this is great news: the target board is a genuinely important American historical artifact.

Letter #1: From Joseph Kissel

“There is a small error in Mr. Alexander Rose’s story “Lincoln’s Rifles: ‘They Might have stayed to see the shooting.'” In it he states that the target Lincoln shot with the Spencer rifle is lost. This is not true. The target is currently on display at the Illinois State Military Museum located at Camp Lincoln in Springfield Illinois. Web site of target in the display case):

The belief that the target was lost appears to have started with William B. Edwards’ book Civil War Guns (page 152). Mr. Edwards apparently tried to locate the target for use in his book in 1961. At that time, Miss Margaret A Flint, the Assistant State Historian told him that when the General John A. Logan Memorial Collection was transferred 1956 by the Illinois Adjutant General that ‘… we were never able to locate it or any information regarding it.’

When the Illinois Adjutant General re-took control of the General John A. Logan Memorial Collection (prior to 1982), the target was re-discovered by Charlie Munie who was the Museum Curator. The target together with its inventory card had been improperly stored which is likely why Miss Flint could not find any information about it at the time.”


Letter #2: From Barbara Wilkinson, Executive Director of the Quincy Museum

“It has been brought to my attention that there is an error in the article “Lincoln’s Rifles” by Alexander Rose in your October issue. My particular correction is related to the portion of the article regarding the Spencer rifle test fired by Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC. On page 104, second paragraph, it reads as follows:

‘Bidding farewell to Spencer, Lincoln gave him the riddled target, saying that ‘it might be a gratifying souvenir.’ (in 1883, Spencer donated it to the Lincoln collection in Springfield, Ill., but it was subsequently lost.)’

I would like to take this opportunity to let you and Mr. Rose know that the Lincoln Target Board has not been lost! It is currently on display at the Illinois State Military Museum on Camp Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. The target board was part of the original Memorial Hall collection which was displayed in Springfield in the Memorial Hall in the State Capitol building. The Memorial Hall collection is under the care and preservation of the Illinois National Guard which has a statutory obligation to preserve and protect these wonderful artifacts. As of this writing, the Lincoln Target Board may be seen either in person, or on the Illinois State Military Museum website at The target board is in the image to the right of the Spencer rifle on display.

I served as the Curatorial Assistant for the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield for over four years and assisted in the preparation of the exhibit that you see on the website. I have examined the target board and have noted the seven bullet holes from the test firing and personally seen the penciled information on the board itself declaring that it was given to Christopher Spencer by Abraham Lincoln. The piece is dated as well.

I hope that this information will be made available to your readers and to Mr. Rose. I would suggest that anyone interested in seeing the Target Board for themselves take a trip to Springfield and stop into the Illinois State Military Museum at Camp Lincoln. They have a great collection of military firearms and outstanding exhibits tracing the history of the Citizen Soldier in Illinois. Folks might also like to take a peek at General Santa Ana’s artificial leg, on display in the display dedicated to the Mexican War of 1848.”

Joe, a reader, sent me this paragraph, taken from Orwell’s essay, “You and the Atom Bomb,” published in Tribune, October 19, 1945. I’m not entirely persuaded by Orwell’s materialist view of history (i.e., that “the history of civilization is largely the history of weapons”), since such factors as culture, economics, social development, individual choice, and so forth play at least equally great roles in the unfolding of events. Nevertheless, Orwell’s theory is a beguilingly original one. Wish I’d come up with it . . .

It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon—so long as there is no answer to it—gives claws to the weak.

The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle. After the invention of the flintlock, and before the invention of the percussion cap, the musket was a fairly efficient weapon, and at the same time so simple that it could be produced almost anywhere. Its combination of qualities made possible the success of the American and French revolutions, and made a popular insurrection a more serious business than it could be in our own day. After the musket came the breech-loading rifle. This was a comparatively complex thing, but it could still be produced in scores of countries, and it was cheap, easily smuggled and economical of ammunition. Even the most backward nation could always get hold of rifles from one source or another, so that Boers, Bulgars, Abyssinians, Moroccans—even Tibetans—could put up a fight for their independence, sometimes with success. But thereafter every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual, and the industrialised country as against the backward one.

