A busy day for posting here at the History Man. Here’s a PDF of an article I wrote about a year ago for the military magazine, Armchair General, but which has only appeared now (in the March 2009) issue. It has nothing to do with rifles, but concerns instead the subject of my last book, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam Dell, 2006).

Click here to download: The Culper Ring – Alexander Rose – Armchair General (March 2009)

Posted by Alexander Rose (www.alexrose.com)


Hello all,

Well, it’s been a while since I updated this blog, my only excuse being that I’ve been away hard-selling the book. Anyway, I’m around again with some news. The American Rifleman, the NRA’s premier magazine, just reviewed the book. I have a JPEG here, but I’m trying to get a better copy (probably in PDF) to upload. This’ll have to hold you until I can get that done. 

Incidentally, my new Facebook page is “Alexander Rose-Historian.” Feel free to contact me or “Friend” me. 


OK, here’s the last one, from Publishers Weekly.

“In this solid history, Rose explores the development of the rifle, such as how it evolved in American history to become an iconic symbol of freedom and how it developed as an effective military instrument as well as a private citizen’s firearm. Drawing on numerous primary sources, from letters and journals of ordinary soldiers to the writings of inventors such as Samuel Colt, Rose traces the rise of the rifle from its original use as a hunting tool and a means of defense and protection to its eventual use as an offensive weapon in wars of conquest. Loaded with facts, the book reveals that firearms didn’t come into their own in the colonies until 1609, when Samuel de Champlain led his men on a raid of the Mohawks. In their increasing contact with European adventurers and traders, Native Americans recognized the power of firearms and cannily traded for such weapons. By the early 18th century, gunsmiths of German extraction invented a rifle that had greater accuracy and distance than muskets. The Kentucky rifle, so named because it’s rumored that Daniel Boone carried one of these early rifles in his travels around the frontier, was easier to load and could drop a bear, or a British soldier, in fewer shots and at a more distant range than a musket. In his entertaining history, Rose engagingly chronicles Americans’ peculiar quest to build a more refined and effective firearm.”
Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

Here’s the next one, a Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews, which was mighty nice of them. Now, I know that I shouldn’t be looking gift horses in the mouth, but I just wanted to mention that there’s a niggling factual error in this one; namely, that I end with the Vietnam era and the advent of the M16, “which remains today’s infantry rifle.” Not quite so! American Rifle actually concludes with a chapter analyzing the current Iraq War and the controversy over the M4 (including the XM8, the HK416, and the SCAR). For those riveted by the story of the M4, see my earlier post on the topic here.

Anyway, on to the review . . . 

“A nuts-and-bolts description of American firearms development that provides surprising insight into the country’s history. Historian Rose (Washington’s Spies, 2006) reminds readers that the rifle remained a civilian weapon until the Civil War. Centuries earlier, gunsmiths learned that engraving a sprial inside the smooth-barreled musket (“rifling”) made the bullet spin, increasing range and accuracy. The downside: Rifle-boring was a skilled, labor-intensive process, and the bullet had to grip the barrel tightly to pick up spin. Musketeers dropped a ball down the barrel; riflemen required a powerful ramrod. Expense and slow operation mattered little to hunters, who preferred rifles as early as the 17th century. During the 18th, American gunsmiths lengthened and narrowed the barrel to produce the Kentucky rifle, more accurate and also cheaper because of the smaller bullet. Massed armies with muskets fought major battles from the Revolution to the Mexican Wr, but riflemen gave a good account of themselves as snipers and guerrillas. They even won some battles: At King’s Mountain in 1780, for example, dense forests gave the advantage to slow-firing but accurate rifles. Technical progress made rifles the preferred Civil War weapon, although muskets remained common. The author ably demonstrates the struggles of inventors who developed reliable breech loaders, all-in-one bullets and repeating rifles before the war, only to have the Union army’s hidebound ordnance chief turn up his nose at them. During the post war decades, all were adopted despite fierce opposition by experts convinced that marksmanship, not rapid fire, wins battles. That controversy continues to rage, and Rose’s account never flags as he proceeds through the nasty engineering and political and media battles that produced the Springfield 1903 (World War I), Garand M1 (WWII) and M14, ending with the Vietnam era’s superb, but not perfect, M16, which remains today’s infantry rifle with no end in sight. Ingenious and satisfying.” 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

Ta-da, I’m back after a break. Today there was some good news: a bumper crop of not-bad trade reviews (Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews) of American Rifle: A Biography. These might be the last ones I ever get, so I’m posting them with pride. 

