New Review – Arkansas Democrat Gazette
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, www.alexrose.com
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