Posted by Alexander Rose,

New article for American Heritage’s Invention & Technology magazine.

Radar Saves the Day – Invention & Technology

Posted by Alexander Rose,

This article (Chuck Taylor – M16 and M4 – Gun World) appeared back in December 2008 in Gun World. It’s a superb summary — by a real expert — of the issues surrounding the M16 and the adoption of the M4 in the Iraq War. In my book, American Rifle: A Biography, I devote the final chapter to this subject. 

(P.S. I haven’t found this article anywhere online, and so I’ve scanned it for my own files. Please don’t misuse this content. The citation is Chuck Taylor, “What’s really wrong with the M16/M4?”, Gun World, December 2008, pp. 52-61. If you like what you read, I suggest you subscribe to the magazine.)


Posted by Alexander Rose,

A nice surprise on Sunday morning: The Arkansas Democrat Gazette gave a lengthy (and perceptive) review of American Rifle: A Biography. I’ve pasted in the text below. 


Book details relationship of rifles to U.S. military

Review by Bryan Hendricks, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, June 7, 2009

For a definitive history of the American military rifle, American Rifle, A Biography, is the best I’ve ever read. 

Written by Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies, American Rifle chronicles the parallel development of the rifle with that of the United States military. They are so closely entwined that they are inseparable, such that the rifle was and is the primary influence on U.S. military doctrine. If that claim sounds grandiose and preposterous, Rose makes his case in a way that quashes all doubt. 

The book begins with a prologue about George Washington’s prized, custom-made Jost rifle, for which he paid 6 pounds and 10 shillings. That price today, Rose speculated, would equal something close to $1,400. Washington insisted that the rifle appear in a famous portrait by Charles Willson Peale. Including the rifle had both sentimental appeal and political calculation. 

“By identifying himself simultaneously with the American frontiersman and with the professional soldier,” Rose wrote, “Washington succeeded in squaring an obstinately round circle. One day … this feat would lead to his unanimously approved elevation to commander in chief of the American forces for a war of independence.” 

Beginning with the French and Indian Wars, the rifle was an extremely controversial weapon. It was designed for long-range sharpshooting, allowing its shooter to engage and kill an individual target. That sharply violated European military doctrine, which placed a premium on massed troops using muskets to rain massed fire on a massed foe. European troops did not aim at a specific target. They fired their guns with the expectation that massed firepower would overwhelm and rout an enemy. To actually pick out a target and kill that one person specifically was seen as murder, especially since American riflemen had a tendency to shoot British officers. 

According to European military theorists, this subverted all social order on the battlefield and gave too much power to individual soldiers. The British considered fighting with rifles a war crime, and riflemen captured in battle were summarily executed. Hence, there was vigorous debate within the Continental Army as to whether the use of rifles was legal, and whether American soldiers should fight according to European customs. 

Of all this book’s tangents and subplots, the most compelling revolves around the relentless struggle for dominance between massed fire advocates and those who emphasize single-shot accuracy. It is a debate that endures to this day, in both military and sporting circles. 

Rose explains how, early on, the Department of the Army’s Ordnance Department embraced single-shot rifles, muzzleloading rifles. The Ordnance Department maintained this bias into the Civil War, even when it was apparent that breechloading rifles and even repeating rifles provided a distinct advantage over the comparatively primitive arms that Confederate troops used. To the dismay of U.S. Army hierarchy, some Union generals gave their troops a boost by purchasing repeating rifles and ammunition with their personal funds. 

The objection to repeaters and breechloaders was that they promoted undisciplined fire and profligated waste of ammunition. 

Through generations, Rose noted, the army was dominated by a “cult of accuracy” that practically deified the notion of long-range marksmanship. However, that grand ideal constantly clashed with the realities of the actual battlefield, where combat usually occurred furiously at fairly close ranges. 

One of the transcendent moments of that debate, Rose added with great detail, was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where a combined American Indian army slaughtered George Custer’s cavalry. Custer and his men were armed with single-shot Springfield rifles. They simply could not load and fire fast enough to outshoot the American Indians, many of whom used repeaters to augment their swarming tactics. 