First up, Booklist . . . 

“This fascinating book shows how the history of the U.S. is mirrored in the history of one of its technological achievements, the rifle. The rifle arrived in America in 1492; it was then called a “hand cannon,” 30 pounds of iron that was, to be fair, not terribly accurate. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that rifles—or muskets, to be more precise—became widespread and effective as lethal weapons, and it wasn’t until later in the century, when German immigrants arrived with a new kind of firearm that was shorter and lighter and more accurate, that the rifle began its slow evolution into the familiar form it takes today. This book is loaded with detail, full of lively characters and an abundant spirit of invention. The history of the rifle is also the history of mass production, of American politics, of the legal system, and of war itself. It is impossible not to get caught up in this rich, surprising, and engrossing story.”

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

Many years ago, my boss at the newspaper, a man long experienced in the ways of the world, gave me some sound advice: When you’re angry and bashing out one of those long, aggrieved, abusive, sarcastic missives to some fool who’s annoyed you, before you hit Send take a walk outside for ten minutes. Then, upon your return, delete what you’ve typed and write in its place a cool, calm, and collected letter. (An alternative is to just not send the original, angry letter, but then you end up like this guy. The Onion, as always, gets it right.)

Giles Coren, a restaurant critic who writes for the Sunday Times in Britain, could have done with such sage advice. Copyeditors (called subs, or sub-editors, over there) had the temerity to change a single word in his column and Coren went absolutely berserk. His furious, rabid email to the hapless subs was, of course, leaked, and resulted in their replying to him in — yes — a cool, calm, and collected manner. It all adds up to one of the more entertaining exchanges of recent years, a genuine comic classic of the journalistic trade. (I still refuse to count hackery as a “profession.”)

I can see both sides’ point of view on this one, having been both a writer and an editor. Certainly, writers have to fight to keep certain favored phrases and words from the editorial chopping-block; generally, if I write something then that’s what I intended to say, so please don’t start fiddling with it. In one of my books, I referred to a particular eighteenth-century comedy as a “frothy farce.” I’ve never understood why, but my editor hated the phrase. Hated it, hated it, hated it. He deleted it and told me so. On the next pass, I added it back in. He took it out, again telling me what he had done and not listening to my entreaties. So I put it back. He took it out. So I let him think that he had won by not telling him that I had quietly reinserted it into the final draft for the printer. It’s still in there.

On the other hand, everyone’s writing can use a touch of editing. Judging by his email, Coren’s certainly could. When I was editing copy for a newspaper and later a magazine, I would be amazed by how incompetent and sloppy some (very well-known) writers were. Others were simply thoughtless: There was one, a fellow of a Washington, D.C. think-tank who would always send his copy in some weird text-format — despite repeated requests not to. It would then take us a tedious half an hour to reformat it, and that was before we could even begin subbing it. Did we ever receive a “thank you” for all this hard work, from any of these guys we had labored to make sound smart and stylish? No. 

Occasionally, I’d get writers who really knew the business. These were pleasures to work with because they took care with their copy and didn’t leave it to the copyeditors to tidy it up for them. One, for instance, would submit 2,000 words on pension reform or something, I’d read it through, and find a single instance where a word-change might be in order. He’d take a look and say OK and we were done. 

As for me, I don’t know what I would do without the oft-unsung skills of the newspaper’s and publisher’s subs and proofers. They catch grammatical errors, typos, punctuation problems, and the like with amazing proficiency. Stuff you don’t even know about they catch. They even clear up inconsistencies and stylistic infelicities.

In Coren’s case, the copyeditors were wrong to have excised the word, but what I find incredible is that only now is he asking for proofs of the edited copy so that he can approve their corrections and alterations before publication. This implies that what he was doing before was submitting his piece and trusting the subs to not make a hash of it. This is a remarkably foolish thing to do, for journalists and historians alike. If they’re your words, you have a responsibility to make sure they stay yours, even if it means rereading the entire text four or five times line-by-line, word-by-word. (Much to my editor’s annoyance, for instance, I insist on seeing the second passthrough of manuscript drafts so that I can quadruple-check photo captions and other little bits-‘n’-pieces.)

Still, this Coren thing is pretty funny. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

When it first came out, back in the 1960s, the rifle known as the M16 was dismissed by some soldiers as being “made by Mattel,” which, more famously, manufactured Barbie dolls. For a time, there was even a rumor that the gun had been made by Mattel. While its plastic grips and stock were actually highly advanced polymers that considerably lightened the weapon, they felt cheap and flimsy to men accustomed to handling the M1 Garand and the M14 — both sturdy guns constructed from wood and metal. 

Strangely enough, then, the New Scientist and Wired are reporting — by the same guy, David Hambling — that a toy company really is attempting to manufacture a military rifle. Thus (in the words of the New Scientist):

“A gun that fires variable speed bullets and which can be set to kill, wound or just inflict a bruise is being built by a US toy manufacturer. The weapon is based on technology used to propel toy rockets. Lund and Company Invention, a toy design studio based near Chicago, makes toy rockets that are powered by burning hydrogen obtained by electrolysing water. Now the company is being funded by the US army to adapt the technology to fire bullets instead.The US Army are interested in arming soldiers with weapons that can be switched between lethal and non-lethal modes. They asked Company Invention to make a rifle that can fire bullets at various speeds. The new weapon, called the Variable Velocity Weapon System or VWS, lets the soldier to use the same rifle for crowd control and combat, by altering the muzzle velocity. It could be loaded with “rubber bullets” designed only to deliver blunt impacts on a person, full-speed lethal rounds or projectiles somewhere between the two. Bruce Lund, the company’s CEO, says the gun works by mixing a liquid or gaseous fuel with air in a combustion chamber behind the bullet. This determines the explosive capability of the propellant and consequently the velocity of the bullet as it leaves the gun. “Projectile velocity varies from non-lethal at 10 metres, to lethal at 100 metres or more, as desired,” says Lund. The company says that the weapon produces less heat and light than traditional guns. It can also be made lighter and could have a high power setting for long-range sniping.”

I don’t know whether this technology is ever going to work. Achieving accuracy, for instance, is going to be tricky if soldiers have to learn to compensate for variable velocities at various ranges with different types of ammunition. So, a shooter may very well end up killing someone with a non-lethal round by aiming at, say, his torso but hitting his head by accident. Likewise, soldiers could mistakenly use non-lethal rounds during, shall we say, urban-combat situations requiring lethal force. If this rifle ever comes out of the initial planning stage, users are going to have undergo lengthy training.

Those are tactical questions, however. On a broader level, ever since 1945, armies have been looking for ways to integrate the close-quarters, high-volume firepower of the submachine gun with the long-range, high-accuracy ability of the semiautomatic rifle — to no avail. Some machines, in other words, are better suited to single-use capability (or doing one thing well) rather then weakened by making them serve in multiple roles (or doing many things not-very-well).

Variable-velocity weapons are the latest attempt to bridge the gap, only with non-lethal and lethal bullets rather than syncing firepower with marksmanship. In this case, it is posited that the same gun will be used for both crowd control and combat. These are widely different tasks, and I wonder whether it might not be simpler to just keep using separate tools for each job. 

Of course, it’s possible that, owing to onboard computers being able to calculate range, speed, and a host of other factors, a variable-velocity, non-lethal/lethal rifle is likely in our future. Maybe soldiers, like the Federation crew in Star Trek, will soon be able to “set phasers to stun.” But, nevertheless, the problem with such advanced technology is that when existing technology — e.g., the lowly gunpowder-and-metal cartridge — is so efficient, cheap, and widely available it’s very difficult to effect such a wholesale replacement as rapidly and as easily as the new technology’s proponents like to imagine. Change instead comes very, very slowly, often sputters or diverges in unexpected directions, or just halts and maybe even reverses. There are political, financial, social, and military considerations at every stage, and all it takes is a single decision by a middle-ranking administrator of some kind and the entire project can be terminated or postponed indefinitely.