It came to a head again in World War I, when the U.S. Army went to Europe with its famed 1903 Springfield repeating rifle. U.S. General John Pershing emphasized individual marksmanship, but found sniping to be of limited use in trench warfare. 

Finally, massed fire advocates seemed to gain the upper hand in World War II with the M-1 Garand, a semiautomatic rifle chambered in .30-06. It was also no secret that U.S. Marines in the Pacific Theater preferred the .45-cal. Thompson submachine gun over standard issue weapons. 

The emergence of the Kalashnikov AK-47 permanently altered the perception of the combat rifle. Though cheaply made, its main attributes were high-capacity, rapid-fire capability and near indestructibility. A few years later, the U.S. military adopted the M16, which featured the same attributes, except with cartridges featuring tiny .22-caliber bullets. 

A thorough review of this book could go twice as long. The bottom line is it’s a wellwritten, comprehensive history of a tough subject.”


Posted by Alexander Rose,

Kentucky Rifle


A couple of things.

First, Invention & Technology magazine has kindly posted my “Kentucky Rifle” piece online. Unfortunately, it lacks the stunning photos of the paper version, but I expect that’s owing to copyright issues. You can download a PDF of the original article — with photos — from my website. (Scroll about halfway down the page.) 

Second, I attended the American Revolution Round Table’s dinner a few nights ago, where Gordon Wood was speaking (about the clash between Hamiltonian “monarchism” and Jeffersonian republicanism in 1780s/1790s America — I think he has a book coming out). At the dinner, Thomas Fleming, the historian, verbally reviewed John Ross’s new War on the Run, a biography of Robert Rogers and his times. It was, as they say, a double-thumbs-up rave. I happened to review the book on Amazon (my first-ever review), a copy of which I’ve posted below. The book’s well worth a look. 

My Amazon review:

“In my own book — and I apologize for the self-serving plug, but it’s pertinent — Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, I devoted part of a chapter to Robert Rogers, one of the most remarkable killing gentlemen of Colonial (and Revolutionary) America. I always, however, wanted to know more about this bewitching, wild creature, and so I’m glad that John Ross has undertaken the burden of excavating his life and times from the murk of the past. 

Good, narrative-driven history-writing is tricky to pull off, but, having blazed through the book, I think Ross has done a sterling job introducing Rogers to a modern audience. Ross is particularly skilled at evoking the frightening nature of the wilderness and the unique exigencies of frontier fighting. The vast, unexplored backcountry was densely thicketed by forests, rumpled by towering mountain ranges, and watered by unbridgeable rivers — and Rogers was master of it all. Small wonder his enemies (and friends) were terrified of him; small wonder that they (in Ross’s words) “could not get their imagination around the man, this master of nature and humans who could lead unimpressionable New Englanders to the edge of death over and over.” 

Now, while I had once foolishly assumed that Rogers was merely a rough-hewn, if cunning, ranger with an eye for the main chance, I’m happy to admit that War on the Run set me straight. Rogers, in truth, was an immensely complex individual, being both the most famed (or notorious) frontiersman in the world — a kind of Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone twofer — as well as a literate and entertaining American who, through his books and a play, illuminated to his fellow colonists the amazing potential of what would become their own country come 1783. 

Production-wise, the photos have been chosen with great care, and his footnotes (or rather, endnotes) are rock solid. A useful list of “Dramatis Personae” — to help us keep track of the dozens of colorful characters stalking the early frontier — and no fewer than 14 maps make War on the Run a worthwhile purchase. This is a very fine biography of one of America’s early Greats, and it’s certainly one of the most interesting books I’ve read all year. 

Recommended for anyone interested in early America and military history (especially insurgency, Special Forces, and the evolution of tactics).”

Alexander Rose,

I was just sent this — it’s from the forthcoming April issue of Shooting Illustrated. Apparently, there will be a longer online version coming out.Shooting Illustrated Review

The editors at National Review were kind enough to allow me to take up most of a page with a letter clarifying a few misconceptions about what I say about the place of riflemen during the War of Independence in American Rifle: A Biography. Thanks, gents, much appreciated. 

Here’s the PDF: Letter to National Review

Posted by Alexander Rose,

Hey, cool, the book just got pinged by Instapundit. It’s quite an honor. 

Posted by Alexander Rose (