As I pointed out in a previous posting (on the future of the M4), the army has been searching for a quantum technological leap forward for its next generation of rifles. Variable-velocity may very well be the Next Big Thing, but don’t bet your mortgage on it.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

Historically Speaking is the bimonthly bulletin of The Historical Society. The Society’s intent is to:

“revitalize the study and teaching of history by reorienting the historical profession toward an accessible, integrated history free from fragmentation and over-specialization. The Society promotes frank debate in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises, reason logically, appeal to evidence, and prepare for exchanges with those who hold different points of view. The Historical Society conducts activities that are intellectually profitable, providing a forum where economic, political, intellectual, social, and other historians can exchange ideas and contribute to each other’s work. Our goal is also to promote a scholarly history that is accessible to the public.”

I joined the Society fairly recently and have been pleasantly surprised by how interesting and fizzy is Historically Speaking (the Society’s more mainline Journal of the Historical Society also runs a fine selection of articles). One of the bulletin’s enduring concerns is the interaction between academic historians and the writing of popular (or public) history. 

In the March/April 2008 issue, it printed a forum — Historically Speaking is really big on fora — discussing whether writers “need a license to practice history.” Quite an esteemed bunch of historians (Joyce Lee Malcom, H.W. Brands, Joseph J. Ellis, Jay Winik et al) weighed in on Adam Hochschild’s foundation piece. You’ll have to subscribe to read all their responses. Hochschild, however, you can read in full. Do so, it’s an important article. 

The question of whether popular history written by academic historians has vanished or is flourishing is a fascinating one, and has been tackled previously in Historically Speaking (not least by Eric Arneson in the November/December 2007 issue). 

But that’s not really what this post is about. For the moment, I’d rather focus on the specific act, the trade secrets, the craftsmanship, of writing for a popular audience. I’ll keep coming back to this question in the future, but for the moment, two articles from Historically Speaking illuminate some home truths.

The first was published last year (“The Perils and Pleasures of Going ‘Popular’; Or My Life as a Loser,” by Maureen Ogle) and is an entertaining account of her decision to leave a comfy academic post and join the ranks of independent historians. 

“I faced a mountain-sized learning curve. As an academic, I had mastered a particular set of rules . . . but in my new career, none of that applied. The public doesn’t care about ‘the literature.’ The public doesn’t care what’s au courant in the ivy tower and which trends have gone the way of the dodo. The public is interested in only two things: that the history they read contain a lively narrative—a story—and that the person telling the story be honest. [snip]

So up the mountain I trekked, learning to write a new kind of history. I hunted for the story buried amid the facts. I struggled to craft sentences that—gasp!—contained active verbs and narratives based on real human beings, many of them—bigger gasp!—dead white males. But I refused to abandon my primary mission: to bring well-researched, well-documented, well-reasoned history to non-academic readers. To that end, I plowed through reams of primary documents, spent months sitting in front of microfilm readers, shelled out money traveling to archives and libraries. I wanted my books to land on the front table at Barnes & Noble, but I wanted them to contain the same scholarly research as a monograph read by six. 

Not that I expected anyone to notice. Seven or so years into this new venture, I know that the average reader doesn’t grasp the difference between a primary document and a secondary source, and is unaware of the difference between a local public library and the one found at a university, or for that matter between a library and Google.” 

As someone who has trod a vaguely similar path, I’d agree with Ogle about much of this. To this day, I write my books with a full complement of footnotes (converted into endnotes at the insistence of my publisher) and a vast, tedious, and comprehensive bibliography. I also try to include various views of what’s “au courant“. But as I’m discovering, not many people really care that much. No university scholar has ever written to me saying, “Alex, you did a remarkable job with those endnotes.” Indeed, I’ve recently been informed that for American Rifle (sorry for yet another of these infernal plugs) there is to be no bibliography. Instead, it’s going to be sent to me as a PDF and interested readers can download it from my website. I’m not overly happy about this, but I suspect it’s the wave of the future for many trade historians and, to tell you truth, in some ways the decision makes sense.

Bibliographies are important, but nowhere near as important as foot/endnotes (so long as they contain complete citations) and nobody’s talking about putting those only online. (Did I just jinx myself?) Economically, too, the cost of paper has recently skyrocketed, so if the publisher can save 30 or 40 pages per copy then that’s all to the good. As it is, American Rifle is priced at $30. That ain’t cheap, especially as we head into a recession. And lastly, it turns out that the great majority of readers don’t look at the bibliography. What they want is a good, strong story with vivid characterization and not a whole lot of scholarly nuance, otherwise known as hemming-and-hawing. 

Does that mean we’re doomed to dumbing down popular history? Not at all, so long as we remember that what’s critical in popular-history writing is to achieve that potent narrative and prose style by basing it on sound, empirical, comprehensive research. Lots of people can write well, but “research” can’t or shouldn’t be done by just anyone: It requires a bedrock of training, often acquired in an academic institution but also through practice. It’s getting the writing and the researching (the “two Rs,” I guess you could say) to sync with one another that’s the trick. 

These days, though we hear much about the “democratization of learning” thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I believe that good research threatens to become still rarer and even more difficult. Put it this way, unless you have access to a university library or a really fine public one (like the New York Public Library), now-crucial electronic resources like JSTOR, Project Muse, and ProQuest (let alone the specialist databases of, say, eighteenth-century newspapers) are out of your grasp. Ten years ago, I photocopied all the scholarly articles I needed; today, I download hundreds of PDFs from scores of institutional-subscriber-only databases and stick ’em all in Sente. (I’ll talk about bibliography apps in some other post.) 

An author who relies only on books and magazine articles commonly available at a local library is therefore going to be at a disadvantage. The fabulous innovation of Google Books does even the odds for some nineteenth-century materials, and Amazon allows customers to acquire some otherwise unobtainable stuff (at no little cost), but the research work of many budding historians unable to breach the university gatekeep is necessarily going to suffer in terms of comprehensiveness and depth. Their writing style may well be spectacular, but the originality of what they’re saying is likely to be limited.

The second article of interest in Historically Speaking was written by Nicholas Guyatt, a lecturer at the University of York in England. “The End of History; Or My Summer with Apocalyptic Christians” appeared in the latest issue (May/June) and tells of his experiences writing a trade book about contemporary evangelicalism in the United States. There’s some very funny parts and it will certainly ring true for anyone who’s pubbed with one of the major houses or dealt with literary agents. Now over to him:

“I found myself an agent in London, and he came up with simple suggestions about how to proceed. Write a proposal. Play up your historical knowledge, but don’t become a prisoner to it. Look for a big thesis, and hammer it home when you map out your chapters. Boast that you’re going to interview the colossi of the Religious Right, even if you have no idea how to contact them. I followed all these steps, and let the agent do the rest. He quickly sold the book to Random House in the UK, and Harper Collins in the U.S. Then, to my enormous surprise, he was fired from the agency. One of the things I’ve found out during my brief exposure to commercial publishing is that every author has a story to tell about their editor/publicist/mentor/marketing person/jacket designer being fired at the crucial moment, just when the book was poised for enormous success.” 

There are three morals to this post. The first is provided by Guyatt: “I was quickly made aware of one of the realities of commercial publishing: your book needs to fit within quite rigid guidelines of what sells and what doesn’t.” The second is that you should purchase membership to The Historical Society. And the third is that writing for a wide audience while retaining a scholarly backbone is neither as simple nor as easy as it looks, or some haughtily believe. I still haven’t quite got the hang of it after three books, but I flatter myself to think that I’m making some progress. We’ll see what readers think.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

As part of my ongoing quest to illuminate the highways and by-ways of historical obscurity, please let me introduce a new addition to the slowly expanding Rose universe: namely, the blog run by Todd Seavey (who knows everything there is to know about the history of comic books — my own intellectual limit was reached a long time ago with Luke Cage), sensibly called www.ToddSeavey.com. It may be described as “conservatism for punks,” but don’t let that put you off.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com

IO9, an excellent science-fiction site has publicized the exploits of the world’s greatest astroforensicist, astroforensician, expert on astroforensics, Professor Donald Olson of Southwest Texas State University. 

Olson and his colleagues specialize in exactly “timing” momentous events or famous episodes in history by combining astronomical data with topographic maps, aerial photographs, weather records, journals, and letters. 

According to Time magazine and The New York Times, his sleuthing feats include:

  • Explaining why that Greek fellow, Pheidippides, who raced 26 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC collapsed and died after bringing news of the Persian defeat. To those lazy souls, who, like me, assumed it was because he had run, Gatorade-less, 26 miles, Olson demonstrated that the run occurred on August 12 (rather than mid-September, as usually posited), when the average temperature ranges from 88 to 91 degrees, soaring as high as 102 near Athens. A month later, it falls to a more temperate 83 degrees. Olson’s source was Herodotus, who precisely describes the phases of the Moon at this time, and he also knew that the Athenians had pleaded for Spartan help. No problem, said they, but only after the next full Moon — six days away. Where previous historians had erred in dating the marathon (not Marathon, I guess) was in using the Athenian calendar to deduce the time of the Spartans’ Moon-based religious festival and then to have worked back from there (hence September). But the Spartans, sensibly enough, used a Spartan calendar — which runs a month behind that of their Peloponnesian frenemies. So it was August they were talking about. 
  • Discovering that on the moonlit night Paul Revere rowed undetected under the nose of a British vessel on his way to Ride into history, the moon was in fact exceptionally low on the southern horizon. 
  • Tracking down the identity of the mysterious “bright star” cited in the opening scene of Hamlet. It was a supernova exploding in the Cassiopeia constellation in 1572. (I’m not so convinced about this one; surely Shakespeare could have just been being metaphorical?)
  • Arguing that the red sky behind the figure in Munch’s The Scream was caused by the Krakatoa volcano’s dust. (Ditto as above for me on this one.)
  • Pointing out that at Tarawa in 1943, the Marines’ landing craft were caught on the edge of a reef and were forced to wade 600 yards under fire before they got to the beach. According to Olson, the Moon was almost at its farthest point from the Earth, and its weak gravitational pull rendered the Tarawan tides almost non-existent.

His latest exploit (see here and here) is pinpointing the exact date of Julius Caesar’s amphibious landing in Britain. In 55 B.C. (or BCE, whichever you prefer), he arrived with two legions (about 10,000 men) somewhere on the southern coast.

The exact date has long been disputed, with opinion wavering between August 26 and 27. Even his landing place was uncertain; most historians, remarking that the terrain matched Caesar’s description, asserted it was northeast of Dover, between Walmer and Deal. Scientists argued that a northeastern location was impossible. The tides, the hydrographers and astronomers said, would have pulled the Romans southwest along the coast. There seemed no way of reconciling the twin demands of Science and History (notice the portentous capitalization). 

Rather fortunately, the equinox and lunar cycle of August 2007 exactly matched those pertaining in the summer of 55 BC — a very rare occurrence. Olson and his team travelled to Britain to see if their on-site experiments could solve the mystery. They found that the historians were right in one respect: the landing was indeed to the northeast, at Deal. But the scientists, too, were right: On August 26-27, there was no way Caesar’s legions would have been able to beach their boats at Deal. 

But, if one revised the date to August 22-23 (thanks to the historian R.G. Collingwood, who in 1937 discovered a probable transcription error in the ancient records), then suddenly the conflict solved itself. On those dates, the tides would have been perfect for a Deal landing. 

Is any of this stuff really all that important? There’s but a week’s difference between the dates. Perhaps it isn’t world-shakingly important, but the application of the rigorous, logical scientific method to solve enduring historical mysteries, and the use of historians’ intuitive skills to temper scientific certitude, is interesting. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com